Israeli Iron Dome missile
© Uriel Sinai/GETTY IMAGES
Should the United States put solving Israel's budget problems ahead of its own?

When it comes to defense spending, it appears that the United States already is.

Ehud Barak, Israel's defense minister, will meet Thursday in Washington with Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta to finalize a deal in which the United States will provide an additional $680 million to Israel over three years. The money is meant to help pay for procuring three or four new batteries and interceptors for Israel's Iron Dome short-range rocket defense program. The funds may also be used for the systems after their deployment, according to the report of the House Armed Services Committee on the fiscal 2013 Defense Authorization bill.

The Iron Dome funds, already in legislation before Congress, will be on top of the $3.1 billion in military aid grants being provided to Israel in 2013 and every year thereafter through 2017. That deal is part of a 10-year memorandum of understanding agreed to in 2007 during the George W. Bush presidency.

"Those funds are already committed to existing large-ticket purchases, such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, C-130J transport planes and other items," according to George Little, spokesman for Panetta. He also said the Israelis had increased their own spending on Iron Dome this year and the U.S. funds are to "augment" their funding.

And there's more money involved. The House committee version of the defense authorization bill, up for debate on the House floor this week, includes another $168 million "requested by [the] Government of Israel to meet its security requirements," according to the panel's report. This money is to be added to three other missile defense systems that have been under joint development by the United States and Israel. The $168 million is in addition to another $99.9 million requested by the Obama administration for those programs.

Israel has had its own debate over what its defense budget should fund. Given its economic problems, the country has cut its defense budget for this year by roughly 5 percent, with another 5 percent cut planned for next year. Its defense experts have debated whether it was more important to put scarce funds into offensive weapons that could destroy enemy missiles or into missile defense systems to protect civilian and military targets. In contrast to the United States, it has also raised taxes on wealthier citizens and upped its corporate tax rate.

The Israeli military has long-term plans to deploy 13 to 14 Iron Dome batteries to defend military and civilian targets against rockets launched from Gaza and Lebanon. If there is any doubt that the U.S. Congress will continue to support the program, one only has to look at the Iron Dome Support Act. The bill was introduced in the House in March by Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.), the ranking minority member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, along with the panel's chairman, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.). A companion measure is in the Senate.

The first four batteries of Iron Dome, deployed last year in towns near the Gaza Strip, have proved successful in protecting against Hamas's rocket attacks. Israeli military sources have said the system had more than a 70 percent success rate last month against incoming rockets.

In early 2007, then-Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz chose Iron Dome to meet the short-range rocket threat. Testing began in 2008, and by January 2010 the system showed it could be effective.

In May 2010, President Obama announced he would ask Congress to add $205 million to the fiscal Pentagon budget for the production phase of Iron Dome. The funds were approved, and in March 2011 the Israel Defense Forces declared the first batteries operational.

Iron Dome was developed and built by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd., an Israeli government-owned, profit-making company that, since 2004, has been headed by retired Vice Adm. Yedidia Yaari, the former commander in chief of the Israel Navy. Rafael's board chairman is retired Maj. Gen. Ilan Biran, former general director of the Ministry of Defense. In August, Rafael joined Raytheon Co. to market the Iron Dome system worldwide. The two are already partners in one of the other anti-missile systems that is being jointly run by Israel and the Pentagon.

The House committee report noted that the United States will have put $900 million into the Iron Dome system if the full $680 million is used on the program "yet the United States has no rights to the technology involved."

It added that Missile Defense Agency Director Lt. Gen. Patrick J. O'Reilly should explore opportunities to enter into a joint production arrangement with Israel for future Iron Dome batteries "in light of the significant investment in this system."

So here is the United States, having added to its own deficit by spending funds that it must borrow, helping to procure a missile defense system for Israel, which faces the threat but supposedly can't pay for it alone.

To add insult to injury, Pentagon officials must ask the Israeli government-owned company that is profiting from the weapons sales - including Iron Dome - if the United States can have a piece of the action.