President Barack Obama signed legislation to bolster U.S. military cooperation with Israel and highlighted the release of $70 million for the Jewish state’s missile defense on the eve of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s arrival in Tel Aviv.
“I have made it a top priority for my administration to deepen cooperation with Israel across a whole spectrum of security issues,” the president said before signing the U.S.- Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act in the Oval Office. The bill signing took place before the start of the Sabbath local time in Israel.
Romney has been critical Obama’s approach to Israel, and the president has had public disagreements with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on such issues as limiting Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas.
Obama won 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008, according to national exit polls, and Romney has been seeking to peel off some of that support.
The signing ceremony coincided with release of a White House statement recounting steps the administration has taken to strengthen Israel’s security and was the latest move by Obama to emphasize his commitment before Romney’s visit. In the past two weeks, Obama has sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and advisers John Brennan and Thomas Donilon on separate visits to the country. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is scheduled to travel to Israel next week.
White House press secretary Jay Carney denied any political motives and said the timing of the signing was coincidental to Romney’s trip because Congress sent the legislation to the White House last week and Obama had been traveling.
“I understand the coincidence,” Carney said at a briefing. “But the fact is our cooperation with Israel on its security is a subject we could discuss every day, because there are things that take place in that relationship and in our assistance to Israel every day.”
Obama was joined for the signing by Lee Rosenberg, chairman of the board of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee; past Aipac board Chairman Howard Friedman; Richard Stone, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and two Jewish Democrats in Congress, Senator Barbara Boxer and Representative Howard Berman, both of California.
Panetta in May announced the Pentagon’s plans for $70 million in additional funding for the rocket shield, known as Iron Dome. Obama today said the program has been “critical” in preventing missile strikes inside Israel and that “we’re going to be able to lock in that funding.” The funds were transferred on July 25.
The U.S. authorized $205 million last year to buy Iron Dome installations. In operation since last year, Iron Dome, built by Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd., intercepts short-range rockets fired by Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel, according to Israeli and U.S. officials.
Boxer, speaking with reporters after the bill signing, said it was “not true at all” that Obama’s timing is political. She said “this president loves Israel, cares about Israel.”
Berman said the $70 million is part of a push to expand the number of batteries that can be deployed to protect more areas of Israel.