WASHINGTON — A bipartisan slate of lawmakers launched a bill that would establish an “integrated air and missile defense capability” joining the US, Israel and Arab countries in a bid to deter Iran.
Senate and House members of the Abraham Accords Caucus rolled out the bill, called the DEFEND Act, in a press conference June 9 outside the Capitol and described it as a means of advancing the Abraham Accords between Israel and four Arab countries.
“The full potential of the Abraham Accords, economic cooperation, education exchanges, trade agreements between Israel and our Middle Eastern partners, cannot be achieved without a commitment to collective security,” said Sen. Joni Ernst.
The Iowa Republican is the lead co-sponsor of the bill with Sen. Jacky Rosen, a Nevada Jewish Democrat.
“America’s role in activating and networking our allies and partners in the Middle East must evolve as violent extremists, like Iran, change their tactics and onboard new systems capable of catastrophic damage against civilian targets.”
It’s not clear from the bill how formal the arrangement would be.
The bill tasks the secretary of defense with establishing an “architecture” and “acquisition approach” for an “integrated air and missile defense system” to counter threats from Iran.
Israel has traditionally been wary of formal defense pacts with even its closest allies, wishing to preserve its right to act unilaterally.
Israeli officials have in recent years signaled that less formal arrangements that preserve Israel’s agency are acceptable.
The bill designates as participants in the arrangement the countries signed onto the Abraham Accords — Morocco, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Israel — as well as countries that still have no relations with Israel, including Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
Saudi Arabia looks closer to formalizing what has been for years a secret relationship with Israel, and reportedly is near an agreement that would allow Israeli aircraft to fly through Saudi air space. But Iraq is openly hostile to Israel.
Ernst said that the US should coax those countries into participation.
She noted that the US consulate in Erbil, Iraq, came under drone attack last week, an area that has in the past come under fire from Iran and its proxies.
“We understand they are not part of the Abraham Accords,” she said of Iraq and Saudi Arabia, “but it is extremely important that we continue the discussions with them as well as wrap them into this agreement as part of the DEFEND act.
“We have to continue those conversations with them. We just saw the attack in Erbil yesterday.”
In a press release, Ernst named an array of Jewish and pro-Israel organizations that back the bill, but there was no institution linked to any of the Arab countries named in the bill.
The lead quote was from AIPAC.
“By directing a strategic approach to cooperative missile defense and counter-UAV coordination, this legislation strengthens the US-Israel partnership as it enhances regional cooperation against common security threats,” the powerhouse pro-Israel lobby said.
Lawmakers leading the push for the bill in the US House of Representatives include Rep. Brad Schneider, a Jewish Democrat from Illinois, and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Washington Republican.
Ernst expressed confidence at the outset that the bill would sail through Congress, given its bipartisan backing in both chambers, but it may hit some roadblocks.
Progressive Democrats have in recent years grown increasingly wary of delivering arms to the Middle East, to Israel and also to authoritarian Arab countries like Saudi Arabia.
The bill could also be seen as an irritant to Biden administration endeavors to reenter the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
Lawmakers at last week’s press conference suggested that deterring Iran was made urgent by the persistent failure of those talks, which are stalled in Vienna over Iran’s insistence that Biden remove Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps from the list of designated terrorist groups. Biden has refused, apparently due to the hundreds of Americans killed by the corps.
The Trump administration quit the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, in 2018. Biden wanted back in because he sees the deal as the best means of keeping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Iran, however, is not interested.
“We realize as the administration works to revive the JCPOA from the dead, Iran continues to not only bolster its breakout time to build a nuclear weapon, but it is also doubling down on its ballistic missile program as well as its regional troublemaking in the Middle East,” said Rep. Jimmy Panetta, a California Democrat.