Sen. Rob Portman, R-Cincinnati, said the United States needs to do more to protect Israel, citing what he learned from his Nov. 8 through Nov. 10 visit to the country.
Portman told attendees of the Ohio Jewish Communities-sponsored virtual discussion Nov. 30 that the threats the country faces on a daily basis require additional U.S. support. Specifically, he called on fellow lawmakers to provide more funding for Israel’s ‘Iron Dome’ anti-missile defense system, to codify the terms of the Abraham Accords into law and increase sanctions against Iran and countries who do business with Iran as a deterrent to it developing nuclear capabilities.
“You realize just how small the country is and how susceptible it is, how vulnerable it is, and why it is so important for us to continue to provide help that we do and other countries do,” Portman said.
Portman traveled to Israel with Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo. The congressional delegation visited with Israeli government officials, including Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, met with Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, and visited the Lebanon border, along with other activities.
Portman said he and the rest of the delegation made it clear while meeting with Shtayyeh that American aid to the Palestinians would be contingent on the Palestinian Authority ending the so-called “pay to slay” policy. Under this policy, the Palestinian Authority provides monthly payments to terrorists in prison and the families of terrorists killed while carrying out acts of terrorism against Israel.
He also said during his trip he saw the kinds of threats Israel faces on all sides as it must defend five different borders from the likes of Iran-backed Hezbollah, Syria, Lebanon and Palestinians in the Gaza strip. Portman said the daily threat Israel faces can be seen in the thousands of missiles launched against the country each year and more than 100,000 missiles currently aimed at Israel.
While there is bipartisan support for U.S. funding for the Iron Dome, Portman acknowledged some lawmakers, including Sen. Rand Paul R-Ky., stand in the way of any legislation supporting it passing by unanimous consent. Despite this, Portman said he was not deterred and another legislative vehicle would be found that would not require unanimous consent. Portman and other advocates for the Iron Dome are currently considering a number of options including the National Defense Authorization Act, which only requires 60 votes to pass, he said.
“We have to keep a qualitative edge” in defending Israel, Portman said of the Iron Dome. “And keeping the qualitative edge keeps the peace.”
Portman also noted the success of the Abraham Accords in building trade relationships with Arab countries in the Middle East, such as the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, and urged Congress to codify and strengthen this approach to the Middle East. Portman and a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers are taking this step through the Israel Relations Normalization Act of 2021. The bill, also known as S.1061, would make it U.S. policy to strengthen and expand these normalization agreements. It lays out required steps to do so and mandates several government agencies coordinate to reach these goals. Those agencies would be the Department of State, the Department of Defense and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
“We need to re-energize these efforts on the Abraham Accords and ensure that what we already have is implemented in a way that is really meaningful,” Portman said. “And that we pass this legislation to codify what’s happened so far, and expand it and get other countries engaged and involved. And that’s really an exciting opportunity you have in the Middle East today.”
Not only are such agreements good for Israel, he said, but can benefit U.S. companies, including those in Ohio, citing improved relations leading to the Cleveland Clinic’s new facility in the UAE. Portman also mentioned the energy-based economic opportunities for Ohio given that the state is an oil and natural gas producer.
That bill has broad support, with 72 senators from both parties signing on, but is currently being held up by Senate opponents.
Portman also discussed the need to do everything possible to prevent Iran from developing nuclear capabilities. That includes instituting the strongest possible economic sanctions on Iran and companies that do business with it, he said.
A nuclear Iran “is not just an existential threat to Israel, which of course they believe it is,” Portman said. “But it’s an existential threat to the entire world. Because if you started this effort of using nuclear weapons in the region, it would quickly escalate.” Sanctions are “obviously the place where we have the most leverage. And that’s the only thing I can think of right now that would be effective.”
Looking back on the trip, Portman said it is clear America needs to support Israel and help protect it from the numerous threats it faces.
“Bottom line is, I think the trip was helpful to reinforce the fact that we need to continue to provide support to Israel in every way, and obviously Iron Dome, and make sure that we are cognizant of the great threat that they face from Iran is at the top of that list,” he said.