‘War Is Expensive’: How the Israel Aid Package Went From Big to Bigger

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In the days after Hamas attacked Israel and killed 1,400 civilians, the Biden Administration and leading members of Congress wasted little time devising an aid package to bolster Israel’s war against the terror group. The initial proposal: roughly $2 billion of increased defense funding to supplement the $3.8 billion the U.S. already sends Israel every year.

It didn’t last long. By the time President Joe Biden sent Congress a formal request on Oct. 20, he wanted seven times more than that for Israel—$14 billion.  

What happened? American and Israeli officials say the Biden Administration’s desired Israel funding skyrocketed in part because Israeli leaders said they needed billions more to dramatically expand the nation’s missile-defense capabilities. Another factor was a growing fear within the administration that the Gaza war could spiral into a wider regional conflict that would trigger more sustained American involvement. The White House wanted to restore Israel’s deterrence and prevent other Iranian-backed proxies from joining the fight, the sources say.

But a month after the Hamas assault, Biden is no closer to sending billions more to Israel. Speaker Mike Johnson rebuffed the president’s proposal for a $105 billion national security package that included $61 billion for Ukraine and $14 billion for Israel, tying one of the most polarizing causes on Capitol Hill with another that enjoys wide bipartisan support. Instead, House Republicans passed a standalone Israel aid bill that would offset the costs by cutting IRS funding, a nonstarter for Democrats. The measure is expected to fail in the Senate. 

Biden’s funding request would substantially expand the Israeli missile defense systems known as Iron Dome and David’s Sling, adding more than 100 new launchers and nearly 15,000 Tamir interceptors, according to an administration official. That would more than double the Israeli military’s current deployment of the air defense programs. The package would also replenish America’s stockpile of interceptors, artillery shells, and other munitions in Israel, after the U.S. military transferred large batches to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in recent weeks. 

Israel’s missile interception capacity has been crucial for its ability to defend itself. Since the Oct. 7 massacre and Netanyahu’s declaration of war, Hamas and Hezbollah have launched thousands of rockets aimed at Israeli civilians from Gaza and Lebanon respectively, leaving Israel fighting on separate fronts. “Israel outlined the costs,” says Rep. Brad Sherman, a California Democrat and veteran on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “A lot of ordinance is being used. A lot of military vehicles are going to be used up or damaged. War is expensive.”

Hezbollah’s provocations have accelerated the possibility of a wider regional conflict—another reason Biden officials want to ramp up funding for Israel, where America has a permanent military base. According to the Pentagon, Iran-supported militias have attacked U.S. forces throughout the Middle East at least 38 times in the last month. 

The U.S. currently allocates $3.8 billion a year for Israel’s defense based on a 2016 memorandum of understanding forged between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government, a deal struck after the two leaders bitterly feuded over the Iran nuclear deal. An additional $14 billion for Israel’s defense, alongside Biden’s decision to deploy two aircraft carrier strike groups to the region, marks a “historic inflection point” in the U.S.-Israel relationship, according to Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the United States. 

Biden’s support comes as Israel faces increasing international condemnation for the mounting civilian death toll in Gaza; backlash from American progressives; and calls from more Democrats to back a ceasefire, which Israel vehemently opposes, it says, until the hostages are released and it’s completed its mission of dismantling Hamas’s military infrastructure and ending its rule of the Gaza Strip. A ceasefire would “all but eliminate our deterrence power and deeply impair our raison d’être,” says Oren. “And the raison d’être of the Jewish state is to protect the Jews.”

Read more: After Hamas, Then What? Israel’s Undefined Endgame in Gaza

The only historical precedent for Biden’s current stance, Oren adds, was in 1973, when President Richard Nixon airlifted materiel to Israel during the Yom Kippur War, in spite of objections from his own advisers. 

But time may not be on Biden’s, or Israel’s, side. As thousands of Palestinian non-combatant have been killed and a humanitarian crisis unfolds in Gaza, support for Israel’s war effort is waning among Democrats. That could soon make it much harder for Congress to send Israel the military assistance the country says it desperately needs.  

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