Obama’s support for Iron Dome has saved countless Israeli lives

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As I write, Israel is withdrawing its troops from Gaza after more than three weeks of Operation Protective Edge, as part of a cease-fire we can only hope will become permanent. More than 3,000 rockets have been fired at Israel this year. We grieve for the more than 60 brave soldiers of the IDF who have perished in this battle. How tragic that Hamas has used civilians, including women and children, as human shields, and more than 1,800 Gazans have been killed.

Amazingly only three civilians in Israel have been killed by the onslaught of Hamas rockets. The key factor has been the Iron Dome system that destroys rockets heading for vulnerable Israeli population centers.

How did this life-saving system become America’s gift to the people of Israel? Reporters Charles Levinson and Adam Entous, writing in the Nov. 26, 2012 Wall Street Journal, provide background. We should note that the Wall Street Journal is a conservative publication not especially friendly to the current White House administration.

The WSJ article recounts a long battle to build the system for Israel. According to Levinson and Entous, “For years, Pentagon experts dismissed the Iron Dome as doomed to fail and urged Israel to instead try a cheaper U.S. approach. Iron Dome faced similar skepticism at home [in Israel].”

But two Israelis pushed the project through, overcoming the opposition of some of Israel’s most powerful military voices.

In 2004, then-Brig. Gen. Daniel Gold was named director of Israel’s Ministry of Defense’s research and development department, responsible for new weaponry. He and his team reviewed various options and eventually settled on a patched-together concept for the rocket defense system that would become Iron Dome. When the general asked an Israeli company to head the project, he was criticized for bypassing required approvals from the military’s general staff, the defense minister and the Israeli government. Years of heated political criticism followed for the project and its backers, according to the WSJ article, “showing how close the highly controversial Iron Dome idea came to never happening at all.”

A key point in the Iron Dome’s story came during the short term of Israeli Minister of Defense Amir Peretz. He had spent most of his career as a labor organizer and had little military experience. However, he hails from Sderot, the southern Israeli town that has borne the brunt of rocket fire from Gaza. In early 2007, Peretz threw his full ministerial weight behind the project and committed substantial funds to keep the Iron Dome project alive.

However, Iron Dome needed more funds. The Israeli defense ministry approached the U.S. administration of George W. Bush. The reception was frosty. When a team of U.S. military engineers came to Israel to examine the Iron Dome system, the U.S. team concluded that the system wouldn’t work. The American experts were pushing the Vulcan Phalanx system, a system that Gold, the Israeli general, had already dismissed.

Israeli leadership came around to backing the Iron Dome project after the 2006 Lebanon War, when Hezbollah fired more than 4,000 rockets at northern Israel, killing 44 Israeli civilians.

Most importantly, according to the WSJ article, “The Iron Dome project got a significant boost soon after President Barack Obama came into office in 2009. Obama visited Sderot as a presidential candidate and told his aides to find a way to help boost Israel’s defense from the makeshift rockets (from Gaza)… although (U.S.) defense officials at the time still felt that the Iron Dome was not the way.”

Obama appointed new Pentagon leaders, and a White House working group took a fresh look at the Iron Dome system. In October 2009, a report affirmed that the Iron Dome system was a success; in fact, it was superior to the system the Pentagon had supported.

The following year, the Obama administration supported Israel’s request for $200 million in funding for Iron Dome. Obama and Congress have continued to support Iron Dome through the years, including a $225 million appropriation in the last few days.

There are two critical insights to be had from this saga. As the life-saving Iron Dome system was being developed, both the Israeli defense establishment and the American defense establishment opposed it. And, Obama was a critical factor in the eventual success of Iron Dome.

Hundreds of Israelis owe their lives to the president’s leadership and vision. We might think about this story when we hear Obama denounced as an “enemy of Israel.”

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Rabbi Martin Weiner

Rabbi Martin Weiner is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. He is a past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the professional association of Reform rabbis.