WASHINGTON (AP) — The Pentagon will press Congress for more money for Israel's Iron Dome system designed to intercept short-range rockets and mortars, a boost for Israel as the Obama administration tries to dissuade the Mideast ally from launching a potential unilateral strike on Iran.
The announcement from the Pentagon on Tuesday also comes as Obama has faced election-year criticism from Republican presidential candidates and GOP lawmakers that administration support for a longtime friend has been inadequate.
"Supporting the security of the state of Israel is a top priority of President Obama and Secretary (Leon) Panetta," Pentagon press secretary George Little said in a statement. "The Department of Defense has been in conversations with the government of Israel about U.S. support for the acquisition of additional Iron Dome systems and intends to request an appropriate level of funding from Congress to support such acquisitions based on Israeli requirements and production capacity."
The Pentagon cited the effectiveness of the system, which in recent weeks intercepted more than 80 percent of the nearly 300 rockets and mortars fired by Palestinian militants from Gaza at southern Israel.
In a special request in the 2011 budget, the Obama administration and Congress agreed on $205 million for the Iron Dome system. The current budget included no funds for the program, but did provide millions for other Israeli missile defense programs.
Obama's budget for next year calls for $3.1 billion in military assistance for Israel, a slight increase over the current level and the most for any foreign country.
The Pentagon statement provided no specific numbers, but congressional aides said a possible request would be the purchase of 10 battery systems at a cost of $50 million each.
Earlier this month, Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and pressed for diplomacy and sanctions to thwart Iran in its alleged pursuit of a nuclear weapon. Netanyahu made it clear that his country has the right to defend itself from an Iranian nuclear threat.
The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said Israel's missile defense system, including programs such as David's Sling, Arrow and Patriot weapons, should give Iran pause.
Israel's missile defense is a "real deterrent to Iran threatening to go nuclear," Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said in an interview.
In a speech earlier this month to AIPAC, Levin had said, "When Iran faces the fateful nuclear decision before it, it will have to recognize that should it cross the red line which would bring about military action against its nuclear facilities, its ability to retaliate, or even credibly threaten to retaliate, against Israel will be severely degraded by Israel's missile defenses."
Republicans see a political opening in the uneasy relationship between Washington and Jerusalem over Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the state of Mideast peace talks, further complicated by the Obama administration's pressure on Israel to hold off on a possible military strike against Iran's disputed nuclear development program.
The Iranian threat to Israel has stoked the bitter rhetoric both in Washington and on the presidential campaign trail, where Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have accused Obama of throwing Israel under a bus and emboldening the Palestinians. The fierce talk reflects that Jewish voters, who comprise only 2 percent of the electorate nationwide, are a critical part of Obama's base and could be the difference in close battleground states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Nevada.
Financial contributions from Jewish voters are critical for both parties.
Congressional Democrats welcomed the Pentagon announcement as a fresh sign of the administration standing with Israel.
"Iron Dome helps give Israel the ability to protect its civilians while giving its leaders the strategic space and time to take the appropriate action to root out terrorists and carefully plan their next steps," said Rep. Steve Rothman, D-N.J., a member of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee.
Rep. Howard Berman of California, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is a co-sponsor of legislation that would authorize the president to provide aid to Israel to buy additional Iron Dome anti-rocket systems if it requests it.
"Iron Dome is a game changer," Berman said. "The threats Israel faces from incoming, indiscriminate terrorist rocket attacks are countered by this cutting edge anti-missile system. Iron Dome is fundamentally shifting political, diplomatic and military realities on the ground, while saving lives of innocent Israelis. Today's statement is a further step in the right direction."
Republican Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, had complained in a February letter to Obama that his "record low" budget request jeopardized Israel's security. The letter failed to take into account the billions in military assistance for Israel that Obama had asked Congress to provide.
In a statement Tuesday, McKeon said he was "pleased that the president now acknowledges the need to increase funding to counter a deadly threat."
Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor in Canada contributed to this report.