When the U.S. House overwhelmingly approved $1 billion to resupply Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system on Thursday, Democrat Hank Johnson, who represents the 4th District in metro Atlanta, voted “present.”
The bill passed by a vote of 409 to 9, with two abstentions: Johnson and New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who initially voted “no” and then changed her vote to “present.” Eight of the nine “no” votes were cast by Democrats: Rashida Tlaib of Michigan; Ilhan Omar of Minnesota; Cori Bush of Missouri; André Carson of Indiana; Jesús García of Illinois; Raúl Grijalva of Arizona; Marie Newman of Illinois; and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts; the other was cast by a Republican, Thomas Massie of Kentucky.
In a statement to the AJT, Johnson, an eight-term congressman from DeKalb County, said: “I supported the $3.8 billion in military assistance to Israel as agreed to by President Obama. An additional $1 billion on top of what U.S. taxpayers have already paid for Israel’s Iron Dome defense constitutes about 60 percent of what the United States has provided for that specific defense allocation over the past decade. I don’t think the additional $1 billion is justified, particularly given the assessment that the former Israeli Prime Minister was the driving force behind the conflict, which gave rise to this exorbitant emergency request.”
Johnson did not explain why, given his opposition, he did not vote against the measure, rather than abstaining. The other 13 members of Georgia’s congressional delegation — eight Republicans and five Democrats — voted in favor of the spending.
The measure now goes to the Senate. Roll Call, a newspaper and website that covers Capitol Hill, reported that Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., “sounded a doubtful note over the urgency of passing the funding” on Wednesday, telling reporters, “The Israelis haven’t even taken the money that we’ve already appropriated.”
President Joe Biden is on record as supporting the re-supply of the Iron Dome system.
Iron Dome is a mobile, short-range anti-rocket defense system developed by the Israeli company Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. Israel annually receives $3.3 billion from the U.S. in foreign military financing. According to the Congressional Research Service, an additional $500 million is appropriated for joint U.S.-Israeli missile defense cooperation, which includes Iron Dome funding. CRS reports that, through fiscal year 2020, Israel has received more than $1.65 billion to fund Iron Dome batteries, interceptors, co-production costs, and maintenance.
The additional $1 billion approved by the House would be used to replace interceptors expended during Israel’s war in May, when Hamas fired an estimated 4,360 rockets toward Israel from Gaza.
The Israel Defense Forces said that Iron Dome units intercepted more than 1,500 of these rockets. Subtracting the number of rockets that failed to present a threat, the IDF claimed an interception rate of 90 percent.
The $1 billion for Israel was pulled Tuesday from a bill to prevent a U.S. government shutdown and suspend the debt limit, after several members of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing said that otherwise they would vote against that legislation. That bill subsequently passed along party lines, leading to Thursday’s stand-alone vote on the Iron Dome funding.
Dov Wilker, Southeast regional director of the American Jewish Committee, told the AJT: “It is extremely disappointing that Rep. Johnson did not vote in favor H.R. 5323. Through his travels in the region, I am sure Congressman Johnson understands the peace and security that the Iron Dome provides, not just for Israelis of all types, but for Palestinians as well. Congressman Johnson should know that the Iron Dome has saved countless lives, and if he wants to see peace in the region, this is a key initiative to ensuring that will happen.”
Johnson was elected to Congress in November 2006, after defeating incumbent Democratic congresswoman Cynthia McKinney — whose own anti-Israel statements had angered many in the Jewish community — in a runoff for his party’s nomination. The 4th District includes Conyers, Covington, Decatur, Lilburn and Lithonia, as well as unincorporated portions of DeKalb County.
Johnson serves on the House Judiciary Committee, Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, and the Committee on Oversight & Reform. He also is a member of the Congressional Caucus on Black-Jewish Relations.
He has been a consistent critic of Israel.
Johnson drew the ire of supporters of Israel in a July 2016 speech in Philadelphia — co-sponsored by the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation — in which Johnson criticized the pace of Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank. “There has been a steady [stream], almost like termites can get into a residence and eat before you know that you’ve been eaten up and you fall in on yourself, there has been settlement activity that has marched forward with impunity and at an ever-increasing rate to the point where it has become alarming,” he said.
Johnson’s statement was reported first by the Washington Free Beacon, under a headline that read “Congressman: Jewish Settlers Are Like Termites.
The congressman subsequently apologized on Twitter for a “Poor choice of words,” but also said, “Point is settlement activity continues to slowly undermine 2-state solution.”
In an interview with the AJT at the time, Johnson said that he did not know that sponsors of the Philadelphia event, which also included the Quaker organization American Friends Service Committee, supported the BDS [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions] movement against Israel. Johnson said that he opposed BDS and was committed to a two-state solution “despite how hopeless it might look.”
He said his comparison of the growth of West Bank settlements to the work of termites “was an ignorant remark. And now that I know about the history of insects, animals and things like that to describe Jewish people, I’m mortified by my use of the term, not referring to people, but referring to the settlement process. … It was inappropriate, ignorant, insensitive, and it offended and hurt a lot [of] people.”
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