Iron Dome launcher deployed next to Sderot, Israel (June 2011)
Iron Dome launcher deployed next to Sderot, Israel (June 2011). (Natan Flayer)

Iron Dome — with thanks to Barack Obama — represents nothing short of a miraculous umbrella in Israel’s fight against extremist terror.

The jaw-dropping videos of Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system intercepting more than 1,000 Hamas rockets — and a few drones — aimed at Jewish population centers during the recent conflict should remind the world of the U.S.’s longstanding bipartisan commitment to the Jewish state’s security — underscored in 2008 by then-Sen. Barack Obama, who played a key role in Iron Dome’s creation.

Doron Levin
Doron Levin

For it was presidential candidate Obama, a few months prior to his election, whose subsequent actions played a key role in the missile system’s deployment. During the Democratic nominee’s trip to Israel in July 2008, the purpose of which was to reinforce his foreign policy credentials, he traveled to meet residents of the embattled Israeli town of Sderot, near Gaza, which had been a frequent target of Hamas missiles and terror attacks.

Obama’s talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials scrupulously avoided controversy that could have hurt his electability. He was a youthful presidential hopeful relatively unknown in the Middle East, and not yet well known in his own country outside his home state of Illinois. He knew the importance of the U.S.-Israel alliance. And his exposure to the drama playing out on the Israeli-Gaza border struck a chord with him, eliciting empathy for the average Israelis who day and night faced deadly threat from Hamas missiles.  

In answer to a question whether Israel should be negotiating with Hamas, recognized by the U.S. and other nations as a terrorist organization, Obama told reporters covering his trip: “I don’t think any country would find it acceptable to have missiles raining down on the heads of their citizens.

“The first job of any nation state is to protect its citizens. And, so, I can assure you that if — I don’t even care if I was a politician — if somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that. And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing,” he said.

Thus continued a relationship of mutual admiration and support that endures between Israelis and a broad swath of Americans of varied political persuasions, dating back to Harry Truman. Without the financial and material support in military matters, it’s an open question as to whether Israel today would possess the anti-rocket missiles that constitute a key element of defense against hostile neighbors, buttressing the country’s survival.

Iron Dome launches an interceptor during Operation Pillar of Defense.
Iron Dome launches an interceptor during Operation Pillar of Defense. IDF
Genesis of Iron Dome

The concept of the Iron Dome system dates to 2004, when Brig. Daniel Gold, a mathematician and head of new-weapons research and development for Israel’s Ministry of Defense, invited the country’s defense contractors to propose innovative systems to protect against aerial bombardment. Hamas in Gaza and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in southern Lebanon had been launching crude, short-range rockets against Israel since the 1990s. Israel so far had been fortunate; they caused little damage and few casualties.

More sophisticated and deadlier rockets, however, were sure to follow. To Israel’s defense establishment, the notion of a home-grown weapon against incoming missiles seemed far-fetched, if not impossible. The tactical principles behind a missile shield hypothesized constant monitoring of all of Gaza, detection of rocket launches, instantaneous calculation whether a rocket was likely to hit an Israeli target, followed by launching of a missile from the ground to destroy the incoming rocket — within 15 seconds.

And the system had to be economical, lest waves of rockets — however ineffective — would stretch Israel’s defense budget to the breaking point.

Gold’s project struggled to find funding and political backing. In early 2007, Israel’s Defense Ministry backed the project’s pilot phase with an outlay of $10 million. Then Israel approached the Bush administration requesting hundreds of millions in additional support to deploy what by then was being called Iron Dome. The U.S. instead suggested the Israelis use its Vulcan Phalanx system, guarding the skies in Iraq. Israel demurred. In the meantime, Iron Dome won $200 million of additional Israeli funding needed for round-the-clock testing and development. In early 2009, a prototype intercepted an incoming rocket during a field test.

By then, Barack Obama had been elected president. He hadn’t forgotten his visit to Sderot and ordered his staff to look into the project and Israel’s request for financial assistance. Colin Kahl, then overseeing U.S. Middle East policy at the Pentagon, liked what he saw. The Pentagon sent experts in the fall of 2009. Iron Dome worked; and it proved superior to the U.S.’s Phalanx system. Kahl’s office recommended $200 million in aid. 

In May 2010, Obama asked Congress to provide $205 million for production and deployment of Iron Dome, which would be manufactured by Israel’s state-owned Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd. The U.S. House of Representatives approved the funding later that month in a 410-4 vote. The measure became part of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2011, approved by the Senate and signed by Obama on Jan. 7, 2011.

Iron Dome went operational in March 2011 and shot down its first missile a month later. Whether the new missile defense ever would have been built without Obama’s support and U.S. funding is questionable. 

In 2019, defense industry trade publications reported that the U.S. Army purchased Iron Dome batteries — further evidence of the mutual benefit derived from the alliance of the two countries.

On June 4, 2009, Obama had delivered a speech in Cairo to the Muslim world titled “A New Beginning,” calling for a two-state resolution to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinian people. Some Israel partisans were alarmed, but Obama’s speech also reminded Muslims of the “unbreakable” nature of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Tensions between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu eventually cropped up over the U.S. response to Iran’s development of nuclear capabilities, as well as to Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank. 

Differences between the governments are surfacing again as the Biden administration called for a ceasefire in Gaza while simultaneously pursuing nuclear talks with Iran that were halted by former president Donald Trump. Progressive Democrats have further strained relations by embracing the Palestinians in the current conflict, framing conflict between Jews and Arabs in terms of “racial justice.”

How the Democrats resolve the split over Middle East policy inside their party is less important than the overarching political consensus in Washington in support of a safe, strong, defensible Israel. That nonpartisan consensus spans 73 years, to the Jewish State’s founding. Iron Dome — with thanks to Barack Obama — represents nothing short of a miraculous umbrella in Israel’s fight against extremist terror. 

Doron Levin is a Metro Detroit journalist.

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