The list of defense-related and other gifts the U.S. administration is willing to offer to Israel in exchange for three months of construction freeze in the settlements raises suspicions that someone has gone mad. An additional extension of the freeze, which he has previously rejected out of hand, may spell a political and ideological headache for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - but the offer by U.S. President Barack Obama is very enticing. The addition of 20 F-35s to the package discussed two months ago tips the balance very clearly. From Israel's point of view, it is an offer that cannot be refused.
Since Obama entered the White House two years ago, he has not given the impression - at least in terms of foreign relations - of being a particularly tough negotiator. Nonetheless, this time the administration appears to have gone overboard, even though in Washington they know full well that the freeze is a highly symbolic gesture, which the settlers have already managed to avoid in the past.
This, of course, raises suspicions that there are much broader and substantive issues at hand, and not merely a few housing units in Samaria or Gush Etzion. Not only may there be a genuine Israeli willingness to move forward in a substantive way in negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, but perhaps some sort of deal on the Iranian question is afoot. Could it be - and this is only conjecture - that Obama is trying to persuade Israel to commit to desisting from any independent action against the nuclear installations of Iran, in exchange for a substantial future reinforcement of the Israel Air Force?
The F-35 deal signed last month was controversial in both defense establishment and political circles. The debate did not stem from the quality of the stealth aircraft, but from the price tag accompanying it: Generals and minister believed that when the price per unit is more than $130 million, there are better ways to make use of the U.S. military aid package. But, according to the prime minister, the U.S. is now generously offering to double the number of aircraft without the funding for them being taken from the future military aid package.
This is an enormous gift, which nearly makes the debate on the need for the F-35 redundant. According to reports, there will also be significant benefits elsewhere in the gift list for Israel.
In spite a great deal of bad mouthing about him, the U.S. president has proven no less committed to Israel's security than his predecessor. To date the security package has included emergency stores that are available to the Israel Defense Forces, a $205-million grant to purchase Iron Dome systems, and a significant stepping-up of joint missile defense training programs. The list of items to come, at least on paper, is impressive.
"The Americans have put forth an excellent proposal. It will be a big mistake not to take it," a senior defense source told Haaretz last night, adding that "the prime minister has made impressive gains. If we do not implement this deal, we will suffer in terms of defense."
Obama is essentially spotlighting a debate that has been going on since the settlements began - namely, whether they contribute to or undermine Israel's security. The U.S. president is now asking: What benefits Israeli security more - a few more trailers on some hilltops or doubling the number of advanced fighters in its inventory?
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