Obama signs U.S.-Israel cooperation bill - Natasha Mozgovaya - July 27, 2012
President Barack Obama signs the United States-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act, Friday, July 27, 2012, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. Photo by Natasha Mozgovaya
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Barack Obama's political instincts are faultless – there could be no better opportunity for him to sign into law the United States-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act than on the eve of Mitt Romney's campaign visit to Israel. And while the public way in which he signed the act, one of thousands of acts of congress he authorizes, along with senior Jewish senators and the heads of AIPAC, underlines his attempt to steal his Republican rival's thunder, it has to be noted that it wasn't the president who initiated this move, but Democratic and Republican members of Congress who finished passing it through the necessary legislative process ten days earlier.

On the face of it, the act seems to significantly bolster Israel's strategic standing. But when one actually reads the contents, it is hard to escape the impression that it is mainly declarative, as most of its details are already being carried out, without need for a specific act of Congress. Of course, any measure that strengthens Israel's defense ties with the U.S. is important, after all, the alliance between the two countries is Israel's most important strategic asset. But its passing probably serves more to help the re-elections chances of its sponsors than to actually strengthen Israel. The defense cooperation between the U.S. and Israel is already extremely close; the act improves it only on the margins

Here are a few of the details and their real significance:

The act reaffirms "the enduring commitment of the United States to the security of the State of Israel as a Jewish state." Since that commitment is "enduring," the reaffirmation seems hardly necessary.

It commits the U.S. help Israel preserve its qualitative military edge and supports "Israel’s inherent right to self-defense," which is once again, a long-standing American policy.

It encourages "further development of advanced technology programs between the United States and Israel in both defense and civilian sectors" - something that is happening anyway.

It calls for "assisting Israel with its ongoing efforts to forge a peaceful, negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that will result in two states living side-by-side in peace and security" and for "encouraging Israel’s neighbors to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state." Nothing new there either. Furthermore, it urges the administration "to veto any one-sided anti-Israel resolutions at the U.N. Security Council" which is all happening anyway.

There are some more specific details when it comes to actual military aid, but even here, most of what is mentioned is already in place.

"Providing increased support for development and production of joint missile defense systems" – The U.S. has long been funding a large proportion of the costs of developing the Arrow, Iron Dome and David's Sling anti-missile systems and in three months will be holding in Israel, Austere Challenge 2012, the largest joint missile-defense exercise in history.

"Supplying Israel with defensive equipment including air refueling tankers, missile defense capabilities and specialized munitions" – This is an extremely interesting detail and has been seized upon by the Israeli media. In actuality, it does not herald any real improvement for Israel's armed forces in the near future. The IDF would like to enlarge its aerial tanker fleet, allowing more flexibility for long-range missions. But the U.S. Air Force's huge KC-135 tanker fleet has been in service for over fifty years and will probably carry on flying for another couple of decades at least - it soldiers on thanks to the wealth of experience of USAF maintainers, and the huge number of planes in service (over 400). Since the new KC-46 will not be coming into service for at least another five years, the only way Israel can obtain American tankers in the near future will be through a transfer of a few old USAF KC-135s. This would be a logistical nightmare for the Israeli Air-Force, forced to deal with maintaining fifty-year old jets, and more than one officer has told me that in such a case, they would rather stick with the converted Boeing 707 airliners which the IAF is already using.

"Missile defense capabilities" has already been covered and "specialized munitions" has been interpreted to mean "bunker-busting" missiles. These are indeed valuable components in the armory of an army planning to attack well fortified nuclear installations and missile silos. More of these would certainly be welcome, but once again, Israel has already received 55 GBU-28 bunker-busters from the Obama administration.

"Furnishing Israel additional surplus defense articles and services in the wake of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq" – yet another process that has been taking place for years in the "pre-positioning" of American military supplies on bases in Israel, which in a state of emergency, will be at Israel's disposal. The act specifies expanding this stockpile by $400 million.

"Offering the Israeli Air Force additional training and exercise opportunities in the U.S. to compensate for Israel’s limited air space" – Israeli pilots and fighter jets already train quite routinely in the United State, with the main limit to this is the geographical distance between the two countries and the need for Israel's pilots to be on call back home.

"Encouraging an expanded role for Israel within NATO, including an enhanced presence at NATO headquarters and exercises" – The U.S. is already doing this but needs the support of other NATO members, and since Turkey is rapidly becoming one of the major forces in NATO, this will have a lot more to do with developments in Ankara than in Washington. The same goes for yet another commitment,

And of course the commitment to expand intelligence cooperation is almost self-explanatory as the act admits that this cooperation is "already close." Which could have been said about the whole issue of U.S.-Israel defense ties and what makes this act largely superfluous, but for electoral needs.