U.S. Vice President Joe Biden urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to sign a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. on its military aid to Israel for the next decade while President Obama is still in office, senior Israeli officials with knowledge of the talks in Jerusalem said Wednesday.
According to the officials, who requested to remain unnamed because of the issue's sensitivity, Biden came bearing the message that waiting for the next American president would not promise Israel a better deal. This comes in light of the administration's budgetary issues, which will lead to a drop in the U.S. defense budget.
Senior officials said Biden made clear during the talks that he is aware that the aid being offered is lower than what Israel had asked for as part of the security memorandum. The vice president said professionals in the administration believe the aid will be enough to answer Israel's security needs.
Biden also said that he's convinced that the United States will know to provide additional defense aid if there will be a need for it contingent on any changes in the security situation, just as in the previous memorandum of understanding, signed in 2007.
Biden and Netanyahu agreed they will try to work to narrow the gaps between the sides in negotiations over the memorandum in the coming weeks. Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon will fly to Washington next week to meet with his U.S. counterpart, Ashton Carter, and their teams may convene another round of talks in another few weeks.
"They agreed to continue to work with the aim of reaching an agreement, " a senior official said.
At the beginning of February, Netanyahu said that if Israel's security needs are not sufficiently addressed as part of negotiations with the U.S., Israel would defer signing it in an effort to obtain better terms until a new American president takes office next year.
In the previous aid deal, which Israel and the U.S. signed in 2007, the Americans committed to providing $30 billion in aid over 10 years — an average of three billion dollars a year. The current defense aid agreement will expire in 2018.
Following Netanyahu's meeting with Obama at the White House last November, negotiations were launched between Israeli and American teams to put together a new defense aid package for the coming decade. The security aid agreement will outline the funds Israel would receive from the United States annually through 2028.
The negotiations hit difficulties a few weeks ago due to large gaps between the amount of aid Israel requested and what the United States proposed. An Israeli official said the differences were one of the main reasons that Netanyahu canceled his trip to the U.S., despite the fact that a meeting with Obama had been set. A senior official said Netanyahu didn’t want a situation where the two leaders wouldn't be able to bridge their differences over the aid agreement.
The controversy between the sides focuses on two American proposals. The first would start by allocating Israel 3.7 billion dollars a year. The figure would rise gradually over the decade to over 4 billion annually. The aid package would total about 40 billion dollars over 10 years — 10 billion more than the previous agreement. This proposal is contingent on Israel committing to not lobbying Congress directly to raise additional aid.
If Israel can't agree to not operate on its own with Congress, the second proposal stipulates that the administration would gradually raise the aid by a more modest 400 million dollars a year, for a total of 34 billion dollars over the decade.
According to a senior Israeli official, Netanyahu rejected the first proposal because he wouldn’t commit to not lobbying Congress for a decade on military aid issues. However, he wasn't satisfied with the second proposal, which would result in a significantly smaller aid sum. In recent months, Netanyahu has spoken of a military package totaling between 40 and 50 billion dollars over the 10 years.
The differences between the Israeli and American positions led Netanyahu to say at a cabinet meeting a few weeks ago that if Israeli security needs weren't met, he would prefer to wait for the next U.S. president to enter the White House before continuing the negotiations, with the aim of achieving a better deal. According to Netanyahu, his comments caused a great deal of anger in Washington after they were published by Haaretz. In past weeks, a number of senior Israelis, including the ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, have approached Netanyahu to relay that said that despite the gaps, Israel has an interest in signing an agreement during Obama's term and shouldn't wait for 2017.
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