When It Comes to Obama and Israel, Military Aid Is One Thing, Disagreements Are Another

Analysis | The U.S. president keeps his political differences with Netanyahu apart from the defense agreements the two countries sign every 10 years.

AP

The future of the Israel Defense Forces, including plans for organizational reform and weapons procurement, was being debated this week in three different forums.

At an air force base in the south, a two-day conference ended Monday at which the chief of IDF General Staff and senior generals developed ideas for adjustments in the multiyear Gideon plan announced this past summer. In Jerusalem, officials in the finance and defense ministries are still negotiating next year’s defense budget.

But the most important discussion took place in Washington on Monday, at the meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House.

As far as is known, the two have not finalized the scope of American defense aid to Israel in the coming decade. The United States and Israel sign defense agreements once every 10 years and the new agreement will go into effect only in October 2017, when the United States begins its 2018 fiscal year. But ever since Iran signed its nuclear agreement with the great powers and Netanyahu (after three months) gave up trying to scuttle it, the countdown began toward the formulation of the new aid agreement.

Despite the open tensions between the U.S. president and the Israeli prime minister, it’s clear that there’s an opportunity here. The Obama administration, for a number of reasons (a moral obligation to Israel; support for maintaining the strategic alliance with it; fears that the Democrats will lose Jewish voters and contributors during the upcoming presidential election in less than a year), is committed to increasing its security assistance beyond the current, considerable sum of $3.1 billion annually.

Last week American media reported that Israel is asking for the astronomical sum of $5 billion a year. It’s hard to believe that the Americans will come close to that figure, but annual aid of $4 billion over 10 years seems in the range of achievable. This is also a huge sum that would allow the IDF to markedly increase its procurement. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon already came to an agreement last month with his American counterpart, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, on the outline of the procurement plan.

The plan includes, among other things, the acquisition of at least another squadron of F-35 fighter planes; the purchase of the V-22 tiltrotor aircraft; the further joint development of anti-missile and anti-rocket batteries for all ranges (the Arrow, Magic Wand and Iron Dome systems); upgrading tunnel-locating technologies; joint progress in the field of cyber warfare and improving the capabilities of the IDF’s precision weaponry. But the final details of the agreement depend on the numbers. One can assume that Obama and Netanyahu already know what they’re aiming for, but the agreement won’t be finalized for several months and may even have to wait for the next president, who assumes office in January 2017.

From Obama’s remarks during the short photo-op with Netanyahu before their meeting, it seems the president is willing to restrain himself despite the maneuvers the prime minister carried out in the American leader’s own backyard over the past two years, when, on the pretext of fighting Iran’s nuclear program, Netanyahu inserted himself into the tense confrontations between the Democrats and the Republicans. The disputes between the parties will apparently be focused on the question of resuming diplomatic contacts with the Palestinians.

But Obama, as he has throughout his nearly seven years in office, is continuing to separate between diplomatic disputes and the generous defense assistance he grants to Israel. During the last presidential campaign in 2012, when Republicans were claiming that Obama was “throwing Israel under the bus” on the Iran issue, then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak was asked to intervene. He recorded a public service message in which he praised the Obama administration for providing more defense assistance to Israel than anyone, ever.

That’s the truth, and even Netanyahu knows it, even though he does not admit it publicly.