Rabin or Peres Could Have Gotten a Better Deal From Obama Than Netanyahu

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U.S. President Barack Obama toasts with former President Shimon Peres during an official state dinner in Jerusalem, Israel, March 21, 2013.
U.S. President Barack Obama toasts with former President Shimon Peres during an official state dinner in Jerusalem, Israel, March 21, 2013.Credit: Jason Reed, Reuters

Israeli leaders have been embroiled in recent days in a bitter argument over U.S. President Obama’s $38 billion military aid package. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s critics, led by an unusually brusque Ehud Barak, allege that the ten-year Memorandum of Understanding signed in Washington last week could have been far more generous were it not for the prime minister’s famously strained relations with the U.S. president and his insistence on fighting the Iran nuclear deal even when he knew the battle was lost. Netanyahu and his representatives are dismissing these assertions, with former U.S. envoy Michael Oren going so far as to describe them as “anti-Semitic.”

Irony, of course, abounds: Forced to defend the deal for his own political purposes, Netanyahu is suddenly cast as Obama’s true champion, repeatedly and effusively thanking the U.S. president for his generosity and steadfast support. At the other end of the spectrum, Netanyahu has been sharply rebuked by one of his strongest proponents on Capitol Hill, Senator Lindsey Graham, for pulling the rug out from under his Congressional supporters. Graham was incensed by Netanyahu’s willingness to promise not to request any more Congressional appropriations and to return those that will be given, at least during the next fiscal year. One can only speculate on which side of this argument Sheldon Adelson comes down, given that he has been a benefactor to both.

The argument has focused on claims made by Barak and others that at one point or another the Administration’s offer stood at $45 billion but by the time Netanyahu was done rebuffing Obama’s request to curtail his efforts to sabotage the Iran deal, the total had gone down to $38 billion. Netanyahu rejects these assertions, saying that the final $38 billion was the highest sum that had ever been offered by the administration. As far as I can tell, both sides are being accurate: The number $45 billion had been raised in various informal discussions between interlocutors from both sides, but had never been formally put on the table. Whether such a sum was ever truly in the cards is debatable. Besides dealing with the petulant Israeli prime minister, the Obama administration also faces severe deficits and budget cuts and $7 billion is a tidy sum, even when you’re dealing in trillions.

But even if he is right on the technical question of whether there was more or less money to be had, Netanyahu is dead wrong in asserting that his strained relations with the U.S. president had no influence on the final shape of the MOU. The administration’s staunch insistence on stemming the flow of separate Congressional appropriations to Israel, to the extent that it extracted the demeaning letter from Netanyahu pledging to return any additional funds given by Washington lawmakers, was a direct result of Netanyahu’s efforts to wield Congress against Obama, both on Israeli-Palestinian peace and on the Iran deal. Given a chance to put both Netanyahu and Congress in their places, Obama refused to relent, playing a game of brinkmanship to the very end: if you don’t sign, the administration told Netanyahu, there will be no deal.

The other major criticism of the MOU is the decision to phase out Israel’s ability to use part of the aid money to purchase military equipment from its own defense companies. Obama, like his predecessors, is attuned to the American defense industry’s extensive lobbying against this concession. The Israeli companies take away American jobs by receiving millions of dollars in aid money and, thus bolstered, they then take away even more American jobs by competing against their U.S. competitors in third countries. Given the current antipathy toward the exile of jobs overseas, it is a sensitive issue and an argument that the administration would find hard to refuse in any case.

But Barak isn’t talking about money alone. He has also alluded to intelligence collaboration and other unspecified “technological enhancements” that Netanyahu could have secured had he not challenged Obama before, but mainly after the July 2015 signing the nuclear deal. Barak claims that Netanyahu missed an opportunity to deepen the security collaboration between the two countries and to set down mutual red lines over what would constitute an Iranian violation of the nuclear deal. At Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Netanyahu described such claims as “distortions and fabrications.”

Without claiming to know exactly what could or could not have been gained had Netanyahu chosen a different path in his fight to the finish against Obama last year, his assertion that the MOU would have looked exactly the same, no matter what, is disingenuous, to say the least. If you go by Netanyahu’s logic, the extraordinary relations between Israel and the United States are like a force of nature, eternal and immutable while the warmth and trust between leaders of the two countries is immaterial. Whether they hate or adore each other, he is saying, the song remains the same.

That’s poppycock, of course. It’s true that Israel, under any prime minister, and the United States, under any president, are bound together by shared strategic interests, mutual admiration of public opinions on both sides and, of course, the influence of the American Jewish community. But that does not mean that leaders are absolved of responsibility for the tone and tenor of the ties or that the temperature of relations between them has no influence over the course of events.

Levi Eshkol extracted a promise from Lyndon Johnson to supply Israel with Phantom F-4 fighters while wining and dining with him at his Texas ranch; Richard Nixon succumbed to Golda Meir's requests many times over because he could not withstand her grandmotherly admonitions; Yitzhak Rabin turned Bill Clinton into a personal friend and then to one of Israel’s best ever; and Ariel Sharon forged a strategic relationship with the U.S. by personally charming Bush Jr. and much of his administration. On the other hand, who knows how the loan guarantees standoff in the early 1990’s would have developed had Bush Sr. not developed an allergy to Yitzhak Shamir’s obstinacy. Netanyahu is not one to judge anyway, because he couldn’t get along with either of the two presidents he’s served with, Clinton and Obama. But that’s because of them, not him, no?

Obama did not allow tensions with Netanyahu or his reported animosity toward him to derail his wish to anchor U.S. aid to Israel in a long-term agreement. He takes pride in the assertion, acknowledged in the past only grudgingly by Netanyahu, that he has been a stalwart supporter of Israel’s security needs. But his estrangement from the Israeli prime minister spared Obama from making the kinds of concessions that a more trusted Israeli leader could have requested. If everything else was the same, but it was Yitzhak Rabin or Shimon Peres who was now prime minister, would Obama refuse a personal plea to lay off the Israeli defense industries? Would he turn down a candid private entreaty by a Peres and Rabin not to force them to repudiate their friends in Congress in a formal letter? Is it even reasonable to claim that the attitude of the U.S. administration remains the same whether you foster and cherish your relationship with the U.S. president or whether you challenge him and snub him and play internal politics against him at every turn, as Netanyahu did?

Netanyahu wants to eat his cake and have it too. He wants to convince the Israeli public that the country paid no price for his alignment with Obama’s worst enemies in Washington, his open endorsement in 2012 of Mitt Romney and his derailment of the U.S. president’s first-term peace initiatives. He seeks to persuade voters that his all-out, no holds barred, scorched-earth onslaught against Obama on the Iran deal, which failed, was a matter of principle, but he isn’t brave enough to openly admit that such battles never come free of charge.

The most laughable line of the day came when Netanyahu accused critics of the deal and his handling of it of showing “ingratitude” for Obama’s generosity. It is such a clear-cut chutzpahdik case of the pot calling the kettle black that one wonders whether Netanyahu and Donald Trump didn’t go to the same school of ludicrous, self-projecting reactions and retorts for their own mistakes and shortcomings.

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