If Israel's security needs are not sufficiently addressed as part of negotiations with the U.S. on a new memorandum of understanding on American military aid to the country, Israel will defer signing it, in an effort to obtain better terms, until a new American president takes office next year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Sunday's cabinet meeting.
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"It's not yet clear that we will come to an agreement," Netanyahu told the cabinet members in the course of a diplomatic-security briefing by acting national security adviser Jacob Nagel, who also heads the Israeli team negotiating memorandum with the Americans. "[We] need to see if [we] can achieve a result that will address Israel's security needs or perhaps we will not manage to come to an agreement with this administration and will need to come to an agreement with the next administration."
Last Thursday, an American delegation led by Yael Lempert, the Special Assistant to the president and Senior Director for the Levant, Israel and Egypt at the National Security Council in the White House, who arrived in Israel to hold a third round of negotiations on the matter. Over the past three days, the American team held discussions with a team of counterparts from the national security staff in the Prime Minister's Office and from the Defense Ministry, the Israel Defense Forces and the Foreign Ministry. The main topic of discussion in the talks was the size of the aid that the United States would provide Israel and the conditions on its use.
Netanyahu's remarks at the cabinet meeting raise the possibility that the round of talks in Jerusalem will not achieve substantial progress. Just two weeks ago, in the course of his visit to the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where the prime minister met with American Vice President Joe Biden, and where the two discussed the matter, the prime minister sounded much more optimistic. In an interview on stage with American journalist Fareed Zakaria, Netanyahu noted that he believed Israel and the United States would manage to wrap up negotiations in a positive manner on a new security memorandum of understanding in the coming months that would outline the size of American assistance to the IDF for the coming decade.
A senior Israeli official who participated in the cabinet meeting but asked not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the subject said the contacts with the American administration are continuing but "nothing has yet been finalized and it will take more time." Another senior official who also participated in the cabinet meeting added that, despite the three rounds of negotiations, President Barack Obama's intervention will be necessary to achieve a breakthrough. "It's not a subject for staff, but rather for decisions by leaders," he said.
Next month the contacts between Israel and the United States on the security memorandum of understanding are expected to be stepped up a notch. Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon is expected to go to Washington at the beginning of March to meet with his American counterpart, Ashton Carter. About two weeks later, Netanyahu will come to Washington to attend the conference of the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. In all probability, he will also meet with Obama in an effort to achieve a breakthrough in the talks.
The current security memorandum of understanding signed ten years ago between the two countries is due to expire at the end of 2018. As a result of the understanding, the United States has provided $30 billion over a decade in security assistance to Israel. In the course of meetings between Netanyahu and Obama at the White House in November, the two announced the opening of new negotiations on the memorandum for the coming decade.
At the beginning of the negotiations a few months ago, senior figures in the defense establishment expressed the position that Israel is in need of a $5 billion annual increase to the amount of American assistance. Netanyahu himself has told the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of the Knesset that he is interested in coming to agreement with Obama on the sum of "$4 billion plus."
In the course of his last visit to the United States and in interviews with the American media since then, Netanyahu has stressed that Israel needs a substantial increase in American security assistance in light of the nuclear agreement that Iran reached with the major world powers. Iran will be receiving $100 billion as a result of the lifting of sanctions and can use these funds to acquire quantities of weapons and provide advanced weaponry to Israel's enemies – Hezbollah, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Netanyahu noted.
At the same time, Netanyahu has made it clear in recent months both in public and in private conversations with the Americans that the Sunni Arab countries are acquiring large quantities of advanced weaponry from the United States and France to protect themselves from Iran, but the weapons could in the future be turned against Israel. In such a reality, he has argued, an increase in American assistance is necessary to maintain the IDF's qualitative advantage in the region.
Senior officials in the defense establishment are expressing serious concern over the prospect that it will not be possible to reach an agreement with the Obama administration on the size of security assistance, resulting in a deferral of the subject until a new president takes office in January 2017. Under such circumstances, there would be less than a year remaining to come to a new security agreement before the current one expires. That would present a very complicated situation since any new president would need half a year at least to study the subject.
In the course of Sunday's cabinet meeting, acting national security adviser Nagel presented various scenarios regarding diplomatic initiatives on the Palestinian issue that could arise in the coming year on the American side or from other countries. A senior official present at the cabinet meeting noted that in the course of the survey, Netanyahu commented that at the moment he was not worried about American action at the UN Security Council before the end of Obama's term in January, but he stressed that things could change and it was not possible to ensure that the Obama administration wouldn't later decide to attempt to advance such a process.
On Sunday morning, Army Radio reported that, in an effort to head off U.S. action in the UN Security Council, Netanyahu is trying to convince the Habayit Hayehudi ministers in the security cabinet – Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked – along with Ze'ev Elkin of the prime minister's own Likud party, not to oppose a package of steps to stabilize the situation vis-à-vis the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. That would also include gestures in Area C, the portion of the West Bank in which Israel has full civilian and military control.
The Prime Minister's Office said in response: "Talks with the American government on the security aid package are advancing with a desire to reach agreements."