Netanyahu Seeking to Close U.S. Aid Deal Before Obama Leaves Office

PM tells visiting senators he hopes to sign deal before January 2017, relays same message to White House as well, but crucial disagreements remain unresolved; his renewed push to appoint spokesman harshly critical of Obama may complicate matters further.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
Obama meets with Netanyahu in the Oval office of the White House, Washington D.C., November 9, 2015.
Obama meets with Netanyahu in the Oval office of the White House, Washington D.C., November 9, 2015.Credit: Reuters
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to conclude a new 10-year deal on U.S. aid to Israel before President Barack Obama leaves office in January 2017, a senior government official told Haaretz.

The official said Netanyahu stressed this point during a meeting in his office on Wednesday with visiting Republican senators and representatives.

The Republican delegation was headed by Sen. Lindsey Graham, who dropped out of his party’s presidential primary a few months ago. During the meeting, Graham told Netanyahu that signing the deal before Obama left office would be the right thing to do.

Graham, one of the party’s senior senators, told Netanyahu that many members of Congress view the amounts proposed by the White House during the negotiations as being within the bounds of what is possible given current budgetary limitations. He also warned that postponing a deal until the next president takes office in January might have negative consequences for Israel, given the current American political reality and the uncertainty over the outcome of the presidential race. Graham was apparently referring to the possibility that Donald Trump might be the next president.

Netanyahu told the visiting congressmen that one of the reasons he wants to close the aid deal with Obama relates to how Americans will view Israel over the next decade. Signing a deal with Obama, a Democrat, he explained, would send the message for many years to come that Israel is not a subject of political controversy in America and in fact has bipartisan support.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, listens during a Senate State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs Subcommittee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., March 26, 2015.Credit: Bloomberg

“If people in the U.S. see that this agreement was signed by Obama and Netanyahu, this will have great significance for the strength of the relationship,” the senior official quoted him as saying.

Netanyahu has sent the same message to two other visiting delegations from Congress whom he met with over the past two weeks. He has also sent it to the White House, via U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, who attended some of these meetings.

Nevertheless, for now, negotiations over the aid agreement are treading water and the disagreements that have been holding it up remain unresolved. The large gap between the amount of aid Obama is offering and the amount Israel claims it needs is one of the main reasons why Netanyahu decided to cancel his planned trip to Washington two weeks ago, even though he was offered a meeting with Obama.

In 2007, Israel and the United States signed a military aid deal under which the latter promised Israel $30 billion over the next 10 years, or $3 billion a year. This deal will lapse at the end of 2018. American and Israeli officials have therefore been negotiating since November on a new 10-year deal that would define the level of military aid Israel will receive through the end of 2028.

Two alternatives

The Americans have proposed two alternatives. Under the first, Israel would initially get $3.7 billion a year, with the sum gradually rising to over $4 billion by the end of the decade. Under this proposal, Israel would receive a total of about $40 billion over 10 years – $10 billion more than it got under the previous deal. However, there’s a condition attached to this offer: Israel must promise not to lobby Congress for any additional aid during the decade that the deal is in force.

The second alternative doesn’t require Israel to make any such promise, but it also offers less money. Under this proposal, America would increase the annual aid by only $400 million a year, meaning the total over the 10-year period would come to $34 billion.

A senior Israeli official said that Netanyahu rejected the first alternative because he wasn’t willing to commit himself to not lobbying Congress on the issue of military aid for 10 years. On the other hand, the prime minister isn’t happy with the second alternative because it’s significantly lower than his original request. In recent months, Netanyahu has spoken of a 10-year package worth $40 billion to $50 billion.

Netanyahu's aide

Meanwhile, despite Netanyahu’s assertion that he wants to close the aid deal before Obama leaves office, over the past few days, he has taken a step that is liable to make it harder to advance the negotiations: According to Channel 2 television, he has asked the Civil Service Commission to resume the process of approving Ran Baratz’s appointment as head of the National Information Directorate.

Ran Baratz, right, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi and Lior Mizrahi

Netanyahu originally announced Baratz’s appointment last year, but then reports began surfacing about a series of Facebook posts Baratz had written in which he harshly criticized Obama, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. Inter alia, Baratz wrote that Obama’s handling of the Iranian nuclear issue amounted to “modern anti-Semitism” and that Kerry had “the mentality of a 12-year-old boy.”

The U.S. administration was outraged, and Vice President Joe Biden even stated publicly that Washington would not look kindly on Baratz’s appointment. The American reaction, coupled with criticism of Netanyahu’s choice by several cabinet ministers, led to Baratz’s appointment being frozen.

Nor are diplomatic sensitivities the only problem standing in the way of Baratz’s appointment. In addition, the Civil Service Commission told Netanyahu’s office that Baratz fails to meet some of the minimum requirements for the job. Inter alia, he doesn’t have seven years of managerial experience in a field related to media or public diplomacy.

Thursday evening, the Prime Minister’s Bureau put out a statement in which it termed the commission’s claims about Baratz’s professional shortcomings “ludicrous.” These claims, it charged, are part of an attempt to nix Baratz’s appointment “that stems from extraneous considerations and absurd bureaucracy, and it won’t succeed.”

“For many years, Baratz has written and edited articles on diplomatic, security and economic issues with deep knowledge and great skill,” the statement added.

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