White House Officials: Appointing Lieberman as Defense Minister Won't Harm Military Aid Talks With Israel

U.S. officials believe that Lieberman will have good relationship with American counterpart, continuing the approach he took when working opposite Kerry.

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Barak Ravid
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Kerry, right, with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in Washington last week.
Kerry, right, with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in Washington last week.Credit: AFP
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

The expected appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as defense minister in place of Moshe Ya'alon is not anticipated to impede negotiations with the United States over a new, decade-long security aid package, senior White House officials have told Haaretz on Sunday.

"We do not anticipate the change in Israeli defense ministers will impact upon our ongoing discussions with Israel regarding the military assistance Memorandum of Understanding (MOU,)" the officials said.

"We look forward to working on this issue, among many others, with the next Israeli minister of defense. The United States remains ready to sign an MOU with Israel that would constitute the largest single pledge of military assistance to any country in U.S. history."

"I will remain responsible for the security of Israel," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday at a press conference in Jerusalem with visiting Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka.

The expected appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as defense minister will not alter the fact that it is the prime minister who leads the apparatus together with the defense minister – and that's how it will continue to be, Netanyahu said. "There will be responsible policies," he stated.

Security ties with the U.S. will be a key issue on Lieberman's agenda as soon as he takes office. During his first term as foreign minister, Lieberman was somewhat of an unwelcome person in Washington. He only visited the U.S. capital twice and his relations with then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton were cold.

Part of that mindset was his own doing, but there was also responsibility on the part of Clinton, who did not understand the advantage of establishing good relations with Lieberman, who at the time headed a party with 15 Knesset seats.

Lieberman's relations with the administration were better during his second term. John Kerry, who replaced Clinton as secretary of state, treated him with respect and Lieberman responded likewise. He did not hide his dissatisfaction with Netanyahu's treatment of the Obama administration in recent years, particularly as regards Netanyahu's involvement in American politics, his speech to Congress and his behavior over the Iran nuclear deal.

Martin Indyk, former U.S. envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, wrote on Twitter on Sunday that "Lieberman says reprehensible things but I remember that he supported SecState Kerry's peace efforts when Ya'alon was insulting him."

Senior American officials estimate that Lieberman's relations with U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter will be good and that the new defense minister will try to continue the approach he took in relations with the U.S. when he was working with Kerry.

One of the first issues on Lieberman's table will be the stalled negotiations with the U.S. over the defense aid package. In recent months, Netanyahu took over the issue, effectively excluding Ya'alon and the Defense Ministry, who had little to no influence on the matter. Top army brass and senior Defense Ministry official, concerned over the talks' stalemate, could use Lieberman and his political clout to push Netanyahu into finally sealing the deal with the White House.

Netanyahu told political reporters last month that "significant gaps remain" in the negotiations. "We are in the course of the process and I hope it will be concluded," Netanyahu said. "I have conducted several negotiations as finance minister. You have to have patience. I will be very happy if the agreement is achieved between President Obama and me, and I hope the gaps will be reduced to permit this to happen."

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.

In the course of the talks, the Americans have made two proposal: Under Washington's first proposal, 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 current 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 any such Israeli commitment but also offers less money. Under this proposal, America would increase its 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 noted that Netanyahu rejected the first proposal, since he didn't want to commit to not lobby Congress for a decade over issues pertaining to military aid. Netanyahu was displeased with the second proposal as well, which was significantly lower than his original aspirations. In recent months, Netanyahu said he was working for a deal that would give Israel $40-50 billion over the next ten years.

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