Netanyahu Likely to Accept U.S. Defense Aid Conditions as Talks Enter Final Round

After accepting terms, U.S. defense aid over the next decade could rise from the current proposal of $37 billion to $40 billion.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands during their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, Washington November 9, 2015.
Kevin Lamarque, Reuters

Acting National Security Adviser Jacob Nagel is expected to take part in a decisive round of talks in Washington this week on a military aid deal with the United States. Haaretz has learned that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is leaning toward giving in on a good many of his demands and accepting most of the American terms. These include a gradual phasing out of Israel’s spending of one-fourth of the American aid on purchases from Israeli defense contractors.

A senior official in Washington who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the matter said that Nagel is expected to meet at the White House with U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice immediately on the latter’s return from China toward the end of the week. Rice has been coordinating the talks with Israel on the aid deal together with Yael Lempert, who heads the White House’s Israel desk.

Negotiations between the United States and Israel on the aid package for the coming decade began in November. After a few rounds the talks ran aground in May. The Americans made clear that their offer was final and it was up to Israel whether to sign while President Barack Obama is still in office or wait for the next president to take office in January 2017.

Nagel has held videoconferences with Rice and Lempert over the past few weeks to try resolve the remaining disagreements and the meeting at the White House is apparently to finalize the details. Last Monday Netanyahu told the Knesset he hoped the deal would be completed within a few weeks. That day Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman told a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that he believed the deal would be clinched by Rosh Hashanah, which falls on October 2 this year.

Netanyahu is not happy with the U.S. proposal both in terms of the amount and the conditions the administration is imposing. However, he has decided to seal the deal while Obama is still in office and is leaning toward waiving most of his demands.

After accepting those terms, U.S. defense aid over the next decade could rise from the current proposal of $37 billion to $40 billion.

According to senior officials in Jerusalem, Netanyahu has agreed to the American demand to change the agreement Israel signed with the United States in the 1980s, which allowed the Defense Ministry and the army to spend nearly 40 percent of the annual U.S. aid on off-shore procurement, that is, purchases in Israel, as well as fuel purchases. The Americans said the current arrangement no longer serves the interests of both countries and is an ineffective way to use the funding.

According to the agreement Israel and the United States signed in 2007, which will expire in 2018, Israel receives military aid of about $3 billion a year on the average. Israel can spend 26 percent of this sum, or about $800 million a year, on purchases in shekels from Israeli defense industries. Moreover, according to senior U.S. officials, Israel spent about 13 percent of the annual American aid over the past few years, or about $400 million, to purchase fuel for the Israel Defense Forces, particularly airplane fuel. Israel is the only country in the world that is permitted to use American aid for these two needs.

Despite pressure by Israeli security industries and Netanyahu’s own opposition, he has had to back down on it and is making do with a gradual reduction of the use of the aid in Israel. One of the issues Nagel is expected to close in Washington is the length of the period until the arrangement stops entirely. Israel wants it to wind down over 10 years, while the Americans want it to cease after seven or eight years.

Another contentious issue over which Netanyahu seems ready to give in is the funding of Israel’s missile defense system. Until now, Israel applies annually to the administration and to Congress for funding to develop systems such as Iron Dome. Every year negotiations take place with the White House and with Congress that conclude with an agreed-on sum to give to Israel for missile defense. The United States now wants to include this aid in the basic aid budget. In return, the administration wants Israel to agree to forgo its separate channel to Congress for the purpose of increasing aid to its missile program.