American Military Aid to Israel Can't Be a Blank Check

Netanyahu may be convinced Israel will forever live by the sword, but that doesn’t mean that Washington must pay for it.

Reuters

A cardinal issue that should be on the bilateral security agenda for Monday's White House meeting between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu is the extent to which Washington is willing to bankroll the long-term costs of Israeli hopelessness.

If we are to take the Israeli prime minister at his word, Israel is forever destined to live by the sword.

Not with the sword, as Benny Gantz, the more nuanced and still hopeful former Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff has said.

Not a firmly sheathed, deterrent sword, which must be continuously sharpened and ready for use should deterrence fail.

No.

Netanyahu discounts hope for an Israeli future other than war, and insists that Palestinian hope, too, must be abandoned.

“Security is the basis for peace. We need to revoke the hope of the Palestinians, and of our enemies, that one day they will bring us to surrender by force of the sword If we forsake our sword, their sword will consume us. Only when they understand they cannot bring this to pass, will we be able to return our sword to its sheath,” Netanyahu told a special Knesset session marking the 20-year anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

In other words, actions by Palestinians or other enemies of the state that do not conform to his government’s sense of security – as opposed to professional assessments by Israel’s security establishment – must be fought with force and more force.

Only then – which Netanyahu concludes will be never - can the Israeli sword be returned to its sheath.

Washington must take this as a strategic declaration, and respond accordingly.

The White House cannot force Netanyahu’s intransigent, two state-denying government into acting in ways aimed at realizing the states of Israel and Palestine living side by side in security and peace. Certainly not in election season, given the partisan issue it has become with the equally intransigent, Republican-led Congress.

But it should take Israel’s declaration of never-ending war into account when assessing its commitment to preserve Israel’s so-called Qualitative Military Edge (QME) and enhance the long-term security needs of its number one regional partner.

After a protracted and self-injurious pause in high-level talks on a new ten-year military aid package, Netanyahu is now ready to consider Obama’s outstretched hand, not only with respect to the very real threats that were not addressed in the nuclear deal with Iran, but to risks of failing states and to the arms buildup of so-called moderate Sunni states.

Israel’s $30 billion Foreign Military Financing (FMF) package – an outgrowth of the routinized grant aid put in place with the Camp David peace with Egypt - expires in 2017. Under the existing agreement signed by then-President George W. Bush, FMF to Israel grew from $2.4 billion to $3.1 billion in recent years.

Under the follow-on package – endorsed by Obama during his March 2013 visit here – Israel is eyeing an annual topline of much more than $4 billion.

And that doesn’t include more than $1.2 billion in war stocks prepositioned here and available for Israel’s use in times of emergency and some $500 million in annual U.S. funding for cooperative anti-rocket and missile defense programs, such as Iron Dome, Arrow and David’s Sling.

As the bedrock of democratic, pro-American stability in a region roiling from unprecedented turmoil, the so-called unbreakable, unshakable bonds that bind Israel to the United States must endure. Israel is truly deserving of another decade of continued U.S. security assistance, preferential technology transfers and joint development programs.

But any package beyond the FMF aid levels that Israel has received thus far – assistance that has allowed Israel to maintain its status as a regional superpower capable of defending itself against any combination of enemies – must come with strings attached.

Washington’s legislatively mandated commitment to preserve Israel’s QME does not mandate a blank check for abandoning hope and giving in to the convenient forces of fear.

On the contrary, as former U.S. President Bill Clinton reminded us recently in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, the role of the United States “is to provide whatever help necessary to ensure Israel’s security, maximizing the benefits of peace and minimizing the risks.”

If Netanyahu is convinced that Israel must forever live by the sword and spend in perpetuity a greater percentage of gross domestic product on defense (more than six percent) than any other nation in the industrialized world, he and his government should make up the difference.

Only if or when Israel chooses a different path – of vectoring its unrivalled regional strength toward a trajectory of peace – should this White House or the one to come be willing to sit down and truly talk compensation.

Barbara Opall-Rome is Israel bureau chief for Defense News, a Washington-based international weekly specializing in the business and politics of defense. Follow her on Twitter: @opallrome