Israel Values U.S. Military Aid but Does Well on Its Own Steam, Too

Moshe Arens
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Israeli Merkava tanks near the Gaza border, August 5, 2014.Credit: AFP
Moshe Arens

A number of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s critics claim they could have obtained a better deal in the negotiations for the U.S. military aid package; it’s like in that Irving Berlin song: “Anything you can do I can do better.” There’s a lot of hype in these claims, but the subject of U.S. military aid to Israel is still worth discussing.

After the Yom Kippur War, when the Israel Defense Forces had to be rebuilt and rearmed, U.S. military aid to Israel equaled 20 percent of Israel’s gross domestic product and covered about half the Israeli defense budget. Most of the equipment the IDF acquired came from the United States.

The quality edge, so essential to Israel, was provided by American arms that were superior to the Soviet arms in the hands of Israel’s enemies. This was assistance that Israel needed for its survival, both from an economic and a military point of view.

Much has changed in the past 42 years. Israel has prospered, and in most areas, with the exception of fighter aircraft, the IDF’s quality edge in weaponry is the product of Israeli research and development. At the present time, Israel’s GDP is well over $300 billion, and U.S. military assistance equals about 1.5 percent of Israel’s GDP and covers a little over 20 percent of Israel’s defense budget.

U.S. aid is much appreciated, but at this stage it’s not essential to Israel’s survival. If an economic crisis in the United States led to a cancellation of this aid, Israel would have to, and could, survive without it. It’s economically possible to cover the entire defense budget from Israeli resources, but this of course would require cuts in the budgets of other sectors. A change in the U.S. aid package deleting the money Israel is allowed to spend in the Israeli defense industry would hurt most in the near term.

Actually, the major downturn in U.S.-Israeli military relations came with the cancellation of the Lavi fighter aircraft in 1987. The Lavi project reflected U.S. consent that a substantial part of U.S. military aid could be applied to procurement in Israel, rather than being restricted to procurement in the United States.

But conveniently forgotten by many, the Lavi was an Israeli-American project in which American aerospace companies were major participants. This was part of a breakthrough in U.S. policy that permitted American defense contractors to participate in the project and allowed free transfer of U.S. technology.

A Lavi fighter aircraft prototype. Credit: Courtesy of IAI

Pratt & Whitney provided an engine developed specifically for the Lavi. Grumman built the wings and tail. Lear Siegler provided the fly-by-wire computer, and Hughes Aircraft the head-up display. All were permitted to sign license agreements with Israeli companies for subsequent production in Israel.

That kind of technological cooperation between Israel and the United States, which would have been a precursor to future cooperation, ended with the cancellation of the Lavi. This cooperation has not been seen since and may very well not be seen again. It was a major victim of the Lavi cancellation.

It’s interesting that among the critics of Netanyahu’s negotiating of the U.S. military aid package, some were the most vocal critics of the Lavi project and contributed to its cancellation. They bear the responsibility for the subsequent dramatic downturn in U.S.-Israeli technological cooperation and the air force’s current total dependence on U.S. fighter aircraft.

Opposition to the development of Israeli weapons systems wasn’t limited to the Lavi; it included opposition to an Israeli observation satellite and the Arrow ballistic-missile interceptor. This was pure technological ignorance combined with an underestimation of Israel’s technological capabilities. Hopefully that’s now gone forever.

Whatever the final form and shape of the U.S. military aid package for Israel, it will be greatly appreciated in Israel. We may be able to get along without it, but we sure like to receive it.