On U.S. Military Aid to Israel, Obama Should Tell Netanyahu: Take It or Leave It

Netanyahu's public bickering over U.S. defense assistance is embarrassing, and its timing is disastrous.

Obama and Netanyahu during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, March 3, 2014.
AP

Of the many cringe-worthy moments in Benjamin Netanyahu's seven years of disrespecting Barack Obama, the present one makes a self-respecting Israeli most feel like saying, "I don't know that guy. I absolutely did not come to the party with him."

Because now Netanyahu is telling the president, nearly in public, that the immense military aid package Obama is offering Israel isn't immense enough. Netanyahu is acting as if the recipient is doing the donor a favor by taking the gift. If Obama doesn't up the offer, well, then he'll wait for the next president.

The instant recap: Two years before the present 10-year military aid agreement runs out, the U.S. administration and the Israeli government are negotiating a new one. As reported here, the Obama team is offering an unprecedented package averaging $4 billion annually on condition that Netanyahu resist the urge to lobby Congress for more. If he wants to try his luck at Capitol Hill, the administration's opening offer is merely $3.7 billion a year.

Netanyahu's response? Since he doesn't get to join his GOP friends in stonewalling a Supreme Court nomination, he's threatening to stonewall an agreement on aid to his own country.

This negotiation is actually taking place at the wrong time - but not because Obama is in the final year of his term. For one thing, the picture that Netanyahu presents of Israel's degree of neediness is taken from a different period of history.

The era of major U.S. arms sales to Israel began, like so much else, in 1967. Before then, the instruction manuals for warplanes came in French; afterward, in American English. Beforehand, Israel had begun to get some American military aid. After the war, the pace started climbing.

There was a clear logic for the change in U.S. policy. During the crisis that led up to the Six-Day War, President Lyndon Johnson and his inner circle were concerned that Israel would not be able to hold its own against Arab armies. Johnson didn't want to see Israel destroyed, and neither did the American public. At the White House, there was real fear that America would need to send troops. And in 1967, American troops were already fighting, and dying, elsewhere.

The quick Israeli victory brought huge relief in Washington. As secret memos from the time show, it also brought a strategic conclusion: It would be cheaper, financially and politically, to keep Israel well enough armed that it could fight and win without direct American involvement.

The really big leap in U.S. military aid came during and after the next war. In 1973, Egypt and Syria showed not only that they were flush with Soviet weapons, but that they'd learned to fight. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and his two presidents saw the world in stark Cold War terms. After America wrote South Vietnam off as a bad investment, the fall of a second U.S. ally would be an appalling show of American weakness.

But Israel was in a poor position to pay for what it needed. The war itself cost Israel most of 1973's GDP. Afterward, Israel was spending a third of the annual GDP on defense. That was the context for out-sized American aid.

And today? The peace treaty with Egypt has survived repeated regime changes. Syria is a territory on the map, but no longer a state, not one that could wage war against a neighbor. Israel faces serious threats, but they don't include a conventional war with an Arab country. Meanwhile, the percentage of Israel’s GDP going to defense is in single figures.

Yes, there's Iran, if you ignore the nuclear agreement - which brings us to another failure in Netanyahu's timing.

A year ago, Netanyahu did have political leverage. He could have accepted that an Iran deal was likely, and quietly traded shutting up about it for more military aid. Instead, he railed against the agreement to the last minute. Now he wants the payoff he didn't get then.

Here's a thought experiment: Imagine that in his next phone call to Jerusalem, Obama said that America remains committed to Israel's qualitative military edge, and that Israel could buy the arms it wants - but with its own money.

It's hard to imagine that Netanyahu would make up the shortfall by raising taxes on the 0.1%, and even less conceivable that he'd cut settlement spending. But "buy it yourself" would set off a fierce and worthwhile domestic debate about which expensive weapons really are essential - for instance, how many F-35s Israel actually needs.

Given all this, the real question is about what Obama is doing, not about the shanda Netanyahu is causing. In a much milder version of the scenario above, why doesn't the president just tell Netanyahu, "Here's our evaluation of what you need. Take it or explain to your public why you left it."

It's not as if Obama is running for reelection, or even as if getting very slightly tough is likely to hurt the Democratic nominee for president in an election that will be about choosing between sanity and madness. It could be that Obama just doesn't want another Republican, this one from Jerusalem, to keep him from completing something he wants to get done.

And perhaps - impossible as this may seem to Netanyahu - the incumbent U.S. president is deeply pro-Israel, not just rationally but sentimentally, and generous to a fault.

Gershom Gorenberg is the author of "The Unmaking of Israel" and "The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977." Follow him on Twitter: @GershomG