Why Doesn't Obama Use Military Aid Package to Israel as Leverage?

U.S. negotiators fight hard for American arms manufacturers - but not for a two-state solution.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes a statement on Middle East Peace talks as U.S. President Barack Obama looks on in the East Room of the White House in Washington September 1, 2010.
Jason Reed, Reuters

Country A believes that its ally, Country B, is pursuing policies that endanger both nations. Country A repeatedly asks Country B to change course. Country B refuses. Meanwhile, Country B asks Country A to send it a vast supply of weapons. Country A agrees. Then, after the agreement is signed, Country A asks Country B to change course again, this time in a particularly dramatic and high profile way.

Ask a diplomat to analyze the previous scenario and she will tell you that Country A’s behavior is absurd. Why give Country B what it wants unconditionally, thus forfeiting your leverage? Why ask for something after you’ve thrown away the bargaining chip that gives you a chance of actually getting it?

When it comes to American policy toward Israel, however, the absurd is normal. Most people in Washington simply take it for granted.

Over the past year, the Obama administration has warned that Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy of subsidizing Israeli Jews to move into West Bank settlements is bad for America and suicidal for Israel. In July, the State Department condemned the “steady acceleration of settlement activity that is systematically undermining the prospects for a two-state solution.” Last December, John Kerry warned that if the two state solution dies, Israel will not survive as a Jewish state.

Over roughly the same period, the Obama administration has negotiated the terms of a military aid package to Israel to replace the one that expires next October. Given that U.S. military aid accounts for twenty percent of Israel’s defense budget, Israel needs such a deal badly. At one point, Netanyahu seemed inclined to wait to finalize one until Obama left office. But given the real, albeit small, possibility that Americans could elect Donald Trump, an unpredictable candidate who exudes hostility to foreign aid, Israeli officials now appear eager to conclude the agreement this year.

The tradeoff seems obvious. America gives Israel the aid it desires. Israel does something to preserve the two state solution.

But there is no tradeoff. Instead, the Obama administration appears close to agreeing to a ten-year deal that boosts military aid to Israel to between $3.5 and $3.7 billion per year. The administration has reportedly insisted that Israel spend the money on American, rather than Israeli-made, arms. But on the question of settlements and a Palestinian state, America has asked nothing.

To the contrary, Obama is reportedly waiting until after the deal is signed to unveil an Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative at the United Nations. Only once he has proved his commitment to Israeli security, the logic goes, will Obama have the credibility to ask Israel to make concessions for peace.

This isn’t logic. It’s lunacy. There’s zero reason to believe that giving Israel a new military aid package will make Netanyahu curtail settlement growth or negotiate seriously toward a Palestinian state. Obama has already given Israel more military aid than any president in history. He’s dramatically boosted funding for Israeli missile defense, adding hundreds of millions of dollars per year to $3.1 billion that Congress allocates annually. Ehud Barak has already called Obama’s support for Israeli security “unprecedented.”

Yet despite this, Netanyahu has boosted settlement construction, retroactively legalized settlements that were illegal under Israeli law and publicly rejected the principle that the Palestinians should have a state near the 1967 lines, the principle that has undergirded every serious two state negotiation in the past. Netanyahu has also constructed a governing coalition dominated by ministers who oppose any Palestinian state at all. This is what seven and half years of “unprecedented” U.S. security assistance has brought.

In truth, Obama has given up. He long ago concluded that picking a fight with Netanyahu over Palestinian statehood would incur domestic political costs he didn’t want to pay. He’s now focused on his legacy. Reports suggest that he may sketch the future parameters for a two state deal. If such a deal ultimately comes to pass, he’ll then look like the visionary who helped lay out the intellectual foundation.

But the world doesn’t need new parameters. The ones Bill Clinton laid out sixteen years ago are just fine. Those parameters helped guide the former Israeli and Palestinian officials who negotiated the Geneva Agreement in 2003. They also structured talks between Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas in 2007 and 2008. The problem isn’t that America hasn’t laid out the terms of a potential deal. It’s that while Mahmoud Abbas has negotiated within those parameters (for detailed explanations of the concessions Abbas has offered on Jerusalem, refugees, settlements and the Jordan Valley, read Bernard Avishai and Ben Birnbaum), Netanyahu has publicly scorned them.

American policy toward Israel is a charade. U.S. Presidents know that actually using their leverage over Israel would spark a brutal fight with AIPAC and its allies. So they willingly abandon that leverage and then ask Israel to do the very things they’ve surrendered any chance of actually bringing about. Thus, America gets its plausible deniability; Obama can still say he opposes settlements. Israel gets to keep building them. Both sides win.

If I had Barack Obama’s ear, I’d make this plea: Do nothing. Don’t make any grand statements about the two state solution. Don’t sign the military deal. Leave it to your successor. Almost certainly, he or she will decide to continue the masquerade. But at least it will be their farce, not yours.