The US military aid deal to Israel: Is it great or could it have been better?

Last week a massive 10 year, $38 billion military aid package to Israel was agreed between the US Administration and Israel:

Israeli Acting National Security Advisor Jacob Nagel (L) and U.S. Undersecretary of State Tom Shannon (R) sign the military aid deal

WASHINGTON (JTA) – President Barack Obama’s near parting gift to Israel, a guarantee of $38 billion in defense assistance over a decade, distills into a single document what he’s been saying throughout eight fraught years: I have your back, but on my terms.

The agreement signed Wednesday in the State Department’s Treaty Room here increases assistance for Israel over the prior Memorandum of Understanding signed in 2007 under the George W. Bush administration and guaranteeing Israel $31 billion over 10 years.

But it also substantially shrinks the role Congress plays in a critical forum shaping U.S.-Israel relations, defense assistance, and in so doing diminishes the influence of the mainstream pro-Israel community, a sector that at times has been an irritant to Obama.

Wrapped into the $38 billion memorandum is $5 billion in missile defense funding, with clauses placing tough restrictions on Israel’s ability to ask for supplements from Congress.

Under Obama and Bush, that’s been an arena where the pro-Israel lobby has flexed its muscle over the last decade or so, consistently asking Congress for multiples of the missile defense appropriations requested by each president – and getting it.

“The MOU as it’s constructed seems to obviate the need for Congress’ traditional role in recent years,” said Jonathan Schanzer, the vice president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “What this means is that the relationship between Congress and Israel will have to evolve. Members of Congress feel they are being pushed out of a role that they relish.”

Democrats in Congress praised the deal unequivocally, but Republicans had caveats.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., the chairwoman of the U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee for the Middle East, led passage of a congressional resolution urging an extension of the defense assistance – coincidentally, just hours after the sides announced a deal was in the offing on Monday. Ros-Lehtinen said she intended to subject the agreement to congressional scrutiny.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee dispensing foreign aid, was infuriated by the arrangement.

“We can’t have the executive branch dictating what the legislative branch will do for a decade based on an agreement we are not a party to,” he told The Washington Post this week, and pledged to push more funds for Israel through Congress.

Jacob Nagel, the acting Israeli national security adviser who led talks ahead of the agreement, told reporters on Wednesday, before the formal signing, that the Israelis had asked Graham to back off.

“Senator Graham is one of the greatest supporters of Israel in Congress,” he said. “But everyone who spoke with him” on Israel’s team in the talks “said it was not a good idea – Israel is a country that honors its agreements.”

Indeed, written into the agreement is Israel’s pledge to return to the U.S. government any extra monies that Congress approves on top of the memorandum before it kicks in, October 2018. There is an exception for requests for emergency assistance in the event of “major conflicts,” and Nagel noted that the Obama administration has provided such additional assistance quickly.

There are other rollbacks in the deal demanded by Obama and his team, headed by Susan Rice, the national security adviser. Israel is currently the only country allowed to spend some of its defense assistance – up to 26 percent – on its own defense industries. That will be phased to zero by the end of the agreement, and all funding will be spent on U.S. suppliers and contractors.

The deal is being hailed and condemned in equal measure on both sides of the ocean. As mentioned above, Republican senators are pushing the Administration to expand the military aid deal to Israel:

Four Republican lawmakers in the United States said on Tuesday they would seek to overturn parts of a $38 billion military aid agreement with Israel, Reuters reported.

Senators Lindsey Graham, Kelly Ayotte, John McCain and Ted Cruz told a news conference they wanted to add a measure giving Israel an additional $1.5 billion in military aid to a bill expected later this year to renew U.S. sanctions on Iran.

Arguing that Congress, not the administration, sets spending policy under U.S. law, they objected to a provision in the agreement preventing Israel from asking for additional funds from Congress after the new Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), begins at the end of fiscal 2018.

The four senators also object to Israel’s agreement to return any money if Congress tries to send it more than $3.8 billion per year before then.

Graham told the news conference he would introduce legislation to overturn a provision in the agreement that phased out a special arrangement that has allowed Israel for decades to use 26.3 percent of the U.S. aid on its own defense industry instead of on U.S. weapons.

Graham has been at the forefront of the efforts to ensure Israel receives more funding. Reports last week indicated that he was responsible for the delay in signing the MOU concerning the security aid to Israel, due to the fact that he believed Israel deserved more funding.

After the agreement was signed last Wednesday, Graham opined that Israel made a mistake by signing a new $38 billion security agreement with the Obama administration, saying Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu could have gotten a better deal if he had waited until President Barack Obama left office.

The senators insisted that Netanyahu had been forced into signing because Iran is growing stronger as it obtains billions of dollars unfrozen under a nuclear agreement reached last year.

“Now is not the time to say that we’re going to nickel and dime Israel,” Graham said, according to Reuters.

Yaakov Amidror

Yaakov Amidror

In Israel too, as expected, there have been many kibbitzers on the side arguing that Israel could have gotten a better deal. Putting paid to those negative voices, the former National Security Advisor to Netanyahu, General Yaakov Amidror, says that the aid package reveals a wealth of friendship:

There were those in Israel who thought it wise to ask for even more, given the threats Israel faces, and to give Israel a better jumping off point for negotiations. Those familiar with the state of the US economy, and aware of the discord between the Democratic administration and the Republican Congress over the need to introduce cuts to the US budget, foresaw a huge decrease in aid. The realists, however, understood that the aid package would end up around these figures.

Washington never tried to “extort” anything from Israel, such as making Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu renounce his March 2015 speech warning Congress of the dangers of the nuclear deal with Iran.

… The value of the defense aid package extends beyond the unprecedented amount of money it guarantees. The entire budget for active defense, which is usually decided after discussions between the White House and Congress (which traditionally gives Israel more than the White House wants to sign off on), is now guaranteed for years.

As a result, there will be no need to renegotiate the aid package every year. Israel will not have to explain its defense requirements and get caught up in the perennial friction between the White House and Congress.

With such recurring clashes in mind, the administration asked Israel to pledge that it would not ask Congress for additional funds beyond the $3.8 billion. Israel agreed, although the deal leaves room for additional aid in the event that war breaks out.

Amidror relates to the one major flaw with the deal: the fact that Israel cannot use any of the money within Israel:

The Americans did request a fundamental change in the agreement. Up to now, about 24% of American defense aid was spent in Israel. Now, all the money the US gives Israel will go toward US defense companies. This represents a transfer of a total of about $800 million of the defense budget to the US instead of to Israel. This figure will come at the expense of Israeli defense companies, and will not be an easy transition.

Israel’s acting National Security Council head, Brig. Gen. (res.) Jacob Nagel, was responsible for the majority of negotiations over the past four years, and he succeeded in ensuring that the change will be gradual and will not come into effect immediately. If Israel’s defense industry makes a genuine effort to save money and prioritize, it can make the best of a difficult situation.

David Horovitz of the Times of Israel rebukes ungrateful Israel who owes the US  a simple thank you: (although the headline should rather read “ungrateful opposition MKs”).

Former PM Ehud Barak

Former PM Ehud Barak

Most of the complaining, it’s true, has not been directed at the Obama administration. Led by former prime minister Ehud Barak, it has, rather, been a case of utilizing the deal to score political points against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Barak (“believe me, I know what I’m talking about”) has been writing op-eds and giving interviews declaring that Israel could have secured billions more if only Netanyahu had handled the negotiations better — and specifically if Netanyahu had eschewed his anti-Obama lobbying speech in Congress in March 2015 against the Iran nuclear deal. Others, including disgruntled ex-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, and the Zionist Union’s failed candidate for defense minister Amos Yadlin, have also weighed in to say, albeit more politely, that the package is inadequate.

… Now, maybe Israel could have gotten a better deal, and maybe it really does need more US military assistance than will be forthcoming. (Extra funds can be sought, it should be noted, in times of conflict.) Maybe the P5+1’s effort to thwart Iran’s rogue nuclear program is so weak, hole-filled and dangerous that Israel’s defense challenges have indeed grown dramatically, or will do soon.

… Maybe Netanyahu could have negotiated some of the key clauses more effectively, rather than, say, agreeing to the condition that will gradually require Israel to spend all of that military aid inside the United States, rather than allowing a substantial proportion to be spent in Israel as has been the case to date. And maybe he need not have accepted the provision that will prevent Congress from securing or seeking to secure additional funding.

But the bottom line is that Israel, not notably naive under Netanyahu’s leadership, chose to agree to this deal. Israel, doubtless after a great deal of consideration and after many months of negotiation, opted not to hold out for the possibility of more, evidently concluding that the risk of better terms under a different president somewhere down the line was outweighed by the danger of worse ones. Nobody put a US-funded gun to our head.

I found the following interesting in a depressing kind of way: The blogger Abu Yehuda  weighs up the good and the bad and concludes that the deal is bad for both countries.

Yakov Nagel

Acting National Security Advisor Yakov Nagel

The Israeli official responsible for the deal, Acting National Security Adviser Yaakov (Jacob) Nagel himself blasted critics for their “detachment from reality”:

Israel’s acting national security adviser, who led the negotiations over the 10-year $38-billion military aid agreement signed last with with the US, hit back at domestic critics of the agreement on Saturday, calling the critics “detached from reality.”

In unusually strong language for the usually quiet official, Yaakov Nagel lashed out at “massive disinformation in the media from irresponsible critics, most of whom don’t know the negotiations process we’ve been through for the past three and a half years, or the details of the agreement.”

Nagel rejected the assertion that Iran deal fallout had hurt the negotiations, which he has led on the Israeli side since 2013.

“A large part of the talks” hammering out the deal were begun in 2013, during President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel that year, and so “were carried out before the Iran deal was even on the table.”

Amos Yadlin, the former head of IDF military intelligence and more recently a center-left Zionist Union candidate for defense minister, argued on Friday that Netanyahu could have pressed for additional funding had he not angered the White House with his March 2015 address to Congress.

But according to Nagel’s statement to the media late Saturday, these calculations are “detached from reality.”

The army’s current multi-year funding plan, called “Gideon” by military planners, assumes an annual contributed of $3.1 billion from the US, Nagel said, “so two of the years [covered by] the current plan” – likely a reference to fiscal years 2018 and 2019 – “will already see a boost of $400 million” to the budget the army expected to receive.

Nagel added: “The claim that we could have gotten $7 billion more [over ten years]…lacks all basis in fact and is unprofessional. The American defense budget has legal constraints and is being cut. The offer from certain quarters in Congress, who want to offer as much aid as they can to Israel, came to $3.4 billion in 2017 due to the constraints of the American [federal] budget,” less than the final figure agreed to in the agreement.

I’m not enough of a military or diplomatic expert to assess whether this deal is good or bad for Israel.  Abu Yehuda  weighs up the good and the bad and concludes that the deal is bad for both countries. Certainly in the short term it sounds good.  Politically it is excellent for Israel’s reputation. It puts paid to all the Jeremiads about Israel’s isolation and the dire warnings that Netanyahu’s fervent objections to the Iran deal will derail Israel’s relationship with the United States. This deal proves the precise opposite.

I’m dubious and concerned about the clause regarding Israel’s inability to spend at least some of the money within Israel. But maybe the Republican senators will be able to overturn or adjust some of these clauses.

I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see.

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11 Responses to The US military aid deal to Israel: Is it great or could it have been better?

  1. Elise Ronan says:

    Here’s my American two-cents: say thank-you. The money you are getting is hard earned by American taxpayers. As a nation the USA is 19 trillion dollars in debt, and we have alot of our own problems that that money could help. It being American taxpayer money it does not bother me that it all has to be spent to shore-up American industry. Israel is a wealthy, technological leading nation. Spend your own taxpayer money on your industries.

    I also wouldn’t put too much into what goes on in Washington, who says what and what bills are presented before Congress, especially during an election year. Not a one of them is truly honest. That being said, Congress does not have to follow what is in the agreement and any future President can ignore the agreement. Only Congress, according to the Constitution has the right to allocate monies. It is never up to the President. That being said, the MOU has no force and effect like a treaty. So in truth, the next President or Congress can make a deal that is better or actually worse for Israel.

    • anneinpt says:

      Elise, thank you for your comments from an American point of view. I agree with you that Israel should be thankful, and as you say, it is hard-earned US taxpayers’ money.

      On the other hand, we’re not getting it in one fell swoop. It’s to be granted over 10 years, making it only slightly larger than what we’ve been receiving till now. Which of course is not to be sneezed at, but the terms and conditions make a lot of Israelis nervous.

      It’s all well and easy to say Israel should use its own taxpayers’ money to develop its own arms industry, but:

      a) Israel has indeed a very well-developed military industry;
      b) Israel is a tiny country, and it only makes economic sense if these arms can be exported. In today’s world, who wants to buy Israeli arms?
      c) America has in the past stymied Israeli exports, forcing it to veto arms sales to India and China, which severely damaged Israel’s relations with both countries. Whether this was to protect the American arms industry or “to teach Israel a lesson” or make it dependent solely on America, is not clear. But this is a serious drawback.

      All these problems make Israelis leary of American aid, which often has too many strings attached. And as I said, it’s almost impossible for Israel NOT to accept American aid given these conditions.

      In other words, a golden cage. Read Abu Yehuda’s blog which I linked to at the end of the article.

      I also find it strange that both a future President and Congress can ignore this agreement. In which case, why can’t Israel? What is the point of an agreement if ti can be broken so easily?

      • Elise Ronan says:

        I understand the refusal to allow Israel to sell to China. I would assume it is everything you mentioned and one also important fact: when you sell arms to China you are giving them technology they could not produce on their own. The Chinese are famous for reverse engineering and would do that with your arms. I remember that the stated reason the sale was stopped was because some of the technology to build the weapons came from the US. The US does not want to take its edge away over the Chinese. Of course it angered the Chinese. The Chinese weren’t buying these weapons out of the goodness of their hearts. The sale of weapons to China have a major global impact. There are many considerations, the South China Sea issue to name only one. Unfortunately when we are talking international weapons sales, it is not necessarily a binary issue-meaning its not merely about the relationship between Israel and the US or Israel and China, but may have more to do with the relationship with the US and China where Israel simply got caught in the middle.

        Now what that portends for future sales of Israeli weapons to say countries like India. I do not know. I do know that Israel’s industry is very small in comparison to what we have here in the US, and it will hurt your industry if you can’t use American monies to buy Israeli made weapons. But on the other hand, this forces the Israeli government to make choices and I am pretty sure that there was a political reason for it. Ex: making Israel choose between funding settlements and using that same tax money to buy Israeli made weapons. I would say that the Obama administration probably took something like that into consideration, apart from deciding that American tax money should only be spent in the US. You really wont get too many Americans who will not back Obama on that one, including most in the pro-Israel community.

        Now as far as the MOU itself: 1. No Israel, not if it wants to retain its standing, cannot disavow the MOU. Not one American administration will ever sign another agreement with them. Is this fair? No it is not. Israel needs to keep its word when it comes to DC, even if some of her supporters tell her not to.
        2.Agreements are not treaties. It’s like the Iran Agreement. Any future administration does not have to abide by its provisions. Only treaties, according to the US constitution have lasting effect on future administrations. The next President can change the MOU. Now most probably would not, only using it as a benchmark, especially if the next US president is a democrat. But if they are a republican they could say, as Obama did with Bush’s MOU about settlements, throw it out and rewrite the rules. a future administration will wants to have its own foreign policy and not be bound by past administrations. The idea that for 10 years things will remain stable in the Middle East and that this agreement will be relevant is farcical at best.
        3. This is a Constitutional crisis in the making. According to the Constitution only Congress can allocate monies in a budget. The President has no funding power whatsoever. The WH can promise anything about monies that it wants to but it has to pass Congress. Congress can decide that it wants to give Israel, more money that what is in the MOU, and if that is the case, then the sitting President can say that the will break the MOU, or it can remind Israel that it can’t take all that money. This is a Constitutional issue and one that could cause quite the crisis in government if Congress wanted to push the issue. Whether a crisis will happen or not depends on the outcome of the election in November. But I would bet it is going to be a big issue. Israel will be the reason, but the issue is for the US, alot bigger than the money Israel gets. It’s about the functioning of our government and the importance of the Constitution. It is symbolic of the destruction of our republic if truth be told. for Americans who pride ourselves on our Constitutional republic: This. Is.Not.Good. at.All.
        4. I think that there are ways to circumvent the MOU if Israel needs more monies. Congress can probably allocate money directly to one of Israel’s industries,even naming the company or the program it wants to fund, not using the government in Jerusalem as a conduit to distribute the monies. Every agreement has its holes. The trick for Israel is to find the chinques in this one.
        5. Now why did Bibi sign this MOU? I think he saw it as a benchmark for future Presidents. I don’t think that Bibi is really worried about what a Clinton-Congress would allocate for Israel. I think he is worried about Trump. If Trump, who is seen as volatile and ignorant becomes President, there is no way to know what he would really do as far as monies for Israel. remember, even if you think of Trump as pro-Israel, he has based his entire campaign on not funding foreign policy. I think Bibi felt that this was the best he could do at the moment, considering what is going on here in the US with the election.So he had Israel sign the agreement.

        Anyway these are my two-cents as to the whys and wherefores of this MOU and why it actually is a looming Constitutional crisis for the US government.

      • Elise Ronan says:

        BTW I read Abu Yehuda. He makes a good case for not taking military aide from the US. I think that he is on the money as far as Israel is concerned. I also think it would help Israel’s relationship with the US populace as well. But here is my question: if you are concerned about not being able to spend US monies on Israeli companies how would turning down US aide help these Israeli companies? All this MOU does is force Israel to spend its own money on its own industries. Something Abu Yehuda says Israel should be doing anyway for its own independence.

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  4. Reality says:

    I too wish we could rely less on US aid especially when there may be many jobs lost asa result of Israel having to spend the money in America.

  5. Brian Goldfarb says:

    Any deal could ALWAYS be better for one party to it. The question has to be: what was the alternative? This is not to take sides: I have no idea whether the military/defence aid package is good, bad or indifferent. However, I am reminded of a comment by Pandit Nehru, the first PM of an independent India, who remarked that ‘when an enemy offers you his hand in friendship, take it both of yours. It gives him one less to hit you with!”

    This is not to suggest that the US is an enemy of Israel…but the deal can always be added to by a future President. Hopefully, it can’t be taken away.

    • anneinpt says:

      Thank you Brian for your always optimistic point of view. It’s certainly not a bad deal. It just makes me worried for Israel’s economy and military industry that none of that money can be spent in Israel.

  6. Pingback: Obama and Netanyahu at the UN GA: It could have been worse | Anne's Opinions

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