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