Military aid, but at what price?
A recent letter signed by 83 US senators willing to support a long-term agreement that would greatly increase the military aid Israel receives is an important development, as it is a bipartisan initiative that reflects the Senate’s broad support of Israel. And yet, the letter also brought to the fore the disparities between the two nations. To understand this issue, it is important to note that these differences aren’t focused on numbers and accounting, but rather on strategic opinions regarding threats from the Middle East, on worldviews and on the appraisals and stances of both countries. The eight main differences between them are listed below.
1. A difference in strategic opinions: According to Israel, the agreement with Iran endangers its security, and therefore the US, which had been the driving force behind the agreement, should help Israel with the resulting threats. The Obama administration, on the other hand, sees the agreement with Iran as a strategic accomplishment that will decrease the nuclear threat to Israel.
2. A difference in ideology: The current US administration sees the peace process as the best support it could give to Israel’s security, while Israel foresees considerable security risks that will arise as a direct result of a future peace agreement (as Oslo and Gaza loom in the background). The Israeli government also has its doubts regarding the values and interests that comprised the bedrock for the generous assistance Israel had received from the US in previous years.
3. A difference in expectations: Israel had expected a minimum increase of $1 billion a year for aid alone, while the proposal views $3.7 billion as a 20% increase in total. The fact that this budget is also expected to be used for protection against missile and rocket threats makes the overall increase relatively minute. As part of the agreement, the US administration is asking that Israel agree to refrain from asking Congress for any additional budget increases. Israel views its right to ask Congress to reevaluate the aid it provides as unalienable.
4. A difference in understanding the United States’ budgetary limits: The administration points to the Pentagon’s budget cuts and the difficulty in providing security aid to additional allies. (Israel receives more than half of America’s foreign aid.) Israel, contrarily, points to its extraordinary support in Congress and the security benefits to the US that came as a result of its support.
5. A difference in assessing the next administration’s policy: The Obama administration points to the difficulties that the next administration, be it Republican or Democrat, will face in increasing aid to Israel, and points to Trump’s statements that countries receiving military aid from the US will have to pay for it, amongst others.
Many in Israel assess that nearly any future administration will change Obama’s passive stance on the Middle East and will see strengthening Israel as an inseparable part of this strategy.
6. A difference in the internal composition of the package: Since the cancellation of the Lavi plane project in the 80s, Israel has been allowed to convert a quarter of the dollar amount into shekels for purchases for the affected Israeli security industries. The administration supports cancelling this arrangement in the aid package, even if only gradually. This is a serious blow to local defense industries and a burden of three billion shekels on the defense budget.
7. The linkage to the Palestinian issue and the president’s legacy: Netanyahu is worried that, if Obama has the chance to prove yet again his unwavering support of Israel’s security via the agreement, it will make it easier for the administration to act in the Palestinian arena, even on issues that have not been agreed on with Israel.
8. A difference in personal trust: The relations between Obama and Netanyahu suffer from a lack of basic trust that has developed over the years and reached its peak at the conflict between them after the nuclear deal with Iran. The lack of trust makes it difficult for the leaders to hold a summit where they would announce the main issues of the security aid.
The Israeli government took a confrontational approach in the summer of 2015 to the US administration and turned a cold shoulder to American offers to provide a comprehensive security response to the risks arising from the deal with Iran. The refusal to discuss the subject of compensation to Israel with the secretary of defense before the agreement’s approval and the vote thereon, as well as the defiant speech to Congress, strongly weakened Israel’s position. Israel finds itself in a one-dimensional dialogue on aid and not in an inclusive discussion on the variety of issues important to its security, and this is now across from an offended administration that is more inflexible in its positions.
I would recommend renewing the negotiations with the Americans on comprehensive agreements on security issues, starting with a long-term response to the Iranian threat, maintaining Israel’s qualitative edge, and upgrading Israel’s technological and intelligence permissions level.
In addition, a security agreement is required that will increase the aid to Israel in a real and not symbolic way, not harm the defense industries and maintain Israel’s right to request additional aid from the next administration and from Congress if the pessimist predictions come true about the strengthening of Iran, ISIS or another negative development in the area.
Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin is the executive director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).