Money will buy Israel weapons but not security

Yossi Mekelberg

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If proof was required that personal antipathies are secondary to political interests in the world of diplomacy, it was amply provided in the meeting on Monday between U.S. President Barak Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It is hard to imagine a more awkward meeting in the history of relations between the two countries.

Obama could afford to be magnanimous in victory, and Netanyahu was forced to eat humble pie. After all, despite numerous blatant efforts by Israel to interfere in U.S. domestic politics, in its attempts to derail the nuclear deal with Iran, Obama prevailed.

Netanyahu cannot risk a deeper rupture with the United States, and in his typical insolence is requesting - almost demanding - that Israel be compensated for the risks derived, according to him, from the nuclear deal.

The U.S. administration takes a long strategic view of relations with Israel. It is resisting temptation to punish Israel for its intransigence, and for exploiting - even aggravating - rifts between Congress and Obama. Yet Washington seems reluctant to concede to all of Israel’s economic and military demands.

Israeli long-term security relies mainly on military might, with little room for diplomacy.

Yossi Mekelberg

Iran nuclear deal

It was widely reported that Netanyahu arrived in Washington with a large shopping list that would have increased annual defense aid from $3 billion to $5 billion over the next decade. The Israeli argument is that an Iran free of sanctions will direct much of its increased revenues toward military expenditure, posing an ever-greater threat to Israel.

The assumption among decision-makers in Jerusalem is that Iran only agreed to the nuclear deal for tactical reasons. The agreement will ease sanctions and avert a military attack on its nuclear installations; both eventualities might have compromised the stability of the regime. Common wisdom among Israeli politicians and strategists is that Iran is cheating its way to obtaining a nuclear bomb.

Even the less pessimistic among them see the deal at best as no more than a 15-year hiatus for Iran to gain regional hegemony and eventually nuclear military capability. Under no circumstances are Israeli decision-makers capable of envisaging a political change in Tehran that would lead to it being less threatening.

Israel’s request for a substantial increase in military aid is as much about quality as quantity. The request apparently includes V-22 Osprey aircraft-helicopters, refuelling aircraft, and F-15SE stealth fighter jets, beyond the F-35 squadrons the Americans have already promised. This is an addition to a separate U.S. budget that funds the development of rocket and anti-ballistic missile defense systems.

Regional instability

Amid regional instability, it is not shocking that Israel would like to maintain its technological superiority in order to deal with any eventuality. However, it reflects a collective psyche in which Israeli long-term security relies mainly on military might, with little room for diplomacy.

The United States consequently faces an arduous dilemma. Netanyahu and his advisors, who were viciously critical of the Obama administration and particularly the president, are banking Israeli security on their support. Despite the unwarranted Israeli questioning of Obama’s commitment to the wellbeing of the Jewish state, he kept pursuing a policy not that different from his predecessors in his support of Israel.

He justifiably, for the most part, has been more critical in public of Israel’s policies toward the occupied Palestinian territories and Iran. However, granting Netanyahu his wish to arm Israel to the teeth would reward behavior that harms U.S. interests in the region and makes him even more inflexible, especially vis-à-vis the Palestinians.

On the other hand, in the troubled Middle East, a stable and powerful Israel is an asset to U.S. interests in the region. The almost impossible task for any American president is to keep Israel powerful enough to stay safe, but not intransigent so as to adversely affect U.S. interests. On the Iranian and Palestinian issues, Netanyahu’s government proved to be more an obstacle for Washington than an ally or an asset.

U.S. domestic politics

Add to this a domestic scene in the United States, especially during an election year, which requires any administration to overtly express in words and deeds its support for Israel. This leaves Obama with very limited room to manoeuvre in his policy toward Israel during his last year in office.

The meeting between Obama and Netanyahu was probably personally uncomfortable for both of them. Nevertheless, it represented a recognition on both sides that in the year or so left for Obama in the White House, their national and political interests demand some level of collaboration and civility.

Israel is very unlikely to see its entire arms shopping list approved, even if the triangle of the U.S. Congress, arms industry and Israeli lobby push for it very hard. Nevertheless, Obama has as good as abandoned his earlier years’ aspiration to go down in history as peace broker between the Israelis and Palestinians.

If this is the case, he would rather leave office not being perceived as someone who compromised Israeli security, or jeopardized the chances of a third consecutive Democratic term in the White House. Unfortunately, the immediate victims of this decision are Palestinian statehood and peace.

Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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