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$38 bln can buy lots of weapons, but can it ensure security?

It is almost possible to ignore that the deal has come when US-Israel relations are at one of their lowest ebbs

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

For a moment during the celebratory ceremony in which and the United States and Israel signed a new Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to provide Israel with $38 billion in American aid for a further 10 years, it was almost possible to ignore that the relations between the administrations in Washington and Jerusalem are at one of their lowest ebbs. The low key ceremony was a good indication of the lackluster Obama-Netanyahu relations. It prompted many expressions of bewilderment as to why an American administration in its dying days felt the need to sign such a deal with an Israeli government that it holds responsible for attempting to spoil the Iran nuclear deal, playing a major part in derailing the peace process with the Palestinians and generally interfering in American domestic politics.

Negotiations for this deal were prickly to say the least, as both sides were unsure whether this was the most favourable timing or best terms that could be concluded in the current circumstances. Israel was requesting $45 billion for the ten year (2019-2028) duration of this deal, a major increase from the current military aid it receives of $3.1 billion. Signing now indicates that the Netanyahu government was far from convinced that the next occupant of the White House will be more susceptive to Israeli demands. Despite the various accusations against President Obama by elements close to Netanyahu, as not being supportive of Israel, it becomes obvious that Israel would prefer not to wait on the election of either the extremely unpredictable Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, who may prove to be a way tougher negotiator.

President Obama was presented with a tough dilemma of ensuring what his administration perceives as the long-term military needs of a close ally, without rewarding and strengthening a government and its policies that are seen as both damaging to US as much as Israeli interests. Obviously there is no easy formula to resolve the two and the US opted to separate between the two, but are they separable?

In Obama’s words this agreement, which is unprecedented in its generosity, would “make a significant contribution to Israel’s security in what remains a dangerous neighborhood.” However, he hastened to add that because of this very commitment to Israel and its long-term security, “we will also continue to press for a two-state solution to the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict, despite the deeply troubling trends on the ground that undermine this goal.” His critics would argue that the commitment to Israeli security in terms of providing it with the most sophisticated weapons is never questionable, however, US investment in reaching a peace agreement, based on a two-state solution that provides security to both Israelis and Palestinians, is always more hesitant.

Improved deal

The Israeli prime minister and his advisors made a concerted effort to portray the new deal as a great improvement over the previous one. The accurate math of the agreement indicates that, at best, Israel gained an extra $200 million a year. For a number of years Congress supplemented the military aid with a further $500 million for the development of missile defence. In addition, the Israeli government accompanied the MOU with a signed letter pledging to give back any additional money that Congress appropriates, which nullifies any Israeli efforts to circumvent a future administration by appealing for more funds through the American legislative branch.

Obama has firsthand, and bitter, experience on how the Israeli government operates on Capitol Hill, very effectively playing Congress against the president in advancing its own interests

Yossi Mekelberg

Obama has firsthand, and bitter, experience on how the Israeli government operates on Capitol Hill, very effectively playing Congress against the president in advancing its own interests. In extracting this promise from Israel, he did a big favor to next president in reducing Israel’s room to maneuver, at least on the military aid front. However, the biggest concession that Israel was made to agree to was a phasing out of a special long-standing arrangement that permitted Israel to use just above 26 percent of the American aid on its own defence industry, instead of purchasing American-made weapons.

This is a considerable hit to the Israeli arms industry and may affect its role in the Israeli economy and its technological edge. Still, the level of aid guarantees that the Israeli air, sea and ground forces will maintain the country’s superiority against any threat, including the one potentially posed by Iran, which Israeli strategists presently see as the most likely one.

Prime Minister Netanyahu was criticized for signing the MoU both in Israel and in the United States. His critics in Israel, including his former Defence Minister Ehud Barak, say that had he been more level-headed in his dealings with Obama, Israel might have ended with the initially requested figure of $45 billion. In Congress, Senator Lyndsey Graham, who oversees the US foreign aid budget, suggested that basically Netanyahu lost his nerve and should have waited until there is a new American administration in place. Graham told Jewish American leaders that Netanyahu “pulled the rug out” from under Israel’s friends in Congress. Both, Barak and Graham, even if they have their own political agenda, may be correct in their observations.

A further question which is bound to be asked is why Obama did not take the opportunity to also press forward with a new peace initiative. This is would have made the US’ ambition to be regarded as an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a bit more credible. Even those who care mainly for the long term well-being of Israel in the region must realize that with the current situation in the MENA region, and definitely in its relations with the Palestinians, the most sophisticated weapons can only provide a partial answer. It even carries the danger of reinforcing the militaristic discourse instead of one that combines military strength with readiness to make the necessary concessions for peace with the Palestinians and consequently with large parts of the region.
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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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