Commentary Magazine


The F-35 and the Israel-Obama Relationship

Commenting on Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s decision last week to buy 20 American-made F-35 fighter jets, Elliot Jager of Jewish Ideas Daily said it “illuminates Israel’s continuing, vital, and enduring — albeit dependent — relationship with the United States.” That is undoubtedly true: Washington has been Israel’s principal arms supplier for over four decades, and those arms are crucial for the country’s defense.

Ironically, however, the purchase also illuminates the nadir to which the relationship has fallen under the current administration. Barack Obama’s aides have tried to divert attention from their boss’s efforts to put “daylight” between America and Israel by insisting that on the all-important issue of security, “President Obama has taken what was already a strong U.S.-Israel defense relationship, and broadened and deepened it across the board,” as Dan Shapiro of the National Security Council told the Anti-Defamation League in May.

But in reality, Washington has attached unprecedented restrictions to the F-35 sale — restrictions so severe that Israel’s defense establishment agonized for months over whether to sign the deal, and ultimately opted to buy only 20 planes instead of the 75 the Israel Air Force originally sought.

First, as Haaretz reported last month, the U.S. refused to supply a test aircraft as part of the deal for the first time in 40 years. From the Phantom in 1969 through the F-16I six years ago, every previous American sale of fighters to Israel has included an experimental aircraft that Israel can use to test new systems or weapons it is considering installing in order to upgrade the planes or adapt them to particular missions. Effectively, the paper said, this refusal means “upgrades will not be implemented during the plane’s service in the IAF.”

Second, Washington initially refused to let any Israeli systems be installed in the plane, and finally reluctantly agreed to what various Israeli reports described as “minor changes” or “a few” systems (though holding out the carrot that more might be allowed if Israel ultimately commissions more planes). This, too, is unprecedented. Previous deals have given Israel great latitude to have its own systems installed on American-made aircraft, and have also allowed other countries to install Israeli systems — with the result that “between 10 percent and 15 percent of every new F-16 made in America, for instance, consists of Israeli systems.”

The restrictions so incensed Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz that he has appealed the purchase to the cabinet. His ministry says they would deal “a major blow to Israel’s defense industry” and particularly “hurt development of new Israeli missile systems.” On an issue as militarily important as purchasing new fighters, Steinitz has no chance of prevailing against Barak. But for a senior minister to publicly challenge such a deal is itself unusual.

It’s a testament to the depth of Israel’s support both in Congress and among the American people that even a hostile president only dares impair the security relationship at the margins, where he can hope it won’t be noticed. But precisely because the F-35 restrictions will fly below most Americans’ radars, they’re a telling indication of where Obama’s heart really lies.