For the past year, the Israeli government has been conducting talks with the Obama administration for a renewal of a defense aid package that expires in 2018. At stake is a new 10-year agreement that friends of Israel hope will help solidify its qualitative military advantage over its adversaries. Upgrading those capabilities in the wake of the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal has become a priority for both countries, albeit for different reasons. But the assumption on the part of many observers was that the stalemate in the talks was based on a calculation by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that his country would be better off waiting until January and President Obama’s retirement rather than signing a deal now. Given the more than seven years of fights and hostility to Israel on the administration’s part, the thinking was that the election of either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump would likely enable Jerusalem to get a better deal than the one being offered by Obama.
But instead of digging in their heels and waiting for a new president, it appears that Netanyahu meant what he said when he indicated he wanted an agreement sooner rather than later. The news from Israel today is that Netanyahu is sending the acting head of the Jewish state’s National Security Council to Washington to finalize a deal.
Why is Netanyahu acting now when the conventional wisdom is that he could do better with either Clinton or Trump?
A report published in the New York Times earlier this month revealed that the current U.S. offer could top $40 billion over ten years. That’s a substantial increase from the current understanding, which is in the neighborhood of $30 billion. The Israelis believe the Iran deal has increased the threat level to the point that they need even more than what the Americans are offering. More important than that is a disagreement on how the aid may be spent.
What is not generally known about the billions Israel gets in military assistance is that most of it is spent in the United States. In that sense, aiding Israel is also a boon to U.S. defense contractors. But the Israelis have also been permitted to spend approximately 25 percent of it in Israel and another 13 percent on the cost of buying fuel. This has enabled the growth of Israel’s homegrown defense industries that have, in addition to making the Jewish state more self-sufficient, also given it the ability to help perfect U.S. military systems in ways that enormously benefit America’s defense capabilities.
But along with the extra cash, the administration has been seeking to force Jerusalem to spend all of it here in the United States. Given Obama’s willingness of to cut off ammunition resupply during the 2014 Gaza war with Hamas, that could potentially limit Israel’s freedom of action to defend itself. Since Obama has always seemed to view aid as primarily useful as a method to restrain Israel rather than to empower it, the Israelis are right to worry about this provision.
But whatever the misgivings on both sides of these talks, the signs of movement are unmistakable. Why?
The first possible reason is that the administration may be showing new urgency because of an ulterior motive. Obama may use the fall session of the United Nations General Assembly to support a Palestinian push for recognition of their statehood without first requiring them to make peace with Israel. That would be a stunning betrayal of Israel that would presumably occur after the November election so as to mitigate any impact on Hillary Clinton’s chances. But if that is what the president intends, he may be thinking that having just concluded a massive aid deal will insulate him against criticism.
Why then would the Israelis give him that kind of cover? The answer may be that getting a good aid deal in hand may outweigh other considerations, especially since it isn’t likely that Netanyahu can do anything to win Obama over.
But there is another factor that may be impelling the Israelis to act now. But Israelis must also be concerned that even if a new administration provides a chance for a fresh start between the two governments, there will be other factors that may make it harder to conclude a favorable aid agreement.
A Clinton administration will be heavily indebted to Bernie Sanders and his left-wing supporters who are, if anything, more hostile to Israel than Obama. Her freedom of action when it comes to military aid may be a good deal less than some of her ardent Jewish supporters think.
Just as if not more problematic would be a Trump administration’s attitude toward aid. While Trump is quick to proclaim his friendship for Israel, he is hostile to foreign aid in principle. His isolationist policies will not only make Israel’s strategic position more rather than less perilous, he has made it clear that he expects allies to pay for the privilege of being tied to the U.S. His “America First” mantra would also seem to militate against any flexibility about letting Israel support its own industry that some American firms see as a competitor. Rather than being more likely to be generous, Netanyahu has every reason to think Trump will be even less forthcoming than Obama.
Thus, for all of the backbiting that has gone on between Obama and Netanyahu, the latter may have decided that the smart play is to get the best deal possible now rather than gambling on the whims of the mercurial Trump or a Clinton who called herself the “designated yeller” at Israel during her time as secretary of state. 2017 may be a bad time for Israel to be asking for more help. The prime minister may well be thinking the devil he knows may be a better bet for a vital aid package than the uncertainties associated with Obama’s successors.