Commentary Magazine


Topic: U.S. aid to Israel

Should Israel Take Obama’s Iran Payoff?

For months, President Obama has been trying to find a way to silence Israeli objections to a nuclear deal with Iran. Up until now, Prime Minister Netanyahu has been adamant in his opposition to what he and many Americans feel is an effort to appease the Islamist regime that will have catastrophic consequences for the security of both the United States and Israel. But, if reports are correct, the Israeli government is preparing to make the best of an awful situation by accepting a massive military assistance package from the U.S. in exchange for what an unnamed senior administration official describes as “some quiet from the Israelis.” While it can be argued that expediency demands that Netanyahu seek to get what help from the Americans that he can, with the outcome of the nuclear negotiations still hanging in the balance, this isn’t the moment for the Israelis to go into the tank for Obama on Iran.

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For months, President Obama has been trying to find a way to silence Israeli objections to a nuclear deal with Iran. Up until now, Prime Minister Netanyahu has been adamant in his opposition to what he and many Americans feel is an effort to appease the Islamist regime that will have catastrophic consequences for the security of both the United States and Israel. But, if reports are correct, the Israeli government is preparing to make the best of an awful situation by accepting a massive military assistance package from the U.S. in exchange for what an unnamed senior administration official describes as “some quiet from the Israelis.” While it can be argued that expediency demands that Netanyahu seek to get what help from the Americans that he can, with the outcome of the nuclear negotiations still hanging in the balance, this isn’t the moment for the Israelis to go into the tank for Obama on Iran.

As the Israeli press is reporting, the Americans are prepared to pay what the administration official called, “a hefty price” for Israel’s silence in the upcoming months as a nuclear agreement is debated in Congress. That price will supposedly include up to 50 advanced F-35 fighter jets and anti-missile batteries. Given the importance of maintaining Israel’s qualitative edge over potential Arab and Iranian foes, it’s a tempting offer. Especially alluring for the Israelis is the prospect of more Iron Dome batteries as well as funding for more short-range David’s Sling batteries and the long-range Arrow-3 missile defense.

If, as seems likely, there is nothing Israel can do to prevent the U.S. from appeasing Iran and signing a weak deal that may not even guarantee rigorous inspections, then perhaps the only rational alternative is to accept a bribe from the administration for their silence. The same reasoning led some Arab countries to attend a summit here last week which, though boycotted by the kings of both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, resulted in a U.S. promise about selling them more advanced military hardware. Even if it was accompanied by a weak guarantee of their security that impressed no one, let alone Iranians, the Arabs were not so proud that they turned down U.S. assistance.

Moreover, it can be argued that if Israel doesn’t accept Obama’s bribe now, the offer may be off the table once the nuclear agreement is a done deal. The U.S. has been openly threatening to abandon Israel at the United Nations once the nuclear deal is put to bed. It’s not likely that they’ll be as forthcoming in the next year and a half. Given the ongoing threat of another war with Hezbollah or Hamas, anything that can help augment the Jewish state’s anti-missile defense arsenal is vital.

But even though the outcome of the Iran talks seems like a foreordained conclusion now, Netanyahu would be foolish to throw in the towel on the nuclear question. There are four key reasons why this is so.

The first is that no matter how much of a done deal the Iran negotiations seem, there is still no guarantee that the Iranians won’t ultimately pull out of them. Given the sweet deal that Obama has given them that would make no sense. The president hopes to create a new entente with Tehran but predicting Iran’s behavior is never easy. It is always possible that the Iranians will torpedo the talks in the hopes of getting an even sweeter offer from an administration that is desperate for detente with the Islamist regime. Until proven otherwise, the Israelis should not do anything that would be seen as a seal of approval for even more far-reaching Western concessions.

Second, though the process by which Congress will vote on a potential deal with Iran is geared towards guaranteeing its passage, there is still a sliver of hope that opponents of a dangerous deal will be able to hold support for the president to lower than one-third of the House and Senate thus preventing a presidential veto. If the Israelis were to take Obama’s bribe, it would be even more difficult to persuade many Democrats to vote against the president’s wishes. It would also give the false impression that the strong arguments they raised against the Iran deal appeasement were insincere.

Third, as important as the planes and anti-missile batteries are, they aren’t a real answer to the strategic threat that Iran poses for Israel. As the Arab states have also realized, Iran’s bid for regional hegemony has gotten a shot in the arm from Obama. Addressing Iran’s dangerous adventurism in the region will require more than an arms package.

Last, as weak as their position may be vis-à-vis Obama, the Israelis shouldn’t act as if they are desperate. As desperate as the situation seems, Congress still has Israel’s back and will likely vote in all the arms Israel needs, even if the administration doesn’t request it. Just as important, Obama won’t always be president. In 20 months, someone else will be sitting in the Oval Office. While there are no guarantees, the likelihood is that his successor won’t be making the same mistake and seeking to distance the U.S. from Israel. Anything Obama is offering now will likely still be available for them in the future. Surrendering a principled position on Iran simply isn’t worth the hardware that Obama is offering them. Netanyahu must hang tough and hope for the best, confidant that both Congress and the next president will be someone that he can trust more than Obama.

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Aid Can’t Buy Israel’s Silence on Iran Deal

National Security Advisor Susan Rice was in Israel this week to brief Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on the latest developments in the nuclear talks with Iran. In doing so Rice, who was accompanied by top U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman, said all the right things about the U.S.-Israel relationship as well as the nuclear threat from Iran. Rice assured Netanyahu that the U.S. was committed to stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons and also touted the value of the American aid flowing to Israel. As the Times of Israel reported:

Rice said that the new deal “will take our total investment in Iron Dome, which has saved countless of Israeli lives, to nearly $900 million, a sign of our continued commitment to Israel’s security.”

“Every American dollar spent on Israel’s security is an investment in protecting the many interests that our nations share. Whether that’s preventing rockets from terrorizing the Israeli people, defending against the growing ballistic missile threat in the region, or advancing our commitment to defend freedom and democracy,” she went on.

Rice is right about that, since the money spent on bolstering its ally’s defense capabilities enhances U.S. security interests. But as welcome as those words may be, they aren’t enough to allay Israeli concerns about the nuclear talks with Iran that resume next week. As Haaretz reported, Netanyahu emerged from a session with Rice repeating his concerns that the U.S. is being dragged into a “bad deal” with Iran. While the Western press discounts virtually anything the Israeli leader said on this topic, the plain fact remains that the impetus from both the Obama administration and its European allies that virtually all informed observers think will result in the deal they have been seeking will be one in which Iran is allowed to keep its centrifuges and go on enriching uranium. So long as that is true, Iran will remain weeks or, at best, months away from a nuclear weapon. Under these circumstances, Americans need to realize that the damage the negotiations with Iran are doing to Israel’s security cannot be erased by even the most generous grants from Washington.

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National Security Advisor Susan Rice was in Israel this week to brief Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on the latest developments in the nuclear talks with Iran. In doing so Rice, who was accompanied by top U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman, said all the right things about the U.S.-Israel relationship as well as the nuclear threat from Iran. Rice assured Netanyahu that the U.S. was committed to stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons and also touted the value of the American aid flowing to Israel. As the Times of Israel reported:

Rice said that the new deal “will take our total investment in Iron Dome, which has saved countless of Israeli lives, to nearly $900 million, a sign of our continued commitment to Israel’s security.”

“Every American dollar spent on Israel’s security is an investment in protecting the many interests that our nations share. Whether that’s preventing rockets from terrorizing the Israeli people, defending against the growing ballistic missile threat in the region, or advancing our commitment to defend freedom and democracy,” she went on.

Rice is right about that, since the money spent on bolstering its ally’s defense capabilities enhances U.S. security interests. But as welcome as those words may be, they aren’t enough to allay Israeli concerns about the nuclear talks with Iran that resume next week. As Haaretz reported, Netanyahu emerged from a session with Rice repeating his concerns that the U.S. is being dragged into a “bad deal” with Iran. While the Western press discounts virtually anything the Israeli leader said on this topic, the plain fact remains that the impetus from both the Obama administration and its European allies that virtually all informed observers think will result in the deal they have been seeking will be one in which Iran is allowed to keep its centrifuges and go on enriching uranium. So long as that is true, Iran will remain weeks or, at best, months away from a nuclear weapon. Under these circumstances, Americans need to realize that the damage the negotiations with Iran are doing to Israel’s security cannot be erased by even the most generous grants from Washington.

The Rice visit encapsulated what has become a familiar Obama tactic to deal with the Israelis. The administration pressures Israel on the peace process with the Palestinians, sandbags them with selective and misleading leaks about those talks (as Martin Indyk did after the collapse of Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative) and conducts negotiations with Iran that are clearly headed toward a deal that will leave Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure intact, a state of affairs that allows the Jewish state’s very existence to be subject to the ability of Washington to enforce an agreement with Iran that may be unenforceable. And after all that, the Israelis are supposed to cheer Obama and express gratitude because the administration has maintained the alliance and poured more money into vital projects like Iron Dome.

It should be understood that this weapons system is a key part of Israel’s defense strategy in dealing with the independent Palestinian state in all but name ruled by Hamas in Gaza. The strengthening of the security alliance with Israel merely maintains what other presidents began, but nevertheless Obama deserves credit for increasing the amounts spent on these projects.

When viewed in this context it is easy to understand why some Israelis are beginning to question the value of the massive aid that is given to them by the U.S. As Caroline Glick wrote in the Jerusalem Post last week when discussing the views of an isolationist like Senator Rand Paul who opposes all foreign aid including that given to Israel, while the help from the U.S. is important, it undercuts the country’s “strategic independence.”

Given the importance of weapons like Iron Dome that have only been made possible by American assistance, I’m not prepared to go as far as joining her in endorsing Paul’s anti-aid position. Israel still cannot afford to be cut off from U.S. military help if it is to maintain its qualitative edge over any combination of actual or potential foes. But neither should we accept Rice’s nice words about the U.S. “investment” as adequate compensation for the underhanded way in which Indyk has sandbagged Netanyahu, let alone the coming betrayal on Iran.

The administration seems to operate on the assumption that keeping the aid dollars flowing to Jerusalem covers a multitude of its sins even to the point of making up for an American push for détente with the vicious anti-Semitic and potentially genocidal regime in Tehran. But though he is wisely doing everything to not rise to Obama’s bait and to keep the daylight between Israel and the United States to a minimum, Netanyahu has to know that a tipping point may soon be coming in the balance between American aid and diplomatic treachery with Iran. It’s not clear what, if anything, Netanyahu will believe Israel is capable of doing in response to a “bad deal” with Iran up to and including a strike on the Islamist regime’s nuclear facilities before it is too late to stop their drive to a bomb. But whatever his decision might be, no one in Washington should labor under the illusion that Israeli acquiescence to an Iran deal can be bought with an anti-missile system even if some cash is thrown in on the side.

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Rand Paul and Israel: An Exchange

Last week, I wrote about the potential impact that the growing influence of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul will have on the ability of Republicans to portray themselves as a solidly pro-Israel party. Senator Paul has written to respond to that piece. My response follows.

Jonathan S. Tobin’s Nov. 9 column, “Will Rand Paul Hijack the Pro-Israel GOP?” makes some wildly speculative assumptions about me, my positions concerning our ally, Israel, and the Republican Party’s future. Since Mr. Tobin took it upon himself to image some of my positions, I thought it best to set the record straight by stating what they actually are.

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Last week, I wrote about the potential impact that the growing influence of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul will have on the ability of Republicans to portray themselves as a solidly pro-Israel party. Senator Paul has written to respond to that piece. My response follows.

Jonathan S. Tobin’s Nov. 9 column, “Will Rand Paul Hijack the Pro-Israel GOP?” makes some wildly speculative assumptions about me, my positions concerning our ally, Israel, and the Republican Party’s future. Since Mr. Tobin took it upon himself to image some of my positions, I thought it best to set the record straight by stating what they actually are.

Israel is a strong and important ally of the United States, and we share many mutual security interests. I believe we should stand by our ally, but where I think sometimes American commentators get confused is that I do not think Israel should be dictated to by the United States. I think that has happened too often, and it has been to the detriment of Israel. Too often we have coerced Israel into trading land for peace, or other false bargains. When President Obama stood before the world in 2011 to demand that Israel act against her own strategic interest, I denounced this as unnecessary meddling. As I wrote in May of that year: “For President Obama to stand up today and insist that Israel should once again give up land, security and sovereignty for the possibility of peace shows an arrogance that is unmatched even in our rich history of foreign policy.”

Israel will always know what’s best for Israel. The United States should always stand with its friends. But we should also know, unlike President Obama, when to stay out of the way.

Foreign aid is another example of how our meddling often hurts more than its helps. In my proposals to end or cut back on foreign aid, some have made accusations that my proposals would hurt Israel. Actually, not following my proposals hurt Israel. We currently give about $4 billion annually to Israel in foreign aid. But we give about $6 billion to the nations that surround Israel, many of them antagonistic toward the Jewish state.

Giving twice as much foreign aid to Israel’s enemies simply does not make sense. Our aid to Israel has always been to a country that has been an unequivocal ally. Our aid to its neighbors has purchased their temporary loyalty at best.

These countries are not our true allies and no amount of money will make them so. They are not allies of Israel and I fear one day our money and military arms that we have paid for will be used against Israel.

Mr. Tobin speculates that calls by me and others within the Republican Party for Pentagon cuts somehow would hurt our national defense. It is always sad to see conservatives making liberal arguments. Cutting waste in our military would no more hurt our defense than getting rid of No Child Left Behind would hurt education. Every government agency can withstand a little belt-tightening, especially if we scale back on our overseas presence and focus more on true defense and security.

I voted against the original sequester agreement last year. It amused me to watch many of my colleagues who vote for it now wringing their hands over what they’ve wrought. The problem is, if we don’t keep these cuts, where will they come from? My colleagues have shown no greater stomach for domestic cuts than military ones. And with a now $16 trillion national debt and annual deficits between $1 trillion and $1.5 trillion, the supposed grown-ups in Washington need to man-up and figure out where to cut. An automatic cut that would disproportionately target military spending was no one’s first choice—but was also the direct result of not enough people getting specific or serious about cuts to begin with.

I am not one of those people. I proposed a fully balanced five-year budget that restored the sequester funds. That path is still open to all Senators so concerned about our defense spending.

But absent the equivalent cuts from elsewhere, I cannot support simply scrapping the sequester.

That’s because the cuts really aren’t that big of a problem, if we also include reform.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) and I are now both calling for legislation to audit the Pentagon, believing that a federal department with zero oversight is a good place to start when targeting government waste. We are not the only Republicans to make this observation and I suspect that number will continue to grow. The age of austerity will require as much common sense as possible.

Mr. Tobin is right to note that these are questions that a Republican Party serious about limited government and fiscal responsibility will continue to ask moving forward. But it is absurd to suggest that conservatives who ask these questions are somehow for a weaker defense, or worse, somehow stand on the wrong side of our friend Israel.

Portraying me as being against Israel in any fashion, as Mr. Tobin’s title implies, is as nonfactual as it is offensive. There are many differing opinions about both foreign and domestic policy within Israel. Any healthy, self-governing people necessarily must have robust debate. This is as true in Israel as it is in the United States. The notion that there is an unassailable consensus concerning Israel’s best interests, within the Republican Party, the United States, and even Israel itself, is simple not true and never has been. It assumes too much and asks too little, to the detriment of both countries.

Israel has long been, and will continue to be, one of our greatest allies. I will always fight to maintain the health and strength of this relationship, just as I will always fight for the health, security and best interests of the United States.

Senator Rand Paul, Washington, D.C.

 

Jonathan Tobin Responds:

In a world full of foes of the state of Israel, far be it from me to reject the wish of any prominent politician to be depicted as a friend of the Jewish state. It may be reasonable to suspect that this desire may have more to do with the senator’s possible presidential ambitions (indeed, the fact that he should take the trouble to defend his record on Israel in COMMENTARY can fairly be construed as a clear indication of his plans) but it is welcome nonetheless. However, his record is a little more complicated than he indicates. While the senator may not be as reflexively hostile to Israel as his father Ron or many of their extremist libertarian fans, it is difficult to reconcile his positions on assistance to Israel or his constricted ideas about the role of America in the world with one that is readily identified as supportive of a strong and secure Israel.

First, let’s give Senator Paul credit for saying that Israel ought not to be pressured into making concessions to its antagonists. Paul criticized President Obama for his ambush of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in May 2011 over the 1967 lines. But it should also be pointed out that Paul was conspicuous by his absence from Netanyahu’s address to Congress that earned bipartisan ovations.

Let’s also specify that the senator is right when he notes that at this point in time, Israel would do well to wean itself from any from of foreign assistance. That is a goal that was first articulated by Prime Minister Netanyahu in 1996 during an address to Congress. But when Netanyahu made that speech, Israel was getting as much economic aid as it was military help. That is no longer the case.

When Paul called for an end to “welfare” to Israel, he said that the country’s relative wealth ought to render it ineligible for aid. But almost all the assistance Israel gets nowadays is necessary to redress the imbalance in strength between the Jewish state and the entire Arab and Muslim world that is arrayed against it. Though Paul would accompany an end to military aid to Israel with a ban on assistance to any country that is hostile to it, that wouldn’t undo the harm that a stoppage from the country’s only military ally would cause to a nation that is forced to spend exorbitant amounts on defense in order to cope with foes supported by Iran and even Russia. Nor would it offset the encouragement that such a measure would give Israel’s enemies.

Paul’s position ignores the fact that most of the military assistance is spent right here in the United States. But his willingness to characterize the issue as one in which American kids are being asked to go into debt to pay for “rich” Israel showed his willingness to play the same isolationist cards that won his father the applause of a radical fringe.

But just as troubling are Paul’s positions on U.S. defense and foreign policy, irrespective of the warm feelings he says he harbors for Israel.

An essential part of the U.S.-Israel alliance is the assumption that the United States will maintain its military strength as well as be willing to act to defend its interests abroad. Paul’s isolationist wing of the party acts as if America can afford to more or less withdraw its forces to its own borders and ignore the rest of the world. Paul pretends that the draconian cuts he advocates will not materially affect America’s defense capabilities, but that is mere rhetoric. Just as it would be impossible for the United States to assert its influence abroad in ways that are important to making Israel safer, so, too, will a diminished U.S. military undermine the strategic balance in the region in a way that will hurt it.

It is no small thing that the putative leader of a faction of the Republican Party that is virulently isolationist should wish to be seen as a friend of Israel. But he has a long way to go before his positions can be considered particularly supportive of Israel or the sort of American foreign policy stance that is consistent with maintaining the alliance. Barring an unexpected change of heart, Senator Paul’s higher profile must be considered bad news for Jewish Republicans.

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