Last week, a report that an arms shipment to Israel was put on hold by the Pentagon ruffled feathers on both sides of the Atlantic and caught many by surprise.
It fed into an existing view that the US administration is overly critical of Israel at a time when it should be showing greater support for its strongest ally in the region. A US State Department spokeswoman confirmed that arms transfers consisting of a batch of Hellfire air-to-surface anti-armor missiles for Israel had been put on hold.
“Given the crisis in Gaza, it’s natural that agencies take additional care to review deliveries as part of an inter-agency process. That is by no means unusual and, again, does not indicate any change in policy,” the spokeswoman said.
The issue of American arms deliveries to Israel during a time of war has a long precedent dating back to the War of Independence. At the same time, the Jewish state has remained the largest recipient of US foreign military funding and it continues to receive the best American weaponry in prodigious amounts. For instance, it has the largest fleet of F-16s outside the US.
But conflicts with Hamas and Hezbollah, in which civilians have been killed in IDF attacks, have led to greater scrutiny.
An inquiry in August 2006 by the State Department, for example, was aimed at determining whether Israel employed cluster bombs in Lebanon contrary to confidential agreements.
As the latest round of fighting raged last month and casualties in Gaza reached 1,000, the administration began pushing for an immediate cease-fire. Relations with the US seemed to fray when US Secretary of State John Kerry’s Qatar-backed cease-fire proposal – which Israel strongly opposed – was leaked in late July. It was also reported that on the eve of President Barack Obama’s summer vacation, he had a testy phone call with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
The US concern is directed primarily at the perception that the administration is providing weapons used, even unintentionally, to harm civilians in Gaza. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf noted: “We thought Israel could do more to prevent civilian casualties.”
US officials told The Wall Street Journal that they felt “blindsided” by reports Israel had obtained weapons without review and that those weapons might have wounded civilians. An editorial in Commentary claimed that the “Obama administration makes war on Israel” and argued that bilateral relations were at the lowest point since the Eisenhower administration.
Israel must take the issue of relations seriously, but not blow it out of proportion. The US administration recently approved an additional $220 million in funding for the Iron Dome anti-rocket system to replenish its stocks of missiles. Just last week, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and his US counterpart, Chuck Hagel, had a cordial conversation in which he thanked the administration for its support. And the State Department has clarified that “there is no crisis” in bilateral relations.
The Hellfire missile transfer that is being reviewed is not essential to Israel’s ability to fight Hamas at the moment, and Israel has many supporters in Congress who are working to get things back on track. As Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) told the New York Post, “I can tell you firsthand: When terrorists are firing rockets, it’s no time for behind-the-scenes speculation.”
Israel should continue to work with its ample allies in Washington to secure the shipments of arms it needs.
The mixed messages over the past week signal that the leaking of reports about a US delay in delivering arms to Israel may have been a way to prod Jerusalem to take the cease-fire talks in Cairo seriously and strike a deal to end Operation Protective Edge.
However, the messages are also being read carefully by Israel’s enemies. Hamas’s threat to continue a “war of attrition” against the Jewish state may be one such manifestation.
It is important that both Israel and the US work to heal any rifts and press forward on common interests, such as countering extremist threats and creating regional stability together with moderate regimes, such as Egypt, which has played a key role in keeping Hamas at bay.
Perhaps most importantly, the US administration must see that publicly aired disputes send the wrong message to terrorists, from Hamas to ISIS, which closely monitor Washington’s commitments to its friends – including one to whom it claims to have an “unshakable” commitment.