Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with Barack Obama at a meeting at the White House on November 9, 2015.
(photo credit: SAUL LOEB / AFP)
Much has changed since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s last visit to Washington.
Unlike his trip in March, during which Netanyahu did not even meet with US President Barack Obama, Netanyahu is no longer focused on fighting the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA as the Iran nuclear weapons deal is known. The JCPOA is a done deal.
Netanyahu is now in a dialogue with Obama regarding how the Jewish state can live with it.
Also, unlike his last visit, during which Netanyahu refused to discuss a security upgrade for Israel in the post- JCPOA era – for fear doing so would hurt Israel’s ability to launch an effective offensive against the deal – this time Netanyahu is very much interested in working with the White House on maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME) in light of an Iran freed of sanctions.
“The security of Israel is one of my top foreign policy priorities, and that has expressed itself not only in words but in deeds,” Obama declared at the start of their meeting.
“We have closer military intelligence cooperation than any two administrations in history.”
Netanyahu thanked Obama for maintaining Israelis qualitative military edge, and “for sustaining and strengthening the tremendous friendship and alliance between Israel and the United States of America.”
In the months running up to the Congress’s vote on the JCPOA, Obama wooed members undecided on the deal in part by assuring them publicly that Israel’s security upgrade would be implemented quickly and with full consideration for the new challenges Israel faces vis-à-vis an ascendant Iran.
Now the question for Israel is how precisely this security upgrade will be implemented.
There are two aspects to maintaining Israel’s QME. One aspect has to do with the amount of aid the US provides to Israel. The other has to do with technologies.
Up for renewal is the 10-year extension of the 2007 memorandum of understanding (MOU), a document that covers US foreign aid to Israel. Will the Obama administration agree to significantly raise the current MOU level of about $3 billion a year in military assistance or about $30b. over a 10-year period?
And what technologies will the US be willing to share with Israel? Israel is interested in obtaining a number of advanced aircraft, such as a squadron of F-15 jets. Obama promised in a letter to key members of Congress that Israel would be the first country in the world to receive the F-35 fifth-generation fighter next year as well as different forms of assistance for Israeli missile defense.
Even more important than a high-profile announcement of a boost in the MOU figure or the sale of a stateof- the-art aircraft, however, is a constructive, good-faith progress toward a US-Israel strategic dialogue that addresses Israel’s many security challenges in a highly volatile region.
In order for this to happen, both Obama and Netanyahu must get beyond the acrimony that has characterized their relationship thus far. Regardless of what is going on in their heads or behind closed doors, both men have an interest in fostering an improvement in ties.
Israel, after all, is heavily dependent on the US’s largesse, particularly in the area of security.
Obama, meanwhile, does not want unnecessary friction that would come off as the Democratic Party’s inability to maintain good ties with a democratically elected Israeli government. A high-profile clash now could hurt Hillary Clinton’s bid for presidency vis-à-vis the Republican candidate.
But beyond the narrow political considerations of Obama or the existential needs of the Jewish state, America and Israel share common values and ideals. The ties between the countries are deep and profound.
Obama and Netanyahu might not see eye to eye on a number of issues, from the feasibility of establishing a Palestinian state right now to the ability of diplomacy to “engage” enemies like the Iranians. But much more unites Israelis and Americans than divides them. And while Obama has clashed with Netanyahu on specific policies, he has never once failed to articulate his unwavering support for Israel’s right to defend itself and thrive as a uniquely Jewish state.
It is, therefore, inevitable that the two leaders and their respective administrations look beyond their differences in a fruitful dialogue regarding Israel’s new challenges in a rapidly changing Middle East.