Judging from public comments made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Vice President Joe Biden over the last two days, significant gaps remain between Jerusalem and Washington regarding the level of military aid to be included in the Memorandum of Understanding still being negotiated.
The MoU, which will govern America’s security assistance to Israel for a decade beginning in 2018, will be “the most generous security package in the history of the United States,” Biden said at a J Street event in Washington on Sunday during a speech that was at times extremely critical of Israel, and at times very supportive. “I am hopeful that we will work out the details.”
But in a clear sign that gaps remain in the MoU talks, Biden repeated what he said he told Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin when he visited Israel in March: “Israel may not get everything it asks for, but it will get every solitary thing it needs.”
A few hours before Biden’s speech, Netanyahu – during a briefing in Jerusalem with Israeli diplomatic reporters – said the MoU negotiating process, which has been going on for months, has not yet ended, and that there was a need for patience.
“I have managed a few negotiations and we need patience and hope that the two sides will find a way to narrow the gaps,” he said.
Netanyahu, who in a cabinet meeting earlier this year said it might not be possible to complete the negotiations under the current administration, said he would be “very happy if the negotiations would be concluded now between me and President [Barack] Obama, and I hope that the gaps will be narrowed.”
While there have been various reports about how much Israel is seeking in military aid, with some saying it is looking to up the financial aid from $3 billion to $5b. a year – a sum that seems unlikely considering the US budgetary restraints – Israeli defense officials have said the negotiations are not about a sum, but rather about which weapons systems will be included in the package.
Biden began his speech by noting the presence of Zionist Union MK Stav Shaffir in the audience.
“May your views begin to once again become the majority opinion in the Knesset,” said Biden, who skipped the controversial speech Netanyahu gave to Congress last March that was seen by many Democrats as an unseemly intervention into US politics, The vice president related to the security component of the US-Israel relationship in his speech after discussing the differences the two countries have regarding the Palestinian issues.
“No matter what policy disagreement we have with Israel, and we do have policy disagreements now – whether it is settlements, the Iran deal, or anything else – there is never a question to our absolute commitment to Israel’s security,” he said.
Regarding those policy differences, Biden said the US continues “to believe that progress toward a twostate solution is absolutely essential for Israel’s enduring security, and the United States remains committed to that goal.” He said this was the only way to guarantee Israel’s “future security” and guarantee it remains a Jewish democratic state, and at the same time ensure dignity and self-determination for the Palestinian people.
Following meetings in March with both Netanyahu and PA President Mahmoud Abbas, Biden said he did not walk away encouraged about the prospects for peace.
“There is, at the moment, no political will that I observed among Israelis or Palestinians to move forward with serious negotiations. The trust that is necessary to take risks for peace is fractured on both sides.”
Biden slammed the Palestinian Authority for taking steps in the international community that are damaging “and only take us further from the path of peace,” and then blasted Israel for its settlement policy. He received what sounded like the loudest ovation of the night when he told anti-settlement group J Street that he has opposed settlements for “more than three decades.”
“I firmly believe that the actions Israel’s government has taken over the past several years, the steady and systematic expansion of settlements, the legalization of outposts, land seizures, they are moving us – and more importantly they are moving Israel – in the wrong direction,” he said. “They are moving us toward a one-state reality, and that reality is dangerous. That reality is riddled with profound questions about the future political and demographic character of Israel.”
At the end of his address, after retelling yet again in front of a Jewish audience a story about his first audience as a young senator with former prime minister Golda Meir, Biden said that “we have an overwhelming obligation, notwithstanding our sometimes overwhelming frustration with the Israeli government, to push them as hard as we can toward what they know in their guts is the only ultimate solution.”
US Secretary of State John Kerry also spoke at the event, but touched only briefly on the Palestinian issue, saying that in its final nine months in office the administration would “not stop working to find a way” toward a lasting peace agreement.
Kerry strongly condemned Monday’s bus bombing in Jerusalem, saying these “outrages are intended solely to instill fear,” but that everybody in the hall knows “they will never succeed in intimidating the Israeli people.”
The attack, he said, also “underscores the importance of ending this conflict, so that Israelis and Palestinians can once and for all live side by side in peace and security. And you can rest assured that we understand that dynamic that’s needed to make it happen.
You can’t just keep condemning the other side and then not try to change lives and build up the capacity to be able to change choices. You have to work at this.”