Did Obama fold, or get his revenge on Netanyahu?

Netanyahu closed an aid deal with the US this week worth $38 billion over ten years. Some argue that he could have gotten more.

By UDI SEGAL
September 17, 2016 10:24

Rice: Military aid deal, a memorandum of understanding, is win-win for US, Israel

Rice: Military aid deal, a memorandum of understanding, is win-win for US, Israel

 
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Shimon Peres said on more than one occasion that Israel is an independent and sovereign state that isn't dependent on anyone -  except for America. We know it and they know it, and we should behave accordingly.

The clash between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama stands at the forefront of the most important agreement to be signed here in recent years: the deal for American military aid to Israel for the next ten years. That is what compelled the prime minister to close the deal now, and that is what is casting shade on the Israeli and American efforts to sell it as the best possible agreement that could have been achieved.

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The question hovering over the generous aid deal is simple: Did Obama take revenge on Netanyahu and withhold additional aid from him because of the prime minister's defiant mission to the US Congress and his public, vitriolic and personal confrontation with the US president over the Iran nuclear deal?

Conversely, it can also be asked: Did Obama fold and give Israel everything, without vengeance or pettiness, despite Netanyahu thumbing his nose at him for most of his tenure in the White House?

And one last question: Will we know the answer soon or will we have to wait for the president's memoir?

All of these questions are hovering over the details, the numbers and the explanations of the deal. Those who want to know how complicated and confusing this story is must try to understand what happened with US Senator Lindsay Graham.

It is a side story and just one small chapter in the negotiations that concluded this week. However, it proves that, just as pornography is a matter of geography, thus are the rules of propriety and political protocol dynamic and given to change in accordance with the necessities of local and international politics.



Graham is a veteran Republican senator and a friend of Israel that has always shown support for the Jewish state. And he is the one who caused the agreement to be stalled in recent weeks. Graham wanted to help Israel get more money and to stick his thumb in Obama's eye, so he proposed a number of bills to increase aid to the Jewish state next year. The current American aid package stands at some three billion dollars a year plus allotments from Congress for defense against missiles and other threats. In 2015, it was $3.1 billion plus an additional $650 million. In total, it was $3.7 billion.

According to the new deal, aid for the coming decade will be $3.3 billion per year, plus a yearly allotment of half-a-billion for the missile defense program. The administration agreed to the increase on condition that it would include everything and there would be no extras from Congress. Israel agreed not to ask for any further allotments from Congress. Graham told the Israelis to insist on more - that they could get a base monthly figure of at least $3.4 billion and he would immediately increase the extra allotments.

The administration understood the dangerous potential in Graham's moves: If the aid currently stands at $3.1 billion and Congress increases allotments to $900 million or  a billion dollars, a situation could be created in which, in the last year of the old deal - 2017 - the budget would be $4 billion. Meaning the new deal - $3.8 billion - would be lower and would lead to a storm in Congress. That may be exactly what Graham wanted to achieve ahead of elections.

And how did the White House respond? In an amazing and unprecedented manner, the US president - who had previously complained about Netanyahu's blatant interference in American politics and who condemned the prime minister's speech to Congress on the Iran deal, because it constituted playing in the backyard of internal politics - turned to Netanyahu and asked him to speak with Graham in order to convince him to stop the legislation. This story was first reported by Tal Shalev on the Walla website and later was reported on in The Washington Post.

Netanyahu agreed to Obama's request. He called up, and Graham told him that the administration can go f*** themselves. He suggested to Netanyahu that he reject Obama's offer. Netanyahu explained that he prefers stability and to plan his budget ahead, mainly because the IDF was pressuring him about its multi-year plan. However, Graham refused.

What solved the issue was a letter written a week ago and sent right after the signing of the deal. A letter in which Israel promises to send the administration a check for any amount that is allotted by Congress beyond the current base aid. Even if the Republicans choose to pamper Israel, Netanyahu has to give it all back.

Obama did not hesitate to ask Netanyahu to interfere in the matter of the US aid deal. All of the rules of political correctness went up in smoke. Imagine if Netanyahu called Obama and asked him to convince an MK not to propose a certain piece of legislation. It was simply strange.

What further casts doubt and raises question marks about the agreement is Netanyahu's negotiating tactic: to ask for a lot and then to compromise in the middle. Netanyahu himself told government ministers that he wanted $45 billion. Netanyahu claims that he said 45 in order to leave bargaining room.

In Netanyahu's favor are the comments from interim National Security Council chief Yaakov Nagel this week. He recalled that when the negotiations began, the prime minister told him: If we get $3.1 billion like we do today, you'll get a bronze medal; if you close on $3.3 billion, you'll get a silver medal; and if you get $3.5 billion a year, you'll get a gold medal. Nagel said this week that he deserves a silver medal. It's a lot of money, somebody added. Netanyahu remembered that he should get a gold medal, with the extra missile allotment included.

Others consider it a missed opportunity: Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelach, former prime minister Ehud Barak, Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni and former defense minister Moshe Ya'alon think that Netanyahu is hiding the truth: that he could have gotten a lot more. Shelach and Barak speak about inflation, Livni says that she warned him, and Ya'alon said to sources that US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter spoke to him about $45 billion. Netanyahu claims that he got the maximum possible and that he never got an offer or the hint of a larger amount.

Why did Netanyahu close the deal with Obama instead of waiting until after the US presidential election? The answer is stability, certainty and obligation. The element of surprise in elections pushed Netanyahu to close the deal now. Beyond this, he understood the trick. The message is reverse psychology: If Netanyahu and Obama, with all their mutual bitterness, their differences, public confrontations and hostility, could agree on such an amount, think about what would happen if they were friends. This is the best proof of the relations between the countries, and that is a message that is worth money.

Udi Segal is Channel 2's diplomatic correspondent.


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