Key voices inside the government are arguing it is in Israel’s interests to sign a Memorandum of Understanding to govern US military aid for the next decade while President Barack Obama is in office, as a way of locking in support for the deal from wider swaths of the American public.
According to this reasoning, Obama is a progressive president and, as such, if he signs the deal it would be tantamount to buy-in from a wider spectrum of Americans.
If presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton wins in November and she signs the deal, she could come under fire from the liberal wing of her party – the Bernie Sanders wing – for giving Israel too much.
If the presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump wins, this could be seen as an over-generous gift to Israel from the Republicans.
But if Obama signs the deal, it’s a different story altogether.
Here, it is argued, is a progressive president, one who has had his disagreements with Israel. If he signs this type of agreement, and offers this level of aid, more segments of the US population are likely to understand that this must truly be in America’s interest.
For this reason, there are some inside Israel’s corridors of power saying it would be worth signing the deal before Obama leaves office next January, even if that means agreeing to a smaller sum than might be anticipated under his successor.
Last week, US National Security Advisor Susan Rice told the AJC Global Forum in Washington that Obama was committed to ensuring Israel’s security for the remainder of his term and for years to come.
“Israel currently receives more than half of the United States’ entire foreign military assistance budget. And, we’re discussing a new agreement with Israel that would guide our military assistance until 2029,” she said. “Even in these days of belt tightening, we are prepared to sign the single largest military assistance package – with any country – in American history.”
That’s the good news. The more troublesome news from Israel’s perspective is that the negotiations for this Memorandum of Understanding have been dragging on.
That the negotiations have continued for months without an agreement has led to various reports: that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was holding out, hoping he would get a better deal under the next president; that Obama would eventually sign the memorandum in order to say he “has Israel’s back” on security matters and can then move forward a US-sponsored UN Security Council resolution that would lock in the parameters of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, something that Israel adamantly opposes.
The current MoU, which was signed in the summer of 2007 under president George W. Bush, expires at the end of 2017. That memorandum provided about $3 billion of annual military assistance to Israel, not including additional funding for ballistic missile defense and various emergencies. Last year the total sum was about $3.6b.
There have been various reports of disagreements over the amount, with the US offering similar amounts, and Israel requesting substantially more – up to $5b. a year – because of new challenges in the region.
There is disagreement over how much of the aid could be spent in Israel, with the number under the current MoU at some 26 percent.
The Americans would like to see that number decreased, with a greater proportion being spent in the US.
This would have significant impact on Israel’s defense budget. Because if now part of that 26% can be used in Israel, for instance to fund the upkeep of F16 fighter planes, if this is no longer the case, then that would have to come from the defense budget earmarked for other needs.
Another sticking point is whether the funding for missile defense would be included in the global sum, or whether the annual baseline figure would be lower, but Israel would – as it has in the past – be able to receive supplemental funding for missile defense, such as the Iron Dome and David’s Sling, outside the MoU framework.
Rice indicated that Obama would like to see the deal signed under his watch, which raises an interesting question: Why? What does it matter to him whether this agreement is signed and sealed while he is president or whether it goes to the desk of his successor? The issue – like many in the waning months of Obama’s presidency – has to do with legacy, with how he wants to be remembered.
For years the president and his supporters have said that under him, security and intelligence cooperation with Israel – and military aid – have never been greater, something that senior Israeli and American officials have attested to on numerous occasions.
But the very generous military aid package – the current MoU – was negotiated and signed by Obama’s predecessor. Obama inherited this package.
True, during his tenure the White House augmented the aid with supplemental funding for missile defense and emergencies, but Congress voted in increases in this supplemental funding beyond what was put forth by the White House.
For Obama, signing the deal would strengthen his argument that despite all the hiccups in his relationship with Israel – despite the bruising battle over the Iran nuclear deal and different visions of the road to peace with the Palestinians – he was indeed the best president ever when it came to answering Israel’s security needs.
The new MoU, his supporters will argue, would only prove this.
One other thing to keep in mind when considering the MoU, is that while it is obviously very important for Israel in that it helps the military establishment better plan its budget, it is not essential. In other words, if a deal is not signed for a few years, life will go on.
The first MoU was signed in the late 1998 after Netanyahu, during his first term in office, phased out American civilian aid to Israel, and instead asked only for military assistance.
That means that for 50 years there was no MoU. For the first 20 years, by the way, there was – with only a couple exceptions – no US military aid and little economic assistance.
Few believe that if the deal is not signed, US military assistance to Israel – which also benefits the Americans in terms of securing a reliable ally in the region – will go from $3.6b. annually to zero. It will continue, but under a different guise.
As to the argument that Obama will use signing the MoU now in order to pressure Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians in the last few months of his tenure, that argument of linkage between the two issues has traction for those who argue that Obama is wary of taking on Israel.
But the battles the president has waged with Israel over the Iran deal and the settlements shows the exact opposite: He is not shy about confronting Netanyahu. If he concludes that a US-sponsored resolution laying down the parameters of a peace deal is the way to go, he will go there, regardless of the status of the MoU. He has shown that if he wants to take on Netanyahu, he will. He will not feel compelled to wave a carrot.
It is another question altogether whether Obama feels it constructive to make concrete the parameters of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement that both sides are likely to reject. But that is a separate issue altogether, not one connected to the MoU.