Editor's notes: Ensuring Israel’s security

If Israel feels secure, Obama thought, it would be willing to make concessions to the Palestinians and take risks – like a withdrawal from the West Bank.

By
September 23, 2016 02:49
US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu look out a window. (photo credit: OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE PHOTO BY PETE SOUZA)

 
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In July 2008, Illinois freshman senator Barack Obama arrived in Israel. It was Obama’s second visit to the country, but his first as a presidential candidate, part of a whirlwind tour that took him to Kuwait, Jordan, Germany and France. Facing veteran senator John McCain, Obama was counting on the trip to give him some desperately needed foreign policy credibility.

Obama made the mandatory stops at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum and the Western Wall. But he also paid a visit to Sderot, probably the Israeli city that has suffered the most from Hamas rocket fire. He went to the local police station and stood in a large yard full of rocket remains to address the press.

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“I don’t think any country would find it acceptable to have missiles raining down on the heads of their citizens,” Obama said that day. “If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that. And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing.”

Obama was moved by the visit to Sderot, after which he told aides that should he defeat McCain and be elected president, he would want to find way to help Israel boost its defenses against rocket attacks from Gaza.

Obama didn’t know at the time, but just a few months earlier a delegation of Israeli defense officials had visited the Pentagon and asked for funding for a new missile defense system being developed called Iron Dome. The Pentagon was skeptical that Iron Dome would work, but Israel persisted. Due to the elections though, the request for funding could not move up the bureaucratic ladder. It would have to wait until after Obama won.

The turning point came a few months later. Shortly after taking office, Obama set the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as one of his key foreign policy objectives. With the peace process in deadlock, Obama had to find a way to get Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. Pressure was mounting on Prime Minister Netanyahu to agree to a freeze on settlement construction. The US needed leverage to make all of this happen.

Colin Kahl, a Georgetown professor and newly appointed deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, flew to Israel in June 2009. The IDF took him by helicopter to the border with Lebanon, where he was briefed on Hezbollah, and then south to the border with Gaza, where he learned about Hamas’s growing rocket capabilities.



He was struck by the lack of strategic depth, and how close Israeli towns and cities were to the threats brewing just over the border. When Kahl returned to Washington, he met with Dan Shapiro, then head of Middle East policy in the National Security Council and today the US ambassador to Israel.

“Iron Dome shows promise,” Kahl told Shapiro. “If it works, I think it would facilitate the Israelis taking greater risks to sign on to a two-state solution.”

Kahl drafted a memo recommending that the White House immediately authorize $200 million in Iron Dome funding. His argument was simple: Israel wanted security assurances, and the Iron Dome could provide them. The president would get to kickstart peace negotiations, and Israel would get an additional layer of security.

Nearly eight years later, Iron Dome is an amazing success, intercepting over 90 percent of its designated targets in the 2014 Gaza war. Israel has also been the recipient of far more than just $200m. in US aid. Since 2011, the Obama administration has given $1.3 billion just for Iron Dome, not to mention hundreds of millions of additional dollars for other missile defense systems like Arrow and David’s Sling.

I mention this since there was something unsettling, even distasteful, about the rhetoric heard in Israel in recent days surrounding the signing of what has become known as the “MoU,” the Memorandum of Understanding that included a new 10-year, $38b. defense aid package for Israel.

When the deal was finally announced last week, instead of a resounding “thank you,” some Israelis seemed to have been overtaken with panic that somehow the country had been shortchanged in the negotiations with the United States. It didn’t make a difference whether it was Obama’s alleged hostility toward Israel, or Netanyahu’s controversial and divisive speech in Congress last year. America had ripped off Israel.

This feeling was cemented by a chorus of former Israeli defense officials like Ehud Barak and Amos Yadlin, who claimed that Netanyahu’s spat with Obama cost Israel $7b. Barak went so far as to write an op-ed in The Washington Post, in which he said that the $38b. – in other words, $3.8b. annually – was far less than Israel could have received had relations with the administration been handled differently.

Barak is a former prime minister, defense minister and IDF chief of staff. Yadlin is a former head of Military Intelligence. Their criticism though cannot be taken at face value. Both have clear political ambitions. Yadlin ran with the Zionist Union party in the last elections, and Barak is reportedly considering a political return. They clearly have a political interest in making it seem like Netanyahu failed.

On the other hand, it is certainly possible that because of Netanyahu Israel lost out on billions of dollars in US aid. The public will never really know. Former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, for example, has claimed that in talks he held with former US secretary of defense Chuck Hagel between 2013 and 2014, the Pentagon agreed to almost all of Israel’s requests, including a vague number that was higher than $4b. a year.

But then the talks moved from the defense level to the political level, and were taken over by the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem and the National Security Council in Washington. From that moment on, everything changed.

Despite legitimate criticism of the deal – fear over the impact it will have on Israeli defense companies due to the gradual reduction of the amount of money that can be spent locally – Netanyahu claims the deal was a major success. His spin is that it is true he asked for $45b when the talks first began, but that the US wanted to keep the aid at the same amount it is today – $31b. From Netanyahu’s perspective he did a good job negotiating. There was a $1.4b. difference, and the sides agreed on half, or $700m. more annually.

While this might be true, it overlooks one detail: for the first time, Israel will not be able to ask Congress for additional funds – Netanyahu even signed a letter committing Israel to return the money if that happens – and the annual $3.8b. will include the several hundred million dollars Israel received annually for missile defense projects like Iron Dome, Arrow and David’s Sling. What this means practically is that the increase is much smaller than $700m.

Nevertheless, and even if it is less than it might have been, we Israelis should not forget that the US did not have to give Israel a cent. At a time when America is tightening its own belt and making across-the-board budget cuts, the idea that $38b. will be given to a country with a GDP of over $35,000 per capita does not go over well in all circles in the US. The ingratitude shown over the past week did not help.

Obama also could have easily decided to leave the MoU for his successor to deal with. His desire to finalize the deal in his last months, to be the president who gave Israel the most defense aid ever, fits into the Obama doctrine as portrayed in the story about Iron Dome. There is also the possibility that Obama is planning to launch a new peace initiative in his final months in office, one that Israel might not like. Giving money now, softens the potential punch.

For Obama, Israel’s security has always been a priority. He seems to genuinely believe that America has a moral commitment to ensure Israel’s security, and he has used US taxpayers’ money to demonstrate that. At the same time, he believes – like he showed with his investment in Iron Dome some seven years ago – that if he helps Israel feel secure, he will be able to get Israel to make concessions and advance a peace deal with the Palestinians.

The logic was simple: if Israel feels secure, Obama thought, it would be willing to make concessions to the Palestinians and take risks – like a withdrawal from the West Bank – to enable the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Military and intelligence cooperation fit nicely into this model as well. When the three IDF generals who served as chief of staff during Obama’s presidency declare that “cooperation has never been so good,” they are not exaggerating. It hasn’t.

On the other hand, Obama made a conscious decision to create “daylight” between Israel and the US as part of a campaign to warm up to the Arab world at Israel’s expense. This didn’t exactly work – just look around at the landscape of the current Middle East, still in the throes of one of the bloodiest and greatest upheavals in modern history.

When Obama ambushed Netanyahu in their first meeting in 2009 and demanded a settlement freeze, he also mistakenly thought that it would be the way to get the Palestinians to agree to a deal. But like in the past, the Palestinians balked from a real peace process, preferring their usual intransigence. That freeze demand though raised the stakes, and ever since it has been Ramallah’s precondition for initiating any new diplomatic process.

Obama also knew what he was doing in 2011, when he said – the night before a scheduled meeting with Netanyahu – that the “borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” But then Netanyahu knew what he was doing when he decided to strongly rebuke the president in response the next day.

Portraying the president sometimes in hostile terms played a role in Netanyahu’s political calculations as well. As prime minister, Netanyahu has played up the image that only he can keep Israel safe. Fighting occasionally with a president who genuinely distanced himself from Israel helped fortify Netanyahu’s political standing: he wasn’t needed just to deal with threats from Iran, Gaza and Lebanon, but also from Washington.

The full story has not yet been told on the Obama-Netanyahu relationship, which will continue to fascinate the world. Today, though, is an opportunity to show some gratitude. There are 38 billion reasons why.

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