The military aid standoff: An argument, not a crisis

If Rand Paul had been the Republican nominee, and if Bernie Sanders were going to be the Democratic nominee, there would be an argument that the military aid deal must be wrapped up immediately.

May 19, 2016 22:09
US President Barack Obama laughs during a meeting at the White House

US President Barack Obama laughs during a meeting at the White House. (photo credit: OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE PHOTO / PETE SOUZA)


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Is it a terrible thing that there is no deal yet on American military aid for Israel? Or actually a fine thing? Neither. It is politics, with both sides and both leaders jockeying for advantage. In the end the aid level will rise, so Israelis should not lose sleep over this.

From the Obama point of view, a deal would have one great advantage.

Critics of Obama (like me) say US relations with Israel are poor, and Israel like all the Arab states now doubts the reliability of American leadership and friendship. A deal would allow Obama to cement his narrative that he has been Israel’s greatest friend, and that this can be proved by looking at military relations. If he can show that under him the amount of military aid rose from $3 billion to a significantly higher figure ($4b. or more), his argument is strengthened. Of course, it’s actually Congress that decides on aid levels – not the president – and of course, the aid level will actually rise only after Obama leaves office, but his argument will sound much more convincing.

From the Israeli perspective, there is a big upside in getting an agreement now: It removes the issue from American politics during a volatile political year. Get it settled, get members of Congress to buy in now, and the issue does not depend on what our politics looks like next year, who has a majority in Congress, who is president – or what is happening in the Middle East.

But there is a big downside: Obama may use the higher number as proof he is Israel’s great friend – and with this self-proclaimed new credibility may announce “Obama parameters” for peace. He may even seek to put them in a UN Security Council resolution. This would all be done after the US elections in November, to avoid a controversy that could hurt Hillary Clinton’s candidacy or lead her to oppose publicly what Obama is doing. After November 8 he is free to act, and Israel is right to worry about what would be in his parameters. From the Cairo speech of 2009 to the Iran nuclear deal of last summer, Obama has shown himself willing to say and do things that can badly affect Israel’s political situation and its security. His “parameters” could be his bid for a legacy that will look fine in his memoirs but may give Israelis headaches for years and even decades.

But let’s suppose Obama and Netanyahu cannot reach an agreement.

Perhaps they are too far apart on the overall number, or on the percentage of the amount that can be spent in Israel (as opposed to being spent on purchases of American hardware), or on specific weapons systems. Is this a crisis? It is not. The likelihood is that both candidates, Trump and Clinton, will say they will negotiate an agreement quickly next year, before the current one runs out. And whatever their own relationship with Netanyahu, it will be better than Obama’s – so frosty relations at the top will be less of a problem. It can be expected that whoever wins, there will be a directive to get this thing settled so that a new presidency starts out with an era of good feeling between the US and Israel.

Neither Trump nor Clinton will want headlines about lingering problems, incompetent new officials, new confrontations, or bad personal relations in his or her first months in office.

Moreover, the background is likely to be as helpful next year as this year. Today, we see chaos in the region and a growing rapprochement between Israel and Arab governments.

Security relations with Jordan and Egypt are tighter than ever, and there is clearly something going on behind the scenes with the Gulf Arab regimes. We see the threats of Iran and ISIS driving Israel and the Arabs to talk, and Americans understand that Israel is a critically important ally that deserves support. There is even talk of a new coalition in Jerusalem that would bring in parts of the Labor Party and see Israel talk more directly with the Arabs about the Palestinians and other issues. All of this encourages reaching an agreement between the United States and Israel on military assistance. The old argument that closeness to Israel hurts America in the Arab world, an argument that Barack Obama believed, is more and more clearly just plain false.

Would all that be different, and worse, next year under a new president? That seems unlikely. Does anyone expect peace to break out, to see the deadly Syrian civil war ending, to see Iran and Hezbollah withdrawing support for Assad, to see crises between Israel and its neighbors Jordan and Egypt? In fact, if the regional picture is worse, the argument for more aid to Israel is as strong as ever and maybe stronger. If there is a “hot summer” between Israel and Hamas, or Hezbollah attacks Israeli towns, or ISIS gains more in Syria, the argument for more aid to Israel is even more powerful.

If Rand Paul had been the Republican nominee, and if Bernie Sanders were going to be the Democratic nominee, there would be an argument that the military aid deal must be wrapped up immediately.

Neither man was ever a great enthusiast about US-Israel military relations.

But those two are not going to be the nominees, and whatever criticisms can justly be offered of Trump and Clinton neither one will want to start his or her presidency with a great big fight over aid to Israel. Moreover, whether Congress is led by Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, or by Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, there will be strong pro-Israel leadership on Capitol Hill.

So it would be great to do the military aid deal now. But this is an argument, not a crisis. If an agreement cannot be reached with Obama, it can and will be done when Obama is gone.

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