Washington Watch: Netanyahu’s ‘hondling’ is a mistake

Netanyahu twice last year turned down Obama’s offers to open talks on the aid package and a strategic agreement.

Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Benjamin Netanyahu
In the opening of Fiddler on the Roof, Nahum the beggar asks Lazer the butcher why he was giving only one kopek this week when he gave two last week. Lazer replied that he had a bad week, and the beggar responded, “Just because you had a bad week doesn’t mean I should, too.”
I was reminded of that when I read that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet that if the Obama administration doesn’t agree to the increased aid levels he wants for a 10-year agreement – he’s reportedly asking to boost aid from the current $3.1 billion a year $5b. starting in 2018 plus added benefits – he’ll wait until the next president comes in. That threat reportedly infuriated the White House.
Netanyahu twice last year turned down Obama’s offers to open talks on the aid package and a strategic agreement, saying it might detract from his efforts to block the Iranian nuclear pact. He lost that fight and appears to be losing once more since Obama is feeling less generous, according to American and Israeli officials.
“Bibi refused” those negotiations, an Israeli source told me, “gambling our future for short term (election) gains at home.” Last fall, Ambassador Ron Dermer “asked to jumpstart the whole process” of a new Memorandum of Agreement on defense assistance and security cooperation, but Obama’s earlier terms are off the table, the source said. The Israeli government isn’t helping itself, either, by complaining to reporters that Washington is the one dragging its feet on the new MOU.
“Bibi is skewering himself and the administration is enjoying it,” said the source.
Dan Shapiro, the US ambassador in Israel, warned Netanyahu that waiting until the next administration might not be wise in light of American “budgetary limitations.”
Netanyahu, a serial meddler in American politics, may be hoping to leverage the aid package this election year by getting his Republican friends to attack Obama for not doing enough to help the Jewish state. He will be in Washington next month for the AIPAC policy conference and is expected to meet with Obama to close the deal on the 10-year MOU extension.
He’s also likely to meet with Republican leaders. The prime minister has an admitted affinity for Republicans – his ambassador is a former GOP operative – and he knows how Republicans have been declaring their love of Israel by bashing Barack Obama.
But that’s all the usual campaign talk. Someone should also tell the prime minister that Speaker Paul Ryan is under increasing pressure from the hardline fiscal conservatives in his party to renege on the bipartisan budget deal struck last year by his predecessor.
Foreign aid is not popular on the far Right, and that won’t improve when the fiscal hawks learn Netanyahu is asking for more than all US aid for the rest of the world combined.
Prior to the White House meeting, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon is expected to see Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to continue the negotiations, but closing the deal will be left to Netanyahu and Obama.
Netanyahu’s leverage is greatly diminished from what it was a year ago. His congressional speech, leading the opposition to the Iranian deal, the lack of any movement on the peace front, his campaign vow to block Palestinian statehood and his racist warning to followers that Arabs were voting in “droves” didn’t score any points at the White House.
One option being floated by the Americans is telling Netanyahu that Obama won’t sign the MOU unless the prime minister can get his Republican allies to commit to the sum in advance.
Defense News reports Obama is demanding that in exchange for any aid increase Israel will have to “forgo annual plus-ups to the president’s budget from Congress except for extreme emergency cases.”
A similar arrangement was made during the Reagan administration. At that time, the State Department consistently requested less aid for Israel than was approved the year before, and Israel’s friends in Congress not only ignored that but retaliated by voting to increase the package. The administration got tired of being beaten at every turn so it went to the Israelis and offered them a deal: We’ll agree to the current amount approved by Congress for five years if you’ll promise to get your friends on the Hill to go along and stop trying to increase it.
As reported in this column earlier, Israel is not a major issue in this year’s presidential campaign since all candidates are trying to out-Israel each other in showing their support, but what is getting a lot of attention are pledges by nearly all the Republican candidates to make deep cuts in non-Pentagon federal spending.
Netanyahu is likely betting that Republican victors in November will be so indebted to wealthy Jewish contributors like Sheldon Adelson that they will be anxious to give Israel anything the prime minister wants.
The prime minister reportedly is ready to reject Obama’s terms. He wants to get everything the administration offers and then be able to go around it to the Congress for more, as he has done in the past. He also wants to make sure the funding level does not include extras for special projects like the Iron Dome and David’s Sling anti-missile systems.
Yossi Melman, writing in The Jerusalem Post, said Netanyahu’s position “is the threat of a gunslinger that is out of bullets.”
Netanyahu is betting that yesterday’s partisan politics will give him everything he wants. He seems not to have noticed that this year’s campaigns signal an altered political climate that threatens to drastically change the aid equation in 2017.