In a press conference at the Pentagon last Thursday, US President Obama said,
[The] Israeli military and security community … acknowledges [the Iranian nuclear deal] has been a game changer. The country that was most opposed to the deal.
Sorry, but no. A fact-checker would have to give this at least 3 or 4 Pinocchios. I don’t doubt that Obama found some former or present Israeli official who said this, but it definitely does not represent the views of the “military and security community” here. PM Netanyahu responded (too) politely that Israel’s position opposing the deal hasn’t changed, but Israel’s Defense Ministry issued a very harshly-worded comment, comparing it to the Munich agreement of 1938 that sacrificed Czechoslovakia to the Nazis and paved the way for the Second World War.
As always, Israel sent a mixed message. The PM’s office later conveyed via its ambassador in Washington that it had not seen or approved the stronger Defense Ministry statement. Left-wing politicians in Israel blamed hawkish Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and chastised him for trying to destroy the relationship between Israel and the US.
Here we go again, the submissive wife walking on eggshells so as not to upset the abusive husband. Obama is easily “infuriated,” by such things as announcements of planned Jewish construction in eastern Jerusalem or Netanyahu’s recognition of the fact that a Palestinian state is unlikely to come about in the near future. And he makes his anger evident in numerous ways, all the way from vulgar insults to attempts to intervene in our elections.
As these things go, this is a minor incident but it is indicative of the unhealthy relationship between Israel and the US administration. And since it really is true (as Netanyahu noted in his response to Obama’s very-misleading-if-not-lying remark) that America is our greatest ally, we need to do what we can to improve it.
I think the most glaring problem is that the US has trouble treating us as a sovereign nation. And that makes sense, because American decision makers see us receiving some $3 billion in military aid each year. Shouldn’t we be more grateful? Or to put it more bluntly, they feel like they are visiting a whorehouse where all the whores claim to have headaches.
Until the advent of the first truly anti-Israel administration in the US, the military aid program with its commitment to maintaining a “qualitative military edge” for Israel vis-à-vis her enemies, has been a great benefit to Israel. But today it has given a great deal of leverage to an administration that is remarkably persistent in its attempts to force Israel back to indefensible borders, as well as to appease her single greatest enemy, Iran.
The Obama administration demonstrated its use of the aid program for leverage when it held up delivery of Hellfire missiles during 2014’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza. The threat of a hostile administration withholding critical supplies of equipment that Israel has become dependent upon to force a change in course, even in the middle of a war is a very real danger.
The present aid program which is currently being renegotiated includes a provision that 26% of the funds can be spent on equipment purchased from Israeli manufacturers. This has enabled Israel to build up its military industries to the point that they represent competition to US companies, despite a “de facto veto power” held by the US on Israeli arms exports. The new program currently being negotiated will phase out the 26%. Every penny will be spent in the US. This will seriously impact the Israeli defense industry and cause a loss of numerous good jobs. It will also further increase Israel’s dependence on the US by making it harder to produce critical items at home.
The F-35 program is another aspect of the aid relationship which is of questionable value to Israel. The F-35 was developed in order to meet the multiple requirements of all of the US armed forces, and is extremely expensive – the initial 20 aircraft will cost some $2.7 billion, financed entirely by military aid. The planes are also expensive to maintain and operate, do not perform as well as expected and still have many serious unsolved problems. If it weren’t for the aid program, it is unimaginable that Israel would commit to replacing its aging F-16 fleet with F-35s.
The close relationship is too close in other ways. The US has a permanent radar installation in the Negev, operated by American personnel, off limits to Israelis. It is said to have a much longer range than Israeli radars, and the Americans have promised to provide to Israel an early warning of Iranian missile launches. But the radar can also detect even a small drone taking off from anywhere in Israel. If, for example, Israel wanted to launch an attack on the Iranian nuclear facility, it could not prevent the US from knowing about it in real time. Would it not be better to develop and deploy our own radar systems?
Intelligence and technology sharing with an ally has benefits – until the ally’s interests diverge from ours, as they started to do when Obama became President.
Another more subtle issue concerns the effect that Israel’s dependence on the US has on Israeli officials, from the PM down to military officers. Suppose you are the Chief of Staff, you are running a massive enterprise with tens of thousands of ‘employees’ and an enormously complicated budget, and the lives of millions of people depend on the smooth functioning of your ‘business’. Then suppose someone that you know is closely connected to the US administration, the source of about 1/5 of your ‘revenue’, calls you. Listen, he says, it’s important to us for you to support (or oppose) this or that initiative, this or that candidate. What do you do? He’s not asking you to commit treason, just to lean one way or the other, and his talking points aren’t unreasonable.
In 2010, PM Netanyahu and then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak wanted to hit Iranian nuclear facilities. The Obama Administration strongly opposed it – and so did Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi. In 2011 there was a new Chief of Staff, Benny Gantz, who thought that Israel had the capability to do it, but other officials did not support the idea. Can we say for sure that the opposition was not based on fear of Obama’s reaction, or even pressure from the US?
Surveys show that a solid majority of the American people still support Israel and her right to defend herself, and the US Congress follows their lead. But foreign policy is controlled by the administration, and as we saw with the Iran deal, Congress can do little to prevent a determined administration from getting its way. Israel has been lucky until now that American presidents have at worst been indifferent to her. Today there is an actively hostile one, and we can’t predict what the future will bring.
Why not start phasing out US military assistance? It could be done over a period of years to reduce the pain, and would be the first step to reducing the excessive American influence over our nation.
Our defense budget is around $15 billion, and our GNP is $300 billion. American military aid in recent years has been around $3 billion per year. This is a lot of money, but Israel’s economy is good, and new discoveries of natural gas promise to improve cash flow in the near future. There is certainly room to economize in the military budget. We could handle it. We can still purchase American equipment when it is the best choice, but with our own money. Our own military industries would be stimulated and some of the shortfall would be made up by increased export sales.
We need a divorce from the abusive Obama Administration, but we’ll still stay friends with the American people.
Nothing destroys sovereignty so well as living at the sufferance of another’s generosity. The mechanism for Israel defying this measure of its worth–how much its greatest ally values its existence–, has been kept going by little Israel’s constant tending to US interests, even when they were not its own. The two-state solution is probably the most glaring example, but apologies to Turkey for its act of war in trying to break the Gaza blockade, cutting short the Yom Kippur war’s hostilities, agreeing to have UN observers enforce Hezbollah’s demilitarization after 2006, honoring a building freeze in Judea and Samaria, leaving South Lebanon, evicting Israelis from Gaza… such a long list of disregarding one’s own interests except for the truly, we-really-mean-it-this-time, no compromise kind of interest that the recipient cannot have failed to convey to its patron how mutable its interests must be.
Like a person used to receiving bounty without thank you or grace, the demands upon the giver and the complaints he endures about imagined slights have no sensible limit. In the era of an Obama–a very un-American President but one very similar to many before him in administration policy toward Israel–, the switch to fury over receiving less than demanded behavior, leaves the sued for bonhomie of a good relationship completely unhinged; there is no way to dance fast enough to get one’s ‘correct’ behavior in line with what is taken for a perceived interest, because Obama has put a madcap policy of disregarding America’s interests on parade, so that what is good for the US cannot be gauged easily, or put back quickly at the last calibration.
Imagine how to untangle what Israel must strategize from when the President insists his Iran deal is working, that the $400 million in foreign denominated currencies delivered on an unmarked cargo plane that prompted the release of American hostages is not a ransom, that building apartments for Jews in Jewish neighborhoods in Israel is an affront to TSS and the US, that the X-Band radar is manned for Israel’s own good, that he has been a stalwart of Israel’s well-being… It cannot be done.
Little by little, Israel must wean itself of the proffered aid that it may regain its independence of view. Clinton will be more of Obama. Trump is an unknown. How long before strategy is so tied in knots that the obvious things to do become mired in a calculus of self-destruction.