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Trying to fool the Americans

Op-ed: Netanyahu was fantasizing about entering the US elections on a white horse, and was confident Israel would receive a much larger military aid package under a new president. He was wrong.

President Barack Obama Meets With Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu At The White House

The circle of PR people, commentators and yes-men around the prime minister expanded this week when Brig.-Gen. Yaakov Nagel, the acting national security adviser, joined the fold. When Nagel sat down in front of the cameras to explain the letter from the White House to Congress in which the Obama administration expressed its objection to further increasing the missile defense aid to Israel—he kept looking at what looked like a page of talking points from the Prime Minister’s Office. The content of his briefing also supported that assumption. Nagel urged not to panic, and we immediately started panicking: The thought that this is the man who will, from now on, be responsible to brief cabinet ministers on matters of security—per Education Minister Bennett’s demand—is a worrying one, indeed. One could already imagine him arriving at briefings with a page of talking points from the prime minister, reciting the message to the very attentive ears of the ministers.

But contrary to Nagel’s assuaging statement, according to which there is no talk of cutting US military aid to Israel, and Jerusalem is interested in reaching an agreement with Washington as soon as possible—the White House’s announcement that it opposes Congress’s decision to add $455 million to Israel’s military aid, is a slap in the face. The most veteran officials in dealing with Washington can’t remember such an announcement at such timing. And this wasn’t a slip of the tongue. Such a report on the day Israel marks the anniversary of the Second Lebanon war—is a message. And an announcement that the United States refuses to take part in a project that best symbolizes the defense of the home front is Obama’s way of getting back at Netanyahu.

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A little bit of background: The financial aid Israel receives from the US stands at $3 billion a year. This aid is given in the form of vouchers that Israel can redeem by making military acquisition from the United States. Most of the time, the Americans also decide what Israel is going to buy. It’s a pretty steep price to pay, but maybe not so much—considering the fact the vouchers are free.

Ten years ago, Israel signed a long-term agreement, as part of which it received $3 billion a year for 10 years. Part of the sum, 26 percent of it, was converted to shekels that Israel could use to make acquisitions outside US borders. This sum has become the main stimulus for Israel’s defense establishment to buy Israeli-made products, it was what helped move Israeli industry forward.

Ten years have passed, and over the past seven months the two nations have been in talks to renew the agreement. The Americans made similar proposals, and even offered a higher overall sum, conditioned in a certain reduction in the amount that would be converted to shekels. But Israel’s actions over the past year vis-à-vis the negotiations over the military aid agreement, is seen by the Obama administration as an attempt to draw out the talks on the assumption that a better agreement can be reached with the next administration.

Regardless of this financial aid, the Americans are also willing to participate in the funding of anti-missile systems, at a ratio of 2:1. Meaning, for every dollar Israel invests in the Iron Dome, the Americans are willing to invest two dollars. The rationale behind this is that the better Israel’s defense systems become, the less likely it is to go on offensive adventures. The sum in question amounts to several hundreds of millions of dollars, and the only thing Israel is required to do to make it happen is to prove it is willing to invest its share. This is a professional discussion that delves deep into the technical details of what Israel is going to do, and here, too, the Americans have the ability to impose limitations. For example, Israel is developing radars to spot missiles, but the US is not happy about it as it prefers to be the one selling this technology.

It is for this aspect of the missile defense aid that Israel is seeking additional funding. The US Congress is in favor of increasing the sum, while the administration is against it. The White House’s objection is in part germane, and in part because the administration thinks Israel is trying to pull a fast one on it with regards to the military aid agreement, and that is why it has no reason to make go to bat for Israel on the matter.

We’ve now reached the crux of the matter: So far, the Defense Ministry’s director-general and the head of the IDF’s Planning Directorate have been the ones in charge of negotiations with the Americans. But now the talks have been entrusted to Prime Minister’s Office, more specifically to officials in the National Security Council—meaning Yaakov Nagel, Ron Dermer, and Yitzhak Molcho—a close confidant of Netanyahu and a man who doesn’t necessarily have a deep understanding of the topic.

Needless to say that one can’t compare the Prime Minister’s Office to the Defense Ministry, certainly not when it comes to the level of trust the Americans have to each of the ministries. Over the years the Defense Ministry has been entrusted with the negotiations, the Americans and the Israelis have learned to separate the issue at hand from the bad blood between the Israeli prime minister and the American president, and handle things in a professional manner. The moment the issue has been passed on to the Prime Minister’s Office—and it was clear to the Americans that Netanyahu was trying to drive a wedge between Congress and the White House—everything went wrong.

When the nuclear deal with Iran was signed, the uncertainty coefficient was much larger. If it turned out that the Iranians were not keeping their side of the deal, and as a result pose a bigger threat to Israel—then it would’ve made sense to strengthen the Jewish state’s defense capabilities. But that wasn’t what happened. A year later, the Iranians are strictly adhering to the agreement. One has to remember that the agreement did not require them to stop their support for Hezbollah or Hamas. It required them to stop developing nuclear weapons—and they are keeping to this.

The president of the United States feels like he can allow himself to be a lot more at ease when it comes to Israel’s security. He feels like he repaid it big time. He both protected Israel from itself and helped it cut a massive sum from its defense budget: the NIS 10-13 billion that were earmarked for preparations to bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities. This is a president who feels far less obligated to play a part in the protection of Israel, and not because of a whim or a mood, but out of a sobered outlook, born of all of the humiliations he suffered from it. He can still look at his own actions with satisfaction, and say that he helped protect Israel’s security more than any other president.

All of this brings us back to the prime minister’s attitude concerning this agreement. A lot of ink has already been spent writing about Netanyahu’s megalomaniac worldview, which lacked an understanding of the true nature of Israel’s relationships with the American administration. Netanyahu has viewed the replacement of the president as a significant factor in this agreement, and in internal discussions used to state that we needed to wait until after the elections in the US, because then, under a different president, Israel could reach a far better agreement.

Today it is already evident that this was a mistake. The presumptive Republican nominee does not appear to be someone who supports increasing military aid to Israel. Neither does the presumptive Democratic nominee. The special aid supplement request has led to an argument over the financial aid, which is being conducted in the most cold and calculated manner. What Netanyahu’s close circle is realizing now is that it’s better for Obama to sign the agreement now, when there is consensus in the United States, than having a Republican president doing so while facing massive protests from the Democrats.

Netanyahu was fantasizing about entering the ring of the US elections on a white horse, while declaring his expertise in American politics and his confidence that Israel will receive a much larger aid package. He was wrong.

But it will be us paying for this mistake, as always.

By Ynet News



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