Largest US military aid package ever goes to Israel - with caveats

The record US aid package consists of $3.8 billion a year for Israel, though the agreement has a few unusual caveats.

Gali Tibbon/Pool/AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opens the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office on Sunday.

Israel has long been the biggest beneficiary of US military aid. Washington has been committed to providing the Middle East ally with "qualitative military edge" in order to preserve the country's security in a region full of antagonistic powers.

US officials announced Wednesday that Israel would receive an unprecedented $38 billion over the span of a decade.

The deal comes with several significant caveats for Israel. The agreement between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also significant in that it cuts Congress, the traditional go-between for military aid with foreign powers, out of the agreement entirely. 

"The United States has concluded a new 10-year Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Israel on security assistance for Fiscal Years 2019 through 2028," the White House said in a statement released Tuesday. "This MOU constitutes the single largest pledge of bilateral military assistance in U.S. history.‎"

The historic MOU is unusual in many respects. The agreement will increase overall aid from $3.1 billion a year to $3.3 billion, starting in 2018, not including $500 million of annual missile defense funding. In total, the deal comes to $3.8 billion a year for Israel, according to The Washington Post.

Congress, however, had planned to give Israel $4 billion in 2017, including $600 million for missile defense, but that figure was too high for the Obama administration.

The MOU is the culmination of nearly 10 months of negotiations by Israeli and US officials, according to Reuters. Tensions between Obama and Netanyahu over the US-Iran nuclear deal last year and US concerns about Israel's treatment of Palestinians drew out the process, but ultimately Mr. Netanyahu apparently decided it would be best to make the arrangement official before Obama leaves office in January, rather than take chances with his successor.

Pamela Chasek, chair of the government and politics department at Manhattan College, emphasizes that the secret nature of the negotiations makes it impossible to say with certainty what the motivations are on both sides of the agreement, but it seems like Mr. Netanyahu has doubts about how good a deal Israel could get with the next president.

"My guess is he's not feeling particularly comfortable with [Donald] Trump at this point, whether or not he feels comfortable with [Hillary] Clinton. He may prefer her over Obama, but he's now put himself into this very difficult position where he's been seen as supporting Republicans for the past eight years," Dr. Chasek tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview.

By taking this deal, he has a chance to "bury the hatchet" with President Obama and the Democrats, as well as secure a historically large amount of funding from the United States. Mr. Obama, for his part, will get a chance to prove his commitment to the US ally.

"That's going to give both of them a potential win-win situation," she says.

Relations between Obama and Netanyahu have been shaky ever since the US president took office. In March of last year, then-House Speaker John Boehner invited Netanyahu to address Congress to criticize the upcoming Iran nuclear deal without notifying the US president. Obama's support of the Iranian negotiations, has drawn harsh criticism from many Israeli officials as well as US Republicans.

The new deal between Israel and the US, is largely thanks to a letter signed by the Israeli government that promises to return any aid money given by Congress above the levels stipulated by the MOU in 2017 and 2018. The letter was written after Congress refused to reduce funding to Obama's approved levels, drawing sharp rebukes for Obama from many Republicans, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that manages the foreign affairs budget.

"You know the White House pressured them into writing that letter," Senator Graham told The Washington Post. "It is a level of antagonism against Israel that I can't understand."

Israel has also agreed not to lobby Congress for additional money.

Caveats aside, $38 billion is still a huge windfall for Israel, especially given the ongoing tension between Obama and Netanyahu during the Obama administration. . 

"[The MOU] an important message to the region that nobody should misread the differences between the US and Israel when it comes to Iran or policy differences when it comes to the Palestinians," David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told CNN. "At the core, the US remains very committed to Israel's long-term security."

As the conflicts in the Middle East become increasingly complex, it will become necessary for the US to negotiate and cooperate with nations antagonistic to the Israel, says Chasek. Israel's record aid package will give Washington something to point at in order to reassure Israel that the US still has its best interests at heart.

"That can give us some wiggle room that I think we desperately need, if we're going to have any impact on trying to bring peace to the region," Chasek says.

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