U.S., Israel Sign Biggest Defense Assistance Deal Ever

U.S. Undersecretary of State Tom Shannon (R) and Israeli Acting National Security Advisor Jacob Nagel participate in a signing ceremony for a new ten-year pact on security assistance between the two nations at the State Department on Wednesday. (Reuters/Gary Cameron)
U.S. Undersecretary of State Tom Shannon (R) and Israeli Acting National Security Advisor Jacob Nagel participate in a signing ceremony for a new ten-year pact on security assistance between the two nations at the State Department on Wednesday. (Reuters/Gary Cameron)

The United States and Israel brought months of sensitive and difficult negotiations to a close on Wednesday with the signing of a 10-year, $38 billion defense deal, hailed by both sides as the biggest of its kind in American history.

In a statement released an hour before the official signing, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu thanked the United States and his longtime antagonist, U.S. President Barack Obama.

“This agreement will ensure an unprecedented level of defense aid for Israel in the next decade,” Netanyahu said. “This is the largest military aid package the U.S. has ever given out to any nation.”

“The agreement will help us continue building our armed forces, improve our missile defense systems,” he added. “I want to thank President Obama and his administration for this historic agreement.”

Acknowledging the unrelieved tensions between Yerushalayim and Washington, Netanyahu said they “had no effect whatsoever on the great friendship between Israel and the U.S.”

“These are disputes you have between family,” Netanyahu said. “This agreement demonstrates the simple truth that the relationship between Israel and the U.S. is strong and powerful.”

In a statement released by the White House on Wednesday, Obama started with the expected paean to the bilateral relationship:

“As I have said repeatedly, America’s commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable. Over the past eight years, my Administration has time and again demonstrated this commitment in word and deed…”

But in the second paragraph, the president veered into a terse polemic on Netanyahu’s building policy in Yehudah and Shomron, which bared once again the tensions that have characterized the bilateral relationship for almost eight years:

“It is because of this same commitment to Israel and its long-term security that we will also continue to press for a two-state solution to the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict, despite the deeply troubling trends on the ground that undermine this goal,” Obama said.

The new aid package, termed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), will see Israel receive $3.8 billion annually — up from $3 billion — starting in 2019 and through 2028. Israel had initially requested $5 billion a year, but that figure was quickly shelved by U.S. negotiators.

An official U.S. factsheet highlighted some of the features of the document:

– $500 million a year for Israeli missile-defense funding, the first time this has been formally built into the aid pact.

– A phasing-out of a special arrangement that for decades has allowed Israel to use a quarter of the U.S. aid on its own defense industry instead of American-made weapons.

– Elimination of a longstanding provision that has allowed Israel to use a portion of the U.S. aid to buy military fuel.

It was noted that an MOU is not a formal treaty, and is not binding on Congress, which was not party to the negotiations and was not privy to details of the agreement.

The acting head of Israel’s National Security Council, Yaakov Nagel, was in Washington to sign the agreement on behalf of Israel at the State Department on Wednesday.

Washington’s ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer attended the ceremony in the State Department’s Treaty Room.

Rice said the MOU ensures there will always be an Israel and an Israeli people “today, tomorrow, and for generations to come.”

The agreement is a “win-win” for Israel and the U.S., she said — a pact that guarantees the security of the Jewish state, and the sustenance of America’s strongest ally in the region.

Nagel said that the “generous” package provided to Israel “is not taken for granted” and that he avoiding describing talks with the administration as “negotiations,” saying that this assistance was a gift, and the two sides were engaged in talks about the terms of the gift.

He went on to explain some of the major points:

The MOU creates a fixed amount, not subject to renegotiation during the 10-year period.

Nagel broke the accord down into two main components: the annual foreign military financing, and the supplemental funding for missile defense.

By comparison, under the MOU that will expire in 2018, Israel received an average of $3b a year and an additional $440,000 in supplemental missile defense aid that it asked Congress each year. All together, that entire package came to 34.4b over a decade.

Israel, Nagel said, has committed itself not to ask Congress for additional funds for missile defense. He said that a guaranteed $5b over the next decade for missile defense, however, makes it much easier for the defense establishment to make long range plans.

However, the agreement does permit Israel to request additional funding in the event of war, and for special projects, such as countermeasures against Hamas tunnels.

He also noted that there was a “firewall” between talks about the defense package and the Palestinian issue, and at no time did anyone involved link the two.

In Israel, opposition politicians seized on the moment to criticize Netanyahu for not obtaining a better deal than he did.

Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah, a member of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, charged on Wednesday that “the prime minister’s relationship with the White House and the way in which he handled the negotiations have caused billions of dollars worth of damage to the economy, security and to Israel’s defense establishment,” The Jerusalem Post quoted him as saying.

Zionist Camp MK Erel Margalit blamed Netanyahu’s “personal and political interests… a direct continuation of his conduct, which is harming Israel’s foreign relations.”

Former Likud minister Dan Meridor told Army Radio that Netanyahu should have leveraged the Iran nuclear deal to get more from Washington.

“When it became clear that the Americans were going to sign an agreement with the Iranians, we could have pursued a different policy and gotten a better agreement,” he said.

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