JINSA President & CEO Dr. Michael Makovsky on US-Israel MOU in Politico

Can Obama buy the love of his pro-Israel critics?
By Nahal Toosi and Bryan Bender – Politico

President Barack Obama will unveil on Wednesday a massive new military aid package for Israel, one which – at a reported $38 billion over 10 years – would be the largest such deal in U.S. history.

But is it enough to buy Obama the love of his fiercest pro-Israel critics? Not a chance.

Can Obama buy the love of his pro-Israel critics?
By Nahal Toosi and Bryan Bender – Politico

President Barack Obama will unveil on Wednesday a massive new military aid package for Israel, one which – at a reported $38 billion over 10 years – would be the largest such deal in U.S. history.

But is it enough to buy Obama the love of his fiercest pro-Israel critics? Not a chance.

Some hawkish U.S. lawmakers and foreign policy commentators are raising questions about aspects of the deal, especially reports that it limits Israel’s ability to lobby for more aid from Congress. They also insist Obama’s Middle East policies, including his embrace of a nuclear deal with Iran, have endangered Israel enough that in the long run the larger aid package may not make a difference.

Conservative Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin, for one, called the deal “one more kick in the shins to Israel.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who pointedly notes that Congress didn’t play a role in crafting the agreement, has suggested he wants to appropriate even more aid to Israel. Others, too, say that with the future uncertain in an increasingly chaotic Middle East, the agreement should be seen more as a guideline than anything binding.

“I do think it’s important that even a president like President Obama, who many of us don’t see as a good friend of Israel, is willing to increase the aid – that is a milestone,” said Michael Makovsky of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. “I just don’t think it’s enough. I think this should be seen as a floor for military aid to Israel, not a ceiling.”

An Obama administration official dismissed the criticisms in a statement to POLITICO. “Any claims that this support is somehow ‘compensation’ for tactical disagreements – including over the Iran deal – are an insult to both the United States and Israel,” the official said. “They call into question our ironclad commitment to Israel’s security and suggest that Israel’s leadership is willing to accept remuneration to paper over legitimate differences of opinion.”

The administration has spent months quietly building buzz about the complicated and highly technical agreement, and it has been determined to ink the deal before Obama leaves office. Some observers suggested that Israel could get a better deal if it waited until Obama was gone. But the improbable rise of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has added pressure to come to terms now.

“You might have gotten a better deal from President Clinton. But it might be Trump,” who would be far more unpredictable, said David Schenker, a Pentagon policy official in the George W. Bush administration who is now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Obama’s aides hope that the size of the package alone will send a strong signal of Obama’s commitment to Israel’s security. That commitment has repeatedly been questioned throughout Obama’s time in the Oval Office, especially as he and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sparred over the Iran nuclear deal. Obama’s decision early in his presidency to tour Arab states without stopping in Israel also unnerved many in the conservative pro-Israel world.

The existing U.S. military aid memorandum of understanding with Israel, which covers 10 years and is set to expire in 2018, amounts to roughly $30 billion. Some experts push back at the notion that the newly proposed deal provides much more than the current arrangement.

Col. Gilead Sher, who served as chief of staff to former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, pointed out that Congress has added roughly $500 million every year on top of the estimated $3 billion a year given out under the current agreement.

“So the difference between the coming deal and the existing one would be just $300 million a year, Sher said.

Netanyahu, he noted, “wanted $45 billion at the outset.”

“I would give [the new agreement] a more modest description than what I find in certain newspapers – like the ‘largest ever,’ an ‘exceptional achievement’ for Israel,” Sher told POLITICO. “It is almost exactly, precisely the very same figures … in terms of this very narrow perspective of sustaining the aid to Israel, I’d say Obama just walked in the footsteps of his predecessors – and he did quite well.”

Much of the additional money Congress has appropriated in recent years went toward missile defense. The new deal is expected to include additional funding for missile defense within its main parameters. The new deal is also believed to phase out an arrangement that lets Israel spend roughly a quarter of the money it receives on items made by its own defense industry. That arrangement was put in place at a time when Israel’s defense industry was still maturing; now it is on stronger footing, and the U.S. would prefer to see the agreement further help American manufacturers.

The deal also is expected to include a provision that prohibits the Israeli government from lobbying for more money from Congress beyond those parameters. That provision in particular has troubled Graham, who serves on the Senate’s Armed Services and Appropriations committees. An aide to Graham confirmed a Washington Post report that the powerful Republican, who wants to give at least $100 million more to Israel each year, was upset by what saw as executive branch interference in the appropriations process.

“Neither Graham or Congress are a party to or bound by the deal,” the aide stressed. (Congress’ role in the deal basically comes down to its appropriations process. The agreement is not a treaty or other type of deal that requires congressional approval.)

Elliott Abrams, who served as a deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration, said that given the growing threats to Israel over the past decade – from the collapse of Syria to the rise of the Islamic State to Iran’s regional interference – any U.S. president would probably have given Israel a larger aid package.

But “the terms that Obama is seeking are fairly tough,” said Abrams, who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations and is a prominent critic of Obama’s foreign policy. “To say to Israelis for 10 years you’ve got to stay away from Congress is pretty tough. … We don’t know what the situation in the Middle East is going to be five years from now.”

Ilan Goldenberg, a former Obama administration official now with the Center for a New American Security, said that regardless of how much money the U.S. president gives Israel, the subject of Obama’s relationship to the country is so divisive that neither side will be happy. But, to their credit, Netanyahu and Obama put aside their personal animosity to get it done, and that not only sends a signal to critics of both men, but also to Iran and other regional players who hope to see a weakened Israel, he said.

“Even if Netanyahu and Obama don’t like each other very much this is bigger than them, and they both understand that,” Goldenberg said.

Others fear Obama could still take other steps before the end of his presidency, such as backing Palestinian efforts to unilaterally declare statehood and seek the support of the United Nations, that would undermine Israel.

“There is a lot of concern being expressed about some post-election maneuver at the U.N.,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, chief executive of the Conference of President of Major Jewish Organizations. “Will the president give a speech, will there be a resolution?”

What is likely to loom larger in critics’ views of Obama’s relationship with Israel is the nuclear deal with Iran, which Israel sees as its biggest foe.

The Iran deal paves the way for the regime in Tehran to access new weapons with billions of dollars of unfrozen assets. With U.S. help, Arab states who also fear Iranian ambitions are undergoing major military buildups of their own – especially Saudi Arabia, which has purchased a record amount of high-tech arms under the Obama administration, or more than $115 billion since 2009, according to the Center for International Policy.

That adds to pressure on Israel to maintain the “qualitative military edge” over its neighbors that is central to U.S.-Israel alliance.
“Israel’s QME has been thrown out of whack due to the Iran deal,” said Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “The problem is that the Iran deal has prompted the Sunni [Muslim] states in the region to want to go out and purchase more weapons. While not a direct threat to Israel at this moment, you can’t forget the historic animosity.”

To critics of his approach to Jewish-majority Israel, “President Obama is the arsonist and the firefighter,” Schanzer said.

“He reaches the Iran deal, he spreads weapons all over the region, and there are those who will that is why the president is now increasing aid to the Israelis.” he said. They are asking, “has this helped or hurt on balance the way the region is shaping up?”

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