If I’ve got the narrative wrong, someone please tell me:
–Twenty F-35s, the state of the art combat aircraft, were in the pipeline for Israel.
–The Obama administration offered another 20 F-35s, among other deal sweeteners, if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would extend the settlement freeze another 90 days;
–There was a U.S. offer, in writing, negotiated by top U.S. and Israeli officials, ready to go; then Netanyahu wanted the Americans to include a declaration not opposing building in eastern Jerusalem. The Americans wouldn’t give.
–The deal is now off the table.
–Netanyahu’s aide, Ron Dermer, thinks the extra 20 planes may still be on the table.
From the New York Times:
As part of the incentive package, Israel was expecting to get an additional 20 stealth war planes, beyond the 20 it had already ordered. Even though the settlement freeze deal is now off the table, the Israeli officials said the request for the extra F-35 planes still stood, so that the Israel military could maintain its qualitative edge.
“I don’t rule out the possibility that we will get the additional 20 planes,” Mr. Dermer said.
My question: For what?
Not just in the sense of, if the deal is off, it’s off; but top Israeli officials — including Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, the chief of staff, when he met with his U.S. counterpart Ad. Mike Mullen three weeks ago — have said the extra planes would be nice, but not necessary.
So what gives?
UPDATE: Josh Silberberg, in a tweet, guides me to this Ben Smith story in Politico, in which the Israelis tied the extra 20 F-35s to the sale of 84 F-15s to Saudi Arabia:
The plan drew some grumbles from pro-Israel members of the Congress, who worried that the sale would tip the balance of power in the region. But Israel’s government remained publicly silent. Privately, in August — a top Israeli official told POLITICO — they asked the Obama administration to match the Saudi sale with 20 F-35 jets for the Israeli air force, a move that would maintain the “qualitative military advantage,” which has long been a principle of American policy toward Israel.
Those F-35s are now at the heart of a proposed deal between the U.S. and Israel over the renewed 90-day freeze.
The notion that Israel would get $2 billion worth of military hardware for a three-month delay in the construction of a few houses appears incomprehensible and has drawn criticism for two reasons: Netanyahu’s conservative coalition partners worry that the Americans are selling them yesterday’s carpet, making a condition of something that was already in the works. His American critics, meanwhile, expressed astonishment that Obama would pay so much for so little.
The reality is more complicated, and emblematic of the stilted relationship between the United States and its ally, and of the Israeli angst over American support, its mistrust of Obama and its assumption that peace talks will fail. The Israelis are using the talks — viewed by most of the government as a fantasy — as a bridge to their more immediate security needs.
“It’s not connected to the 90 days — it’s connected to the Saudi deal,” said a senior aide to Netanyahu. “It’s not something [Netanyahu] had in his pocket.”
That suggests that there’s an Israeli contingent eager — or anxious — to get the F-35s for reasons apart from a freeze sweetener, and explains my second “for what” (why do the Israelis need it).
But it leaves open questions about the first “for what” — what deal is this part of, now that the freeze deal collapsed? Who made the extra 20 fighters part of the freeze deal — the Netanyahu or the Obama administration? Had the Obama administration agreed to the extra 20 fighters before it started pressing Israel to extend the freeze?