The New York Times editorial board says the new $38 billion U.S. aid package for Israel’s defense is too big. A number of Israeli political rivals of Prime Minister Netanyahu think the sum is too small. And Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is upset with the Israeli leader for agreeing to a provision that would prevent Jerusalem from lobbying Congress for additional funds. But then, every major development in the U.S.-Israel relationship these days is bound up in political controversy.
The main point to remember is that the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed in Washington last week, which will go into effect for 10 years after the current agreement expires in 2018, is, as President Obama noted, “the largest single pledge of military assistance in U.S. history.” It underscores the fact that despite political differences between the leaders of the two countries, felt most deeply during the Obama-Netanyahu years, the U.S. support for its most reliable ally in the Middle East is deep and long-lasting.
Netanyahu reportedly sought $45 billion for military aid, and his critics say he hurt his chances by taking on Obama in such a direct way by speaking out against the Iran nuclear deal in Congress last year. But it’s understandable that Netanyahu did not want to negotiate the military deal during the Iran debate. As Mideast expert David Makovsky of The Washington Institute noted this week, the prime minister may have feared “potential perceptions that Israel was being bought off to soften its opposition to the nuclear deal.”
Obama and Netanyahu each had political reasons for signing the MOU now. The prime minister did not want to wait until after the November elections in the U.S., unwilling to risk dealing with Donald Trump, who is seen in Israel as a loose cannon and an erratic, impulsive negotiator. And Obama wanted to close out his tenure in the White House proving to Israel and its supporters that despite his strategic differences with Jerusalem, he remains a firm supporter of Israeli security. That could help Hillary Clinton with Jewish voters in what has become a tight presidential election.
Pro-Israel activists who distrust Obama worry that, having signed the MOU, the president will have the additional political latitude to bring a resolution to the United Nations after the November election that would establish parameters for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Both the Israelis and Palestinians would oppose such a resolution, it seems clear. But it would establish a significant marker, coming from the White House, and would increase the pressure on the two sides to come together and make compromises.
Obama may well be planning such a move, or at least a major address, before he leaves office outlining his Mideast goals. But that would have taken place with or without the completion of the MOU. For now it is important to remember that “facts on the ground” in the Mideast refers not only to settlements, but to agreements like the MOU. It signals to Israel’s enemies, as well as friends, that the U.S. is in Israel’s court when it comes to security, and that is a fact for which we should all be grateful, and not take for granted.