By David K. Shipler
The Senate’s failure to block the agreement with Iran may look like a defeat for Israel, whose government lobbied so intensely against it, but in reality Israel is likely to benefit in two ways if the deal is implemented. First, Iran will be impeded in pursuing nuclear weapons. Second, Israel will get more security aid from the United States.
The first point has been ferociously debated, of course. The second, however, is indisputable. The Obama administration was reportedly eager to start talks with Israel about enhanced assistance as the Iran deal was completed. Democratic supporters of the agreement, pressed by AIPAC, the pro-Israel organization, are ready to improve their political standing by by compensating Israel with new weaponry.
An example is Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who declared when he endorsed the Iran deal, “The U.S. should provide Israel with access to the Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) to help deter Iranian cheating.” That’s the bunker-busting bomb, which might be able to reach buried, fortified nuclear facilities. It would presumably enable Israel to start a war that the United States would have to finish.
Even if Obama wisely holds back the MOP, his administration seems poised to dangle other goodies in front of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who refused to take this bait as long as there was a chance of torpedoing the Iran deal. He didn’t want to trade away his opposition or soften the image of Israel’s vulnerability, and he wouldn’t authorize Israeli military and intelligence officials to enter discussions about future weapons systems. Now that the deal appears secure, the Israelis plan to sit down with their American counterparts, Vice President Joe Biden has revealed.
This will disappoint advocates of a Palestinian state and opponents of Jewish settlements in the West Bank who wish that the United States would use its aid as leverage. If only every dollar Israel spends on settlements would be subtracted from the American aid package, it has been argued, Israel would feel enough pain to consider compromise. Expanding settlements has heightened clashes and tensions between Israelis and Palestinians and makes any Israeli territorial withdrawal—required for a peace agreement—increasingly difficult. An online petition campaign against further military aid to Israel has been started by RootsAction.org.
But the American leverage won’t be used. All other predictions about the Middle East are risky, but not this one. Robust U.S. military aid is a fixture in law and policy. It has not been shaken by Israel’s misbehavior or by the friction between Netanyahu and Obama. Indeed, despite the mysterious impression of Obama as unfriendly to Israel, his practical support has been extensive.
The false image of Obama derives from several remarks and efforts willfully misunderstood. He tried to mend fences with the Muslim world, which triggered anxiety among many Israelis but would have helped Israel if he’d succeeded. He reiterated longstanding American policy of basing a peace agreement with Palestinians on Israel’s pre-1967 lines, and was attacked by right-wingers who ignored his caveat: that those lines were only a starting point for negotiations on land swaps, which previous Israeli governments had discussed.
He has also criticized Jewish settlements as obstacles to peace—and so did his Republican and Democratic predecessors going back to Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. But Obama has never put his money where his mouth is; he’s never tried to curtail settlements by reducing the generous flow of assistance. And with the survival of the Iran agreement, toying with Israel’s security concerns by manipulating aid will be politically unthinkable.
Israel gets about $3 billion annually in security assistance from the United States, plus another $1 billion for the Iron Dome anti-missile system, which effectively neutralized the rain of rockets from Hamas in Gaza during the 2014 summer war. Further missile defense research and development add up to about $2 billion, and American officials are talking about increased technical assistance in a range of defense-related areas. As an administration official recently pointed out, Israel is already the only foreign country with highly advanced F-35 stealth fighter jets.
Israel’s advantage is locked into law. “It is the policy of the United States,” says the United States-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act of 2012, “to help Israel preserve its qualitative military edge amid rapid and uncertain regional political transformation.” In other words, no matter what weaponry Iran, Saudi Arabia, or other neighbors obtain, the U.S. is legally bound to keep Israel a step ahead. Significantly, Obama signed the act on the eve of a visit to Israel by Mitt Romney during the last presidential campaign,.
Obama has said that he wants to draw up a new memorandum of understanding on aid to Israel before he leaves office; the current memo expires in 2017, and the new one seems likely to continue the intense security cooperation.
All this comes against Israel’s longstanding ambivalence about its dependence on the U.S. Woven into the fiber of the rationale for a Jewish state that arose out of the Holocaust is the conviction that Jews should not assume that anybody will come to their rescue. A tough self-determination, a ready defiance of the larger world, are symptoms of the belief—the deep fear—that Jews in peril must ultimately rely only on themselves.
For years, therefore, Israel resisted the strategy of prepositioning American military hardware on its soil to facilitate a rapid response to a crisis. The opposition has been overcome by practical need. Israel has also developed its own defense industry to manufacture tanks, small arms, and sophisticated electronic upgrades to American-built fighter jets. (In the 1980s it began, then cancelled, a program to make its own fighter, the Lavi.)
It has not been a one-way street. The U.S. has benefitted from Israeli technological research, and the same with intelligence sharing. That’s one area where cooperation can be dialed up or down in secret, and it reportedly has been in the past. But serious reductions would be costly to both sides, especially in a time of terrorism, and from what is known, the current impulse appears to favor more, not less, transfer of intelligence. According to a top-secret document disclosed by Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, the NSA provides massive data files to Israel, so comprehensive that they could contain communications from the White House, the Cabinet, members of Congress, and Supreme Court justices. A U.S.-Israeli memorandum of understanding requires Israel to “destroy upon recognition” any such material.
In other words, while Netanyahu and Obama have captured public attention by annoying each other over the Iran deal, the more important level of the relationship has remained solid, to Israel’s great advantage.