Reports say that the agreement, known as the memorandum of understanding, will be worth roughly $3.7 billion per year in military aid to Israel. The current memorandum of understanding, for $3 billion a year, expires in 2018.
Late last month, Israel’s acting National Security Council head Jacob Nagel traveled to Washington for a round of talks, including a meeting with National Security Advisor Susan Rice.
The increased aid demonstrates the strong bonds between the two countries despite differences that have played out in public between the administrations of President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, says Dennis Ross, former U.S. Middle East diplomat.
“It signals to the rest of the world that this relationship can have ups and downs but it’s unshakeable. When it comes to Israel’s security, this is not a relationship that is affected by what these ups and downs are.”
Ross has worked for presidents Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan in various diplomatic capacities and authored the book “Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama” last year. He thinks Obama does not get enough credit for strengthening Israeli security.
“When we say this is a relationship that is institutionalized and is ironclad, this is a very strong manifestation of it,” he said of the memorandum of understanding “It’s not just words. Here’s a 10-year commitment, and it’s a statement of an enduring relationship.”
One source of controversy that has yet to be worked out is the amount of the aid that Israel may spend on defense within its borders, rather than spend in the United States. Under the current agreement, Israel may use up to 26.3 percent of the aid to purchase from its own defense industries.
Ross and other experts say that under the new agreement, Israel will have to spend the entire amount in the United States within five to 10 years — something Ross said he opposes.
He said the rationale for the phase-out, is that the first memorandum of understanding was drawn up in the 1980s to assist Israel’s fledgling defense industries. Being permitted to spend part of the aid at home was a way to boost those industries.
Ultimately the United States wants to “help Israel stand on its own two feet” while also getting something in return, says Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which is based in Washington.
“It’s a source of controversy to say the least,” he said. “For some in the United States, there’s a question of why is the United States cashing in on arms sales to others. That’s a reasonable concern as the [Israeli] defense industry struggles. These funds ultimately help Israel develop new technologies and these flow back to the United States inevitably.”
Schanzer said it is difficult to know whether $3.7 billion is enough because things are constantly changing in the Middle East. A decade ago there was “no ISIS, no Iran deal and Hezbollah had half as many rockets,” he noted.
“I think the real challenge for the Israelis is that it’s hard for them to plan a 10-year horizon, because their security situation is so fluid and so erratic,” he said. “In today’s Middle East it’s exceedingly difficult to predict what is needed.”
Schanzer said the closed-door nature of the negotiations helps insulate the discussions from the volatility of Israel and the United States’ public relationship.
“My sense is that the political ties are going to remain strained for as long as Obama remains in office, regardless of what is in the MOU,” he said. “[But] I think the Israelis will be pleased and Obama will tout this as one of his accomplishments for Israel while in office.”
There has been plenty of politicking on the Israeli side, with Netanyahu having considered waiting for the next U.S. administration in the hope of getting a better deal. He later walked back that sentiment and sent Nagel to Washington. In doing so, Netanyahu cut Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman out of the process. Israeli security expert Yossi Alpher wrote in a column Americans for Peace Now that this was done as a political maneuver after Lieberman compared the Iran deal to the 1938 Munich agreement that ceded portions of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany.
“Netanyahu was left with the mess,” Alpher said. “He had to issue a statement paying lip service to Lieberman, thereby avoiding a coalition crisis, while lamely reaffirming the Israel-U.S. security relationship. Now he has to find a way to get the 10-year security deal negotiations back on track.”
Alpher also noted that the Iran deal is not the top concern of Israeli security officials, but rather Iran’s non-nuclear ambitions to gain control of areas in surrounding countries like Syria and Lebanon.
“A significant portion of the Israeli security establishment indeed recognizes that a deal that delays Iran’s military nuclear ambitions for more than a decade is advantageous for Israel,” he said.
The Iran deal is a key factor in the memorandum of understanding negotiations, according to Yair Lapid, the chairman of Israel’s opposition Yesh Atid party. In a conference call with reporters last week that was put on by the Israel Policy Forum, Lapid said Netanyahu originally wanted $5 billion a year, but after his passionate speech before Congress against the Iran deal in March 2015, the playing field changed.
“We are getting a far lesser deal than the one we could have gotten before Netanyahu voyaged to Congress last March,” Lapid said.