Biden heads to Israel to talk billions in military aid – and patch things up

By William Booth, Carol Morello | The Washington Post | Published: March 8, 2016

JERUSALEM — Vice President Joe Biden arrives in Israel on Tuesday to patch up, again, relations between the Obama White House and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after a very public and deeply partisan spat over the Iran nuclear deal last year.

The vice president will meet with Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Wednesday when the two will work to advance long-running talks between the White House and the Prime Minister's Office over a new multibillion, 10-year military aid package.

The trip is also something of a last lap for Biden, who Israelis embrace as a stalwart friend during his long years in the Senate and the White House. As for President Barack Obama? Israelis have been more "meh," a sentiment stoked by Netanyahu's aggressive opposition to Obama's Iran deal.

Biden came briefly to Israel for the funeral of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2014. This trip will be Biden's first state visit to Israel since a diplomatic disaster in 2010, when Israel announced during his visit new construction plans in the Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem — the same settlements that successive U.S. administrations have branded as "illegitimate" and an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians.

An ensuring telephone call between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Netanyahu in 2010 lasted 45 minutes. For 43 of them, she talked and he listened — a rarity, according to people present during the conversation or briefed afterwards.

Israelis are promising nothing of the sort on this visit, where Biden will talk not only military aid and regional stability with Israel but will also sit down with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose young people have unleashed a five-month wave of knife, gun and vehicular attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians. On Thursday Biden will met King Abdullah II in Jordan.

The White House and Israeli defense establishment have been having high-level, closely guarded talks for months now over the amount the United States will give Israel for what military hardware on which terms.

Israel is expected to get F-35 and F-16 fighter jets, spare parts, missiles, intelligence gathering systems. A single F-35 Joint Strike Fighter costs around $110 million.

The United States is committed to guarantee that Israel maintains a "qualitative military edge" that allows it to defeat "any conventional threat while sustaining minimal casualties."

Israel and its supporters say the little Jewish nation serves as a front-line picket for Western democracies in a region beset by chaos and so it deserves outsized assistance.

To the north, Israel faces the Shiite army of Hezbollah, now fighting in war-wracked Syria and based in Lebanon, where the government is so dysfunctional it can't collect the garbage. To the west, Iran. To the south, militants allied with the Islamic State are fighting Egyptian troops in the Sinai, with some assistance from Hamas, the Islamist resistance movement and terror organization in Gaza.

This would be the third 10-year memorandum. The last one, signed in 2007, provided Israel with $30 billion through 2017.

Israeli leaders hope to get more aid going forward. The Israeli media, citing unnamed sources, say Netanyahu and the defense establishment want at least $40 billion over 10 years, plus ongoing spending for the co-development of air defense systems.

U.S. diplomats warn that the numbers are closely held and that it is not just the total but how the money can be spent -- meaning how much goes to U.S. defense contractors and how much Israel can spend on its own companies.

In another sign of continuing tension between the Israeli government and the White House, Netanyahu cancelled a visit to the United States later this month, though the circumstances were disputed.

According to reports in the Israeli press, Netanyahu's office told reporters one of the reasons he scrapped the trip was because scheduling conflicts made it impossible to find a mutually agreeable time to see Obama before he travels to Cuba.

But the White House fired back, saying it had invited Netanyahu to come on one of two days the Israelis requested, and until Monday they were expecting the meeting to occur. Administration officials said they found out Netanyahu would be a no-show not from him, but from the Israeli press.

"We were looking forward to hosting the bilateral meeting, and we were surprised to first learn via media reports that the prime minister, rather than accept our invitation, opted to cancel his visit," said Ned Price, a spokesman for the National Seucirty Council. "Reports that we were not able to accommodate the prime minister's schedule are false."

Last year, Netanyahu broke off talks on the military aid package during the U.S.-led nuclear negotiations with Iran because the prime minister didn't want it to appear that he was willing to bend on Iran to get some additional cash.

Yet in a sign that negotiations were stuck, Netanyahu suggested at a public cabinet meeting in early February that Israel might decide unilaterally to wait for the next administration to get a better deal.

Since the end of World War II, Israel has received more foreign aid than any other nation — $121 billion in noninflation-adjusted dollars. The United States pays about 20 percent of Israel's total military budget. No other country gets that kind of foreign military aid; the closest is Egypt, which received $1.3 billion last year.

In addition to the $3 billion a year in direct military aid, the White House points out that U.S. spending on Israel's new cutting-edge air defenses has soared in the past decade, from $133 million in 2006 to $619 million in 2015.

For diplomats, Netanyahu's threat to wait for the next administration was revealing.

"If there were a high level of confidence things were moving in the right direction, there would be no reason to go public," said Dennis Ross, a former U.S. diplomat who wrote a book on the sometimes cantankerous U.S.-Israeli relationship, called "Doomed to Succeed."

"This is an indication that what they hoped to achieve does not look promising at this point," Ross said.

The White House countered by citing spending caps mandated by Congress.

"These talks are taking place in the context of a challenging budgetary environment in the United States that has necessitated difficult tradeoffs amongst competing priorities," a senior administration official said, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing closed door talks.

The official said the administration was offering Israel the largest-single pledge of military aid in American history, and in effect dared Netanyahu to wait for a better deal.

Sallai Meridor, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, who helped negotiate the last 10-year military aid package, said he thought it would have been better for Obama and Netanyahu to come up with a final number and then let their technical staffs decide the details.

Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. diplomat who is now an analyst at the Wilson Center, said the U.S. military aid will help Netanyahu make the case that his opposition to the Iran nuclear didn't cost Israel anything.

"In the wake of the Iran deal, there is a need on the part of Israelis to justify and validate all the broken crockery Netanyahu caused by inserting himself in the middle of the president's premier foreign policy initiative," he said. "By tough bargaining, he acquiesced in the agreement, but got all these bells and whistles in return."

Miller said turmoil in the Middle East and election year politics in the United States also make it advantageous for Obama to help Israel defend itself.

"It's very unlikely you'll have a major blow-up on the military-security relationship at a time when the region is melting down, when you have very little stability and predictability, and the president really wants to do everything he possibly can to ensure there is a Democrat that succeeds him," he said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2016. Vice President Joe Biden will meet with Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Wednesday, March 9, 2016, when the two will work to advance long-running talks over a multibillion-dollar, 10-year military aid package.
Jason Alden/Bloomberg


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