Leverage or legacy? Obama's $38 billion aid to Israel

Leverage or legacy? Obama's $38 billion aid to Israel
Comment: Did Obama get a good deal? Or is he just securing his legacy from the Israeli lobby? Robert Springborg studies the Washington-Tel Aviv weapons deal.
7 min read
21 Sep, 2016
Netanyahu's opening gambit was reportedly a demand for $45 billion [Getty]
The Obama administration last week pledged to provide Israel with $38 billion of military aid over the next decade.

This represents more than a 25 percent increase over the existing package that expires in 2018. This raises the questions - why now? Why so much? And what might the impacts of this agreement be?

Coming in the dying days of the Obama administration, which effectively ends on 8 November with the election of a new president, the deal could easily have been postponed until the new president takes office. By signing it now, the administration has denied its successor potential leverage over Israel, leverage further undermined by the full decade of the aid commitment.

No other country receives such favourable treatment in amount or duration. Egypt, the second-largest recipient of US military assistance, has been provided $2.3 billion on an annual, not decade long basis. Moreover, those funds, unlike the aid provided to Israel, are subject to reduction or cancellation at any time for a variety of reasons determined unilaterally by the US.  
An explanation offered by some pundits is that the Obama administration is preparing to announce US preferred terms for a peace agreement

It is true that effective forward planning requires that both Israel and the US have sufficient lead time before the existing package expires. But more than a year after the new president takes office was quite a lengthy period. In any case no other country receives such advanced notice of US aid intentions. Moreover, had agreement been delayed, the ticking clock would have provided the new president with ever greater leverage over Israel.

So why then did President Obama, whose relations with Prime Minister Netanyahu have been notoriously rocky, save his Israeli nemesis from being subjected to possible pressure, such as by tying delivery of military assistance to steps to implement a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, to which both Israel and the US are formally committed?

An explanation offered by some pundits is that the Obama administration is preparing to announce US preferred terms for a peace agreement with the Palestinians, so the weapons deal is intended to grease the political skids for it. Whether he intends to or not, however, such terms would not tie the hands of his successor, especially if that successor is Donald Trump.

By abandoning the key component of US leverage in advance, which is military assistance, any declared US preferences would likely remain a dead letter even if supported by a new President Clinton.

Another explanation is that Obama got a good deal. Even though this is the largest and longest US commitment of military assistance in history, Israel is reported as not having got everything it wanted. Netanyahu's opening gambit was, after all, a demand for $45 billion. So by moving now, Obama has denied Israel an even larger victory under his successor. It might have included more annual funding, while preserving some existing special privileges that have been removed.

The key Israel concessions were to forego the privilege of being able to spend part of its US aid on its own defence industry, and to promise not to go back to Congress during the ten years with requests for aid top ups.

Lending some support to this explanation is the fact that Senator Lindsey Graham responded to the signing by saying that he would oppose approval of the deal on the grounds he wants Israel to receive much more.

But this explanation is disingenuous. In the first place a promise by Netanyahu not to seek more aid in the future does not in fact tie the hands of Congress. Senator Graham and other supporters of Israel on the Hill can at any time in the future move to add further assistance.

It also ignores the fact that it was the Department of Defense, backed up by US defence contractors, which demanded the cancellation of the special provision that enabled Israel to use American funds to bolster its defence industry, essentially in competition with its American counterpart.

Given the clout of the military industrial complex in both parties, it is improbable that any new administration would have sought to retain this provision.  

The package itself provides some clues to Obama's motivations in pushing for it. A minimum of $500 million is to be provided for missile defence, intended primarily to protect Israel from Iran's steadily growing missile capacities, some elements of which have been transferred to Hizballah and possibly also Hamas - to say nothing of the Syrian government.

So this particular provision was likely intended by Obama to deflect criticism of his nuclear deal with Iran and his broader policy of seeking rapprochement with its government.

Since candidate Trump has pledged to revise that deal and since many of candidate Clinton's closest advisers have been very critical of it and the broader opening to Iran, the commitment to Israel's anti-missile programme is in essence an effort to remove a justification for future moves to cancel or amend the Iranian nuclear deal and revert to a more hostile posture toward it.

A similar interpretation can be offered of the big increase in F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to be provided Israel. In this case it is potential Israeli negative reaction to arms transfers to the Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, that Obama was seeking to forestall.

According to US law and Congressional procedure, Israel is guaranteed military superiority over any and all potential Arab opponents. So while scheduled arms transfers, including aircraft, to the Arab states would in no way threaten Israel's superiority, Jerusalem and its supporters in Congress can always use the leverage provided by the right to review such transfers to delay and harass an administration seeking to sell arms to Arab states.

No president has committed to selling more such arms than Obama.

The deal is more likely to protract the conflict than to contribute to its resolution

But even if he had these calculations and was seeking to endow his successor with some advantages vis a vis Israel and its powerful lobby on the Hill, Obama got a bad deal.

First, the extraordinary amount and duration of the programme comes at a time when Arab military procurement is about to commence what will most likely be a steady decline for many years ahead.

The Arab states simply won't have the money to pay for advanced US or other weaponry. Continuing Israeli military superiority could have been guaranteed at a much lower cost to the US.

Second, the new American president will be urged by the Arabs to put US weight behind the Arab Peace Initiative, to which many elements in Israel have already responded favourably and with which even Netanyahu has toyed.

But no Israeli-Palestinian-Arab peace deal will ever be reached without US pressure on Israel, a fact of which all are keenly aware. So by preempting such pressure in advance in the one area that is absolutely vital, Obama has signaled to the Arabs that they cannot expect a decisive intervention from his successor.

So the deal is more likely to protract the conflict than to contribute to its resolution.

What Obama did get and presumably was seeking was defence of his legacy against attacks from the pro-Israeli camp. He cannot be convincingly accused of leaving Israel in the lurch. As for the Arabs, they are not going to play a significant role in writing the history of his administration, so can safely be ignored.

But in typical Obama style, he sought to both have his cake and eat it. Having bolstered his legacy against attacks from the stronger Israeli side by the substance of the agreement, he used formal procedure to disassociate his own person from it, thereby presumably hoping to reduce Arab criticism of him.

He did not participate in the signing ceremony, nor did his Secretary of State. This job was handed down to a lowly Undersecretary. It seems, then, that buying presidential legacy in the absence of effective performance requires both ample taxpayer funds and tricky political manoeuvres.

Robert Springborg is Kuwait Foundation Visiting Scholar at Harvard University’s Middle East Initiative, Belfer Center. He is also Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London, and non-resident Research Fellow of the Italian Institute of International Affairs. 

He has innumerable publications, including Mubarak's Egypt: Fragmentation of the Political Order; Family Power and Politics in Egypt; Legislative Politics in the Arab World (co-authored with Abdo Baaklini and Guilain Denoeux), Oil and Democracy in Iraq; Development Models in Muslim Contexts: Chinese, ‘Islamic’ and Neo-Liberal Alternatives, among others.