The risks are rising that U.S. military assistance to Israel will become an important issue in the Democratic presidential primaries. On October 19, Senator Elizabeth Warren suggested that aid should be “on the table” if Israeli actions in the West Bank, including settlement expansion, hindered a two-state solution. Mayor Pete Buttigieg has also spoken in favor of conditioning U.S. assistance on Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. A third leading contender, Bernie Sanders, has been on record for years advocating that aid be weaponized to compel changes in Israeli behavior.
Once just a fringe view among Democratic leaders, Sanders’ position has been gaining wider traction. . . Speaking on October 28 to J Street (a progressive Jewish group), Sanders doubled down on his hard line: “I would use the leverage,” Sanders said. “$3.8 billion [the annual amount of U.S. defense support to Israel] is a lot of money. We cannot give it carte blanche to the Israeli government . . . We have the right to demand respect for human rights and democracy.”
Whether or not this constitutes smart politics, it’s almost certainly bad policy. Linking U.S. military support for Israel to the decades-old Palestinian conflict would reverse the well-considered approach of the last Democratic president, Barack Obama, who made a conscious decision to separate the strategic benefits of the U.S.-Israel alliance from the intractable peace process. More importantly, it would ignore the pressing realities that currently confront American national security – in particular, the U.S. need to devote greater resources to countering China and Russia at the same time threats to its interests in the Middle East remain extremely challenging. In that environment, Israel’s value as one of America’s closest allies and the region’s preeminent military and intelligence power is only likely to grow.
The current agreement governing U.S. military assistance to Israel is a Memorandum of Understanding or MOU that the two countries signed in September 2016 – just months before President Obama left office. The MOU resulted from a long negotiation that lasted more than three years. The agreement has a 10-year term that runs from 2019 to 2028 and increased overall U.S. defense support for Israel to $38 billion, or $3.8 billion per year. Of that total, $33 billion will be in the form of Foreign Military Financing – an increase from approximately $30 billion under the previous MOU. Another $5 billion, or $500 million annually, will be dedicated to supporting Israel’s ballistic missile defense efforts, or BMD – an increase from an average of about $400 million per year in the previous decade, which was not in the form of a multi-year commitment.
The negotiations on the current MOU commenced in March 2013 during Obama’s first visit to Israel as president. Despite the well-known tensions and disagreements that marred relations between Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, both leaders stressed the importance of a new agreement that would serve their countries’ vital interests and further consolidate the special bond and strategic partnership between them.
The talks weren’t always smooth. They went through a particularly difficult period as the U.S. effort to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran accelerated in 2015 – even stopping completely after Netanyahu delivered his speech to Congress opposing the deal in March of that year. But once the nuclear accord was finalized four months later, Obama quickly resumed the MOU negotiations. To his credit, he understood that legitimate policy difference over how best to deal with Iran or with the Palestinians should not be allowed to undermine the larger bilateral relationship. For his part, PM Netanyahu felt the same way, wanting to preserve bipartisan American support for Israel’s security while ensuring that the Israel Defense Forces received the necessary resources to implement its long-range plans.
Importantly, contrary to some rumors and leaks, at no point during the talks did the U.S. team ever attempt to use military assistance as leverage to reduce Israel’s objections to the nuclear deal or to change its approach to the Palestinian conflict. The issues were simply not on the table. Both sides appreciated the significant benefits that they gained from deepening their strategic ties and didn’t want to hold them hostage to their disagreements over any specific policy issue. Indeed, in private, the U.S. and Israeli lead negotiators actually agreed to “rules of the game” for their talks – with the main rule being that neither the Iran issue nor the Palestinian question would be part of their discussions, or put forward as a condition for completing the MOU.
Before the agreement was signed, the two sides identified the different ways that the MOU served each country’s broader national interests. The agreed-upon list set out the following important benefits:
For the U.S., it demonstrates a long-term commitment to Israel’s security; implements U.S. legislation to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge, or QME; ensures Israel can provide for its own security without the need for U.S. intervention; strengthens Israel as a bulwark against radical Islamism; strengthens Israel as an effective guarantor of Jordanian security; enables the U.S. to sell advanced arms to key Arab states, while upholding QME; and promotes joint research and development cooperation benefiting the U.S. military.
For Israel, it ensures Israel can defend itself, by itself; ensures Israel’s qualitative edge over all potential enemies; strengthens Israel’s deterrent power by enhancing its defensive and offensive capabilities; improves Israel’s defense planning by providing budget predictability; deepens the U.S.-Israel strategic alliance; and provides Israel a greater security margin to take risks for peace with Arab neighbors.
The significant technological benefits that the U.S. military has secured from its cooperation with Israel are especially worth highlighting. Israeli breakthroughs are rapidly finding their way into the U.S. national security arsenal and helping to protect American lives, including in areas as diverse as ballistic missile defense, cybersecurity, tunnel detection, drones, space and counter-terrorism technologies.
The importance of Israel’s military and intelligence prowess will likely only grow in the coming years as U.S. defense priorities shift toward resurgent great-power competition against both China and Russia. The United States will increasingly have to look to its local partners to take on a greater burden in combatting rising threats from the Middle East. Whether combatting Iran’s precision missile project in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq or Islamist terrorism, no country has a greater capability (or will) to help protect U.S. interests than Israel.
The signing of the agreement was a major achievement that allowed Israel to preserve its strategic alliance and cooperation with the United States, emphasized America’s long-term commitment to Israel’s security, and provided the IDF and Israel’s Ballistic Missile Defense Agency the necessary resources required for long-term planning and the early purchase of vital military platforms.
It should be clear that avoiding the politicization of the U.S.-Israel strategic alliance and military partnership has served the national security interests of both countries extremely well. President Obama understood that, as did his Democratic and Republican predecessors. It has been a truly bipartisan achievement, and every effort should be made to keep it that way.
BG and Professor Jacob Nagel is a former head of Israel’s National Security Council and National Security Advisor (Acting) to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, headed the Israeli team that negotiated the 2016 U.S.-Israel MOU. He is a visiting professor at the Technion, and a visiting fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.