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American and Israeli officials who were involved in past aid negotiations described a process driven by needs, not by the total dollar amount of the aid package. It begins with Israelis presenting the threats they believe they’ll face in the coming decades and the weapons systems they’ll need to address these threats.
Before the last Memorandum of Understanding was signed in 2007, the deal was first finalized between President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and only then handed down to the lower levels where the details were worked out.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the mainstream pro-Israel lobby, is deeply involved in the process, mainly in convincing Congress, once the administration makes a decision on the aid levels, to approve the assistance year after year and to make adjustments throughout the 10-year period if needed. “There’s a pretty good system in place,” said a former pro-Israel activist who was involved in those discussions. “AIPAC people know all the details and make sure the best package for Israel is approved regardless of who controls the committees.”
As discussions begin on the next assistance deal, Israel is looking for America’s help with a different set of concerns. Iran’s nuclear program remains the main issue for Israel, which is seeking advanced American weapons systems to deter Iran and possibly to take action against it. But according to an Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, short-range rocket threats from Hamas and Hezbollah now make up a bigger part of Israel’s plea, given the experience of recent years and the need to bolster missile defense systems.
New elements have also been brought into the calculation. These include Israel’s fear of instability in Egypt, where the military recently ousted a democratically elected Islamist government. Though the new government is actually friendlier to Israel than the ousted one was, the shakeup has stoked Israeli fears of an eventual full or partial revocation of the 1979 Camp David peace treaty between the Egypt and Israel. Jerusalem is also concerned about diminishing security along Egypt’s Sinai border with Israel, as the turmoil in Cairo has given terrorists in that area freer rein.
Israel also worries that Syria’s civil war may spill over; or that the country could break up, with nonconventional weapons falling into the hands of Islamist extremists using the country as an operating base; or that Jordan, Israel’s most trusted neighbor, which has kept the eastern boarder quiet for decades, could also see upheaval due to internal unrest and a huge influx of Syrian refugees.
The financial downturn that has plagued the United States since 2007 could change the backdrop of the upcoming aid talks, although assistance to Israel enjoys widespread support within the American public and in Congress.
After many deliberations in Jerusalem and Washington, Israel and its supporters decided not to seek an exemption from the across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration. Israel agreed to take a cut of more than $150 million to its annual aid rather than be seen as seeking special treatment at a time when the American people are suffering the consequences of sequestration.
Asking for an increase in aid at a time when America is still struggling could come across as insensitive, but the Israeli official said this was not the impression Israel has gotten from its American counterparts.
Abrams, on the other hand, proposed in an interview with the Forward a dramatic change to the pattern of military relations between Israel and the United States: Doing away with U.S. aid to Israel altogether. “You can’t have Israel becoming richer and richer and then coming to America to ask for foreign aid,” Abrams said, pointing to Israel’s recent natural gas finds that are expected to create a huge cash surplus for the Jewish state in coming years.
Abrams argued that Israel can pay for the weapon systems it buys from the United States, just as Saudi Arabia does, and that military to military ties can remain strong, even without a foreign aid component. “I think it would be advantageous to the relations,” he said. [Any discussion about cutting the aid should be done privately, he added; otherwise, anyone proposing it would be accused by political rivals of not standing behind Israel.
“Israel’s popularity in the United States is tremendous,” he said, “and it might grow even more if foreign aid is taken out of the discussion.”
Contact Nathan Guttman at email@example.com or on Twitter, @nathanguttman