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Was Israel wrong to drag its feet on the US aid package?

[additional-authors]
August 1, 2016

So who won the debate over Israel’s military aid package from the US for the next ten years? Reading media reports, like the one published by the Washington Post, the answer is clear: Netanyahu is the loser. And the WaPost was not the only newspaper to declare Israel’s defeat – or better say Netanyahu’s defeat. In almost all reports, the storyline is essentially the same, and quite accurate: the Israeli government was hesitant to sign the deal that was offered by the Obama administration. It kept trying to improve the deal, but the administration did not budge. At a certain point it became clear that there are only two options: sign the deal – or wait for the next administration in the hope of a better deal. Now, having exhausted all other options but waiting until next January, Netanyahu decided to take what was offered to him a long time ago.

Is this a triumph for the Obama administration? Surely it is. The administration agreed to certain terms, and stuck to these terms – some of which are, compared to the past, unfavorable to Israel. Israel will get a package more generous than previous packages, but there are two important caveats that make this hefty sum of money bitter-sweet. The first one is Israel’s commitment not to ask Congress for additions for this or that on top of the annual aid package. This means no playing around in the more hospitable corridors of Congress. The second one is even more painful: after five years, all of the package will be spent in the US – that is to say: Israel will no longer be able to support its local military industry by using US aid money.

These are no small surrenders, and the Prime Minister was reasonable in being unenthusiastic about them. The problem for him was simple, though – he was playing with a bad hand. First, he angered the administration by going to Congress to speak about Iran, draining away any shred of good will towards him (if any remained) on the part of the administration. Then he decided to wage the battle over Iran until the bitter end. And then he did not accept the notion that, since the battle is doomed to fail, the best option for him was to trade a deal that would mean more aid to Israel in exchange for less resistance against the administration on Iran.

Having lost that battle, Netanyahu decided to wait a little longer. He was hoping for one of two things: that the administration would feel more pressure to sign a deal under unfavorable political conditions (that is, so as not to hurt the Democrats’ chances of recapturing the White House) – or that the political race would make it likely that a better deal would be possible when election time is over.

Netanyahu lost every bet on every card in this process. The Iran deal was signed and approved. The Obama administration did not feel much pressure to reach a deal. The political process brought to the fore a Clinton and a Trump. One who is not likely to accommodate Netanyahu and Israel more than Obama did – and one whose policies are so unpredictable that Israel could end up facing a double-or-nothing situation. And of course, double would be great – but nothing is too big a risk. It is a risk that even Netanyahu (by the way, not usually a risk-taker) was not willing to take, surely not when both his Finance Minister and Defense Minister told him that they no longer support a delay.

Was this an irresponsible bet on the part of the Prime Minister? It is quite easy to look at the ultimate outcome of the process and assume that it was. But taking a more serious look at the range of options for Netanyahu, his bet was not irrational.

In fact, the bet should be considered a two-phase one. The first part of it was Netanyahu’s decision not to drop his quest to disrupt the agreement with Iran for financial compensation. That was a decision in which symbolism and principle played a big part. Israel cannot claim that a nuclear Iran is an existential threat and the next day take an extra two hundred million in aid and call it a day. Israel cannot ask its friends and supporters to raise hell against the deal and the next day declare that since chances of success in this battle are slim it is willing to accept the Iran deal as fact as long as it gets something in return.

The fight against the Iran deal – justified or not – was a strategic fight, but also one for the history books. If and when, god forbid, a nuclear Iran emerges, no one will be able to say that Israel did not issue the stringent warning it could issue – no one will be able to say that Israel did not really care and was willing to turn a blind eye as long as it got some more financial aid.

The second phase was not about principle; it was about tactics. And in the second phase Netanyahu gained little, and lost little. True, it seems foolish for him to insist on not signing a deal for so long and then come around and sign the deal that he was offered in the first place. Yet on the other hand – where is the damage? Netanyahu was waiting to see if better conditions might present an opportunity for a better deal, and only when he realized that such conditions are not likely to occur he agreed to take what he was offered.

True, the Obama administration was somewhat annoyed by Netanyahu’s approach. It grumbled and complained and briefed the press and pressured Netanyahu’s allies. But here the roles were reversed: Obama had little to lose by refusing to better the deal – Netanyahu had little to lose by letting the administration grumble. It’s not as if he had great relations with the administration and has now soiled them. It’s not as if the Obama administration was ready to promise him much – for example, on the Palestinian front – in return for signing the deal earlier rather than later. It’s not as if the PM was still hoping to salvage his image within the administration. Just like before, they think Netanyahu is an annoyance. Just like before, he has to compromise with an administration that he believes is less friendly than its predecessors.

So the bottom line is this: Netanyahu, and Israel, lost an opportunity when the PM decided not to trade Iran for aid – Netanyahu and Israel lost nothing when the PM decided, after Iran was over, to wait a little longer before accepting the Obama deal.

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