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Is it good for Israel that Senator Graham is holding up the aid package?

[additional-authors]
September 12, 2016

A story by Josh Rogin revealed that the Obama administration has still not signed the MOU with Israel – the deal that will seal US aid to Israel for the next ten years – because of a dispute with Senator Lindsey Graham. The dispute does not directly concern Israel. Graham insists that Congress should be the one deciding the final amount that Israel gets, while the White House insisted throughout the negotiation process that Israel will commit itself to a final sum of appropriations, namely, that Congress will have no say for the next ten years about this issue.

Graham, of course, is right to insist on retaining the right of Congress to give Israel more than it is supposed to get according to the MOU. Why would he, or any of his friends, want to subcontract their right to allocate funds to a future unknown administration?

But is he also helping Israel by insisting on the right of Congress to supplement the MOU? According to Rogin’s story, the White House asked Prime Minister Netanyahu to call Graham. As Senator Graham tells it: “The Israeli prime minister told me the administration is refusing to sign the MOU until I agree to change my appropriation markup back to $3.1 billion. I said, ‘Tell the administration to go F themselves.’”

Three possible scenarios can emerge from this dispute:

The first one – Graham will decide to cave because he believes, or because he will be convinced, that it is more important to have the MOU signed and for Israel to get its guaranteed aid, than to make this point about congressional authority.

The second one – the administration will decide to sign the MOU with the hope that a future Congress will not feel the need to supplement what is already a hefty sum of financial aid (3.3 billion annually starting in 2018). The administration might conclude that Netanyahu cannot convince Graham, and hence would not want to be held hostage to an objection of one stiff-necked Senator.

The third one – the MOU will not be signed, and negotiations will resume under the next administration. In such case, many things can happen, depending on the next administration and on the next Congress. Israel could gain or lose (but Congress, if it insists on having a hand in the negotiations, can always win).

Obviously, the second option is the ideal option for Israel. It is ideal not necessarily because of its potential to raise the level of aid even higher. Israel is getting plenty, and it ought to be thankful – as it is – for every dollar. No – what makes the Obama-Graham fight important for Israel, more than the possible addition to the aid package, is the role of Congress in the process. Israel enjoys broad support in Congress and does not want to lose one of its main tools of engaging congressional leaders.

The annual aid negotiations are an opportunity for such engagement. That is why Israel wants Congress to keep playing a part, and truly, that is why the administration insisted on Congress not playing a part. President Obama and some of his advisors are fed up with Congress putting its mark on policies that the administration believes to be under its own jurisdiction, and they are trying to untie the Israel-Congress alliance.

The question is then: how far would the administration go to achieve this goal? Is it ready to forgo the MOU – knowing quite well that the next President might cave to Graham’s demand? And how far would Graham go to make his point? Is he ready to risk the substantial MOU deal – knowing quite well that the next administration might not be as generous as this one? And one might add: what is Israel’s real position: does Netanyahu truly want this to pass – as he has been saying in recent weeks even behind closed doors – or maybe he is tempted by Graham’s rebellious attitude and made the call to the Senator with a wink?

Note only this: Israel could lose if the deal doesn’t pass. The administration could lose – not as much, but something – if the deal doesn’t pass. Senator Graham loses little or nothing if the deal doesn’t pass. In this game of chicken, he might be the one with the least reason to blink first.

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