JERUSALEM — It was billed by President Obama as “the single largest pledge of military assistance in U.S. history,” a gift from the American taxpayer to the Israeli taxpayer, totaling $38 billion over 10 years, complete with squadrons of F-35 fighter jets.
But in Israel, the deal inked in Washington last week between the closest of allies has been met not with big love, but with mostly meh — a collective “So what?”
Leaders in the Israeli defense establishment said the deal should have ushered in a new era of cooperation, but did not. They said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his mutual antagonism with Obama, blew it. Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak called the pact for the most advanced weaponry ever a failure and a sign of the withering relationship between the United States and Israel.
Several defense analysts pointed out that, after factoring in inflation and previous supplemental bumps in funding for Israel by Congress, the new assistance package represents less money than the past 10-year deal.
Yair Lapid, a leader of a centrist party who is itching to run for prime minister himself, has been withering in his criticism. He warned that the White House demand in the pact that Israel buy military hardware from U.S. contractors — and not the Israeli defense industry — would backfire.
“The United States may end up giving us $38 billion,” Lapid said last month. “But the only thing Israelis will remember from the deal is the unemployment line” in the nation’s economically hard-pressed cities.
The Israeli media also has piled on, some focused on whether Netanyahu could have, should have, gotten more money if he hadn’t spent the past two years feuding with the White House over the Iran nuclear deal.One pundit at the Haartez newspaper insisted that the aid was not aid at all — but a boon to the U.S. defense industries. The United States should thank high-tech Israel for testing faulty U.S. weapons systems in the field, the writer said — ignoring the fact that in the past 10 years the only enemy the Israel Defense Forces have fought is the Islamist militant movement Hamas in the Gaza Strip, whose militia makes rockets in garages and lacks an air defense system.
Many ordinary Israelis say the United States owes Israel something for exposing it to what Netanyahu has repeatedly called the “existential threat” of a nuclear Iran. They stress that Israel is on the front line against Islamist terrorism and worth at least a couple of U.S. aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean Sea. So the United States, they say, should consider itself lucky.
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Yet there are other views. David Horovitz, editor of the Times of Israel, published a column headlined, “Ungrateful Israel owes the US a simple thank you.”
“The message from Jerusalem has been one of public ingratitude,” Horovitz wrote.
Even so, he pointed out, “our intelligence gathering hierarchy is extraordinarily effective, and the information we share with the United States plays a significant role in the U.S. ability to protect itself.”
The public debate over whether the United States gave enough support to Israel will certainly hover over coming bilateral conversations, as Obama and Netanyahu are scheduled to meet Wednesday in New York during the U.N. General Assembly.
The most striking statements about the deal come from former prime minister Barak, who wrote an opinion piece in The Washington Post arguing that $38 billion in aid represents a failure to get more money and more cooperation, and especially a failure by Netanyahu to have shaped a better deal limiting Iran’s gambit to become a nuclear power.
“The damage produced by Netanyahu’s irresponsible management of the relations with the White House is now fully manifest,” Barak said.
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One of the deans of the Israeli defense establishment, Amos Yadlin, a retired Israeli major general, concluded that the new defense aid package “is not a historic achievement but, rather, a missed strategic opportunity.” Yadlin, now director of the Institute for National Security Studies, the most prominent defense think tank in Israel, wrote that the agreement provides money at “the same level that has existed this past decade — or slightly lower.”
He added that “given the long-term challenges and the strategic reality that the nuclear agreement with Iran has created, far more aid could have been obtained.”
Yadlin and others note that the defense pact includes a letter written by Netanyahu in which the leader promises that Israel will not seek additional funding from Congress unless the Jewish state is at war. Yadlin called the letter “absurd and humiliating” and a sign that Obama meant to better his rival. He and others suggested that Obama put the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee lobbying group “out of work.”
Yehuda Ben-Meir, senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, summed up his thoughts in an interview: “I would say . . . that it is not as fantastic as the government is painting it to be, and it is not as bad as the opposition is saying that it is.”
Netanyahu, however, swatted away criticism of the deal Sunday while addressing his weekly cabinet meeting.
“I hear all kinds of background noise and disinformation about the agreement,” the prime minister said. “I would like to make it clear: We were never offered more. We were not offered more money, not even one dollar, and we were never offered special technologies. These are distortions and fabrications of interested parties; either they do not have the facts or they are distorting the facts, and they are, of course, showing ingratitude. And, in my view, this is the saddest thing of all, ingratitude to our greatest and best friend, the United States.”