Former prime minister and defense minister Ehud Barak on Thursday claimed Israel was set to receive a fleet of 20 F-35 stealth fighter jets from the United States for free, but the gift was scrapped due to the frosty relations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-US president Barack Obama.
Speaking with Army Radio, Barak said while there was no official agreement in place for the free planes, “there was pretty concrete talk with the Americans at the highest levels about the possibility.”
Barak blamed the collapse of the agreement on Netanyahu’s tense relations with Obama, particularly the prime minister’s vocal opposition to the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement.
The former defense chief did not give specifics on when the US offer was allegedly formulated by officials. He had also been out of the government for three years when the last US-Israel military aid package was finalized.
Dan Shapiro, who served as US ambassador to Israel under Obama, rejected Barak’s account.
“The relationship between Netanyahu and Obama did not influence the F-35 deal,” Shapiro told Army Radio later on Thursday.
Shapiro said the provision of F-35s to Israel was always discussed as part of the overall military aid package the US provides to Israel, which he said was based upon the Jewish state’s military needs and American budgetary considerations and was “not connected to other arguments between us at the time.”
Barak, who has become one of the most outspoken critics of Netanyahu in the past year, has previously accused the prime minister of squandering the opportunity to receive a more generous aid package from the US than the 10 year, $38 billion agreement signed last September.
Following the signing of the deal, Barak, who also served as Netanyahu’s defense minister from 2009 to 2013, accused the premier of bungling the negotiations and reaching a package significantly smaller than was originally expected.
“The damage produced by Netanyahu’s irresponsible management of the relations with the White House is now fully manifest,” Barak wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post in September 2016. “Israel will receive $3.8 billion a year — an important contribution to our security but far less than what could have been obtained before the prime minister chose to blatantly interfere with US politics.”
The new military package grants Israel $3.8 billion annually — up from the $3 billion pledged under the previous agreed-upon Memorandum of Understanding — starting in 2018 and through 2028. But under the terms of the deal, Israel pledged not to seek additional funding from Congress for the next decade. The agreement also included a provision curtailing Israel’s ability to spend the funds on its own arms industry over the next six years — a key area of dispute during talks.
In the 2016 op-ed, Barak said that with a 20 percent cumulative rise in the cost of arms since the last 10-year agreement came into effect and a clause barring Israel from seeking further funds from the US Congress, the deal gives Israel “no greater purchasing power” than it had under the last accord.
The op-ed drew a furious response from Netanyahu’s Likud party, which accused the former prime minister of not having Israel’s interests at heart.
Likud, in a statement at the time, dismissed the column as “nonsense” by the “most failed prime minister in Israel’s history” who is attempting a “pathetic [political] comeback.”
“The publication of an article that bashes Israel in the US media on the day the largest aid deal in the history of the US was signed is just further proof that Ehud Barak does not have Israel’s best interests at heart,” the party said.
Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.