Israel’s acting national security adviser, who led the negotiations over the 10-year $38-billion military aid agreement signed last with with the US, hit back at domestic critics of the agreement on Saturday, calling the critics “detached from reality.”
In unusually strong language for the usually quiet official, Yaakov Nagel lashed out at “massive disinformation in the media from irresponsible critics, most of whom don’t know the negotiations process we’ve been through for the past three and a half years, or the details of the agreement.”
The new aid package will see Israel receive $3.8 billion annually through 2028 — up from some $3 billion in the last ten-year agreement, which ends in 2017. While the defense package heralds an increase in aid, a number of reports said Israel had sought an additional $400 million for missile defense spending — which could have raised the total amount to more than $4 billion annually. However, the final figure was set without that provision.
The agreement was hailed by officials on both sides as “unprecedented” and the largest military aid package ever given by the United States to any country, with Nagel taking pains to say last week that Israelis “don’t take it for granted.” Yet it immediately became grist for the mill in Israel’s fractious domestic politics.
The day after its signing, former prime minister Ehud Barak insisted in an oped that “the damage produced by Netanyahu’s irresponsible management of the relations with the White House is now fully manifest. 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.”
Barak, who also served as Netanyahu defense minister from 2009 to 2013, has in the past criticized Netanyahu for appearing before the US Congress in March 2015 to lobby against the Iran nuclear deal, President Barack Obama’s signature second-term foreign policy effort, a move that the White House viewed as unprecedented interference by a foreign leader.
Nagel rejected the assertion that Iran deal fallout had hurt the negotiations, which he has led on the Israeli side since 2013.
“A large part of the talks” hammering out the deal were begun in 2013, during President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel that year, and so “were carried out before the Iran deal was even on the table.”
Former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, who had a fallout with Netanyahu in May after losing his cabinet post to Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman in a bid to expand Netanyahu’s razer-thin Knesset coalition, joined Barak in questioning the aid deal.
Ya’alon suggested that while the deal saw Israel receive “all the capabilities” he had negotiated for in 2015, the sum total of the package still fell short.
“Put another way, I don’t think $38 billion will provide all the [required] capabilities or meet all our [defense] needs,” Ya’alon said in a speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which he joined in July as a visiting fellow.
Israel “will now have to go through a prioritization process in Israel to see what we can get and what we prefer to leave [aside],” he added.
Amos Yadlin, the former head of IDF military intelligence and more recently a center-left Zionist Union candidate for defense minister, argued on Friday that Netanyahu could have pressed for additional funding had he not angered the White House with his March 2015 address to Congress.
Yadlin, who also served as IDF attaché to Washington, told Army Radio that “Barak is right that the aid package we received is slightly less than what we received in the previous agreement; it’s a decrease of $100 million,” Yadlin said, when corrected for inflation and including additional funds Israel received outside the framework of the last aid deal.
In his Thursday oped, 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.
“We could have received a better aid deal, [but] the prime minister gave an unnecessary speech to Congress, and we’re paying for it,” Yadlin said.
“The prime minister was forbidden from asking for a budget increase from Congress. In the agreement, the Obama administration stung the prime minister, Congress, and AIPAC — three birds with one stone,” Yadlin said.
But according to Nagel’s statement to the media late Saturday, these calculations are “detached from reality.”
The army’s current multi-year funding plan, called “Gideon” by military planners, assumes an annual contributed of $3.1 billion from the US, Nagel said, “so two of the years [covered by] the current plan” – likely a reference to fiscal years 2018 and 2019 – “will already see a boost of $400 million” to the budget the army expected to receive.
Nagel added: “The claim that we could have gotten $7 billion more [over ten years]…lacks all basis in fact and is unprofessional. The American defense budget has legal constraints and is being cut. The offer from certain quarters in Congress, who want to offer as much aid as they can to Israel, came to $3.4 billion in 2017 due to the constraints of the American [federal] budget,” less than the final figure agreed to in the agreement.
Opposition lawmakers joined in the fray as well this week.
Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah, a member of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, charged on Wednesday that “the prime minister’s relationship with the White House and the way in which he handled the negotiations have caused billions of dollars worth of damage to the economy, security and to Israel’s defense establishment.”
Zionist Union’s MK Erel Margalit made a similar argument.
Even old allies were critical. Former Likud cabinet minister Dan Meridor told Army Radio this week that Netanyahu should have leveraged the US-led nuclear deal reached with Iran and world powers to get increased military aid from Washington.
“When it became clear that the Americans were going to sign an agreement with the Iranians, we could have pursued a different policy and gotten a better agreement,” he said.
Under the terms of the deal reached on Tuesday, Israel pledged not to seek additional funding from Congress for the next decade. The agreement also includes a provision curtailing Israel’s ability to spend part of the funds on its own arms industry over the next six years — a key area of dispute during the talks. Washington had wanted Israel to spend a larger amount of the funds on American-made products. Currently, Israel can spend 26.3 percent of US military aid buying from its own domestic defense companies.
But “even claims that Israel’s defense industry would be harmed are incorrect,” Nagel insisted. “The agreement framework sees a gradual decline [in the amount of the aid Israel may spend on Israeli-made products], which only begins in the seventh year of the agreement,” or roughly 2025. “So the industry, together with the Treasury, Defense Ministry and Prime Minister’s Office, will have almost a decade to prepare for this change. That’s one reason many of the congratulations I have received after signing the agreement came from the heads of the defense industry, who understand its importance.”