US official: It’s possible Iran deal animus affected military aid agreement
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'Israel is our best partner in the region'

US official: It’s possible Iran deal animus affected military aid agreement

10-year aid package leads to domestic Israeli political infighting as opposition charges Netanyahu could have gotten more

US President Barack Obama (right) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, November 9, 2015. (AFP/Saul Loeb)
US President Barack Obama (right) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, November 9, 2015. (AFP/Saul Loeb)

A senior American official acknowledged on Saturday that bad blood between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government may have influenced the outcome of the $38-billion, 10-year military aid agreement between Jerusalem and Washington signed last week, but said it was “impossible to know” if the policy disagreements and personal clashes were decisive.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has faced intense criticism from political rivals since the deal’s signing, with two of his former defense ministers, Ehud Barak and Moshe Ya’alon, charging that he mishandled the negotiations, and that his activism against the Iran deal in Washington – including the prime minister’s speech to Congress in 2015 – led the administration to dramatically shrink the final amount Israel would receive in the agreement.

The American official, who is familiar with the negotiations and spoke on condition of anonymity, said such claims are only “speculation.”

“I can’t say what would have happened if. I don’t know that alternate future. You can certainly say that the period [of the Iran deal controversy between the two governments] was difficult, and [poisoned] the atmosphere not only in policy but also between people. Atmosphere can affect results – maybe.”

But, the official went on, “you could also say [the deal shows] there is a commitment to the security of Israel, and there are budget constraints that mean we will never be able to provide every request. I’m not sure that if the agreement was concluded at a different period, that the results would be different. We can’t know. It’s just speculation.”

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 drew criticism from opposition lawmakers, among others.

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.

“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.

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.

Asked by a reporter Saturday if Obama had ever “said or hinted” to Netanyahu that if he “came now” to sign the deal rather than wait for Obama’s successor, he might “get more,” the American official said simply, “no.”

While he acknowledged that the 3.5-year-long talks over the military aid were frozen for part of 2015, roughly from April till the year’s end as the Iran deal fight grew more bitter, the official insisted it was not the defining issue that shaped the agreement.

“Our logic is simple,” the official said of the military aid. “Israel is our best partner in the region. There are shared interests and shared values, and we want to protect Israel as a thriving Jewish state in such a way that will keep it our partner.”

The American official’s comments follow a spirited defense of the deal on Saturday from Israel’s national security adviser, who led the negotiations for Israel. Acting National Security Adviser Yaakov Nagel said critics of the deal were “detached from reality.”

In unusually strong language for the usually quiet National Security Council chief, 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.”

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.

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