Obama and Israel: Farewell to a True Friend

President Barack Obama talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2013. Wikimedia Commons/The White House

With Obama’s departure, Israel loses a friend but gains an opportunity.

Addressing the delegates to the AIPAC National Conference on March 21, 2016, then candidate for president Donald Trump asserted that President Barack Obama “may be the worst thing to ever happen to Israel, believe me, believe me. And you know it and you know it better than anybody." This view is still shared by many right-wing Israelis as well as by many members of the American Jewish community. Yet nothing can be farther than the truth. Indeed, former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, a close observer of the web of U.S.-Israel defense relations in past decades, was much closer to reality when, in an interview on CNN on July 30, 2012, at the peak of the U.S.-Israeli disagreement over the Iran nuclear issue, he said: “I should tell you, honestly, that this administration under President Obama is doing, in regard to our security, more than anything that I can remember in the past.”

In some areas, in comparison to previous U.S. presidential administrations, American support of Israel remained robust yet did not experience dramatic change. This is particularly the case with regard to U.S. security assistance to Israel, which amounted to over $30 billion during Obama’s eight years in the White House. Also very significant but not novel is the unique permission Israel has received to spend some of the U.S. funds in Israel—rather than simply reimburse U.S. arms manufacturers for its purchases of weapons and ammunition. Thus, during Obama’s two terms Israel was allowed to convert $7.9 billion—comprising 26.3 percent of the total assistance—for local purchases. This unusual arrangement only grew in magnitude during the Obama years, as the administration supported increased Israeli investments in missile and rocket defenses—primarily, but not exclusively, the increased production and deployment of multiple missile batteries to support the Iron Dome air-defense system.

Still in this realm, a few months before leaving office the Obama administration concluded a Memorandum of Understanding with Israel, further increasing annual U.S. security assistance to the Jewish state by $3.8 billion. In fact, in the fall of 2015, after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear agreement with Iran was concluded but before it was approved by the U.S. Congress, there were strong indications that the Obama administration was willing to increase this annual level to $4.5 billion. Unfortunately, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s insistence on taking the fight against the Iran deal to Congress made it impossible to conclude the MOU with the Obama administration under such favorable terms.

While U.S. security assistance continued and even increased during the Obama years, it could be argued that the administration was not the principle locomotive pulling this assistance to ever-higher levels. Indeed, it was the U.S. Congress that often played the primary role in orchestrating such aid increases. Yet in two other realms in which U.S.-Israeli defense cooperation broke previous ceilings during the Obama presidency, the role of the U.S Congress was either limited (in the first case) or nonexistent (in the second).

The first of the two realms concerns America’s long-standing commitment to maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge. There is no evidence that this commitment has eroded during the Obama years. Indeed, quite the opposite seems to have happened. Thus, only a few weeks ago Israel received the first two F-35s, in the framework of an agreement to supply Israel with two squadrons of the world’s most advanced aircraft. Israel is the first and only country in the Middle East to have received the stealth fighter jets.