Why the U.S.-Israel Military Aid Package Matters

President Barack Obama talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office Monday, May 18, 2009. Flickr/The White House

Despite record levels of U.S. military assistance to Israel under the Obama administration, the state of U.S.-Israel relations has worsened, not strengthened, in recent years.

After months of tense and drawn-out negotiations, on September 14 the United States and Israel signed the largest U.S. military aid package given to any country, amounting to $3.8 billion annually. The new aid package reaffirms the United States’ unwavering commitment to the security of Israel. But the culmination of the aid deal, set to come into effect in 2018, also underscores the delicate and increasingly fractured relations between the United States and Israel during the Obama-Netanyahu era. While bilateral security cooperation between the two allies remains strong—and will likely remain so regardless of who is elected U.S. president in November—the last five years highlight a widening rift in U.S. and Israeli strategic objectives at a time of increasing turmoil and uncertainty in the Middle East.

With the effective conclusion of U.S.-Israeli negotiations for the military aid package, the next U.S. administration should take note of the need to restore trust with Israel and find ways to foster a more collective security mindset in the Middle East.

Despite record levels of U.S. military assistance to Israel under the Obama administration, the state of U.S.-Israel relations has worsened, not strengthened, in recent years. This strategic drift goes beyond the personal friction between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. At the core of this tension are fundamental differences in threat perceptions, strategic prioritization, and policy options for confronting unprecedented change in the Middle East. Whereas Washington has been frustrated by Israel’s settlement policy and the lack of progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Tel Aviv sees Iran and its destabilizing activities as its most immediate security threat—even more than the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The signing of the Iran nuclear agreement last year widened U.S.-Israeli strategic differences and contributed to a growing perception, shared by Tel Aviv and Gulf Arab capitals, that the United States is tolerating Iran’s antagonistic role in the region at the expense of its traditional allies. The perception of eroding U.S. credibility in the region—a view held by conservative and moderate members of the Israeli national security community, as well as by America’s staunchest allies in the Gulf region—has exacerbated these fears.

For Netanyahu and many Israeli officials, mistrust with the United States reached its low point when Obama surprised Netanyahu with a request for a settlement freeze in their first meeting at the White House in May 2009. A year later, Israeli officials felt betrayed again when the United States allowed for the “singling out of Israel” in the final document adopted by the 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, but which ignored Iran’s nuclear transgressions. The final document also called for convening a conference in 2012 on the establishment of a Middle East weapon of mass destruction-free zone in contradiction to alleged U.S. promises made to Israel. When, in 2013, Israel learned of the secret U.S.-Iran nuclear talks —reportedly six months after the talks began and before Obama briefed Netanyahu on them—the nuclear negotiations cemented Netanyahu’s view that Obama was bent on clinching a deal with Iran regardless of whether it ultimately served Israel’s national security interests.

Despite Netanyahu’s earlier opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, one year later numerous senior officials in the Israeli military and intelligence establishments have indicated their belief that implementation of the deal has so far reduced the immediate threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon for at least the next five to ten years. As Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, stated at a conference in Tel Aviv in January, “the [Iran] deal has actually removed the most serious danger to Israel’s existence for the foreseeable future … and greatly reduced the threat over the longer term.” Israel has thus refocused its attention from preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons in the short-term to deterring Iran’s medium- and long-term nuclear ambitions, as well as protecting its northern and southern borders from Hezbollah and Hamas.

In contrast, the United States has recently focused on destroying ISIL and forging new alliances to achieve this objective. Overall, the Obama administration’s Middle East priorities have been to confront aggression against its allies, ensure the free flow of energy, dismantle terrorist networks, and prevent the acquisition or use of WMD by state and non-state actors. Toward this end, the Iran deal has succeeded in “rolling back Iran’s nuclear program,” preventing further conflict in region, and allowing Iran to eventually “rejoin the community of nations,” if it fully meets its international obligations. Yet despite these intentions and achievements, Israel does not feel more secure today and is seeking closer relations with Sunni Arab states that have not traditionally seen eye to eye with Israel.