Tel Aviv Diary: Obama Exacts Cold Revenge on Netanyahu

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House, Washington, D.C., November 9, 2015. Marc Schulman writes that, by putting a provision in the agreement that Israel will not lobby Congress for additional funds and will return any it receives, Obama has undermined the very existence of AIPAC, which made a fatal mistake when it decided to publicly fight the Iran accord. Kevin Lamarque/reuters

They say revenge is a dish best served cold.

It’s clear that President Obama got his revenge on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week. Netanyahu was forced to hail the new memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed between Washington and Jerusalem as a historic achievement for Israel.  

It is nominally the largest commitment of aid that the United States has ever given to any country. Politically, Netanyahu can’t afford to admit that the agreement is far from perfect, and his spokesman constantly repeated what an excellent agreement it is.  

Obama, too, hailed the agreement, stating, “The new MOU constitutes the single largest pledge of military assistance in U.S. history, totaling $38 billion over 10 years, including $33 billion in FMF [United States Foreign Military Financing] funds and an additional $5 billion in missile defense funding. Both Prime Minister Netanyahu and I are confident that the new MOU will make a significant contribution to Israel’s security in what remains a dangerous neighborhood.”

Critics of the agreement, led by former prime minister Ehud Barak, point out that the numbers are misleading. The agreement is the largest amount of aid ever only in nominal terms. Adjusted for inflation, the agreement is actually smaller that the previous MOU signed 10 years ago.  

The critics, who also include Amos Yadlin, the former commander of military intelligence, posit that if Netanyahu had not addressed Congress in opposition to the Iran agreement, Israel would have been given better terms. They assert that Israel would have received more money and  without the two restrictions in the deal that may prove harmful to Israel.  

The first condition agreed to in the memorandum eliminates the long-standing practice of allowing Israel to use 25 percent of the aid for local purchases. The second is Israel’s commitment not to ask for any supplemental money from the Congress. Israel has further sent a letter committing  to return any extra money if Congress were to allocate it.  

It’s with this provision that Obama gets revenge on his three major opponents simultaneously without him nor his preferred successor paying any price.

By putting a provision in the agreement that Israel will not lobby Congress for additional funds and will return any it receives, Obama has undermined the very existence of the American Israeli Public Affair Committee. AIPAC made a fatal mistake when it decided to publicly fight the Iran accord.  

If Israel cannot request and will in fact return any funds allocated to it by Congress, one of the key functions of AIPAC is eliminated. Furthermore, one of AIPAC's key achievements of the past few decades was Israel's ability to use part of the assistance to fund local purchases. This has been eliminated.

Lastly, Obama gets to reassert the primacy of the executive branch in the making of foreign policy. For decades, Congress has “interfered” in U.S. relations with Israel by allocating additional funds that various administrations have been reluctant to give. By forcing Israel to sign a letter stating that it will return any additional money, Obama has removed Congress’s ability to interfere in the process.

Finally, by getting Netanyahu to sign the agreement, Obama has given ammunition to some of Netanyahu’s biggest critics. Ehud Barak, the former prime minister and defense minister, has dominated the news cycle in Israel for the past two days after he published a scathing op-ed in The Washington Post in which he criticized Netanyhu for using the new agreement as a club against him.  

Obama accomplished all this by wrapping the more problematic aspects of the agreement into a $38 billion package of assistance. Who can possibly criticize Obama for not being supportive of Israel after all he just allocated $38 billion for its defense?

So why did Netanyahu sign this agreement, instead of waiting for the next president? Until he writes his memoirs, we will never be sure. The best explanation is that he is petrified by what might happen if Donald Trump is elected.  

While Trump is popular among many right-wing Israelis, Netanyahu has a much more sophisticated understanding of the world Israel lives in. A Trump victory would introduce a level of uncertainty into the world that Israel fears. Nobody has any idea what Trump might do as president and that is something new in international relations.  

The same goes for foreign aid. As the biggest recipient of American foreign aid, not to mention diplomatic support, nothing makes the Israeli security establishment as nervous as Trump’s comments that America has to worry about America first.  

Israel, like the rest of the world, has greatly benefited from the U.S. being the benign hegemon in the world. The possibility that a Trump presidency could change that is troubling to most of the Israeli leadership.

Netanyahu probably decided to sign the current agreement instead of gambling with Israel’s future that he could do better with a President Trump or a President Clinton. By signing the agreement, Netanyahu is effectively helping Clinton, since this agreement takes the questions of the Democratic Party’s  commitment to Israel off the table.  

For President Obama, this is an amazing personal political achievement. For Netanyahu, he will never know if he made the right decision.

Marc Schulman is the editor of Historycentral.com.