Home > Diplomacy > Yediot’s defense analyst on the looming US-Israel ’security catastrophe’

Yediot’s defense analyst on the looming US-Israel ’security catastrophe’

Read this one in full.

Alex Fishman is Yediot’s veteran defense analyst. Besides providing a detailed post-mortem of the latest fiasco in US-Israeli diplomacy, he makes a very blunt allegation: Netanyahu is selling out the IDF’s self-defined strategic interests and the good will of the US administration in order to buy political time.

In the economic jargon that Netanyahu loves to use, this would be called paying for recurrent expenditures with the proceeds from the sale of national assets.

Fishman concludes with a warning:

And so the time passes. In the meantime, there is no talk about a crisis in Israel-US relations, but rather a malfunction. If this goes on, the malfunction is liable to turn into a diplomatic catastrophe, if not a security catastrophe.


No (more) free gifts

Column, Alex Fishman, Yediot Friday Political Supplement, November 26 2010

People in the Ministry of Defense are worried. The National Security Council, headed by Uzi Arad, department officials were informed, is quietly preparing a position paper on a uniquely sensitive subject: an Israeli proposal for a strategic defense alliance with the United States. It turns out that the IDF is really not interested in the deal, which would mean among other things significant limitations on Israel’s independent ability to act against threats near and far.

But this is not the only reason that department officials are suspicious of Arad’s secret document. For many months, together with the Americans, they have been crafting a basket of security guarantees for the coming 20 years, to the tune of USD 20 billion. All of a sudden unnecessary, discordant plans are being shoved at them — coming from the direction of the prime minister —that talk about a defense alliance that does not link up with any clear and consistent policy which also has some sort of goal at the end.

The strange story about the alliance that is being cooked up in the Prime Minister’s Bureau is reminiscent of another strange story: the strange connection between the deal for F-35 aircraft that is scheduled to come to fruition in 2017 (!) and Israel’s agreement to freeze building in the territories for another three months. What possible connection is there between the defense deal, which is part of America’s traditional commitment to retaining Israel’s military superiority, and the building freeze? That’s it, there is no connection.

Both of these strange stories have one common denominator. The person behind them knows full well that creating a defense alliance would require a very problematic and complicated political process in the United States, including approval by both houses of Congress, and the chances of such a proposal ever being actualized are not terribly high. Just like he knows that President Obama’s commitment to give Israel a present of 20 planes, at a cost of more than USD 2 billion on top of Israel’s annual aid package, is essentially impossible in today’s economic climate. The president will have to explain to his constituents exactly why he is distributing presents abroad at a time when factories are closing in Detroit. It’s almost an invitation for political suicide.

And the fellow who prepared this trap for him — the prime minister of Israel — knew exactly what he was doing. Netanyahu is doing everything he can to buy time, to postpone the end and to get out of making a decision about the future of the process with the Palestinians.

Price of scorn

So Netanyahu promised the public that if there are no gifts — there will be no negotiations; the Americans don’t know what gifts he’s talking about, and now Israelis are racking their brains trying to figure out how to word a statement that will get the prime minister out of the trap he got himself into. So they are talking about the possibility that the Americans will give a grant that will cover part of the cost of 20 aircraft, with the rest to come out of Israel’s foreign aid package. In any event we are only talking about 2017. In the meantime, Israel-Palestinian talks are frozen.

How did Israel get itself into this dangerous jam, which links the basic American commitment to Israel’s security to negotiations with the Palestinians?

It turns out that eight months ago, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General James E. Cartwright, met with Director of the IDF Planning Branch Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel. Around the same time, senior IDF officials visited the Pentagon. The goal of the intensive meetings was to map out Israel’s security needs and to create a joint package that would answer the threats Israel is likely to face in the coming 20 years.

The deal is essentially done for the long term, and it will eventually replace another program of foreign aid to Israel, to the tune of USD 30 billion, that is due to expire in 2017. In short: one plan to replace another and American commitments to Israel are secure at least until 2030.

Efforts to create the current package began at the end of the Bush Administration, when President Bush instructed his National Security Advisor General Jim Jones, to begin negotiations with Israeli army officials about Israel’s security needs. The goal was two-fold: one, to make good on America’s basic commitments to Israel’s security. Two, to give expression to a world view that said then, as it does now, that a secure Israel is a generous Israel: by ensuring Israeli security, Israel will cooperate with American political efforts in the Middle East.

Here, of course, we were a little bit dismissive of Jones. They sent a colonel to meet with him, a four-star general. They were sure Jones was coming to show just how overstated our threat assessment was, what cry babies we are and how we demand equipment and money far in excess of what we really need. In short: Jones came to screw us.

Eventually Jones became Obama’s national security advisor and here, after the hazing he underwent, they still cannot figure out why he isn’t making an effort to be nice.

It took several months until we understood that he was serious and started to cooperate with him. And eventually, as Obama was poised to take office, he produced a terrific paper in which he set out the fundamental security problems facing Israel and the possible solutions. The Jones document spoke of three circles of threat: the circle of terrorism, the circle of nearby enemy nations and the third, outer circle of strategic threats, including the question of Iran and the nuclear bomb.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu adopted the paper with all his heart, and every time he traveled to the United States he quoted from it. The three circles of threat became Israel’s basic security assessment to the administration.

These efforts between the Pentagon and the Defense Ministry to implement this approach continued unabated even during the darkest hours between the prime minister and the White House. The results of these efforts can be seen today: information sharing with the Americans about the Iranian threat, for example, is broader and deeper than it has ever been. The Americans have also expanded the amount of military equipment they store in Israel from $800 million to $1.2 billion, the F-35 deal is on the way and Israel got weapons the US previously resisted giving.

It’s not that there are no disagreements between Israel and the United States about the levels of threat, but the dialogue continued as long as  and is moving towards actualization that would ring the basket of American commitments to Israel’s security for the coming 20 years.

Last July Prime Minister Netanyahu tried to patch things up with President Obama and mentioned the three circles. But in the same breath Netanyahu surprised Obama, saying if you give me 20 years of security guarantees for these three circles, you’ll be surprised at the risks I’ll take. I’ll surprise all the skeptics and move towards negotiations. Obama shook his hand: We’ve got a deal. I’ll sew up the security issues, and you sew up the political and diplomatic ones.

The president wouldn’t give details. When you ask his aides today why he didn’t ask Netanyahu at the time some basic questions—what sort of arrangement do you see with the Palestinians, what’s your stance on Jerusalem, what about Palestinian refugees—they answer: Obama made a deal. From his perspective if it doesn’t come to fruition, Netanyahu will pay in spades.

Freeze equals reward

After the visit, the president instructed aides to speed up work on the basket of guarantees. The head and deputy head of America’s National Security Council instructed the various bodies involved with the matter to push forward the matter of Israeli security. Slowly, an approach started to emerge defining Israel’s security threats and the requisite answers.

Israeli and American teams had difficulty reaching agreement on certain issues. Israel’s political echelon couldn’t give answers about fundamental questions like Israel’s exact borders, from which it would be possible to carve out an answer to the security threat. The IDF and ministry of defense were fully prepared to write up a long shopping list of military equipment to buy with the USD 20 billion, starting with a variety of multi-level anti-ballistic interception systems, warning and intelligence systems, and ending with precise ammunition that Israel’s never had before and deep intelligence agreements. In short: In 20 years the IDF would improve its equipment on all fronts.

The list also included one point that dealt with the addition of more F-35 planes, with a goal of eventually reaching three stealth planes.

In September Defense Minister Ehud Barak traveled to Washington to begin actualizing the deal Netanyahu signed with Obama: How to revive the political process after the 10-month freeze during which nothing happened and the Palestinians wouldn’t negotiate. Just before leaving, in a conversation with the prime minister, Netanyahu floated the idea past Barak to demand another 20 planes in exchange for Israel’s agreement to return to the negotiating table. Something attractive that would make it possible to convince the cabinet ministers and the Israeli public.

During that visit Barak and Deputy National Security Advisor Dennis Ross traded drafts of an agreement, and the issue of additional planes was also brought up. The Americans weren’t shocked, but nothing was written into the agreement because the president could not have agreed to such a gift on the eve of Congressional elections. At the end of the day they made a deal: Israel would extend the settlement construction freeze for three additional months and the American government would commit itself to continued Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley for many years to come. The Americans also promised this would be the final building freeze, that it would not include Jerusalem, and an American promise to veto any Palestinian attempt to gain recognition for statehood at the UN Security Council.

But then came the “but.” The last section of the agreement, that 20-year security deal, suddenly became conditional: it would come to fruition only after Israel reaches a final-status agreement with the Palestinians. Rather, the connection between political negotiations and Israel’s upgraded military ability, it is hard to forget, Netanyahu himself created at that fateful meeting in July, at which he promised Obama he would surprise him on the diplomatic font.

Barak returned to Israel with a final draft, agreed upon by the Americans. Now the prime minister and the Security Cabinet had to agree. But Netanyahu wouldn’t sign. The Americans understand the name of the game: Netanyahu wouldn’t give Obama an agreement on the eve of elections. The US National Security Council was furious. The Barak-Ross agreement was leaked by the White House so that Jewish organizations in the US would pressure the prime minister. Netanyahu, a strong man, was unmoved.

After the mid-term elections, with Congress “in our hands,” the prime minister goes back to the US for an additional meeting at which he intends to open the path t renewed negotiations. In his pocket he’s got Barak’s plan, plus some improvements to the security aid. After seven hours with Hillary Clinton he comes back to Israel waving terrific agreement. Even before he got home the Prime Minister’s Bureau had leaked information that Israel would get a phenomenal security package, worth billions. Even more, as soon as the negotiations start, there will be another bonus: 20 more F-35s. And all this for just another 90 days building freeze, during which Israel would enter into serious negotiations about all “heart of the matter” issues with the Palestinians.

A diplomatic catastrophe

This is where another problematic element comes up, of how Israel works vis-à-vis the US. Officials in Jerusalem complain that the prime minister’s envoy to the talks with the Americans, attorney Yitzhak Molcho, usually sits with his American counterparts alone and in private. Netanyahu and Barak do the same. There is no official Israeli documentation of these meetings. There are impressions, there is understanding, there is what people remember. It comes down to how the listener understood what he heard.

And this is how Israel was able to say that the Americans promised a gift of another 20 planes, because that was the prime minister’s impression in the course of his conversation with Mrs. Clinton. He, it seems, presented her with a request to receive the planes in wake of the huge American arms deal with Saudi Arabia, and she let him to understand that there was a green light. It was not worked out how this deal would be carried out and who exactly would pay for it. After all, good will is not enough, Congress has to approve such a gift.

But Netanyahu ran to tell the guys. While Obama, who was pleased about the understandings with Clinton, was embarrassed. Suddenly he was being forced to hand over a gift that he had never intended to give.

As if that were not enough, now Netanyahu is doing them another trick and is sticking another stick in the negotiation wagon’s wheels: he wants all these understandings in writing, as a public commitment.

Netanyahu cannot be blamed of lacking understanding of how things work with Washington. No administration will sign a document that gives IDF soldiers the possibility of remaining in the Jordan Valley for decades more. This could be a term in the framework of an “ understanding” that the US would support in an Israeli demand of the Palestinians.

Furthermore, demanding of the Americans that they sign a document that states that they agree that there will be no freeze in Jerusalem means breaking all the game rules. The US administration can look the other way when there is solid construction in greater Jerusalem, but to sign on this in a public document? After all, this is contrary to this US administration’s and previous administrations’ avowed policy.

In fact, both the Americans and the settlers, who are wasting their energy in demonstrations, should have understood that Netanyahu did not actually intend to do anything, as soon as he arrived back in Israel. Instead of capitalizing on the momentum, by convening the security cabinet and making decisions, he convened the forum of seven, which is merely an advisory board. Since then and until now, he has continued to play for time.

So now both sides, the Israeli and the American, are doing all sorts of phraseology acrobatics that will make it possible to come up with a paper that summarizes the understandings. The Americans are now beginning to say that after an agreement in some sort of paper is reached, Netanyahu will come up with another excuse in order not to make progress.

And so the time passes. In the meantime, there is no talk about a crisis in Israel-US relations, but rather a malfunction. If this goes on, the malfunction is liable to turn into a diplomatic catastrophe, if not a security catastrophe.

Categories: Diplomacy
  1. Jeff Blankfort
    November 27, 2010 at 08:00

    This is a very important article and many thanks, Didi, for providing the translation. Where I believe Fishman is wrong is his apparent belief that Obama would have problems getting Congress to approves a deal he signed with Netanyahu.

    If Netanyahu, in fact, wanted this agreement approved and it was given the green light by AIPAC and the ZOA, there is no question that, whatever it entails, both houses of Congress would rush to pass it and do so with lavish testimonials to US friendship with Israel replacing what should be intelligent debate.

  1. November 26, 2010 at 20:15
  2. November 28, 2010 at 12:26

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