Israel wants US to further boost military aid

Friday 13/11/2015
An F-16, from below, escorting two F-35 jets.

Beirut - Despite the choreo­graphed smiles and handshakes, the first face-to-face talks be­tween Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama in 13 months do not seem to have defrosted the icy atmosphere be­tween them. But the Israeli leader is still likely to come away from the November 9th meeting at the White House with a big boost in US mili­tary aid.
Israel and the United States sig­nalled on October 18th they were setting aside their blistering politi­cal dispute over the July 14th nu­clear agreement with Iran, secured by a US-led group of major world powers, to focus on a new 10-year military aid package that would boost US aid to close to $5 billion a year from $3.1 billion.
The current agreement runs out in 2017 and the Israelis have made it clear that they expect a massive “compensation” package from the Obama administration to placate them for the Iran deal. Israel views the agreement as a sell-out to Teh­ran that only delayed, rather than blocked, the Islamic Republic be­coming a nuclear power.
Israel is expected to settle for about $4.5 billion a year from the United States, which has pledged to maintain what is known as Israel’s qualitative military edge.
This relic of the Cold War stems in large part from the enormous political influence Israel wields in Washington, particularly in what some commentators call the “Israe­li-occupied Congress”.
Earlier in 2015, Israel was look­ing to upgrade US military aid to as much as $3.7 billion. It has since ar­gued that it needs much more than that to offset the expected econom­ic windfall for Iran in sanctions re­lief from the nuclear agreement.
The Israelis, along with many US officials, suspect Tehran will use the extra funds to finance anti-Is­raeli organisations and operations.
That is only one of several threats Israel envisages in a region torn by multiple conflicts and undergoing fundamental change, with Arab states collapsing and non-conven­tional forces such as the Islamic State (ISIS) emerging to seize and hold territory.
Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon visited Washington in late October to finalise the new military aid package with US Defense Sec­retary Ashton Carter, who pledged to enhance “the entire spectrum” of “our defence relationship… from tunnels and terrorists right up through the high-end”.
Netanyahu’s shopping list is ex­pected to include more Lockheed Martin’s stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. Israel is already buying 30 of the multi-role jets under a $2.75 billion contract signed in 2010 with deliveries to start in Decem­ber 2016. It has indicated it wants as many as 75 to ensure Israel’s air supremacy for the coming decades.
Washington has reportedly ap­proved in principle an Israeli re­quest for a squadron of MV-22 Os­prey tilt-rotor aircraft, which take off and land like helicopters but fly like conventional aircraft and are believed to have the range to reach Iran.
Israel sought to acquire them in 2012 but abandoned the effort be­cause of budgetary restraints. US sources said Israel wanted the Os­preys to fly special forces teams to Iran to destroy the uranium enrich­ment facility built inside a moun­tain at Fordow, near the holy city of Qom.
Ehud Barak, a former Israeli chief of staff and defence minister, re­cently disclosed that Netanyahu had three times ordered pre-emp­tive air strikes against Iran in 2012, despite US objections, but had to scrap them because his generals op­posed such action.
Earlier this year, Israel’s allies in Washington were pushing for the Obama administration to provide Israel with the Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), the world’s big­gest bomb, and the aircraft to de­liver it — the venerable B-52 Stra­tofortress and the B-2 bomber — as part of the compensation package to prove US pledges to stand by the Jewish state.
The 30,000-pound MOP is the only weapon capable of blasting Iran’s nuclear facilities buried in bunkers deep underground. This raised concerns that if the admin­istration agreed, it would be hand­ing Netanyahu the means to carry out threatened pre-emptive strikes aimed at obliterating the Iranian nuclear programme.
The effort came to nought, largely because Israeli commanders said they did not want the world’s heavi­est item of conventional weaponry — and had never asked for it — be­cause it would require the construc­tion of extensive infrastructure.
But for Israelis, Iran remains a riv­eting threat. Israel’s military intel­ligence chief, Major-General Herzl Halevi, warned on October 29th that Iran was rapidly closing the military technology gap with Israel.
“Today, we have the advantage,” he said during a closed-door secu­rity seminar in Tel Aviv. But “Iran is closing in on it. Since the 1979 revo­lution, the number of universities and university students in Iran has increased twentyfold, compared with three-and-a-half times for Is­rael.” Iranian student enrolment in science, technology, engineering and maths, he stressed, was sky­rocketing.