Israel wants US to further boost military aid
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.