During the raging debate over the Iran deal in the spring and summer of 2015, there was an illuminating ancillary dispute over whether supporting the agreement meant forfeiting the right to describe oneself as pro-Israel. It reached a crux with Jeffrey Goldberg’s question posed on Twitter as to whether J Street could support the deal and still call itself pro-Israel when the Israeli prime minister and opposition leader both opposed it, and Peter Beinart’s response that supporting a country means supporting a vision of its interests irrespective of whether the country’s leaders or people share that same vision. That debate has become relevant once again this week in the U.S.-Israel sphere, but this time the challenge is not for those on the left but for those on the right.
The new ten year, $38 billion defense assistance Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the U.S. and Israel was negotiated by the two governments for close to a year, and finally signed last week. It commits the U.S. to grant Israel $3.8 billion per year for a decade to purchase weapons and missile defense systems, and is notable when compared to the last ten year MOU for a few reasons. The total dollar value is larger by $8 billion and it includes annual funds for missile defense, which until now have been covered by Israeli supplemental requests on a need basis, but it also prevents Israel from returning to Congress for additional funds outside of emergency situations and phases in a requirement for Israel to spend all of the aid on American weapons rather than converting 26.3% into shekels as the previous agreement allowed. More unusually, as part of the agreement Israel has signed a letter pledging to return any aid money appropriated by Congress above what is laid out in the MOU. Even though the package is not perfect from Israel’s perspective, the new aid arrangement is not only supported by Prime Minister Netanyahu, who blasted critics of the deal as not being sufficiently grateful to the U.S., but was negotiated by his government and signed now over the objections of those who thought he should wait until the next administration.
Nevertheless, some prominent pro-Israel figures do not support the defense aid package. Senator Lindsey Graham, after failing in his attempt to prevent the U.S. and Israel from signing the MOU, appeared to be angriest not at President Obama for allegedly short-shifting Israel but at Netanyahu himself. Graham expressed his frustration at Israel for agreeing to sign a deal that, in his view, betrayed Israel’s friends in Congress, saying, “Here is what I would tell Bibi: When members of Congress come to Israel, you do a great job talking about the State of Israel’s needs and threats. Well, don’t tell us about all those needs and when we try to help you, you pull the rug from under us. I think that is bad for Israel.” Reinforcing the point, Graham added, “I am going to push back. We will see what Bibi does. But I will tell you right now, from my point of view, the prime minister has made a mistake here.”
Then on Tuesday, Graham doubled down, holding a press conference with Senators McCain, Ayotte, and Cruz, in which he announced a bill granting Israel an additional $1.5 billion over the $38 billion in the MOU, overturning the provision requiring Israel to spend all of the aid on U.S. weapons rather than allowing Israel to spend some of the aid at home, and objecting to Israel’s letter pledging to return any extra money appropriated by Congress. This now sets up a dynamic in which Graham and other senators are promising to torpedo an arrangement that was negotiated and agreed to by the Israeli government, as opposed to promising to torpedo a unilateral initiative from the White House that they don’t like. They do not believe that this MOU is in Israel’s best interests and they insist that they have a better sense of those interests than the Israeli government, which in their view is being coerced into signing an unfavorable agreement.
Despite Graham’s objections, it is not difficult to ascertain Netanyahu’s thinking on this issue. There is symbolism to Israel getting the largest aid package in U.S. history from a Democratic president tarred by so many as being anti-Israel when bipartisan support for Israel is being threatened, and Netanyahu clearly is enamored of the message that this sends. It also seems evident that Netanyahu wanted to have this MOU done before the next administration takes office given the uncertainty a new president will bring, and that locking the assistance in now was preferable to rolling the dice on who or what may come next. There are also the optics of Israel not wanting to appear ungrateful or overly greedy, which would endanger future assistance and public support for Israel in the U.S.; indeed, the New York Times editorial board last week questioned the deal as negotiated, let alone Graham’s wish for it to be bigger, wondering “whether the ever-increasing aid levels make sense, especially in the face of America’s other pressing domestic and overseas obligations.” So for all of these and undoubtedly other reasons as well, Netanyahu decided that it was in Israel’s best interest to agree to this deal, even with the provisions ruling out additional aid and eliminating the subsidy to Israel’s domestic defense industry.
Yet Graham doesn’t agree. In his words, Israel’s prime minister has made a mistake and he has promised to push back against Netanyahu’s decision because he has a different vision of what Israel should do. The argument is eerily reminiscent of the one made by the Obama administration on pushing Israel with regard to the Palestinians and two states, that true friends don’t let friends drive drunk and that the White House is seeking to help Israel avoid the consequences of its own poor decisions. So to paraphrase Goldberg’s question about the Iran deal, can a group of senators oppose the defense assistance MOU despite its support from Israel’s prime minister, defense minister, military chief of staff, and security establishment and still call themselves pro-Israel? Does Israel get to determine what is in its own best interests, or does a group of Americans who would like to see the democratically elected Israeli government pursue policies other than the ones that it has adopted? As someone who often disagrees with Israeli policies and will never cede my pro-Israel bona fides to anyone, my own answer to this question should be obvious. But keep this episode in mind the next time someone asserts that to be pro-Israel means to support every policy adopted by the Israeli government irrespective of your own assessment about how best to protect Israel as a secure Jewish and democratic state.