President Barack Obama speaks in the White House briefing room in Washington on the Supreme Court decision on immigration. A tie vote by the Supreme Court is blocking President Barack Obama's immigration plan that sought to shield millions living in the U.S. illegally from deportation. Image Credit: AP

Washington: If you want to understand just how special the US-Israel relationship really is, look no further than the annual aid package. Israel is not only the greatest beneficiary of US defence assistance, but also the only one allowed to spend a portion of that assistance on weapons and equipment from its own industry. Everyone else has to buy American.

President Barack Obama is now looking to end this US subsidy of Israel’s defence sector, according to US and Israeli officials. They say the “offshore procurement” provision, unique to Israel’s aid package, is one of the last obstacles to completing an agreement to extend aid until 2029. Obama would like to phase out the agreement that allows Israel to spend 26 per cent of US annual aid at home.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, so far, disagrees.

In one respect this is surprising. Obama and his supporters like to tout US military aid to Israel as an act of the president’s unprecedented generosity. The US has given Israel nearly $24 billion under Obama, more than any other US president. As National Security Adviser Susan Rice said this month, “Even in these days of belt tightening, we are prepared to sign the single largest military assistance package — with any country — in American history,” adding that it today comprises more than 50 per cent of the total US military aid budget.

At the same time, Obama’s insistence on ending the US subsidy for Israeli defence items reflects a growing unease among many US defence companies that America’s cold war client state is now a competitor in the international arms market. Mary Beth Long, who served as assistant secretary of defence for international security affairs from 2007 to 2009 and is now an independent consultant to US and foreign defence companies, said it was time to rethink Israel’s offshore procurement exception.

Long, it should be said, is no Israel basher. She told me she believes the US has a strategic and moral obligation to maintain Israel’s “qualitative military edge,” a defence concept that obliges the US to sell Israel more advanced defence technology than its regional rivals receive. “The information sharing, the tactics, techniques and procedures, the things we have learnt from the Israelis particularly as to asymmetric confrontation, and their visibility into the region is absolutely critical to our national security,” she said.

But at the same time, Long said the aid relationship in recent years has gone off the rails. “It doesn’t make sense for Israel to come back and ask for supplemental projects if they can’t make the case of why they didn’t spend their own budget and the normal $3 billion in aid on a critical item,” she said. “If it’s critical, and therefore we have to subsidise it, then why didn’t you find your own money for this?”

Long was talking about the special appropriation for Israel’s Iron Dome rocket and missile defence system. When she was in government, she opposed a plan to create an independent aid programme for Iron Dome. She lost that battle though. Since 2010, Congress and Obama have provided Israel nearly $1 billion — in addition to the annual $3.1 billion aid package — to buy more of these systems, which have been effective in intercepting Hamas rockets from Gaza.

But Obama was not initially supportive of this funding. One former White House official said the president in 2010 initially told his staff that Israel should be able to find the money for Iron Dome, particularly at a moment when the US economy was still reeling from the 2008 financial crisis.

At the time, the president had a point. Israel’s gross domestic product has nearly doubled in the last 10 years, to around $230 billion. In this same period, Israel has emerged as one of the world’s top arms exporters. In 2015 Israel sold $5.7 billion worth of military goods to other countries. As Long posed the issue: “How inexplicable is it that we are competing against the Israelis in the Indian defence procurement market at the same time we are subsidising the Israeli defence industry?”

Israeli officials tell a different story. While it’s true that the state is the only country allowed to spend US defence assistance on its own defence industry, much of that funding goes to projects that end up benefiting the US military. In the case of Iron Dome, Congress eventually passed legislation that required Israel to share its related intellectual property with US defence firms.

“The 26 per cent is used primarily on joint ventures between the US and Israel,” Yair Lapid, a former finance minister and leader of the centrist Yesh Atid block in the Knesset, said last week. “Look at the new F35b; there are systems on it from Elbit,” he said, referring to an Israeli defence concern. “It’s this money that becomes the technological edge the US has.”

Like almost everything else in Israel, there is no consensus on whether Netanyahu should just accept the aid package as Obama proposes. Moshe Kahlon, Israel’s finance minister and a former member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, called on the prime minister this week to take the deal as it is, even though he acknowledged it could be better. Meanwhile, a member of Kahlon’s party, the former Israeli ambassador to Washington Michael Oren, has urged Netanyahu to go slow, according to the Jerusalem Post.

Elliott Abrams, who was a senior National Security Council official under President George W. Bush, said he agrees with Oren. “If you do it this year, you will give Obama a talking point for why he is the best person for Israeli security, ever,” he said. “And Obama will misuse that in his last months in office to produce his parameters for the peace talks.”

Abrams has a point. Obama has been doing this since he came into office. He has boosted Israel’s defence subsidy, as he has distanced America from Israel in both the Iran negotiations and on settlement growth in the West Bank. The lavish military aid was political cover for a foreign policy Israel’s leaders opposed.

If Israel’s leaders really want to deprive Obama and future US presidents of this kind of political cover, there is an easy solution. They could negotiate a deal to wean the country, over time, off the military aid altogether. Indeed, an Israeli leader did just that when it came to US economic assistance in the 1990s. His name was Benjamin Netanyahu.