U.S. President Barack Obama chats with military personnel while viewing an Iron Dome missile battery on March 20 at Israel's Ben Gurion International Airport. (AFP)
JERUSALEM — In an extraordinarily emotive visit here aimed at rallying Israel’s current and future leaders to seize the chance for peace, U.S. President Barack Obama doubled down on U.S. security support with a new agreement to extend annual military aid through 2027.
The pending 10-year military aid package would commit Washington to provide up to $40 billion in additional Foreign Military Financing (FMF) grant assistance to Israel, sources here say. It would automatically kick in at the conclusion of the current 10-year, $30 billion agreement signed in 2007 under President George W. Bush and would bind Obama’s successor to continued military aid to Israel.
The current agreement elevated Israel’s annual grant aid from $2.4 billion to $3.1 billion, and Israeli officials expect the follow-on package to provide incremental boosts to nearly $4 billion per year.
At a joint March 20 news conference here with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Obama reiterated Washington’s “solemn obligation” to safeguard Israel’s “non-negotiable” security.
“As part of our long-term commitment to Israel’s security, the prime minister and I agreed to begin discussions on extending military assistance. Our current agreement lasts through 2017, and we’ve directed our teams to start working on extending it for the years beyond,” Obama said.
Obama’s unusually early authorization of negotiations for a follow-on aid package is one of the many confidence-building, security-enhancing measures aimed at “encouraging the Israeli government to take those risky, yet necessary steps toward peace,” a U.S. source here said.
In addition to extending annual FMF aid, Obama pledged additional measures to preserve Israel’s qualitative military edge. As an example — and in reference to sequestration-mandated budget cuts — Obama said the White House “will take steps” to ensure “no interruption” to some $200 million in 2013 funding for Israel’s Iron Dome active defense system.
Moreover, Obama said his team would continue to work with Congress on future Iron Dome funding, which sources here estimated could result in an additional $600 million over the next two years.
Obama’s visit here in the opening days of Netanyahu’s center-right coalition government was meticulously crafted to accent the commonality of interests and points of agreement on the bilateral agenda. Differences associated with West Bank settlements or the point at which Washington would be prepared to exercise its military option in Iran were intentionally downplayed in White House attempts to set a positive stage for the next four years.
Obama sought to ensure the new government and the public at large that he was prepared to use military force if his preferred combination of sanctions and diplomacy fail to derail Tehran’s nuclear weapons drive.
In a public endorsement of Israel’s claimed right to act unilaterally to pre-empt the nuclear threat from Iran, Obama said, “Each country has to make its own decisions when it comes to the awesome decision to engage in any kind of military action.”
Speaking to reporters here, Netanyahu also sought to assuage public doubts about Washington’s commitment to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.
“I’m absolutely convinced that the president is determined to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons,” he said.
Nevertheless, Netanyahu maintained “Israel’s right and duty to defend itself, by itself, against any threat … including the Iranian threat.”