WASHINGTON — Israel is seeking a surge in future US Foreign Military Financing (FMF) grants not only to support its growing security requirements, but to offset the impact of increasingly advanced US arms sales to other counries in the volatile region.
In interviews here, US and Israeli officials said initial work toward a new 10-year military aid package, which would extend through 2027, is focusing on a full spectrum of Israeli concerns, including military modernization needs, new threats from regional instability and the erosion of Israel’s so-called qualitative military edge (QME) due to US arms sales in the Mideast.
Under the existing US $30 billion aid agreement signed in 2007, negotiators from both sides did not specifically address or attempt to calculate Israel’s QME security concerns in annual FMF funding levels prescribed by the 10-year package.
Those concerns — supported by US commitments to preserve Israel’s edge over regional adversaries — were dealt with in separate bilateral forums, with significant input by key congressional committees charged with reviewing the regional impact of proposed sales, sources here said.
“QME, which pertains to Israel’s ability to defend itself by itself against any combination of Mideast adversaries, was always implied but never explicitly linked to long-term FMF agreements or security assistance planning,” said Dov Zakheim, a former Pentagon comptroller and undersecretary of defense.
Since then, however, Washington’s decades-long, de facto commitment to Israel’s QME has been codified into US law, and bilateral working groups tasked with laying the foundation for the new accord are taking a more “holistic” view of Israeli security concerns, said Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the US.
“I don’t know how big of a role, if at all, QME played in the previous round of negotiations. But the nexus between QME and FMF has become stronger,” Oren said.
Oren mentioned “very large [US] contracts to the Middle East” that “raise the question of armies having capabilities similar to our own and how we make sure we can maintain our QME.”
Nevertheless, the Israeli envoy said Israel is not raising objections to such sales.
Latest available data from the US Congressional Research Service lists $91.9 billion in new US arms agreements to the Near East from 2008 through 2011.
Such agreements, according to CRS, include new and upgraded F-15 fighters to Saudi Arabia; dozens of Apache gunships and UH-60M Black Hawks to Saudi Arabia; Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system firing units and CH-47F Chinook helicopters to the United Arab Emirates; F-16 fighters to Egypt, Iraq and Oman; and co-production of M1A1 main battle tanks to Egypt.
“We understand that if America doesn’t sell these weapons, others will,” Oren said. “We also understand the fact that each of these sales contributes to hundreds or thousands of American jobs. And we have an interest in a strong and vital American economy.”
In addition to Israel’s military modernization buys and the need to offset US sales to regional adversaries, Oren said, the future FMF accord should also take into account the Iranian-funded buildup of Hezbollah and Hamas rocket and missile arsenals beyond Israel’s northern and southern borders. The future aid package also should accommodate the nearly $2 billion that Israel has been forced to spend in fortifying its borders with Egypt, Lebanon and Syria, he said.
“We’re looking at a holistic Mideastern picture, which includes growth of missile arsenals in Lebanon and Gaza; the strategic situation in Sinai; the Syrian situation as it impacts us and other countries, including Jordan ... and the fact that all this is going on in an age of sequestration,” Oren said. “Therefore, we will be looking for a long-term [memorandum of understanding] that will address all of the issues that are routinely raised in our very close and high-level consultations with our American counterparts.”
He declined to speculate on the scope of Israel’s expected increase in future FMF levels, which, under the current agreement, elevated grant military aid from $2.4 billion to $3.1 billion through 2017.
A US official said bilateral working groups tasked with laying the foundation for the 2018-27 aid package are not yet dealing with topline figures or prescribed annual FMF funding levels. He acknowledged, however, that QME assessments would not be “disaggregated” from the future FMF agreement in the works.
The official insisted the US government applies QME on a case-by-case basis. That said, he acknowledged that “it’s impossible not to look at the whole picture” when assessing Israel’s security challenges.
“Discussions are still very preliminary,” the US official said. “At this point, we’re trying to understand and assess the full range of Israel’s security concerns.”
US Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was in Israel last week in large part to flesh out Israeli security concerns in a rapidly shifting region, sources said.
US President Barack Obama announced plans to begin discussions toward the new 10-year aid package during his visit to Israel last March.
At a joint news conference in Jerusalem, Obama said he and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to begin discussions on extending military assistance to Israel.
“Our current agreement lasts through 2017, and we’ve directed our teams to start working on extending it for the years beyond,” Obama said. ■