Israel, US try to maintain military edge
By HERB KEINON
With a new $30-billion, 10-year aid package from the US in the bag, Israeli and American officials are now discussing what military equipment Israel can buy and Saudi Arabia can't, in order for Israel to retain its qualitative military edge, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, who signed a memorandum of understanding governing the aid package with Foreign Ministry Director-General Aharon Abramowitz earlier on Thursday, met with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and senior defense ministry officials in the evening to discuss details of what Israel needs to retain its military superiority.
One senior diplomatic official said that in the coming days and weeks these discussions would focus on what Israel will require, both in terms of its own purchases and in restrictions on sales to the Saudis, in light of the US's proposed $20b. arms sale to Saudi Arabia and five other Gulf States.
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Burns, in a press conference after signing the understanding, reiterated that the US remained committed to maintaining Israel's qualitative edge, saying this was a "major consideration" that had guided the negotiations with Israel on the package over the last six months. Burns would not, however, discuss any details of what Israel would be able to purchase, or whether there would be restrictions on the Saudi arms deal.
Under the memorandum of understanding, Israel will receive $30b. in military aid over 10 years, beginning in fiscal year 2009. The amount of aid in 2009 will be $2.55b., a $150-million raise over the previous year. There will be additional increases for each of the next four years, after which the aid will level off at $3.1b. annually and remain that way through 2018.
This package replaces a previous 10-year, $24b. aid package negotiated by then-prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu in the late 1990s that gradually phased out US civilian aid to Israel and replaced it with increased military assistance.
In a unique arrangement with Israel, 26.3 percent of each yearly grant can be converted into shekels and used to buy military equipment in Israel. The rest must be spent on equipment made in America.
Burns, who called the new package a "major contribution in American assistance," said it sent a strong signal to Israel of US commitment to its security, "beyond the presidency of President Bush and into the next presidency. That is a very important point for us."
Burns stressed that there were no strings attached to the aid - no special annexes - and that it was not dependent on Israeli policy. The aid, he said, "will allow Israel to plan its defense expenditures in a way that's rational, in a way that takes into account its own appreciation of its situation in this region."
Burns underlined that the aid was coming at a time when Iran "is resurgent," and was both seeking nuclear weapons and expanding its conventional power in the region. He said Iran and Syria were funding and arming terrorist organizations fomenting violence in every part of the Middle East, be it Hamas, Hizbullah or Shi'ite groups in Iraq. "So we look at this region and understand that a secure and strong Israel is in the interest of the US," he said.
The aid package is not expected to run into much resistance in Congress. While the memorandum of understanding is for a 10-year package, each year's appropriation will still have to be approved by the US legislature.
Burns said the US considered the $30b. an investment in peace, since "peace will not be made without strength. Peace will not be made without Israel being strong in the future."
Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer, who helped negotiate the package, termed the deal "extraordinarily important for Israel, important for what it says about the US-Israel relationship."
"We have an exceptionally heavy defense burden, the highest in what used to be known as the Free World, 10% of GNP, and the fact that the US is willing to share a significant part of that burden, particularly for the purchases of military equipment, is a critical element in our budget," he said.