U.S.: No strings attached to new defense package for Israel
By Barak Ravid, Haaretz Correspondent
The new $30 billion American defense package for Israel is not conditioned on diplomatic progress or concessions to the Palestinians, a top U.S. aide said Thursday as representatives from both countries signed the memorandum of understanding in Jerusalem.
U.S. Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns said the aid to Israel was meant to counter "an axis of cooperation between Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and Hamas that is responsible for the violence in the region."
The hike in aid constitutes a 25-percent increase to the $2.4 billion Jerusalem currently receives from Washington in annual military grants. Under the new agreement, the U.S. will transfer $30 billion to Israel over the next 10 years.
U.S. officials have said the package - which was announced last month and must still be approved by Congress - is designed to reassure Israel and Sunni Muslim Gulf countries of Washington's commitment to the Middle East despite its problems in Iraq. It would also strengthen the Gulf nations in the face of the growing clout of Shi'ite Iran and its nuclear program.
Under the plan, Israel would receive $2.55 billion in October 2008. This sum would increase by $150 million each year, until it reaches $3.1 billion in 2012. From that point, Israel would receive $3.1 billion a year, through 2017, for a total of $30 billion.
The agreement also permits Israel to convert into shekels 26.3 percent of the aid money, enabling it to procure defense equipment from Israeli companies. The rest of the aid must be used to buy equipment from U.S. arms manufacturers.
Burns signed the memorandum Thursday noon with Foreign Ministry Director General Aharon Abramovich. Burns met that morning with Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer, who headed the Israeli team in negotiations with the United States. Burns then met with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
At a ceremony in Jerusalem, the American said that "one of the major priorities for our government ... will be to help push forward a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians". At a press conference following the signing, Burns said: "A strong and secure Israel is an American interest.
"There is no question that ... the Middle East is a more dangerous region now even than it was 10 or 20 years ago and that Israel is facing a growing threat. It's immediate and it's also long-term," Burns told reporters.
According to the memorandum, an annual review will be conducted into the manner in which Israel spends the military assistance.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met Wednesday with Burns in preparation for Thursday's signing. Olmert asked Burns to thank U.S. President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for their efforts in transforming into a binding agreement the understandings with Olmert that were reached during his last visit to Washington.
"The aid agreement with the U.S. is an important and significant component for Israel, and proves once again the depth of the relationship between the two countries and the United States' commitment to Israel's security, and to preserving its qualitative advantage over other countries in the Middle East," Olmert said.
The United States is also proposing a large weapons package for Saudi Arabia, which has historically been an Israeli enemy but has indicated a willingness to attend a U.S.-backed peace conference with Israel in the fall.
Olmert has said he understands the U.S. need to bolster Saudi Arabia in facing Iran. "The increase in military aid to Israel would guarantee its strategic superiority," Olmert has said, despite upgrades to other Arab countries in the region.