TEL AVIV — Vice President Biden arrived in Israel on Tuesday to patch up, again, relations between the Obama White House and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after a very public and deeply partisan spat over the Iran nuclear deal.
Biden went directly from the airport to meet with former Israeli president Shimon Peres in Tel Aviv. But even as the men spoke about the need for Israel to make peace with the Palestinians, less than a mile away a Palestinian went on a rampage in the Arab-Jewish quarter of Jaffa that left an American tourist dead.
Biden’s mission is, in part, to advance long-running talks between the White House and the Prime Minister’s Office over a new multibillion-dollar, 10-year military aid package. Israel is asking for much more money than the Obama administration has been prepared to give, further straining exchanges between the two leaders.
As Biden was en route to the Middle East, the White House expressed consternation that administration officials heard through the Israeli news media — not from Netanyahu’s office — that the prime minister was canceling a visit to the United States, in which he was supposed to meet with President Obama later this month. The White House said officials had been looking forward to the meeting, while Israeli officials said their ambassador told the White House last week that there was a “good chance” Netanyahu wouldn’t come.
It was the latest in a long string of tiffs between the two leaders. Many Israelis have been lukewarm about Obama, a sentiment stoked by Netanyahu’s aggressive opposition to Obama’s Iran deal. But in Biden they see someone who has been a reliable friend during his long years in the Senate and the White House.
Biden came briefly to Israel for the funeral of former prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2014. This trip is the vice president’s first official visit to Israel since a diplomatic disaster in 2010; during that tour, Israel announced construction plans in the Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem — the same settlements that successive U.S. administrations have branded as “illegitimate” and an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians.
A subsequent telephone call between then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Netanyahu lasted 45 minutes. For 43 of those minutes, she talked and he listened — a rarity, according to people present during the conversation or briefed afterward.
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Israelis are promising nothing of the sort on this visit. Biden will not only talk military aid and regional stability but also sit down with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose young people have unleashed a five-month wave of knife, gun and vehicular attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians. On Thursday, Biden also will meet King Abdullah II in Jordan.
The White House and the Israeli defense establishment have been having high-level, closely guarded talks for months over the amount the United States will give Israel for military hardware and under what terms.
Israel is expected to get F-35 and F-16 fighter jets, spare parts, missiles and intelligence-gathering systems. A single F-35 Joint Strike Fighter costs about $110 million.
The United States is committed to guaranteeing that Israel maintains a “qualitative military edge” that allows it to defeat “any conventional threat while sustaining minimal casualties.”
Israel and its supporters say the small Jewish nation serves as a front-line picket for Western democracies in a region beset by chaos, so it deserves outsize assistance.
To the north, Israel faces the Shiite army of Hezbollah, fighting in war-racked Syria and based in Lebanon, where the government is so dysfunctional it can’t collect the country’s garbage. To the east is Iran. To the south, militants allied with the Islamic State are fighting Egyptian troops in the Sinai Peninsula, with some assistance from Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian resistance movement and terror organization in Gaza.
This would be the third 10-year memorandum signed between the United States and Israel. The last one, signed in 2007, provided Israel with $30 billion through 2017.
Israeli leaders hope to get more aid going forward. The Israeli media, citing unnamed sources, says Netanyahu and the defense establishment want at least $40 billion over 10 years, plus ongoing spending for the co-development of air defense systems.
U.S. diplomats warn that the numbers are closely held and that it is not just the total but how the money can be spent — meaning how much goes to U.S. defense contractors and how much Israel can spend on its own companies.
The White House has repeatedly insisted that any incompatibility between Obama and Netanyahu has never affected military cooperation. Their falling-outs keep popping up, however — such as the different accounts over Netanyahu’s canceled sit-down with Obama.
According to reports in the Israeli media, Netanyahu’s office told reporters that one reason he scrapped the trip was because scheduling conflicts made it impossible to find a mutually agreeable time to see Obama before the president travels to Cuba.
The White House fired back, saying that it had invited Netanyahu for one of the two days requested by the Israelis and that until Monday it was expecting the meeting to occur.
“We were looking forward to hosting the bilateral meeting, and we were surprised to first learn via media reports that the prime minister, rather than accept our invitation, opted to cancel his visit,” said Ned Price, a spokesman for the National Security Council. “Reports that we were not able to accommodate the prime minister’s schedule are false.”
Netanyahu’s office said the Israeli ambassador, Ron Dermer, gave a bit of warning Friday, alerting the White House that there was a “good chance” Netanyahu would have to cancel. Dermer’s office said Israeli press reports that Obama was unwilling to meet with Netanyahu were wrong.
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Last year, Netanyahu broke off talks on the military aid package during the U.S.-led nuclear negotiations with Iran because the prime minister didn’t want it to appear that he was willing to bend on Iran in order to get additional money.
Yet in a sign that negotiations were stuck, Netanyahu suggested at a public cabinet meeting in early February that Israel might decide unilaterally to wait for the next administration to get a better deal.
Since the end of World War II, Israel has received more foreign aid from the United States than any other nation — $121 billion, not adjusted for inflation. Washington pays about 20 percent of Israel’s total military budget. No other country gets that kind of foreign military aid; the closest is Egypt, which received $1.3 billion last year.
In addition to the $3 billion a year in direct military aid, the White House points out that U.S. spending on Israel’s new cutting-edge air defenses has soared in the past decade, from $133 million in 2006 to $619 million in 2015.
For diplomats, Netanyahu’s threat to wait for the next administration was revealing.
“If there were a high level of confidence things were moving in the right direction, there would be no reason to go public,” said Dennis Ross, a former U.S. diplomat who wrote a book on the sometimes cantankerous U.S.-Israeli relationship called “Doomed to Succeed.”
“This is an indication that what they hoped to achieve does not look promising at this point,” Ross said.
The White House countered by citing spending caps mandated by Congress.
“These talks are taking place in the context of a challenging budgetary environment in the United States that has necessitated difficult trade-offs amongst competing priorities,” said a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing closed-door talks.
The official said that the administration was offering Israel the largest single pledge of military aid in U.S. history — in effect daring Netanyahu to wait for a better deal.
Sallai Meridor, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States who helped negotiate the last 10-year military aid package, said he thought it would have been better for Obama and Netanyahu to come up with a final number and then let their technical staffs decide on the details.
Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. diplomat who is now an analyst at the Wilson Center, said the U.S. military aid will help Netanyahu make the case that his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal didn’t cost Israel anything.
“In the wake of the Iran deal, there is a need on the part of Israelis to justify and validate all the broken crockery Netanyahu caused by inserting himself in the middle of the president’s premier foreign policy initiative,” he said. “By tough bargaining, he acquiesced in the agreement but got all these bells and whistles in return.”