The Memorandum of Understanding that President Barack Obama concluded last week with Israel regarding US military aid to Israel for the next decade is classic Obama.
Since he entered office nearly eight years ago, Obama’s foreign policy has always sought to kill two birds with one stone. On the one hand, his policies are geared toward fundamentally transforming the US’s global posture. On the other, they work to weaken if not entirely neutralize his congressional opponents at home.
The second goal is no mean task. After all, the US Constitution empowers Congress with the foreign policy powers aimed at checking and balancing the president’s.
For instance, to ensure that no president could adopt foreign policies that harm US national interests or undercut the will of the people, the Constitution required that all treaties be approved by two-thirds of the Senate before they can take effect.
Were it not for Obama’s double tracked foreign policy, that constitutional provision should have blocked Obama’s radical and dangerous nuclear deal with Iran. Understanding that he lacked not merely the support of two-thirds of the Senate but of even a bare majority of senators for his deal, Obama decided to sideline the Senate.
To this end, Obama speciously claimed that the deal was not significant enough to be considered a treaty. The Iran deal of course is a more radical course change than the US’s approval of the UN Charter and the NATO Treaty. The nuclear deal radically changes not only the US’s policy toward Iran and toward every nation, friend and foe, in the Middle East. As former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Schultz argued during the nuclear negotiations, it upends 70 years of US nuclear policy, undermining the foundations of the US’s nonproliferation policies.
Obama and his advisers insisted that the deal was a mere presidential agreement. In response to their absurd claim, Sen. Tom Cotton and 46 other senators sent a letter to Iran’s leaders informing them that since the deal would not be brought before the Senate for a vote, the nuclear agreement they were negotiating with the Obama administration would be binding neither on Congress, nor on Obama’s successor.
Cotton’s letter prompted Obama to make yet another end run around Congress. The day the agreement was concluded in Geneva, and even before lawmakers had the chance to read it, the administration anchored the deal in a binding UN Security Council resolution. The maneuver gave the nuclear deal the force of international law.
Now, if Congress fails to respect the deal, or if Obama’s successor disavows it, the US will face the prospect of Iran arguing that it is free to build bombs at will, since the US breached the deal.
Another congressional authority is the power of the purse. Throughout Obama’s two terms, Congress repeatedly used this power to implement foreign policies he opposed in relation to both Iran and Israel. Over Obama’s objection, Congress repeatedly passed and upheld sanctions laws against Iran for its illicit nuclear program and its support for terrorism.
As for Israel, Obama routinely sought to slash US funding for Israel’s missile defense programs. Congress in turn routinely over road him and expanded US funding for Iron Dome and David’s Sling.
This of course brings us to last week’s Memorandum of Understanding. Just as the Iran deal gutted the Senate’s treaty approval authority, so the MoU works to empty of meaning Congress’s power of appropriation. Obama knows full well that he cannot prevent Congress from appropriating supplemental aid to Israel. So he forced Israel to agree to reject any supplemental assistance Congress might wish to appropriate.
Not surprisingly, lawmakers are irate over his action.
Sen. Ted Cruz explained, “I… have significant concerns with aspects of the MoU that attempt to restrict Congress’s rights and responsibilities – particularly our ability to appropriate additional funds as we and not the executive branch deem consistent with the interests of the American people.”
Congress isn’t the only casualty of Obama’s MoU.
The MoU strikes a body blow to AIPAC.
Since his first days in office, Obama has made a goal of weakening AIPAC.
First, Obama legitimized the anti-Israel Jewish lobby J Street. J Street’s purpose was to deny AIPAC the ability to claim that it speaks for the entire American Jewish community and so render it inherently controversial.
Today J Street, the self-proclaimed “pro-Israel, pro-peace” outfit, is lobbying the IRS to revoke the charitable status of American groups that work to protect the civil and property rights of Jews in Judea and Samaria. It is also working with Iran’s lobby in Washington and Americans for Peace Now to undermine Republican efforts to sanction Iran for its anti-US aggression.
In 2013, Obama coerced AIPAC into lobbying Congress to support his proclaimed plan to bomb Syrian-regime targets in response to the Assad regime’s use to chemical weapons. AIPAC’s action were viewed by liberal Democrats as proof that “the Israel lobby” was filled with warmongers.
It convinced Republicans that the group was the stooge of the administration.
Having hung AIPAC out to dry, Obama proceeded to tear it to shreds when he decided at the last minute to call off the air strikes.
Then of course there was the Iran deal. Obama spent a year and a half pretending away the popular opposition to his nuclear diplomacy and pretending that his only opponent was an all-powerful AIPAC, which worked at the behest of a foreign government.
And now, he has signed the MoU.
For decades, AIPAC’s bread and butter has been US aid to Israel. Indeed, the strongest opponent of Netanyahu’s announcement in 1997 that he wished to end US aid to Israel was AIPAC.
AIPAC’s role in lobbying aid bills through Congress has always been a noncontroversial way for the group to build up its power and influence and for members of Congress to exhibit their support for Israel. Since most lawmakers support Israel and support providing military aid to Israel, the vote is always an easy victory that gives it the aura of power and influence.
For AIPAC, Obama’s MoU is a disaster. In one fell swoop, he took away its main lobbying operation, the one that it was guaranteed to succeed in passing with massive bipartisan support. Following the deal, AIPAC will be hard-pressed to maintain even a semblance of the power it held when Obama entered into office.
Since the MoU was signed, Israeli media coverage has been dominated by claims by leftist politicians such as former prime minister Ehud Barak that if they were in charge, Obama would have agreed to give Israel much more than the $3.8 billion per year Netanyahu came up with.
Given that their claims are entirely theoretical, there is absolutely no way to know whether they are accurate. But what is clear is that taking inflation into account, the new level of aid is not significantly higher than the aid package approved by then-president George W. Bush 10 years ago.
The aid deal’s main financial significance is found in its multi-year lifespan. The deal’s longevity mean that lawmakers and lobbyist won’t be able to wait it out.
A number of Israeli and American commentators have argued that despite its drawbacks, Obama’s MoU shows that at the end of the day, Obama really is pro-Israel. After all, they argue, he didn’t have to sign a deal. He could have let his successor handle it.
But this of course fails to recognize the basic fact that US aid to Israel was never in jeopardy. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump would reach a deal. And if they failed to do so, Congress would simply appropriate the assistance.
For Obama, the MoU isn’t about securing military financing for Israel. The aid is a means for him to achieve a different aim.
Administration and congressional sources warn that Obama wished to conclude the MoU in the final months of his presidency to burnish his pro-Israel credentials. He wants his pro-Israel bona fides intact as he enables the UN Security Council to adopt an anti-Israel resolution just after the US presidential election in November.
For the past year and a half, the French have been sitting on just such a resolution. If passed, the French draft Security Council resolution will require Israel to accept a deal with the Palestinians that would require it to withdraw to the 1949 armistice lines with minor adjustments and partition Jerusalem within 18 months or face the prospect of the nations of the world recognizing a sovereign state of Palestine in a formal state of war with Israel.
After the presidential election, the French draft can be pulled out for a quick vote while US Ambassador Samantha Power is in the ladies room.
In the face of the congressional outcry that would follow, Obama can now pull out the video of his meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from Wednesday where Netanyahu thanked him profusely for the military aid and praised his support for Israel.
So why did Netanyahu agree to the deal?
The answer is that it was his best option.
Netanyahu is not delusional. He knows that he can’t prevent Obama from doing as he pleases. Under the circumstances, his best bet was to make the best of a bad situation.
If Obama hadn’t secured the MoU, and still decided to ram through the anti-Israel resolution at the UN Security Council, he might have generated so much ill will toward Israel among Democrats that a president Hillary Clinton would be unable to agree to a significant aid package with Israel.
With the MoU already signed, even if the Democrats abandon even the conceit of supporting Israel, Clinton will have a hard time abandoning a deal that Obama negotiated. So even under the worst of circumstances, Israel will continue to receive military aid from the US for the next decade.
On the other hand, if Trump is elected, he will be under no legal obligation or political pressure to maintain the MoU.
At a minimum, Trump can cancel the MoU’s provision denying Israel the right to accept or request supplemental funding from Congress. As George W. Bush’s former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams wrote this week, just as Obama reneged on Bush’s 2004 letter to then-prime minister Ariel Sharon accepting that the large Israeli population centers built beyond the 1949 armistice lines would remain intact in any future peace deal, so the next president can ignore Obama’s MoU.
Given the utter absence of leverage that either Israel or the Congress wields over a lame duck president, and given the alternatives, accepting the MoU on Obama’s terms was probably Israel’s least bad option. But going forward, the aid saga reinforces Israel’s burning need to diminish with the goal of phasing out all US military aid to Israel as quickly as possible.