Since the modern state of Israel was created in May 1948, the United States has been its staunch friend and ally as the Jewish state has repelled repeated efforts by its neighbors to destroy it.
But allies can and often do disagree sharply even as the foundation for the friendship continues. That’s exactly what has been happening between the U.S. and Israel in recent weeks.
American and Israeli diplomats are negotiating a renewal of a 10-year military assistance package to Israel worth about $3.7 billion a year. By all accounts, the differences between the sides have been narrowed recently, and it has looked as if the deal is close.
Then, in an instance of terrible timing using hyperbolic language that was sure to upset American officials, the Israeli Defense Ministry issued a statement comparing the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal reached last year to the Munich Agreement of 1938 in which European powers sought to appease the land-hungry Adolf Hitler — an approach that failed spectacularly.
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A good rule of thumb in diplomatic negotiations (and in almost any other social situation) is that dragging Hitler in for comparison purposes is rarely a good idea. Disregarding that rule, the Defense Ministry insisted that “The Munich Agreement didn’t prevent The Second World War and the Holocaust precisely because their basic premise, that Nazi Germany could be a partner to some agreement, was incorrect and because the world's leaders at the time ignored the blunt remarks of Hitler and other Nazi leaders.”
These things are also true about Iran, which also clearly states openly that its aim is to destroy the state of Israel.
The rest of Israel’s government seems to have had no idea that such a statement was in the offing. So even though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu worked tirelessly to get the U.S. not to sign the nuclear agreement with Iran, his office ordered the Defense Ministry to back off its provocative Munich comparison.
The result was a news release that said the previous statement “was not intended to make a direct comparison, either historically or personally. We are sorry if it was understood otherwise.” (How could it not have been?) Then, being more solicitous, the ministry added: “We wish to clarify that the state of Israel and Israeli defense establishment will continue to work in close and full cooperation with the U.S., out of a deep appreciation and mutual respect.”
But it repeated that “Israel remains deeply worried that even after the nuclear agreement with Iran, the Iranian leadership continues to declare that its central goal is the destruction of the State of Israel, and continues to threaten Israel’s existence in words and deeds.”
So back to the negotiating table, where at last report it looked as if a core dispute was being resolved. Israel reportedly indicated that it might accept U.S. demands that American military funds, which until now have been spent partly on Israeli-made arms, eventually will be spent entirely on U.S.-made weapons.
Whatever the issues still on the table, the U.S. should remember the leverage it has here not just to get Israel to buy American-made weapons but to move Israel to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel must, of course, protect itself. But it now is in an economic, military and political position of strength that should allow it to work more aggressively toward a peaceful two-state solution instead of continuing to engage in repressive behavior that much of the world condemns.
If such an agreement can be reached, it would significantly reduce the need for ongoing American military aid. And peace would benefit everyone.