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US-Israeli military deal reinforces strategic alliance

Interview: Bruce Konviser
September 14, 2016

The United States military aid to Israel amounts to a whopping 15 - 20 percent of Israel's annual military budget. Despite US largesse, a powerful political lobby in Washington enables Israeli intransigence.

F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter jet is airborne.
Image: Reuters

Military expert Pieter Wezeman of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) discussed this week's record setting military trade agreement between the US and Israel with Deutsche Welle journalist Bruce Konviser. Following is a transcript of the interview that has been lightly edited for clarity.

DW: Let me start by asking:What does this deal mean for US-Israeli bilateral relations?

Head shot of Pieter Wezeman Senior Researcher at SIPRI.
Pieter Wezeman, Senior Researcher at SIPRIImage: privat

Pieter Wezeman: I think it's a very important part of bilateral relations. Israel is very concerned about security. It is very important for them to have access to high-level military equipment. They are limited in their choices and the US is the prime country from which they can get this kind of military technology.

Israel has a considerable military development program of their own, correct?

Yes, Israel has an advanced military industry, which can produce weapons and even more important, key components for weapons itself. However, they are certainly not capable of producing everything they need, and they are also not capable of designing and producing the kind of high-tech platforms, like complete combat aircraft, the complete warships, themselves. Those things they need to get from abroad. They can upgrade them with their own technology, but that is something the Israeli arms industry cannot complete itself.

What is Israel getting? Are they getting fighter jets? Are they getting aircraft carriers? What are they getting?

Israel is procuring all kinds of arms from the United States, but most important for Israel has been the advanced combat aircraft, the F-15 and the F-16. And also very important now, the new F-35, the most advanced combat aircraft the US is willing to export to anyone. That is really significant for Israel because those weapons are often equipped with subsystems coming from the Israeli arms industry itself, such as the bombs and missiles. Those platforms are used to reach deep into the territory of an enemy. That is part of the core of Israeli military potential.

Israel says the deal helps them to move ahead with long-term planning. Explain what that means?

It's not something you buy today and use tomorrow. You really have to plan many years ahead. Think about how you want to shape and reshape your armed forces. This is true for any advanced military in the world. So for Israel to wait even longer to determine what they want to acquire five or six years from now, that is something they consider a problem. They will have to replace certain equipment that they have now, and they have to have an idea how they are going to do that. So that is the argument they put forward to go ahead with this deal as fast as possible.

What about Iran? How big is their military budget? And I read that they have taken a portion of the tranche of money that they got from the US, which was essentially Iran's money to begin with, and plowed it back into their military budget. One account said they increased their military budget as much a 90 percent over last year. Is that right?

That is something which I sincerely doubt. I still have to make an assessment of the very latest information we have about the Iranian military budget, but there are two things to take into account. First of all, the Iranian military budget was significantly lower than that of its immediate neighbors and also than that of Israel in recent years. That was due to the fact that Iran simply doesn't have a very well functioning economy, they don't have the money to spend on this. Secondly, Iran also had issue with obtaining high level military equipment. So they didn't have access to modern combat aircraft or combat tanks, etcetera.

So they simply haven't had access nor the money to spend on advanced military equipment for the past decades. So they are far behind. So even, even if they would increase their military spending now, and it's a significant question if they really do, but if they do they have so much to catch-up. They have to completely rebuild their armed forces to come anywhere near what Saudi Arabia, Israel or other states active in the region have.

What's the capacity of Iranian mid-range missiles to strike Israel?

Iran has ballistic missiles; they could reach Israel. But those missiles will be relatively few in number. From a military perspective they have a very limited functionality. You cannot win a war with that. You can terrorize a country with that but, of course, you do that at your own peril. So at this point in time Iran can threaten but it is limited. And, of course, also there we have to mention that part of what Israel gets from the United States is actual missile defense equipment, highly advanced, with which they can shoot down ballistic missiles potentially coming from Iran.

Briefly, on the well-publicized nuclear deal between Iran and the international community; US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paint diametrically opposing views of it. President Obama says the deal enhances Israel's security by pushing Iran further back from a potential break-out point to develop a nuclear weapon, while Netanyahu says the exact opposite is true. Is this a completely binary equation as depicted by the two leaders or is there a gray area?

I'm sure there is a gray area. Personally, I would say that is a key reason for them (Israel) to look for even more military equipment to deal with what they believe is a threat from Iran.

Some people see the US-Israeli relationship as a perpetual tail-wagging-the-dog relationship, is that a fair assessment?

Sure Israel has managed to get a lot from the United States despite being a small country, despite not having oil and all that. Still it is the country that has received the most military aid from the US over the past decades and is in that sense in a completely different league from any other state that receives military aid from the United States, so yeah I can understand it that people see it that way. The Israeli lobby has major power in the United States, which results, again, in significant military aid.

It's not just the size of the country but the attitude. One of the things that sticks out in my mind was an incident a few years ago when Vice President Joe Biden was in Israel and there was a new breaking of ground on settlements in the West Bank, which just seemed like a phantasmagorical breech of political decorum; to do something like that while the vice president is there, on the ground. Or do I misread that?

I think you are completely right. I think Israel gets away with a lot despite the fact it takes an attitude that is not always respectful of what the United States asks it to do. It's in that sense also interesting to mention that the United States has provided Israel with equipment which, in principle, could reach targets in Iran if it chose to do so. And everyone knows that is exactly what you don't want to happen. You don't want Israel to actually attack anything in Iran because it will only have a counterproductive effect. It will not lead to a more peaceful Middle East. It will make Iran very upset. So there is that constant difficulty: on the one hand making Israel happy, and on the other hand the risk Israel will use that weaponry in a way that is contradictory to US and maybe even global interests.

So why doesn't the US use its vast military and financial leverage to compel Israel to, um, behave, so to speak?

I have no idea why they can't put pressure on a small country like Israel which is so thoroughly dependent on them. It does appear to be related to a very strong pro-Israel lobby in the United States.

The last question is that critics have been saying that the US should not reward Israel with ever larger military outlays while Israel defies the international community and continues to build settlements in the occupied West Bank. What about that?

Yeah I think there will be many who make that argument and question US military aid to Israel.

We even see also in Germany...Germany is one of the countries that does supply military aid to Israel. And a similar discussion has taken place there. Germany remains one of the few countries that is willing to supply arms and military aid to Israel.

That's all I have, is there anything else you would like to add to the topic of this latest US-Israeli arms agreement?

Yeah. I think it's important to stress the US military aid for Israel, I mean you already mentioned that the Israeli military budget is roughly $15 billion (13.3 billion euros) per year and then you can just imagine how important $3.8 billion dollars per year on top of that is for Israel. It's something like 15 to 20 percent of what Israel can spend on its military comes from the United States.

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