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Netanyahu-Obama spat could scupper record US aid deal to Israel

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Rift between leaders could impede largest military aid package offered to any country in US history

The United States said earlier this week that it was preparing to offer Israel the largest military aid package offered to any country in US history, however President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remain deeply at odds over a figure for the assistance despite months of negotiations.

"We are prepared to sign an MOU [memorandum of understanding] with Israel that would constitute the largest single pledge of military assistance to any country in US history," a White House official told Reuters on Monday, amid a bipartisan push by US senators urging the Obama administration to increase military aid to Israel.

Ongoing discussions with Israel were aimed at reaching a memorandum of understanding that would see a significant increase in foreign aid to Israel over the next 10 years, the official said.

Netanyahu is hoping to conclude the negotiations over a new 10-year package of US defense aid while Obama is still in office, Ha'aretz reported earlier this month, but he has also indicated that he may wait to negotiate with Obama's successor in order to get the best deal possible.

Obama, currently in the last year of his second term, will leave the White House in January 2017.

“There’s a unique place of pique for the Israelis in certain places in the administration, and I think that hovers around this negotiation,” said Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, according to the New York Times. Satloff says this is one of the reasons it has taken so long to reach a decision.

Ilan Goldenberg, the director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, said that the longer the negotiations drag on, the chance of reaching a deal will decrease. “At the end of the day, it’s a numbers question and a political bet about whether the Israelis can get something better from the next administration, which I think would not be a wise gamble, he said, according to the NYT.  

Eighty three of the 100 US senators signed a letter Monday calling for Obama to quickly reach an agreement on a new defense aid package for Israel worth more than the current deal of $3 billion per year, Reuters reported.

"In light of Israel's dramatically rising defense challenges, we stand ready to support a substantially enhanced new long-term agreement to help provide Israel the resources it requires to defend itself and preserve its qualitative military edge," said the letter, which was seen by Reuters.

Republican Lindsey Graham and Democrat Chris Coons lead the push, while Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz was one of 51 from his party to sign the letter, according to the report.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was not among signatories.

An Israeli official welcomed the push, saying it is encouraging to see wide bipartisan and public support for Israel.

The Israelis have been pushing for a substantial increase of $1-2 billion a year, with Netanyahu making intensive diplomatic efforts to boost the overall value of the package to $50 billion, it was reported.

On a visit to Israel last month, US Vice President Joe Biden reportedly urged Netanyahu to accept the US offer which he said would reflect Israel's security needs despite being less than the amount Jerusalem is seeking, the Times of Israel reports.

According to a report by Israel's Channel 10, Israeli officials say Biden offered reassurance that the deal could always be adjusted after signing, however the Prime Minister's Office could not confirm this report.

Among the military equipment Israel seeks from the US deal are the F-35 fighter, a squadron of F-15's to be customized with Israeli systems, and the V-22 Osprey tilt rotor aircraft, capable of reaching Iran. The deal will also see an increase in the capabilities of the "Iron Dome," "David's Sling," and "Arrow 3," short, medium, and long range anti-ballistic missile systems.

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