Israel's regional military clout should be preserved in terms of the quantity as well as the quality of its weaponry, US Vice President Joe Biden said on Wednesday in a nod to Israeli requests during defense aid negotiations with Washington.
Current US military grants to Israel, worth about $3 billion annually, expire in 2018. The allies want to agree on an extension before US President Barack Obama leaves office in January 2017 but have differed over the proposed sums.
Israel, which last year requested $5 billion in future annual aid but whose officials have since set their sights on $4 billion to $4.5 billion, says it needs to expand its military, rather than just upgrade technologies, given spiraling arms procurement it anticipates by arch-foe Iran and Arab states.
US officials have given lower target figures of around $3.7 billion. The dispute prompted Israeli officials to hint last month that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in hope of better terms, may await Obama's successor to conclude the deal.
"We're committed to making sure that Israel can defend itself against all serious threats, maintain its qualitative edge with a quantity sufficient to maintain that," Biden told reporters after meeting Netanyahu on Wednesday.
Israel's "very, very tough neighborhood, a tough and changing neighborhood," necessitated such assistance, Biden said, adding that Obama had "done more to help bolster Israel's security than any other administration in history."
One US congressional aide said that Biden was in Israel handling the negotiations because relations between Obama and Netanyahu were so sour that the vice president was seen as the only member of the administration who could finish off a deal.
Despite the fraught relationship between the right-wing Israeli leader and the Democratic US president, which has yet to recover from deep differences over last year's US-led international nuclear deal with Israel's foe Iran, Biden affirmed the special relationship between the two countries.
"You never need to doubt that United States of America has Israel's back — and we know Israel has our back as well, I might add," he remarked. "It's not a one-way street. We're committed to making sure that Israel can defend itself against all serious threats, maintain its qualitative edge with a quantity sufficient to maintain that."
Biden's 2010 visit to Israel was marred by acrimony over a Jewish settlement plan announced during his trip. This time, a series of violent clashes between Palestinians and Israelis loomed large.
Around the time of Biden's arrival on Tuesday, an American tourist was stabbed to death on a boardwalk in Tel Aviv amid a wave of Palestinian attacks throughout Israel. Biden said his wife and grandchildren were dining on a Tel Aviv beach "not very far" from the incident when it happened.
Earlier on Wednesday, Israeli forces killed two Palestinians who Israel said opened fire in Jerusalem and a Palestinian who the military said tried to stab soldiers in the occupied West Bank. Palestinian stabbings, shootings, and car assaults have killed 28 Israelis and two US citizens since October. Israeli forces have killed at least 179 Palestinians, 121 of whom Israel says were assailants. Most others were shot dead during violent protests.
Palestinian leaders say many Palestinian attackers have acted out of desperation in the absence of movement towards creation of an independent state. Israel says they are being incited to violence by their leaders and on social media.
"The kind of violence we saw yesterday, the failure to condemn it, the rhetoric that incites that violence, the retribution that it generates has to stop," Biden said. "There cannot be unilateral steps to undermine trust. That only takes us further and further away from an outcome we know in our hearts is the only fundamental outcome, the only outcome that is the ultimate guarantor."
After meeting with Biden, Netanyahu said: "I look forward to continuing to work together with you and President Obama to strengthen the remarkable and unbreakable alliance between our two countries".
Later on Wednesday, Biden met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon will travel to Washington next week for talks with his US counterpart, Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
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