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Cutting US aid to Israel won't cure what ills

America is tied and obligated to Jerusalem in ways that go far beyond just $3.8 billion a year in assistance.

Analysis | Middle East

Two remarkable articles came out over the past week, both calling on Washington to cut its military aid to Israel.

Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, with the backing of two former U.S. ambassadors to Israel, wrote that “aid to another rich country squanders scarce resources and creates an unhealthy relationship damaging to both sides.” Meanwhile, Jacob Siegel and Liel Leibovitz, editors at the right-wing Tablet Magazine, argued that “Israel ends up sacrificing far more value in return for the nearly $4 billion it annually receives from Washington.”

Kristof reflects the feelings of many American liberals who have been shocked by Israel’s right-wing lurch, and see Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as an illiberal strongman. (Netanyahu successfully pushed through a law on Monday that undermines the power of the country’s highest court to invalidate legislation, provoking mass protests.) Siegel and Leibovitz, on the other hand, are echoing a claim made by many Israeli hardliners and American neoconservatives, such as the authors of the 1996 “Clean Break” report, which argued U.S. aid undermines Israel’s “self reliance” and constrains its “freedom of action.”

But there is a new element to Siegel and Leibovitz’s argument worth unpacking. They view U.S. aid to Israel as a political lightning rod, one that feeds a “mythology of a domineering Israel lobby.” The authors are willing to make a tactical retreat, giving up aid in order to secure other forms of U.S. backing, like Washington’s implicit promise to join an Israeli war against Iran.

In reality, financial aid is the least important part of the U.S.-Israeli relationship. The United States gives Israel wide-ranging security guarantees, writing them into every level of U.S. military and diplomatic policy in the Middle East. Focusing on the $3.8 billion per year, which is a subsidy to U.S. arms manufacturers more than anything else, sidesteps the other forms of support that Israel takes for granted. As the outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides put it, “most Israelis do not want America to stay out of their business,” and that desire is about far more than money.

Beyond aid, Washington offers a basket of goodies to states that maintain good relations with Israel, and a world of hurt to Israel’s foes. Of course, sometimes U.S. and Israeli priorities just so happen to line up. The United States had a relationship with Saudi Arabia before Israel existed, and would probably not get along well with Iraq in 1991 even if Saddam Hussein had declared himself an ardent Zionist.

However, much of U.S. policy is explicitly designed to help Israel, as a goal in itself. Congress passed a law in 2008 guaranteeing Israel’s “qualitative military edge,” entitling the Israeli military to a better version of whatever weapons Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates buy. The Biden administration has declared it a “priority” to get Saudi Arabia to normalize ties with Israel, and is negotiating with the Saudi government over the size of the bribe necessary to do so. U.S. diplomats have inserted pro-Israel conditions into their talks with other countries, including states as far from the Middle East as Serbia and Kosovo.

Siegel and Leibovitz are particularly fixated on U.S.-Iranian relations as proof that Israel is a victim of U.S. patronage. When the Obama administration negotiated a deal to constrain Iran’s nuclear program, Israeli leaders objected, prompting President Barack Obama to raise Israel’s aid allotment to $3.8 billion per year as “compensation.” Siegel and Leibovitz see the money as a bribe to accept Obama’s supposedly “Iran-centric foreign policy.”

They would rather Obama kept the money and allowed Israel to “decapitate the Iranian regime.” But that is not a call to take American hands off Israel’s shoulders. Israel only makes the threats it does because of U.S. patronage. It would need U.S. aerial refueling planes and bunker-buster bombs to have any chance of success in a war on Iran. Israeli, American, and Iranian leaders all take it for granted that an Israeli war would be fought with U.S. involvement.

Washington could stay out of a war by explicitly distancing itself from Israel’s actions. The U.S. president could take the podium and declare: “U.S. forces will neither hinder nor help an Israeli attack on Iran, in any way. If American lives are threatened by any country, we will strike back hard. Otherwise, this fight is not our fight. Best wishes to Israel and God bless America.”

The pro-Israel movement would probably wave the bloody shirt, declaring the U.S. president a traitor. (Siegel and Leibovitz themselves sneer at the idea of a world where the “interests of traditional allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia would be ‘balanced’ with those of their mortal enemy, Iran.”) And cutting Israel loose to fight its own fight would indeed break from the “non-negotiable commitment to Israel’s security” that the past few U.S. presidents have promised.

There are many reasons for this level of support. Much ink, perhaps too much, has been spilled debating the influence of professional pro-Israel lobbyists. The ideological angle deserves more attention. For many Americans, particularly in the older generation, support for Israel is a moral duty. Some see the Jewish state as fulfilling religious prophecies, and others imagine Israel as part of a more secular redemption arc for the Western world.

“If this Capitol crumbled to the ground, the one thing that would remain would be our commitment to our aid — I don’t even call it our aid — our cooperation with Israel,” former House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) once said. “That’s fundamental to who we are.”

Much of the U.S. support to Israel either appears cost free, or gets little attention in American politics. United Nations votes and nuclear nonproliferation policy are arcane subjects that most Americans don’t pay attention to. Polls show that the American public has a confused and contradictory understanding of most Middle Eastern issues.

Military aid, on the other hand, doesn’t need a master’s degree to understand. America gives another country free money. The other country uses the money to buy bombs. And if Americans hold to any political principle over all others, it’s jealously guarding taxpayer money, their money.

As Democrats increasingly sympathize with Palestinians, the left wing of the party has made aid a centerpiece of their argument. “We can't even get health care in the U.S., and we're funding this,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–N.Y.) said after Israeli soldiers killed a Palestinian-American journalist. The pro-Israel backlash against leftists from the Democratic establishment has only drawn more attention to the issue.

Although Republicans are more supportive of Israel, that party may also be headed towards a civil war over the issue. Polls show young Republicans, and especially young Evangelical Christians, turning against Israel in surprisingly large numbers. As Republican politicians scrutinize U.S. aid to Ukraine, it may be harder to justify a blank check to Israel, a country that is much more prosperous than Ukraine and faces a less severe threat.  

A debate over aid could move onto uncomfortable terrain for Israel’s supporters. It isn’t really flattering to paint Israel as a needy charity case, especially because, as Kristoff noted, Israel is “richer per capita than Japan and some European countries.” Some supporters of Israel have tried to instead portray the aid as a boon to the U.S. military-industrial complex, which is not something Americans tend to love either.

Neither “appearing to suck the U.S. government dry in order to fund their own niche overseas project” nor “pimping for Lockheed-Martin” is a good look for Israel and its advocates, Siegel and Leibovitz warn. They want to get ahead of the curve, end aid before the debate becomes louder, and prevent Israel from taking the blame for U.S. policy fiascos in the Middle East.

Aid should not be the beginning and end of the conversation. Even if every penny in aid dried up, Washington would still be committed to supporting Israel in a variety of ways. Some of them involve the United States in Middle Eastern politics far more deeply than signing a check to the Israeli military every year does.

Siegel and Leibovitz are right about one thing: the “current American elite” needs Israel to deflect from the sad state of “our Middle East strategy.” But Israel is not a scapegoat; rather, it’s a justification. Every establishment politician from Pelosi to Mike Pompeo sees Tel Aviv as a utopia boosted by U.S. power. The worse the Middle East gets — in part thanks to U.S. intervention — the more Israel stands out as its “only democracy.” Staring at their favorite “shining city on a hill,” American leaders can overlook a lot of destruction below.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) addresses a joint meeting of Congress in the House Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 3, 2015. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)
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