After many years of working, lobbying, advocating, and writing to preserve, protect, and increase United States aid for Israel, you might think I’d be a bit uncomfortable with the latest spate of calls to reconsider America’s largesse. But I’m not. Not even a little bit. If anything, I should have spoken up earlier.
I’ve heard (and once made) all the arguments that any cuts in the US’s $3.8 billion in annual military assistance will signal weakness in the two nations’ alliance and, in the words of ambassador Dennis Ross, “embolden Israel’s enemies and make conflict more likely” – that it will be a sign of American abandonment, leaving the dominant (and only nuclear-armed) military power in that part of the world defenseless.
No one is talking about changing what successive presidents have called – and delivered on – the “ironclad” strategic relationship. That will continue getting stronger regardless of political disputes, as shown in the most recent joint military exercises and close cooperation.
Israel has the 13th highest per capita GDP, higher than Belgium, Canada, German, Britain, Italy, Japan, and Saudi Arabia, according to International Monetary Fund and World Bank rankings for 2121.
An argument being advanced by a pair of former top Israeli security officials contends that US aid is essential to preserving Israel’s “democratic nature.” What planet are they living on?
Israel’s democracy is being eroded despite US aid to preserve it
Have they noticed that while US aid keeps flowing and growing, Israel’s “democratic nature” is being eroded by its own government, the most extreme in the nation’s history, and led by an increasingly autocratic prime minister who is on trial for fraud, bribery, and breach of trust?
He just rammed through the Knesset legislation designed to undermine the nation’s independent judiciary. And all so that he can put a convicted ultra-religious felon and tax cheat in a ministry where he can keep stealing.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demonstrated last week that $3.8 billion from American taxpayers doesn’t buy enough clout to slow down his judicial coup, much less halt it, despite the pleas of the president of the United States, many of Israel’s friends in the Congress, the leaders of nearly all mainstream Jewish organizations, heads of Western democracies, and hundreds of thousands of Israelis who have been protesting the judicial coup for more than 30 weeks.
Israel is in danger, and more than money is at stake. It is losing popularity in American public opinion and on Capitol Hill (which traditionally lags behind its constituents), particularly on the Left, where there is greater concern about human rights and diminishing democracy.
A POLL BY Data for Progress, a progressive polling firm, had some disturbing news, according to i24 News. It showed 55% of American citizens support conditioning US aid to Israel, while 29% are opposed. That view is shared by 72% of Democrats, 57% of independents, and 36% of Republicans. The judicial coup is certain to only make matters worse.
Most of the $3.8 billion American tax dollars (more than we give to all other countries combined) go to pay American defense contractors. About a quarter is spent in Israel, but that is being phased out. It buys more than F-35s and F-15Is, and bombs, missiles, ships, and ammunition.
Cash is fungible. That means the American grants free up that amount for the Israeli government to spend elsewhere – like expanding West Bank settlements with thousands more homes, disproportionately funding ultra-religious institutions, and for the politicians themselves.
Israel’s current ruling coalition has 64 (of 120) seats and 32 ministers in the government, each getting their own agency, staff, car, driver, and other benefits, compliments of taxpayers in two countries. President Joe Biden has 25 cabinet-level officials for a country about 35 times larger.
US aid should be used to “uphold US values and achieve US policy goals,” wrote Hadar Susskind, the president of Americans for Peace Now. Yet the opposite is happening in Israel, where the government is moving away from democracy and the two-state solution, two fundamental elements of US policy.
It is time to wean Israel off American aid. The strategic relationship will, and should, remain strong for mutual benefit. The current 10-year Memorandum of Understanding that sets current aid levels – $33 billion in Foreign Military Financing Grants, and another $500 million for missile defense programs – expires in 2028, giving sufficient time to negotiate a replacement.
ISRAEL’S VOTERS will ultimately have to choose between national security and settlement expansion, a decision long avoided and necessary. Our “ironclad” commitment to Israel will not change and should not be measured in dollars, but in the long history of close and productive cooperation in intelligence, security, and defense.
The only change to the strategic relationship would be Israel picking up a greater share of its defense. It is a rich country and a major arms exporter ($12.5 billion annually), nearly a third of that going to the Arab world (UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco).
Netanyahu, a man of Trumpian mendacity, lied about the impact of the new law, calling it a “minor correction” that strengthens democracy, when in fact it does just the opposite. His coalition, determined to vastly expand settlements and annex occupied territories, is working energetically to demolish the underpinnings of US policy in the region.
All of that means the prime minister is making it easier to take an unemotional, critical look at aid to Israel and the broader relationship. For too long, Israel aid has been the untouchable third rail of American politics, but that is changing, a change accelerating under Netanyahu’s new extremist leadership.
Some speak of conditioning aid; others want to eliminate it, some now, some gradually. It is a debate that current headlines make clear is long overdue.
The writer is a Washington-based journalist, consultant, lobbyist, and former American Israel Public Affairs Committee legislative director.