It has become fashionable in parts of the left and the right to decry military aid from the United States to Israel. Those on the right often oppose all forms of foreign aid and try to cut it, while those on the left often want a bigger foreign-assistance budget—but not for Israel. Recently, Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, Daniel Kurtzer and Yossi Beilin in the National Interest, and Liel Leibovitz and Jacob Siegel at Tablet have weighed in.
The facts are reasonably clear. The United States provides about $4 billion a year in aid to Israel, counting all forms of military assistance including those with direct and obvious benefit to American security. That amount provides about 20 percent of Israel’s defense budget and represents about half of uncommitted IDF funds (not, for example, tied to paying salaries) that can be used for things such as new research and development. Three-fourths (and as of FY 2028, all) of the U.S. aid funds must be spent in the United States, where they are used mostly for the procurement of weaponry.
The debate is over whether this is a healthy and useful relationship for the two countries. Kurtzer, a retired professional diplomat who served as the U.S. ambassador to Israel during the administration of George W. Bush, now opposes assistance because it does not buy the United States adequate influence: “Aid provides the U.S. with no leverage or influence over Israeli decisions to use force.” Moreover, any aid provided “allows Israel to avoid hard choices of where to spend its own money, and thus allows Israel to spend more money on policies we oppose, such as settlements.” Simple enough: If you oppose settlements, as Kurtzer does, cut the aid and maybe there will be fewer of them.
More broadly, if you are a critic of Israel like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and their “Squad” in the House of Representatives, trying to reduce or end military aid to Israel is logical. They want a weaker Israel. So, in his way, does Kurtzer: He wants the United States to be better able to impose policies he likes and Israelis don’t, and a poorer Israel will presumably be less able to resist. While I oppose this view and find it appalling that Kurtzer and others are certain they know better than Israelis what is in Israel’s interest, it does—again—make a certain ruthless sense. It is the logic behind the recent efforts by so many American Jews, and by the Biden administration, to interfere in Israel’s domestic politics during the current debate on “judicial reform.”
No other democratic country is treated this way by the United States. There was no pressure exerted on Paris from the White House when hundreds of thousands of French men and women protested (sometimes violently) because France’s president overrode parliament to raise the retirement age. And it may be an error to believe that military aid is the most effective means of pressuring Israel, compared, let’s say, with a refusal to wield the veto to protect Israel in the United Nations Security Council. But enemies and critics of Israel alike are consistent with their hostile perspective when they try to cut aid and minimize U.S. support.
The arguments on the right, from people who’ve been less critical of Israel and are indeed often strong supporters, are more interesting—though in the end equally unattractive. Tablet (and COMMENTARY) contributor Liel Leibovitz and Tablet editor Jacob Siegel, who really are friends (and in Leibovitz’s case a native) of Israel, take the opposite tack from Kurtzer. They want to cut the aid because it buys the United States too much influence and because “the benefits of the relationship to the U.S. have only grown larger” and now serve only the United States. They argue for “a more forthrightly transactional relationship, which would allow Israel to benefit economically, diplomatically, and strategically” and lessen America’s ability to pressure the Israelis into policies they do not want. Under the current arrangement, they argue, “Israel ends up sacrificing far more value in return for the nearly $4 billion it annually receives from Washington.”
So these supporters of Israel want to protect it from the United States. But what exactly is Israel “sacrificing” today, in their view? The current aid program, they argue, is “an arrangement that cripples Israel’s capacity for independent action.” This is simply wrong as a matter of fact. In 1981, the United States provided Israel with $4.5 billion in economic and military aid at a time when the entire GDP of the Jewish state was only $25.4 billion—yet Prime Minister Menachem Begin felt free to attack the Osirak reactor in Iraq. In 2007, President George W. Bush told Prime Minister Ehud Olmert not to attack the Syrian nuclear reactor, and Olmert rejected the advice and did so anyway. There are plenty of other examples demonstrating that Israeli military and political leaders do not act as though they have been “crippled” by U.S. aid.
Leibovitz and Siegel also argue that “Israel has now become dangerously reliant on U.S. military technology….Israel gets preferential access to the F-35, but is then locked into a fleet of aircraft both riddled with technical problems and a poor fit for Israel’s strategic air priorities. At the risk of stating the obvious, it would be nice to be able to shop on the open market.”
This is not persuasive. There is no Western equivalent to the F-35, which is why it has been purchased not only by Israel but also by the United Kingdom, Japan, Italy, Turkey, Canada, the Netherlands, the Republic of Korea, Norway, Germany, Australia, Singapore, Poland, Finland, Switzerland, and Belgium. Presumably they are not deterred by its “technical problems” or by its “poor fit” with their varying priorities. Perhaps the “open market” is meant to include Chinese or Russian jets, but there is no serious argument that Israel should rely on them for military technology—or that we should wish it to do so.
Leibovitz and Siegel do not make a credible military argument for severing U.S. aid. They believe that an end to the program “would not mean the end of the U.S.-Israeli military alliance [or] intelligence sharing…between the countries,” but I have found very few Israeli national-security experts who believe that. The aid program guarantees continuing, long-term, intimate work between Israeli and American defense experts, military officers, and defense industries. It makes American defense manufacturers sensitive to the Israeli market and allows them to deal with a customer who always pays in full and on time. No doubt the military alliance and intelligence-sharing would not disappear, but both would be weakened. Why would any supporter of Israel want what is now an intimate and continuing relationship to be reduced to one that is merely transactional?
Leibovitz and Siegel do make other, nonmilitary arguments as well. They believe that the current large amount of aid engenders anti-Semitism in the United States and that cutting Israel off will reduce it: “Ending aid won’t end the practice of scapegoating Jews, but it will remove a favorite decoy and dog whistle of American public officials, administrators, bureaucrats, philanthropists, and thought leaders.” Such a circumstance would indeed remove that single pretext from the hands of anti-Semites. But anti-Semitism is hardy in countries all over the world that have no relations with Israel and give her no aid, and in friendly countries that give no aid, and in hostile countries—in short, all over the place. What anti-Semites oppose is Jews. Yes, the extent of U.S. aid to Israel is an argument they sometimes use. So is the existence of Jewish organizations, and Jewish-owned companies, rich and famous Jews, and Jewish officials and politicians. You cannot eliminate the weapons anti-Semites use because they use every aspect of Jewish life, influence, and power. American Jews worried about American anti-Semitism should address that problem at home and not burden the Israelis—and American military support for Israel—with that task.
Siegel and Leibovitz conclude with forceful words: “Let American Jews who care about being Jewish focus on observance and learning their people’s history, instead of pimping for Lockheed Martin. If the commitment to Israel is deeper than mere political fashion, if it is more than a secularized idolatry, then it’s time to prove it—by smashing the ideological idols of America’s Israel debate.”
Powerful rhetoric. But where is the contradiction between “observance and learning their people’s history” and supporting military aid? On the contrary, the strongest supporters of Israel in the American Jewish community are the Orthodox—precisely the Jews most engaged in “observance and learning their people’s history.” The sentence about idolatry also seems to suggest that American Jews should be more observant in the practice of their Judaism rather than making Israel a substitute god. But the Jews most concerned about Israel are, in poll after poll, those who do worship the Jewish God—while those who have made an idol out of “mere political fashion” are, tragically for our community, increasingly unattached to and critical of the Jewish state.
As to whether “it’s time” to cut military aid to Israel, Leibovitz and Siegel argue this without taking sufficient account of the real world out there. I, too, would like to see a time when a reduction in U.S. military aid will be sensible. I’d like to see a world where the Islamic Republic of Iran has fallen and is no longer building nuclear weapons and threatening “Death to Israel.” Where Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad are not murdering Israelis with weapons and money supplied by Iran. Where Hezbollah does not have 100,000 rockets financed by Iran aimed at Israeli cities. Where the United States does not seem, to Israelis and Arabs alike, to be withdrawing from the Middle East and weakening its support for friends and allies there. For the United States to end military aid today would send a message to all of Israel’s enemies that Israel’s greatest friend was stepping away, so they should double down on their plans for more, and more deadly, assaults on the Jewish state.
No change in the Middle East would rival the significance, for Israel, of the fall of the Iranian regime and its proxies. Should that occur, I would join these disparate thinkers and say “it’s time” to renegotiate the level of U.S. military aid. But too many of the arguments for ending aid today virtually ignore the real and murderous threats the Jewish state is facing. It is time to be more serious about the lives, and deaths, of our fellow Jews who live in the Jewish homeland.
Photo: AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis
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