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Part 4: Is Military Aid to Israel the Right Policy for the United States?

Utilizing Military Aid to Israel to Achieve U.S. Foreign Policy Objectives

The Obama Administration has articulated several foreign policy goals regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—an Israeli settlement freeze, easing Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip, negotiations leading to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, and the admittance of Palestine as a member of the United Nations—that have, as of this writing, not been achieved.  

In large measure, President Obama's policy goals have been frustrated because the Administration has relied on a policy of all carrots and no sticks toward Israel, creating disincentives for Israel to recognize and shape its own policies in ways that advance, or at least do not hinder, U.S. foreign policy objectives.  Despite tough talk from Vice President Joe Biden, who promised that the United States would hold Israel "accountable for any statements or actions that inflame tensions or prejudice the outcome of talks," [79]Paul Richter, "Biden Tells Palestinians U.S. Won't Be Deterred," March 11, 2010, Los Angeles Times, available at: http://articles.latimes.com/2010/mar/11/world/la-fg-biden-palestinians11-2010mar11 (Click red citation number to open this link.) after Israel announced the expansion of an East Jerusalem settlement in advance of his March 2010 visit, this pledge has not materialized.  Not only has this promise of accountability gone unfulfilled despite repeated Israeli diplomatic provocations; the Obama Administration has tried to placate Israel's intransigence by showering it with additional military aid and uncritical diplomatic backing.  

This unproductive policy approach was demonstrated to be a failure most spectacularly after the demise of the short-lived September 2010 Israeli-Palestinian bilateral negotiations, convened under U.S. auspices.  Desperate to revive the talks, which broke down after Israel refused to extend a temporary and incomplete settlement "moratorium," President Obama reportedly sent a letter to Israel offering additional sophisticated weapons systems, including $3 billion worth of additional F-35 fighter jets, missiles, missile defense systems and satellites; agreeing to an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley of the West Bank after Palestinian statehood is established; and guaranteeing U.S. obstruction of Palestinian and Arab initiatives at the United Nations, in exchange for a one-time temporary settlement moratorium extension. [80]Eli Berdenstein, "Obama's Letter: Incentives in Exchange for Lengthening the Freeze," Ma'ariv (in Hebrew), September 29, 2010, available at: http://www.nrg.co.il/online/1/ART2/161/524.html?hp=1&cat=404 and David Makovsky, "Dear Prime Minister: U.S. Efforts to Keep the Peace Process on Track," September 29, 2010, Policy Watch #1707, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, available at: http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/templateC05.php?CID=3256 (Click red citation number to open this link.)   This offer, which New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman referred to as a "bribe," [81]Thomas Friedman, "Reality Check," New York Times, December 11, 2010, available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/12/opinion/12friedman.html (Click red citation number to open this link.) was rejected by Israel, which saw no reason to accept an offer that would constrain its options when it knew there would be no negative repercussions for its rejectionism and that it could still get the benefits of the offered package down the line without accepting the terms of the deal at that moment.

The Obama Administration's approach to U.S.-Israel relations—including record-breaking requests to Congress for military aid to Israel that are not tied to major advances in the "peace process" and unprecedented levels of Pentagon partnership and funding for joint research and development projects and joint military exercises—has backfired by providing Israel with disincentives to support stated U.S. policy goals.  Rather than continuing to feed Israel's insatiable appetite for more U.S. taxpayer-funded weapons and closer U.S.-Israeli military ties in the mistaken hope that doing so will somehow, despite all evidence to the contrary, support U.S. policy goals, the Obama Administration should look to the examples cited above from the Eisenhower, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush Administrations to see how the threat of or actual imposition of sanctions against Israel has compelled positive changes in Israel's behaviors to bolster U.S. policy objectives.  A continuation of an all-carrots-no-sticks policy will lead only to future policy objectives being frustrated.  

Expanding Earmarks for Israel in a Time of Economic Crisis

The United States is more than $15 trillion in debt; the inability of the Congressional supercommittee to agree upon a deficit-reduction plan could trigger across-the-board budget cuts in 2013; millions of Americans suffer from the crises of poverty, lack of health care, unemployment and home foreclosures; and our country's infrastructure is literally crumbling, as evidenced by the August 2007 collapse of a bridge over the Mississippi River on a federal interstate, due to the lack of adequate funding for maintenance and improvement.

During this time of economic crisis, it is irresponsible for the United States to continue to expand military aid to Israel—or, indeed, continue it at present levels.  The remainder of the $30 billion pledged to Israel in the 2007 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), but not yet appropriated, could be easily foregone, thereby reducing the U.S. national debt.  A far better use of the taxpayer money the United States now gives to Israel—the 28th wealthiest country in the world in 2011 according to the International Monetary Fund [82]Data are from "World Economic Outlook Database," September 2011, International Monetary Fund, available at: http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/weo/2011/02/weodata/index.aspx. Ranking determined by gross domestic product per capita, current prices in U.S. dollars. (Click red citation number to open this link.) —for weapons could be much better spent to help meet unmet community needs here at home.  Take, for example, a typical mid-size U.S. city like Ft. Wayne, Indiana (population 254,000), whose residents are responsible for paying an estimated $40.9 million of their federal taxes to finance U.S. military aid to Israel from 2009 to 2018 under the terms of the MOU.  With that same amount of money, the federal government could instead each year:

• Provide 497 low-income families in Fort Wayne with affordable housing vouchers; or

• Retrain 697 unemployed workers in Fort Wayne to enter the green jobs economy; or

• Teach early reading skills to 1,209 disadvantaged Fort Wayne school children; or

• Provide basic health care to 33,125 Fort Wayne residents without insurance. [83]These statistics are drawn from the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation's interactive database, which highlights budgetary trade-offs between military aid to Israel and unmet domestic needs at the state, Congressional district, county, and city levels, and includes a detailed methodology for the calculations, available at: http://www.aidtoisrael.org (Click red citation number to open this link.)

Diminishing Strategic Rationale for U.S. Military Aid to Israel

Ever since Israel transitioned from being a relatively poor food-aid recipient to an increasingly technologically advanced strategic partner of the United States, supporters of the unusually close U.S.-Israel relationship have brandished several arguments to justify it.

From Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser's Czech arms deal and subsequent embrace of the Soviet Union in 1955 until the dissolution of the bipolar superpower system in 1991, Israel's supporters maintained that this Western-leaning enclave served U.S. interests by thwarting the advance of Communism in the Middle East.

The abrupt end of the Cold War necessitated a new argument, and the rising lethality of transnational terrorism in the 1990s and 2000s provided one:  Israel and the United States supposedly shared a common enemy and struggle in the "war on terror," a theme which resonated with many in a shell-shocked post-9/11 political environment.  Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon encapsulated this thesis just two days after September 11, declaring to Secretary of State Colin Powell that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat "is our Bin Laden." [84]Brian Whitaker, "Sharon Likens Arafat to Bin Laden," The Guardian, September 14, 2011, available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2001/sep/14/israel.september11 (Click red citation number to open this link.)

However, as post-9/11 U.S. wars against and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan wore on inconclusively, this argument lost a great deal of its initial salience.  With Israel unable to play more than a behind-the-scenes technological and intelligence role in supporting U.S. war efforts, and with the Muslim world rejecting Israel's ongoing colonization of Palestinian land and its brutal treatment of Palestinians living under its military occupation, U.S. military leaders began to note that Israel actually is a drag on the "war on terror," rather than an asset.

In his former position as Commander of U.S. Central Command, General David Petraeus testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2010 that "Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR [Area of Responsibility of CENTCOM] and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world.  Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support." [85]"Statement of General David H. Petraeus, U.S. Army, Commander, U.S. Central Command, Before the Senate Armed Services Committee, on the Posture of U.S. Central Command," March 16, 2010, available at: http://armed-services.senate.gov/statemnt/2010/03%20March/Petraeus%2003-16-10.pdf (Click red citation number to open this link.)

The outbreak of the Arab Spring last year further eroded claims that U.S. military aid to and diplomatic support for Israel pay dividends for U.S. strategic interests in the region.  As autocratic regimes in the Middle East are overthrown and democracies hopefully are firmly implanted, the United States will find it increasingly difficult to establish friendly diplomatic relations with these countries as long as it is viewed as being complicit in Israel's military occupation of Palestinian territory.  Truly democratic Arab regimes will never agree—as did Hosni Mubarak's Egypt—to acquiesce to and benefit from U.S. policies that make them co-sponsors of Israel's repression of Palestinians.

Does Israel Even Need or Want U.S. Military Aid?

Israel in 2011 had a higher per capita gross domestic product than Korea and Saudi Arabia according to the International Monetary Fund. [86]Data are from "World Economic Outlook Database," September 2011, International Monetary Fund, available at: http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/weo/2011/02/weodata/index.aspx (Click red citation number to open this link.)   It has a developed, technologically advanced economy, making it an unlikely and unreasonable candidate to be the largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance in the post-World War II era.  Today, total U.S. military aid to Israel accounts for a minuscule 1.5 percent of its gross domestic product, [87]Haim Malka, "Crossroads: The Future of the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership," Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2011, p. 1, available at: http://csis.org/files/publication/110908_Malka_CrossroadsUSIsrael_Web.pdf (Click red citation number to open this link.) providing Israel with a budgetary luxury rather than a necessity at the expense of hard-pressed U.S. taxpayers.   

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to find any Palestinian living under Israeli military occupation who would be in favor of the United States continuing to provide Israel with the weapons with which it commits human rights violations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.  More surprisingly, an increasing number of Israeli individuals and institutions from across the political spectrum are raising questions about the necessity and propriety of Israel continuing to receive the lion's share of U.S. military aid especially during a time of economic difficulty in the United States.

For example, Joel Bainerman, publisher of Tel Aviv Business, argued that accepting U.S. aid constrains Israel's policy options and diminishes its government's credibility.  "Israel's no longer being the number-one recipient of U.S. foreign aid would also deprive the State Department of a means to manipulate Israeli decision making with threats (‘Do what we say or we'll cancel this gift').  Further, aid is welfare and welfare demeans, for states as well as for individuals." [88]Joel Bainerman, "End American Aid to Israel?: Yes, It Does Harm," Middle East Quarterly, September 1995, pp. 3-12, available at: http://www.meforum.org/258/end-american-aid-to-israel-yes-it-does-harm (Click red citation number to open this link.)

More recently, in January 2011, the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies published a report entitled "Economic and Strategic Ramifications of American Aid to Israel."  Its author, Yarden Gazit, argued that U.S. military aid to Israel, Egypt and Jordan is fueling an arms race that requires Israel to spend more money on weapons than it would otherwise.  He estimated that for every dollar of U.S. military aid to Egypt, the levels of which have been proportionate to Israel's military aid package since the 1978 Camp David accords, Israel has to spend between 1.6 and 2.1 dollars in order to maintain its qualitative military edge, but that Israel only receives 1.5 dollars for every dollar that goes to Egypt.  "Not only does American assistance not provide Israel with an economic advantage," he argued, "it requires Israel to expend additional amounts from its own internal security reserves." [89]Yarden Gazit, "Economic and Strategic Ramifications of American Assistance to Israel," Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies, January 2011, p. 4, available at: http://jimsisrael.org/pdf/PPusaidEnglish.pdf (Click red citation number to open this link.)  Gazit also pointed out that U.S. military aid undercuts the Israeli weapons industry, which loses out on valuable contracts with the Israeli military. [90]Ibid, p. 5.   Gazit concluded that U.S. military aid has caused Israel "extensive economic and strategic damage."  He projected that "its damaging effects will only worsen.  Israel would be well served if the Government acts to preempt the inevitable and initiate a disengagement." [91]Ibid, p. 12.

Other Israelis have noted the unfairness and untenable nature of asking U.S. taxpayers to pay for Israeli guns as U.S. domestic butter becomes scarcer.  Surveying the U.S. political and economic landscape, Israeli journalist Ran Dagoni argued that "The time has come to bid goodbye to the military aid that the US extends to Israel, that generous package (currently worth $3 billion) that enables the Israeli taxpayer to share the cost of procuring equipment for the IDF with the US taxpayer.  Israel should itself initiate the process of detachment from the Washington breast."  He noted: "Doubtless Israel enjoys, and will continue to enjoy, strong support in Congress, but when things are being said about damage to Social Security, for example, legislators are liable to come to the conclusion that their own needy come first." [92]Ran Dagoni, "Israel Should Give Up US Military Aid," Globes, January 19, 2011, available at: http://www.globes.co.il/serveen/globes/docview.asp?did=1000616232&fid=4116 (Click red citation number to open this link.)

Finally, some Israelis recognize that U.S. military aid promotes Israeli militarism and makes the establishment of a just and lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace more difficult.  For example, Jonathan Ben-Artzi, a nephew of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, noting the effect of U.S. military aid in perpetuating Israel's military occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, concluded that "If Americans truly are our friends, they should shake us up and take away the keys, because right now we are driving drunk, and without this wake-up call, we will soon find ourselves in the ditch of an undemocratic, doomed state." [93]Jonathan Ben-Artzi, "Peace for Israelis and Palestinians? Not Without America's Tough Love," Christian Science Monitor, April 1, 2010, available at: http://www.csmonitor.com/Commentary/Opinion/2010/0401/Peace-for-Israelis-and-Palestinians-Not-without-America-s-tough-love (Click red citation number to open this link.)



[79] Paul Richter, "Biden Tells Palestinians U.S. Won't Be Deterred," March 11, 2010, Los Angeles Times, available at: http://articles.latimes.com/2010/mar/11/world/la-fg-biden-palestinians11-2010mar11

[80] Eli Berdenstein, "Obama's Letter: Incentives in Exchange for Lengthening the Freeze," Ma'ariv (in Hebrew), September 29, 2010, available at: http://www.nrg.co.il/online/1/ART2/161/524.html?hp=1&cat=404 and David Makovsky, "Dear Prime Minister: U.S. Efforts to Keep the Peace Process on Track," September 29, 2010, Policy Watch #1707, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, available at: http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/templateC05.php?CID=3256

[81] Thomas Friedman, "Reality Check," New York Times, December 11, 2010, available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/12/opinion/12friedman.html

[82] Data are from "World Economic Outlook Database," September 2011, International Monetary Fund, available at: http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/weo/2011/02/weodata/index.aspx. Ranking determined by gross domestic product per capita, current prices in U.S. dollars.

[83] These statistics are drawn from the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation's interactive database, which highlights budgetary trade-offs between military aid to Israel and unmet domestic needs at the state, Congressional district, county, and city levels, and includes a detailed methodology for the calculations, available at: http://www.aidtoisrael.org

[84] Brian Whitaker, "Sharon Likens Arafat to Bin Laden," The Guardian, September 14, 2011, available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2001/sep/14/israel.september11

[85] "Statement of General David H. Petraeus, U.S. Army, Commander, U.S. Central Command, Before the Senate Armed Services Committee, on the Posture of U.S. Central Command," March 16, 2010, available at: http://armed-services.senate.gov/statemnt/2010/03%20March/Petraeus%2003-16-10.pdf

[86] Data are from "World Economic Outlook Database," September 2011, International Monetary Fund, available at: http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/weo/2011/02/weodata/index.aspx

[87] Haim Malka, "Crossroads: The Future of the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership," Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2011, p. 1, available at: http://csis.org/files/publication/110908_Malka_CrossroadsUSIsrael_Web.pdf

[88] Joel Bainerman, "End American Aid to Israel?: Yes, It Does Harm," Middle East Quarterly, September 1995, pp. 3-12, available at: http://www.meforum.org/258/end-american-aid-to-israel-yes-it-does-harm

[89] Yarden Gazit, "Economic and Strategic Ramifications of American Assistance to Israel," Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies, January 2011, p. 4, available at: http://jimsisrael.org/pdf/PPusaidEnglish.pdf

[90] Ibid, p. 5.

[91] Ibid, p. 12.

[92] Ran Dagoni, "Israel Should Give Up US Military Aid," Globes, January 19, 2011, available at: http://www.globes.co.il/serveen/globes/docview.asp?did=1000616232&fid=4116

[93] Jonathan Ben-Artzi, "Peace for Israelis and Palestinians? Not Without America's Tough Love," Christian Science Monitor, April 1, 2010, available at: http://www.csmonitor.com/Commentary/Opinion/2010/0401/Peace-for-Israelis-and-Palestinians-Not-without-America-s-tough-love