U.S. taxpayers have provided the Israeli military that invaded Gaza on Thursday night with more than $121 billion since the state’s founding, subsidizing about 25 percent of the tiny country’s annual defense budget in recent years.
That subsidy has increased even as Israel’s economy has experienced a growth spurt and the country has discovered stores of natural gas. Indeed, President Obama last year pledged to begin early negotiations to extend the annual military subsidy to Israel for another decade and has sold Israel powerful bunker buster bombs and helped finance the Iron Dome missile defense system that has protected Israelis from Hamas rockets and missiles in the current war.
One would think with that kind of record, pro-Israel conservatives would find a rare bit of common ground with a president they have criticized for being hostile to the Jewish state. But at least for some, the military aid is part of the problem.
“The experience of the Obama years has sharpened the perception among pro-Israel Americans that aid can cut against Israel by giving presidents with bad ideas more leverage than they would otherwise have,” said Noah Pollak, the executive director of the Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI). Pollak’s group has been one of Obama’s toughest critics, running television advertisements in 2012 that blamed Obama for dithering as Iran continued to enrich uranium.
It goes without saying that ECI is not the sole voice of the pro-Israel community. The emergency committee does not match the influence in Congress of the much larger American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which has shown no signs of ending its efforts to push Congress to pass the annual military aid bill.
But getting legislators to support aid to Israel in recent years has not required much effort at all. The committee votes are rarely contested and the money for Israel is rolled into the larger bill for foreign aid.
For Pollak and others, this is part of the problem. “Aid to Israel is a low bar for politicians to claim they’re pro-Israel, and it’d be better if there were more substantive things one had to do to earn that title,” he said. “And aid provides easy fodder for critics to claim that the alliance is a burden on the United States or that it’s a one-way street of America giving and Israel receiving. All things being equal, why not remove these falsehoods from the debate?”
Pollak is not alone. Elliott Abrams—a former deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush and a leading pro-Israel writer and policy analyst—told The Daily Beast, “My view is over time it would be healthy for the relationship if the aid diminished. Israel should be less dependent on American financial assistance and should become the kind of ally that we have in Australia, Canada, or the United Kingdom: an intimate military relationship and alliance, but no military aid.”
That is also the view expressed by leading Israeli politicians. Naftali Bennett, Israel’s minister of economics and the leader of the right-wing Israel Home party, said in 2013, “Today, U.S. military aid is roughly 1 percent of Israel’s economy. I think, generally, we need to free ourselves from it. We have to do it responsibly, since I’m not aware of all the aspects of the budget. I don’t want to say, ‘Let’s just give it up,’ but our situation today is very different from what it was 20 and 30 years ago.”
Today Israel is prosperous. In 2000, the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was $124.9 billion. In 2013, the Israeli GDP was $291.3 billion. And that is before Israel has seen any real revenue from the fields of natural gas it recently discovered. The country has become so prosperous that legislation is now before the country’s Knesset to create a sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned investment vehicle designed to invest the surplus revenue Israel collects from selling its natural gas.
“I have heard discussions of a sovereign wealth fund, by which the Israelis mean they want to handle the revenues carefully the way Norway does and not waste them,” Abrams said. “But I do not believe a country that has a sovereign wealth fund can be an aid recipient.”
Abrams was careful to say he did not favor cutting the military aid while Obama was still president. “Were there a reduction now, it would be attributed to administration hostility to Israel and be seen as a weakening of U.S. support,” he said. “It should be done only in a context of robust American political support and close relations between American and Israeli leaders.”
Michael Oren, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Washington until 2013, said it was a mistake to view the aid to Israel as something exceptional. While it’s true the aid to Israel represents more than half of the total U.S. annual budget for foreign military financing, Oren said that statistic can be misleading.
“The experience of the Obama years has sharpened the perception among pro-Israel Americans that aid can cut against Israel by giving presidents with bad ideas more leverage than they would otherwise have.”
He pointed to how the United States spends considerable money on stationing troops in, for example, Germany and on other defense obligations with NATO and non-NATO allies. “South Korea, Germany, and other allies receive military assistance but not in the form of aid,” he said in a phone interview from a Tel Aviv bomb shelter. “How much does it cost to keep the American army in Germany?”
For Oren, the most important element of the U.S. aid is not the dollar figure but what it represents politically. “The aid has a meaning that exceeds its dollar amount,” he said. “Because Israel does not have a defense treaty with the United States, the aid is a message to the region about the nature of the U.S.-Israel alliance. I see the message as more important than the aid.”
Cutting aid to Israel is not a new idea on the political right. Libertarians such as Sen. Rand Paul have at times flirted with the idea, but so have neoconservatives. The 1996 “Clean Break Memo” urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to propose ending U.S. economic aid to Israel.
David Wurmser, one of the authors of the 1996 memo, said the idea at the time was for Israel to graduate from being a “tenuous project” to a “real country.”
“The aid both implied a lack of feasibility of the state as well as tying the state’s hands and reducing its freedom to maneuver,” said Wurmser, who went on to become an adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney and is now a consultant for American energy companies looking to invest in Israel’s hydrocarbon sector. “Both of which are inappropriate for a truly independent country, which it had become in this period.”
Wurmser today is sympathetic to phasing out military aid to Israel, but he said there should be a few exceptions. He said he favors continuing important joint U.S.-Israeli defense projects such as funding for the Iron Dome and also subsidizing Israel to purchase some military equipment from the United States, to keep elements of the U.S. defense sector economically viable.
But Wurmser added, “If this is aid in the form of a public works project for the United States, or it allows the Israelis not to make tough budget choices, then one has to question whether this is inertia, habit, or a strange dynamic to avoid the responsibility of independence.”
Ironically, the United States may ultimately want to give Israel the military aid more than the Israelis want it themselves. Oren said Obama’s policy since 2009 has been “no daylight on the security field and daylight on the diplomatic field.” In practice, that policy meant that as Obama lavished the Jewish state with high-tech radars, missile defense batteries, and bunker buster bombs, he also asked Israel publicly to end settlement construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank as an inducement to bring the Palestinian Authority to the negotiating table. Put another way, the subsidy gives the United States leverage over the decision-making of an important ally.
“Some of this is long-standing policy that can be traced back to Richard Nixon,” Oren said of Obama’s approach. “He believed the more you aided Israel militarily, the more flexible they would be diplomatically.”
As Israeli tanks roll into Gaza, that theory may soon be put to the test.