Only weeks ago, a small kerfuffle erupted when rising Israeli politician Naftali Bennett indicated in an interview with The Jewish Press that Israel’s continued acceptance of US military aid, to the tune of $3 billion annually, was not a good idea.
“I think, generally, we need to free ourselves from it,” he was reported to have said. “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. Israel is much stronger, much wealthier, and we need to be independent,” he concluded.
A spokesman for Bennett later clarified in an interview with the Jerusalem Post that Bennett intended this as an idea for the long-term, and that it was “currently irrelevant.”
“As a matter of principle, of course Israel’s dependence on foreign aid is an unhealthy situation for which we have to pay a diplomatic price. But on the other hand, with the threats currently facing us, there is no place for changing policies,” the spokesman added.
Of course Bennett was by no means the first to make the suggestion that some serious thought needs to be given to the ongoing format of US aid to the Jewish state. Politicians and groups on both ends of the political spectrum have voiced opposition, which for the most part has been strongly rejected by the mainstream pro-Israel community.
However, if ever there was a time for a detailed cost benefit analysis of Israel’s current acceptance of US aid, here are five reasons why that time is now:
1. Goodwill. Times are tough in America, and in the current economic climate austerity cuts are going to be made across the board, especially in the Defense Department. As a gesture of goodwill to the American people whose generosity and collective moral compass has served as the bedrock of US-Israel relations, a move to limit the aid package to include only what is necessary for Israel’s survival would go a long way. Even if the cut was symbolic and relatively small, it would show the people of history’s most benevolent nation that Israel cares.
It is true that 74 percent of the aid funds delivered to Israel must be spent in the US, thereby feeding the bulk of the funds back into the American economy. However, perception is what counts, and the public is generally not aware of this detail.
2. Leverage. The American people are no longer in control of their foreign policy and it is clear that President Obama intends to unleash an avalanche of diplomatic pressure on Israel to agree to all manner of security concessions. If US aid serves as a lever by which the President enforces his demands, the long term interests of the Jewish state may be better served by temporarily skimming their military budget as a means to avoid territorial concessions and maintain the strategic depth, provided by the West Bank, as a more valuable security need.
It is likely that the US will seek to push concessions with or without being a benefactor to Israel. But surely Obama’s leverage would be weakened.
3. Egypt. America’s latest military aid package to Egypt has elicited strong objections from many in the United States who have raised questions over which country Egypt is likely to use the 20 F16s and 200 Abrams tanks against. Now ruled by the Islamist and virulently anti-Israel Muslim Brotherhood, commentators have highlighted the possibility that Egypt could use the highly advanced weapons against Israel.
If Israel was no longer receiving aid from the United States, it would be far harder for the White House to make the case for arming Egypt to the teeth.
4. Cover. There are many American politicians who have used their record of voting for military aid for Israel as cover for pursuing policies that would prove detrimental to Israel’s security. President Obama is a prime example and his campaign made US aid to Israel under Obama a central pre-election theme, despite his moves to isolate and ostracize the Jewish state. Congressman Bill Pascrell of New Jersey’s 9th district is another prime example.
Without aid serving as the central barometer by which to judge a political candidate’s position on Israel, voters could begin to focus on more substantive issues.
5. Community. AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups have long focused on aid to Israel as a key element of their platforms. The truth is however that while 40, 50 or 60 years ago, when Israel was a fledgling state, nothing was more important, today Israel faces more urgent challenges. Among the foremost of them is the threat of diplomatic isolation as a result of international delegitimization and rabid anti-Israel propaganda.
If aid played a less central role in US-Israel relations, Jewish groups would become more focused on the issues that are most important today.
Considering the above, surely a hard-nosed evaluation of the US-Israel aid relationship is in order.
Having said that, however, and considering Israel’s precarious security situation as expressed by Naftali Bennett, if Israel does find that it simply can’t function with a military budget reduced by approximately 20 percent surely there are other options for it.
One possibility is to seek another client state that wishes to engage in a reciprocal military arrangement without diplomatic strings attached. Although there is no match for the United States, keeping in mind the diplomatic price America exacts from Israel, surely the option must be considered.
China for example has a rapidly expanding aid program and is practically head over heels for Israeli technology and innovative genius. A 2010 cable released by Wikleaks shed light on China’s modus operandi when delivering aid, which appears to be better suited for Israel: “African Embassy officials told EmbOffs that many in the African community were uncomfortable with the concept of US-China development cooperation in Africa. China’s fast, efficient, ‘no strings attached’ bilateral approach is popular in the region, as is the PRC (People’s Republic of China) preference for infrastructure over governance projects.”
Rapid global changes, a colder White House and evolving needs for Israel mean that the time for a re-evaluation of the US-Israel military aid status quo may have finally arrived.