Land for Money: A Worn Out Paradigm
In his interview with the Wall Street Journal on March 8, Defense Minister Ehud Barak suggested that Israel seek an additional $20 billion in US security assistance given the changes that are occurring in the Arab states. But at the end of the interview he added that since the Obama administration was pressing Israel and the Palestinians to re-new negotiations, Israel could not make such a request for new aid without making a “daring” peace offer. His proposal was reminiscent of the security package that was being considered last year, including an extra 20 F-35 aircraft, for Israel agreeing to a second settlement freeze.
Whether the idea of linking new Israeli concessions to military aid came from the White House or from Barak himself, it represents a diplomatic strategy that has been relied on for several decades by the US and Israel, but there are serious reasons for concluding that it is no longer relevant. Even if for the sake of argument, the wider moral questions that arise from this approach are ignored, according to which financial considerations become predominant when Israel considers making a concession of parts of its national homeland, removing its citizens from their homes, there are serious problems continuing this policy. And even if the damage to Israel’s image that this strategy creates is also set aside, it simply no longer works, given today’s political realties.
The original idea of Israel trading land for American aid was born in an entirely different era: the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, and especially after Israel was requested to withdraw from the Giddi and Mitla Passes in 1975. The US understood the asymmetry of what was being requested from Israel: it had to give up tangible territorial assets, that could not be recovered except by an act of war, while the Egyptian side was making a political commitment that could easily be reversed. The US injected itself as a factor in Israel’s calculations by offering the tangible elements that were missing from what the Arabs were providing.
Prior to 1973, US aid to Israel (loans and grants) averaged about $800 million per year. It briefly went up in 1974 because of the Yom Kippur War, but then came down again. In 1975, under Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, because Israel was willing to make a second withdrawal from Sinai, the US increased aid by 200 percent and it reached $3.4 billion. The US also gave the Israeli Air Force new technology: the F-15 and F-16 would replace the old Phantoms and Skyhawks. An Israeli defense minister could ask himself what was more important: territorial assets in Sinai or funding for new fighter aircraft. This inaugurated a new diplomatic paradigm–not just land for peace, but land for cash. After Israel signed the 1978 Camp David Agreements committing it to leave the rest of Sinai, US aid shot up again. The old diplomatic formula continued to be applied.
Already in the mid-1990’s, it appeared that the idea of obtaining more US aid for giving up land had reached its limits. During the debate over a possible withdrawal from the Golan Heights, many Israeli commentators said that Israel would need an additional $5 billion. There were thoughts that Israel would obtain early-warning aircraft like AWACS or cruise missiles. Akiva Eldar of Haaretz asked Senator Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, what he thought about a new aid package. McConnell was frank and said “I’m interested in the US helping to secure peace in the Middle East, and I’m ready to support certain aid, but $5 billion is out of the question.” Today, McConnell is the Republican minority leader in the US Senate.
The Republican members of Congress were not alone. Right after the Oslo Agreements were signed in 1993, Senator Patrick Leahy, who was a Democrat from Vermont, also added to the debate about expanding aid for Israel. He gave an interview on the NPR network saying “The American taxpayer cannot spend more money in the Middle East.” Today, with new members of Congress demanding that Obama cut federal spending and the inflated federal deficit, the idea of giving more aid to Israel is really far fetched.
Despite these statements, Israeli governments still had expectations that new funds would come from new concessions. In response to such a request, President Clinton offered Israel hundreds of millions of additional aid for its withdrawal from Southern Lebanon in 2000. The funds never arrived; Congress did not automatically approve. Then again in 2005, during its talks with the Bush administration over Gaza Disengagement, the Sharon government sought an additional $ 2.25 billion in grants and loans, but the request turned out to be an unfulfilled wish.There are times when new strategic dangers to Israel have appeared, and the US has generously responded with emergency aid, like when Iraqi missiles struck Tel Aviv in 1991. These kinds of scenarios could happen in the future. But additional aid should not be tied to the peace process as an automatic entitlement.
There is a more fundamental point here than the question of the current mood in Congress. There are many alternative models that can be chosen for planning how Israel should defend itself in the future. Some of these conceptions rely on Israeli territorial assets, like the Jordan Valley, while others look to technology as a substitute for territory. Before the Israeli government adopts a new plan that will be more reliant on technological alternatives to territory that are to be supplied by the US, three questions must always be answered. Is the substitute that is being considered truly effective? What is its actual cost? And what are the chances that Israel can obtain funding for advanced technologies being proposed? The Israeli government must remember that the US of 2011 is not the same as the US of 1975.