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May 13, 2021 4:06 pm

New York Times Columnist Kristof Questions ‘Vast Sums’ of US Military Aid to Israel

avatar by Ira Stoll


New York Times Columnist Nicholas Kristof. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / World Economic Forum

With Israeli children and grandmothers huddled in bomb shelters to protect themselves from terrorist Hamas and Islamic Jihad rockets aimed indiscriminately at civilian populations, a New York Times columnist is suggesting cutting back US military aid to Israel.

In a grotesquely ill-timed column and a series of promotional follow-up tweets posted for his 2 million Twitter followers, Nicholas Kristof vacillates between outright calling for less aid and merely raising the question.

The strongest statement came in a print headline over the column: “The US Should Condition Aid to Israel on Reducing Conflict.” This is slightly comical — or it would be if our Israeli cousins weren’t diving for cover. Imagine a World War II-era headline: “The US Should Condition Aid to Britain on Reducing Conflict.” Or the Cold War: “The US Should Condition Aid to West Germany on Reducing Conflict.” The level of conflict is not entirely up to the Israelis — they are facing a hostile power with a declared aim of wiping them off the map.

For online, the headline was walked back to “What Your Taxes Are Paying For in Israel.”

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Similarly, the column frames the aid issue as a rhetorical question: “as American taxpayers, we don’t have much influence over Hamas, while we do have influence over Israel and we provide several billion dollars a year in military assistance to a rich country and thus subsidize bombings of Palestinians. Is that really a better use of our taxes than, say, paying for COVID-19 vaccinations abroad or national pre-K at home? Shouldn’t our vast sums of aid to Israel be conditioned on reducing conflict rather than aggravating it, on building conditions for peace rather than creating obstacles to it?”

In a tweet, Kristof provided an answer: “surely those billions would be better spent making vaccines for poor countries. And Israel is rich: If its taxpayers won’t pay for weapons, why should the median US taxpayer pick up the tab?”

Rich Jews are a classical antisemitic stereotype. I’m not saying Kristof is an antisemite — he’s been unfailingly gracious in my few personal encounters with him, and I consider him a friendly acquaintance. I hope he’ll remain so after this column. But one wonders why the New York Times has chosen to single out American military aid to Israel rather than, say, the vast sums the US military spends defending South Korea, France, and Germany, which are also rich, but have fewer Jews.

All the more so because Kristof’s claims are factually inaccurate. It’s not so that Israeli taxpayers “won’t pay for weapons.” In fact Israel spends a higher percent of its GDP on defense than America does — 5.6% as compared to 3.7%, according to Wikipedia, and the $3 billion or so in annual US military aid is only a fraction of the $20 billion or so that Israel spends on defense. Young Israelis are drafted for annual military service: 30 months for men, 24 months for women, with follow-on annual reserve duty. The idea that Israelis are coasting or not paying their fair share is nonsense — especially compared to NATO allies or East Asian countries or even Arab countries that benefit from the US defense umbrella.

If US military aid to Israel were zeroed out tomorrow, it’s a fantasy that the funds would instead go to vaccinate poor foreigners or send poor children to preschool. The likelier scenario is that the money would go to reduce the deficit or provide tax breaks to groups or companies with well-connected lobbyists. Perhaps the money would be squandered on social programs that provide perverse incentives, of the sort that Kristof has written about memorably. The idea that Israel is somehow standing in the way of COVID-19 vaccination — as if, if not for that darned military aid to Israel, there’d be enough vaccine supply immediately for the entirely developing world — does fit with a pattern of the Times blaming Jews, particularly Orthodox Jews, for the spread of deadly disease, another classic antisemitic trope.

What’s more, there already are extensive conditions on US military aid to Israel, a fact the Kristof column fails to acknowledge. As a Congressional Research Service report notes, “The 1952 Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement and subsequent arms agreements between Israel and the United States limit Israel’s use of US military equipment to defensive purposes. The Arms Export Control Act (AECA, 22 U.S.C. §2754) authorizes the sale of US defense articles and services for specific purposes, including ‘legitimate self-defense.'”

The Congressional Research Report goes on to explain that  “when Israel, like other foreign nations, purchases US defense articles and services, it must sign a Letter of Offer and Acceptance (LOA) with the United States government … These terms and conditions permit the use of items acquired: for internal security; for legitimate self-defense; for preventing or hindering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and of the means of delivering such weapons; to permit the Purchaser to participate in regional or collective arrangements or measures consistent with the Charter of the United Nations, or otherwise to permit the Purchaser to participate in collective measures requested by the United Nations for the purpose of maintaining or restoring international peace security; for the purpose of enabling foreign military forces in less developed countries to construct public works and to engage in other activities helpful to social and economic development; or purposes specified in any Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement between the USG and the Purchaser; or, for purposes specified in any other bilateral or regional defense agreement to which the USG and the Purchaser are both parties.”

The report also says another law, “Section 620M of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (FAA), as amended, prohibits the furnishing of assistance authorized by the FAA and the AECA to any foreign security force unit where there is credible information that the unit has committed a gross violation of human rights.”

Other conditions require the military aid to be spent on US-made defense products and contractors, meaning that the aid to Israel is supporting manufacturing and high-tech jobs at US companies.

As the US has provided this aid, Israel has taken risky steps for peace, withdrawing from the Sinai Peninsula as part of the Camp David Accords with Egypt, withdrawing from Gaza which was subsequently taken over by the Iranian-backed Hamas terrorist group, and allowing the Palestine Liberation Organization led by Yasser Arafat to return from Tunis to rule with considerable autonomy over Jericho, Ramallah, Nablus, and other West Bank cities.

Those moves have been aimed at conflict reduction, as the vast majority of Israelis have no interest in a conflict with their Arab neighbors. Unfortunately, a significant fraction of the Arab neighbors have not reciprocated and have instead pursued the goal of violently eradicating the Jewish state and its inhabitants. The idea that cutting off aid to Israel or imposing more conditions on it — in the face of such an onslaught — would be an appropriate response seems morally obtuse. It would be abandoning an ally under attack, and it would damage whatever international reputation America has for standing by its commitments. It would contradict American values. In a war between democratic, pluralistic Israel and undemocratic, fundamentalist Hamas and Islamic Jihad, why would America side with Hamas and Islamic Jihad and cut aid to Israel? It’s a bizarre impulse — no wonder that it hasn’t gotten any traction on the US political scene, outside the extreme fringes of the far-right and far-left, and Kristof’s New York Times column.

Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. His media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.

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