Endless U.S. Money Flow of Military Aid to Israel is New Battleground for Democratic Presidential Candidates
By John Mason, Arab America Contributing Writer
Certain U.S. democratic presidential candidates are leaning towards a restructuring of U.S. security aid to Israel. They would like to tie this aid to a more balanced policy of achieving a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian problem, to disallow aid for use in new Israeli settlements on the West Bank, and to promote a more humanitarian approach to the treatment of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. Last week’s J Street conference brought together some of the presidential candidates to discuss these very issues.
J Street Conference presents Democratic Candidates’ Views on Recasting U.S. Policy towards Israel
Five Democratic candidates presented their views on the endless flow of funds to Israel in the context of the present Israel government’s aggressive policy of taking more and more of the Palestinian West Bank for its settlers and its absence of any commitment to a two-state solution. J Street, a Jewish advocacy group, is equally committed to Israel’s right to exist and defend itself as American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the larger pro-Israeli lobby. J Street, however, is more open to alternative solutions to the Palestine-Israel state of non-peace than is AIPAC. This includes its forcefulness in supporting a two-state solution. Late last month in Washington, D.C., J Street’s annual conference gave the candidates the opportunity to give their different perspectives on the no-peace situation.
Senator Bernie Sanders apparently “brought the house down.” According to the Religious National Service, a newsgroup, “Sanders got an exuberant standing ovation from the crowd of about 4,000. “I am very proud to be Jewish, and I look forward to being the first Jewish president of the United States,” Sanders proclaimed. It was his popularity and appeal to a younger audience on the subject of the rigid right-wing stand of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Trump on the settler issue and failed peace process that brought the crowd to their feet. Sanders continued, “We have a right to say to the Israeli government that the United States of America believes in human rights and in democracy,” and furthermore, “We will not accept authoritarianism or racism, and we demand the Israeli government sit down with the Palestinian people and negotiate an agreement that works for all parties.”
Other candidates included in the J-Street conference were Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, a non-practicing Jew, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and Julian Castro, former Obama-era secretary of Housing and Urban Development. While not in attendance due to scheduling conflicts, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts provided short video presentations. Through its “J Street U” student movement, the J Street Conference lobbied for a Democratic Party platform that states formal opposition to Israel’s continued occupation of the Palestinian West Bank. The Conference also lobbied the candidates to “condition aid to Israel on a promise that it would not use the money to expand settlement construction in the West Bank.”
While both Sanders and Buttigieg offered a direct commitment to put conditions on aid to Israel, the other candidates equivocated. Buttigieg went even further, again according to the Religious National Service, saying the annexation of the West Bank as Netanyahu said he would do were he to be reelected, “is incompatible with a two-state solution.”
Opposition to J Street and the Candidates’ Pro-Israel/Pro-Peace Stance
Not all pro-Israel lobby groups are as sanguine about using U.S. aid as leverage against Israel as is J Street and some of the presidential candidates. A reporter for the Jewish National Service reporting on the J-Street conference, for example, noted that the words of candidates such as Sanders and Buttigieg “are intended to give the impression that all that Israel has to do is immediately withdraw from the territories, and then peace would ultimately break out.” That reporter is afraid that if the support of Israel becomes a bipartisan issue, then this would “lend succor and support to Israel’s enemies.” Fair enough, if a new American president came into office with the attitude that Israel is the opposing party’s issue, then this would be problematic.
An issue that muddies the discussion of U.S.-Israeli relations, however, is the strong opposition of many Democrats to the right-wing regime of Benjamin Netanyahu. This is mistaken for opposition to the State of Israel itself, an erroneous argument. Sander’s proposal to use some of the U.S. annual aid packages of $3.8 billion for humanitarian assistance purposes in some of the occupied areas is somehow interpreted as anti-Israel. Some of the pro-Israel arguments even go so far as to accuse J-Street of conspiratorial actions against Israel.
Reporting on the J-Street conference, Israeli newspaper Haaretz carried the headline, “Military Aid to Israel Becomes New Battleground in Democratic Party.” Having once been a fringe idea within the party, there is no longer a consensus on conditioning U.S. military aid on resolving the Israeli occupation. However, according to Haaretz, “Netanyahu’s disappointing election results, and his failure to form a governing coalition make it less likely that annexation will happen in the near future.”
A small Crack is beginning to appear in the ironclad U.S. Agreement to unconditionally fund Israel
During the J Street conference, its president, Jeremy Ben-Ami bluntly stated the conference theme—that the U.S. government should no longer write a ‘blank check’ to Israel. As +972 Magazine reported, “It is important for the U.S. to take a very close look at whether or not our money should be going for activities that make it impossible to get to a two-state solution.” Ben-Ami included in his proposal to withhold U.S. funding for such activities as demolition of Palestinian homes and settlement expansion.
J Street’s one bottom line regarding U.S. support of Israel is that the U.S. accepts nothing less than a U.S.-brokered two-state solution. J Street had not to that point, according to +972, “suggested or even broached the issue of setting conditions for financial and military aid to Israel.” In the meantime, Israel-Palestine relations had deteriorated due to expanded settlements, military attacks on Gaza and Netanyahu’s passing of the Jewish Nation-State Law, which basically makes Palestine Arab citizens of Israel second class. With the full support of the Trump administration, Netanyahu has basically deep-sixed the two-state solution in favor of “explicitly anti-democratic, anti-Arab policies.” In fact, it is this complicity of Netanyahu and Trump that has opened the door a crack for the U.S. democratic left to criticize the Israeli right.
Only one bill in the U.S. Congress attempts to translate policy into the action of actually withholding funds from the Israeli government. +972 reports that House Bill 2407 “seeks to prohibit the transfer of U.S. funds for use by the Israeli Defense Force in its military detention of Palestinian children.” Such a bill, if passed, would prevent Israel from detaining and mistreating Palestinian children, actions that have been documented by human rights organizations and reported by +972. The end goal, according to J Street’s senior VP, Dylan Williams, is to “reduce if not nearly zero out U.S. security assistance to Israel.” This would not affect overall U.S. foreign assistance to Israel, only security assistance.
While the J Street conference went into much greater detail on how to operationalize their goals, we will leave that for further reporting.
How far the Democratic candidates incorporate the J Street agenda into their campaign policies remains to be seen. Candidates Sanders and Buttigieg went further than the others in adopting that agenda. Furthermore, how much this entire debate over the two-state solution and the need for a more humanitarian approach to the treatment of Palestinians seeps into the presidential campaign as the election nears, is a question we all await the answer to.
–“At J Street Conference, presidential candidates say Israel policy is due for a reboot,” Religious National Service, October 28, 2019
–“Notes in the J Street conference, Sarah N. Stern, Endowment for Middle East Truth, Jewish National Syndicate, November 1, 2019
–“Military Aid to Israel Becomes New Battleground in Democratic Party,” Haaretz, Amir Tibon, October 30, 2019
–“J Street conference confronts America’s ‘blank check’ to Israel, +972 Magazine, November 11, 2019
John Mason, an anthropologist specializing in Arab culture and society, is the author of recently-published LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, 2017, New Academia Publishing.