It’s Time to End America’s Blank Check Military Aid to Israel
BY: PETER BEINART
Last month, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez declared that American aid to Israel is “something that can be discussed” in Washington. Her comments made news precisely because America’s policy of giving Israel billions in aid without expecting any policy changes in return hasn’t actually been discussed — or at least questioned — in either party in more than a quarter-century. That needs to change.
To understand why, ask yourself this question: Why did Israelis last month re-elect a prime minister who opposes a Palestinian state and — by championing settlement growth and vowing to annex parts of the West Bank — is working to make one impossible?
There are several common answers. One is historical: Over the last two decades the second intifada and rocket fire from the Gaza Strip have created an enduring right-wing majority among Israeli Jews. A second answer is demographic: Netanyahu’s center-left rivals lean heavily on the votes of secular Ashkenazi Jews, whose share of the Israeli population is shrinking. Netanyahu relies more on Orthodox Jews, whose share is rising.
There’s truth to both these explanations. But there’s a third, which American politicians and pundits rarely acknowledge: Israelis re-elected Netanyahu because he showed them he could undermine the two-state solution with international impunity. Indeed, he made that accomplishment a central theme of his campaign.
Again and again in recent years, Netanyahu has mocked political rivals who warned that his policies toward the Palestinians were making Israel a global pariah. In a speech to supporters in 2017 he quoted former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who predicted in 2011 that, “Israel’s delegitimization is on the horizon.” To which Netanyahu responded, “Nonsense… Israel is enjoying an unparalleled diplomatic spring.”
In a campaign ad this year, Netanyahu juxtaposed an ominous 2013 quote from former foreign minister Tzipi Livni — “The prime minister of Israel is leading the State of Israel to severe isolation” — with images of him alongside Donald Trump and other world leaders. In another ad, he showed himself in the Oval Office telling a dejected-looking Barack Obama that Israel will never return to the 1967 lines.
Netanyahu’s message, as Hagai El-Ad of the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem has noted, was that Israel can have it all: It can deny Palestinians basic rights and enjoy international favor at the same time. Even presidents like Obama, who disapprove of Israel’s actions, don’t penalize Israel for them. They fold.
Netanyahu was right. It’s not just Trump who has enabled his assault on the two-state solution. Obama did too. For eight years as president, Obama warned that Israeli policies in the West Bank were endangering Palestinian rights, American interests and Israel’s future as a democratic and Jewish state.
And yet, during those eight years, Obama never used American aid to Israel as a lever to change the policies he decried. Obama watched Netanyahu rebuff him again and again. He watched as Netanyahu in 2011 travelled to the White House to publicly repudiate his vision of a Palestinian state near the 1967 lines.
He watched as Netanyahu in 2014 “flatly refused” to give Secretary of State John Kerry “the slightest hint about the scale of the territorial concessions” he was willing to make to the Palestinians. He watched as Netanyahu used settlement growth to “sabotage,” in the words of one American official, Kerry’s efforts at brokering a two-state deal.
Then, after all that — and after Netanyahu’s fervent lobbying against the Iran nuclear agreement — Obama in 2016 rewarded him with the largest military aid package in Israeli history.
“America is a thing you can move very easily,” Netanyahu once boasted to settlers. Obama and Trump have both illustrated the point.
The American government’s capitulation — under both Democrats and Republicans — is the unspoken elephant in the room when Americans discuss Israel’s embrace of permanent occupation. It is impossible to understand the looming death of the two-state solution without understanding that, for more than a twenty-five years, no American president has made Israel pay a price for undermining it. During that time, the notion that an American president might refuse to subsidize policies that brutalize Palestinians, harm America’s image, and threaten Israeli democracy, has become almost inconceivable. It’s time for a new generation of American progressives — especially progressive Jews — to make it conceivable again.
One reason conditioning aid has become inconceivable is that any American president who proposed it would be labeled anti-Israel, if not anti-Semitic. But by that standard, these epithets should be affixed to most of the presidents of the mid to late twentieth century.
During the cold war, as Nathan Thrall details in his indispensable book, The Only Language They Understand, presidents we now routinely think of as pro-Israel routinely used American aid to influence Israeli policy.
When Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, after attacking Egypt alongside Britain and France in 1956, mused about annexing Egyptian territory, Dwight Eisenhower threatened to end all US aid unless Israeli troops withdrew immediately.
In 1975, when Israel refused Henry Kissinger’s demand for a partial withdrawal from the Sinai desert, which it had conquered in 1967, Gerald Ford vowed a “reassessment” of “our relations with Israel,” and refused any new military or economic assistance until the withdrawal was done.
When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1977, Jimmy Carter told Menachem Begin that Israel’s use of American armored personnel carriers violated the Arms Export Control Act, which prevented American weaponry from being used for offensive operations. Unless Israel left Lebanon immediately, Carter warned, future arms sales “will have to be terminated.”
In 1982, when the Reagan administration determined that Israel’s use of cluster bombs in Lebanon may have violated America’s Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement with the Jewish state, Reagan banned new sales of the bombs to Israel for six years. In 1991, George H.W. Bush initially refused to give Israel the $10 billion in loan guarantees it requested to resettle Soviet immigrants until it froze settlement growth in the West Bank.
This history not only undercuts the claim that conditioning American aid reflects hostility to Israel, it also undercuts the claim that conditioning aid doesn’t work. In recent years, former diplomats like Dennis Ross, and establishment American Jewish leaders like Malcolm Hoenlein, have insisted that only American reassurance, not American pressure, produces Israeli concessions.
But during the cold war, American pressure produced Israeli concessions again and again. When Eisenhower threatened American aid in 1956, Israeli troops began leaving Egypt within 36 hours. Ford’s threat to halt new arms sales forced a partial Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai in 1975 and Carter’s threat forced Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 1977. The following year, Carter again threatened aid during the Camp David talks that led to Israel leaving the Sinai completely. And although Bush failed to restrain settlement growth, his initial refusal to provide loan guarantees, according to the Oxford historian Avi Shlaim, “forced” Israel to participate in the 1991 Madrid Conference, where for the first time it publicly negotiated with a delegation of Palestinians.
Of course, American pressure was rarely the sole reason for Israel’s actions. Had Egyptian President Anwar Sadat not offered peace, it’s unlikely Israel would have fully left the Sinai. Had Palestinians not launched the first intifada, which raised the price of Israel’s occupation, and had the PLO not recognized Israel’s existence, it’s unlikely Israel would have signed the 1993 Oslo Accords. Had Saudi Arabia not unveiled the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002, Ariel Sharon may not have withdrawn Israeli settlers from Gaza in a bid to undercut the Saudi effort three years later.
Palestinian and Arab behavior matters. And it matters who leads Israel. But Israelis are more likely to elect rejectionists to lead them — and rejectionists are more likely to remain rejectionists once in office — when they know their rejectionism will not harm Israel’s most important alliance.
Netanyahu’s decade-long political dominance in Israel, and his decade-long defiance in Washington, would simply not have been possible under the old rules. Which is why progressives need to bring back those old rules — or at least a modified version of them — if they truly want Israel to change course.
To condition American aid on Israeli behavior would not single Israel out. In theory, the Foreign Assistance Act, as amended in the late 1990s, prohibits the United States from providing aid or training to any foreign military units that have committed “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.”
Congress also places additional human rights conditions on American aid to numerous specific governments, including Afghanistan, Burma, Cambodia, Columbia, El Salvador, Egypt, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Before Trump ended American assistance to the Palestinian Authority, its aid was among the most heavily conditioned of all.
What distinguishes American aid to Israel is precisely its exemption from the rules and limitations that govern assistance to other nations. While the United States phased outeconomic assistance to the Jewish state a decade ago, Israel receives far more military aid than any country where the United States is not currently at war. Outside of active American combat zones like Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, the United States gives most of its military aid through something called Foreign Military Financing: a line of credit through which governments can buy American weapons. In Trump’s 2019 budget request, 61 percent of that foreign military financing goes to Israel. Israel also receives its financing in a more advantageous way than other countries. Every other foreign government receives a set amount of money per year, which it can spend on American weapons. Seth Binder of the Project on Middle East Democracy compares it to a debit card: You can only spend what America has already given you. Israel, by contrast, enjoys something called “cash-flow financing.” Binder compares it to a credit card: Israel can buy American weapons merely by committing to spend money America will give it in the future. Under the Memorandum of Understanding Obama announced in 2016, Israel is due to receive $3.8 billion per year until 2028. And because of cash-flow financing Israel can spend some of that future money now. That helps it buy expensive items — as it did in 2017 when it purchased 17 F-35 fighters at close to $100 million per plane — which would be hard to afford using America’s aid for only one particular year.
The United States also gives Israel its aid right away. While most other nations can access American aid only when they agree upon an arms purchase, Israel is given a lump sum at the beginning of every fiscal year. Since Israel doesn’t spend all that money right away, it puts the rest in the bank, where it accrues interest, which makes the amount it actually receives in American aid even higher than the official $3.8 billion figure.
Finally, Israel is the only nation that can spend part of its aid buying weapons from its own manufacturers, not those in the United States. In that way, Israel has used American assistance to fund its defense industry, which now ranks as the 8th largestarms exporter in the world. The ten-year deal Obama signed in 2016 phases out this “offshore procurement” in 2028. Israel, however, is still allowed to spend at least 20 percent of its aid on Israeli weaponry through 2024, and smaller percentages after that: A total of more than $5.6 billion.
But even observers who acknowledge that it’s not inherently anti-Israel to condition American aid, and that such conditionality has proven effective at changing Israeli behavior in the past, might still resist doing so for one simple and understandable reason: Security. Israel faces genuine threats, both from hostile governments like Iran and violent groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah. American aid helps protect Israel from them.
Americans should care about keeping Israelis safe. That means continuing to give Israel the roughly $500 million per year the US currently provides for missile defense and guaranteeing Israel’s military edge over its regional foes. But there are ways to condition aid that don’t weaken Israeli security. They actually enhance it.
What follows does not exhaust the possibilities. In the years to come, Democrats should consider a range of proposals that balance their commitment to Israeli security with their commitment to Palestinian rights. But it’s worth detailing two types of conditionality in particular. The first involves specific Israeli practices that the United States should refuse to fund because they serve no legitimate security goal and produce immense suffering.
One such practice is the detention of Palestinian children. In the West Bank, Israel maintains two legal systems: a civil system that guarantees robust legal protections to its Jewish citizens and a military system that guarantees far fewer rights to its Palestinian non-citizens. Under this system of military law, the Israeli army routinely arrests Palestinian children.
Between 2012 and 2015, Defense of Children International-Palestine interviewed more than 400 Palestinian children — almost one-third of them under the age of 16 — that Israel had arrested in the West Bank. It found that many were arrested in the middle of the night. Most were blindfolded, strip-searched and had their hands bound. In the vast majority of cases, neither they nor their parents were told why they were being arrested.
A majority reported being physically abused during their arrests and a quarter reported physical abuse while being interrogated in detention. While in detention — which can last from 24 to 96 hours, depending on a child’s age — almost all were interrogated in the absence of their parents or a lawyer. Which helps explain why the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has reported that, “ill-treatment of children who come in contact with the military detention system appears to be widespread, systematic and institutionalized.” This harrowing B’Tselem video, which shows soldiers in March arresting a nine-year old at school despite his teacher’s desperate pleas, shows what that looks like up close.