See, you trust in the staff of this broken reed, on Egypt; where on if a man lean, it will go into his hand, and pierce it: so is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all that trust in him. – Isaiah 36:6
I see that several of the Democratic candidates for the US presidency have announced that if elected they would leverage military aid to Israel in order to force us to “fundamentally change” our relationship to the Gaza strip (Sanders), or stop our “problematic behavior” (Warren), or to avoid annexing any part of Judea/Samaria (Buttigieg). So let me respond:
Please, please, don’t throw us into that briar patch!
Like the briar patch for Br’er Rabbit, nothing would be better for us than a phase-out of US military aid. And if we made it easy for the new president, perhaps we could negotiate terms for the phase out that would be advantageous: in particular, a restoration of permission to spend some of it here instead of all of it in the US (a condition imposed by our “friend,” President Obama, who well understood that providing military aid was not doing us a favor).
Reactions to the signing of a 10-year $38 billion memorandum of understanding (MOU) for American military aid to Israel in 2016 were quick and predictable. The man Netanyahu called Israel’s “worst Prime Minister ever”, Ehud Barak, claimed that Netanyahu could have obtained another $7 billion a year if only he hadn’t opposed Obama’s Iran deal so strongly. Similar remarks came from the parliamentary opposition. Others thanked America for its commitment to Israel at a time that its own military budgets were being slashed. And still others cursed it for helping Israel with its alleged “genocide of the Palestinians” (who have tripled in number since 1970).
The truth is that Israel does not need and should phase out military aid from the US. It is bad for Israel and bad for the US.*
Israel doesn’t need it. The $3.8 billion per year that comes from the US is about a fifth of Israel’s 2018-2019 defense budget of $18.5 billion. This is a lot of money, but consider that the government’s overall budget is about $116 billion, and Israel’s gross domestic product today is close to $400 billion, almost double what it was 10 years ago.
In addition, the new agreement began the phasing out of Israel’s ability to spend any of the aid outside of the US. In the past, up to about a quarter of the aid could be spent in Israel. Does anyone doubt that many items can be procured here or elsewhere, at lower cost? The F-35 alone costs about $200 million per aircraft. Are there alternatives? We might be able to find out if we went shopping with our own money (possibly more F-15I’s would be a better choice).
Finally, increased investment in our military industries would improve our ability to sell our products to other countries, helping to offset the loss of US aid.
Aid gives the US administration too much leverage over Israeli policies and actions. US Democratic presidential candidates have demonstrated remarkable ignorance about the situation in our region, and a tendency to accept our enemies’ point of view, as demonstrated by their remarks at the recent J Street convention. Donald Trump has been supportive of Israel, but he will not be president forever, and a Democrat or even a different Republican could be quite the opposite.
Israel needs freedom of action to respond to threats. The aid comes with strings attached, such as rules that American weapons can’t be used in ways that violate human rights. During the Gaza War in 2014, Obama cut off the supply of Hellfire missiles and other items in response to (false) complaints that Israel had deliberately shelled a UN school. Israel is continually the target of similar accusations.
Aid distorts our military purchase decisions. If you can get your army boots – or fighter aircraft – “for free” then maybe you settle for something that doesn’t meet your needs quite as well as a product you have to pay for. The decisions about what we can spend our aid dollars on are based in part on US policy objectives and, since the aid is in effect a direct subsidy to the US defense industry, on domestic American considerations – not on what’s best for Israel.
For example, it has been suggested that manned fighter aircraft will be much less important in future warfare than drones and surface-to-surface missiles; but we get “free” fighter planes from America and build our own drones and missiles, so we have lots and lots of manned fighter planes – maybe more than we need.
The F-35, with its high cost and all its troubles, stands out as problematic. Would Israel even have considered replacing its F-16 fleet with F-35’s if the first batch weren’t “free”?
Aid corrupts our military decision-makers. The word ‘corrupts’ is a strong word, but may not be out of place. If you are in charge of the IDF and a quarter of your budget comes from America, wouldn’t you take the US administration’s wishes into account when considering whether or not to take some particular action? Israel came close to bombing Iran in 2012. One of the reasons it did not do so was opposition from security officials, including Chiefs of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Benny Gantz (who are now Netanyahu’s political opponents). It is reasonable to assume that their Pentagon counterparts let them know that disobedience could have unpleasant consequences.
Aid cripples the development of our own military industries. This may be the most important consideration of all. Although the new MOU represented an increase from the previous $3.1 billion a year, it phased out over five years the ability to spend up to about a quarter of it for locally-produced goods. If we don’t produce our own weapons, our dependence on the US becomes even greater, and we lose the jobs and technical know-how that come from it. Buying our own would pump additional money into our economy, which helps offset the loss of American aid. Even the IDF’s boots, formerly made in Israel, are now ordered from the US.
Aid doesn’t necessarily guarantee a qualitative edge. One of the rationales for US military aid was that the US promised to maintain our “qualitative military edge” (QME) over our enemies, as a way of counteracting their numerical superiority. But the US has more and more been selling its best weapons to anyone who can pay for them. The way to maintain the QME, then, is for Israel to use her technological abilities to develop weapons and countermeasures for her own use that will not be available to her enemies.
Aid damages Israel’s standing as a sovereign state. A nation that is dependent on another for its defense is a satellite, not an ally. In order to maintain her national self-respect, Israel should pay for her own defense. In addition, Israel’s accepting aid provides ammunition for anti-Israel and anti-Jewish propaganda in America. Ask Ilhan Omar.
Phasing out aid is better for America. The US is burdened by a large and growing debt. The end of military aid to Israel can only help America meet her own civilian and military needs.
Naturally, there will be objections.
Israel can’t afford expensive systems like the F-35 without aid. First, it’s not true, and second, maybe we don’t need such expensive systems, or so many of them.
But the US makes the world’s best weapons. Perhaps. If so, we should buy them with our own money. I’m not suggesting we break relations with the US. And who is to say that our home-made products won’t fit our unique needs better?
But it takes time to build up our industries. True, which is why I want to phase out the aid over a period of years rather than cutting it off sharply.
But what about the close cooperation between Israeli and the US defense industries? I’m not suggesting that such cooperation couldn’t continue, but in a framework of mutually beneficial business deals when indicated, as partners rather than clients.
But AIPAC works so hard making it possible. Yes, and Israel should be grateful to AIPAC and to its friends in the US Congress that for decades have made it possible for Israel to survive in its dangerous neighborhood against great odds. But the situation has changed. What used to be a necessity became a luxury, and then changed into a dangerous overindulgence. It’s not like there aren’t other critical issues that AIPAC could focus on.
In recent years much has changed in the world and in the Middle East. Israel, which was a third-rate power that managed to win her wars against great odds, became a first-rate power that nevertheless seems to be stymied and incapable of decisively prevailing over much weaker opponents. Although there are several reasons for this, one of the main ones is the increasing influence and control over Israeli decision-making by the US.
I’m sorry to say that I believe the US is in serious economic, social, political and even security trouble today – truly a broken reed. I hope it will repair itself. But like Isaiah’s Egypt, it is not a staff to lean upon.
* This post is based on one I wrote in September 2016. Despite the respite from US pressure provided by the friendly President Trump, the problem of overdependence on the US hasn’t gone away, and will probably get worse after Trump leaves office.