1. Are they going to take away Israel’s aid money?
Many in the pro-Israel community joined for a collective oy vey moment last week when leading Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren added her voice to a growing choir of progressives threatening to use America’s aid to Israel as a means of influencing Israel’s policy in the West Bank.
“It is the official policy of the United States of America to support a two-state solution, and if Israel is moving in the opposite direction, then everything is on the table,” Warren said earlier this month when asked if she would “make American aid conditional” on Israel freezing settlement activity.
Warren seems to be taking her cue from Bernie Sanders, the liberal firebrand who once led the progressive camp and is now trailing Warren in the polls. Sanders has made clear that he views withholding or cutting aid to Israel as a legitimate tool, and he suggested that Israel stop accepting American funding after Netanyahu banned Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib from entering Israel.
Also on the list of top Democratic candidates grabbing the third rail of Israeli-American relations is Pete Buttigieg, who talked about leveraging foreign aid to “guide Israel in the right direction.” He had already gone on record in June warning that under his administration, Israeli annexation of the West Bank would lead to losing U.S. aid.
Looking at the Democratic field, here’s where we stand: Three of the four frontrunners are threatening to cut U.S. aid to Israel. Biden stands alone in his refusal to join.
2. There’s nothing new about cutting aid
Oy veys aside, there is a lot of history behind the idea of conditioning American dollars on Israeli behavior. And it has mainly been Republicans who use this leverage. George H. W. Bush put it in no uncertain terms when dealing with then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in 1991. Israel was pleading for American loan guarantees to help house nearly a million new Jewish immigrants fleeing the recently-crumbled Soviet Union. Bush conditioned the loan guarantees on Israel pledging not to use the money for West Bank housing. Shamir refused, and went on to lose the election; his successor Yitzhak Rabin agreed and received the aid.
Years later it was George W. Bush’s turn to remind Israel that American money comes with conditions when he threatened to cut the loan guarantees in the amount equal to that spent by Israel on building its security barrier on Palestinian lands.
3. Cutting aid is a problem for America, too
Under the ten-year Memorandum of Understanding signed by Barack Obama, Israel receives $3.8 billion a year in American aid. Unlike the funding offered to other countries, American aid to Israel is purely military.
It goes without saying that this aid is extremely valuable to Israel, whose annual defense budget is around $20 billion. The American aid, coupled with a U.S. openness to allow Israel access to its most advanced military systems, helps Israel maintain a military edge, which they see as key to their survival.
But that military aid is also important to America; Israel spends some of the U.S. money on American-made equipment—from warplanes, ships and missile defense systems to high- and low-tech gear. $3.8 billion a year goes a long way in ensuring American defense industry jobs.
Does a Sanders/Warren/Buttigieg administration want to deal with losing blue-collar jobs in industrial states?
Probably not. At least not right away or all at once.
4. A sign that political times are a-changing
But this doesn’t mean that these new voices coming from the Democratic Party are insignificant. Sure, cutting aid has been on the table for decades, and yes, there are plenty of good reasons not to do it. But the fact that a call for using American aid to shape Israeli policy is coming from Democratic frontrunners, not from the far-left margins or from Libertarians, should give pro-Israeli activists pause, because it means the political calculation has changed.
The idea of taking on military aid to Israel no longer poses an electoral burden. True, Warren will probably lose some funding, and Buttigieg might face some backlash from his more centrist supporters (Bernie never had any pro-Israel centrists in his camp), but they all understand that they can still go on and maybe even win the Democratic nomination, despite rattling the last consensus still left standing in U.S.-Israel relations.
And they can probably expect the left-leaning lobby J Street to back them on that. The group, whose annual conference began last week and will run through tomorrow, is on record supporting a very serious examination of making sure that U.S. aid to Israel is not viewed as a blank check.
5. Don’t expect a real cut in aid
A real cut in aid doesn’t make sense. Not only because any American president will want to keep American jobs in the defense industry, but mainly since having a militarily-strong Israel makes strategic sense regardless of whether you are a centrist or a progressive. Smaller, symbolic tweaks to foreign aid could be possible but would drag any administration into a huge war in Congress, which probably won’t be worth it.
But there’s no need to actually cut aid to Israel.
By simply raising the specter of withholding money, by just putting it on the table, to borrow Warren’s phrase, a clear message has been sent to the Israeli government: This isn’t your grandmother’s Democratic Party.