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1. Touching the Third Rail of U.S.-Israel Relations
Editors at The New York Times must have been aware of the explosive content of Nicholas Kristof’s July 22 column, which they ran under the headline: “With Israel, It’s Time to Start Discussing the Unmentionable.”
Unmentionable might even be an understatement. Pro-Israel activists in the United States would probably call it taboo. A red line.
The unmentionable being talked about is cutting U.S. foreign aid to Israel, putting a gradual end to the annual $3.8 billion of American taxpayer money that is slotted for Israeli defense needs.
In his column, Kristof hit a nerve with American Jewish supporters of Israel. But he also gave voice to a notion that has long been brewing in progressive circles and has been making its way into the mainstream. Questioning the rationale for massive American assistance to Israel has become, within weeks, a legitimate matter of discussion. Conservative-leaning Washington Post columnist Max Boot recently noted that “it makes sense to discuss a phaseout of U.S. military aid to Israel.” Even former U.S. ambassadors to Israel Martin Indyk (under Bill Clinton) and Dan Kurtzer (under George W. Bush) are both now openly entertaining, or even advancing, the notion of cutting American assistance to Israel.
This is, indeed, a dramatic reversal.
The United States and Israel have had their fair share of differences in the past, but even at the lowest points, America’s aid was never part of the debate. The conventional wisdom in policymaking circles was that $3.8 billion, all earmarked for military spending, is a great investment for the United States; not only does the money go back to American defense contractors from whom Israel buys the goods with the aid money, but it also helps ensure Israel’s viability in a hostile region, a goal that was—and still is—a top priority for American leaders regardless of political boundaries.
These factors are still as relevant as ever. What has changed is the surrounding atmosphere: Israel’s potential turn to a less-democratic future, and its refusal to adhere to Washington’s requests, whether in regard to the Palestinian issue or to other geopolitical interests such as limiting Israel’s ties with China or choosing Ukraine over Russia.
Add to that a strong Israeli economy, and it makes some sense to ask why U.S. taxpayers should pick up the tab for the defense needs of a rich country that doesn’t act in a cooperative way.
Can Israel manage without America’s generous support?
Israel’s defense budget for 2023 is set at just over $17 billion, which means America’s nearly $4 billion is quite significant. Israel could come up with the needed amount through cuts to other budget items, a move that would impact the lives of Israelis and may prove even more damaging in the coming years, as Israel’s economy is expected to contract due to loss of income from tech companies and investors fleeing the scene. So, yes, Israel is able to pay for its own defense needs, but it will necessarily come at the expense of Israel’s standard of living and social services.
2. How Far Can It Really Go?
There is still a huge distance between talking about cutting aid to Israel and actually taking action.
For starters, the current agreement ensuring U.S. aid to Israel expires only in 2026, so any question regarding future assistance will be postponed at least until after the 2024 presidential election. Moreover, President Biden is definitely not there. Nor are his top foreign policy advisers. Messing with foreign aid to Israel is not part of the toolbox for the Biden administration.
And yet, listening to Democrats talk openly about the issue is striking.
Last week, I asked Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat who is the House chief deputy whip as well as vice chair of the Progressive Caucus, about the notion of cutting aid to Israel.
Schakowsky, who recently coauthored the House resolution expressing support for Israelis protesting Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul, is a decades-long friend of Israel, even though she does not shy away from criticizing its policies.
She didn’t seem opposed to raising the issue of aid cuts. “I would welcome being part of a conversation [about it],” she said. Schakowsky then added: “Right now, there is no suggestion on the table. Should we change the nature of our relationship? And if we do, what does that look like? There really has not been any concrete proposal.”
And this is exactly the type of response that is making the pro-Israel mainstream lose sleep these days.
3. Cutting vs. Conditioning Aid to Israel
There are two different approaches to limiting aid to Israel.
One argues that there’s no need for America to provide this funding, given Israel’s economic strength, and that maintaining aid only complicates the relationship. Proponents of this approach look back to a decision made by Benjamin Netanyahu when he first became prime minister in 1996. Up to that point, Israel would receive, in addition to military aid, billions in economic assistance, meaning funds provided for general use, not for defense needs. Netanyahu understood there was no need for the United States to help Israel’s economy, which was doing pretty well already, and phased out this portion of the assistance, eventually transitioning into military-only aid. That was the right thing to do back then, and, some argue, the right thing to do now with the military component of the assistance. The relationship between the two countries shouldn’t depend on the size of the check signed by the White House.
The other approach speaks of limiting and conditioning aid based on Israel’s actions. The result may be similar, but the reasoning is quite different. Proponents of this view, including Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who has been a leader on this issue, view military aid as a point of leverage for the United States over Israel. “The American people do not want to see that money being used to support policies that violate human rights and that treat the Palestinian people as second-class human beings,” Sanders said at the J Street national conference in 2021. That same year Rep. Betty McCollum, Democrat from Minnesota, introduced legislation demanding annual reports to Congress on Israel’s actions toward the Palestinians, as a necessary step for approving aid.
4. Netanyahu Messaging American Decision-Makers
Wrapped in his domestic political struggles, Netanyahu may seem oblivious to the critical voices coming from Washington. But he is not. Whether it’s because of the potential threat of cutting aid in the future, or simply due to the harsh tone coming from the White House and from Democrats in Congress, the Israeli leader has been feeling the need to address Americans directly.
It was impossible to avoid Netanyahu in the past two weeks. From CNN to ABC, NPR to NBC, and many more, Netanyahu, who has not given a single interview to independent Israeli media outlets since taking office, is in the midst of an interview blitz with American media. His aim is to prove to Americans that everything is under control. In these English-language interviews, Netanyahu characterizes the recent vote approving the first part of his judicial overhaul as “minor,” and says focusing on it is “silly.” The Israeli leader is asking Americans to see the similarities between his proposed changes and the U.S. judicial system, and he is convinced that relations with Biden are pretty good, even though he’s still waiting for a White House invitation.
On Sunday, in an interview with Bloomberg, Netanyahu went beyond generalities and promised that he will pause his judicial reform drive soon, after passing one more change—reforming the system which selects Supreme Court justices.
These messages, carefully crafted for American ears, rarely become part of Netanyahu’s discourse in Hebrew with the Israeli public. At home, he needs to deal with a tough coalition and a hardcore base who are less amenable to signals of compromise.
5. State Department Uses the T-Word
Words matter in diplomacy, and policy makers are well aware of that. This is why Israelis were alarmed Sunday to read a State Department tweet regarding the killing of a 19-year-old Palestinian by Jewish settlers in the West Bank village of Burkah. “We strongly condemn yesterday’s terror attack by Israeli extremist settlers that killed a 19-year-old Palestinian. The U.S. extends our deepest sympathies to his family & loved ones. We note Israeli officials have made several arrests and we urge full accountability and justice,” the statement read.
Sounds like a run-of-the-mill State Department press release, but there’s more to it. “Terror attack” is the key phrase here. U.S. administrations rarely use this term to describe actions of Israeli settlers. Now, as the severity of these attacks has been growing, and as American calls for Israel to rein in violent settlers seem to have gone unanswered, the United States is adopting stronger language. True, these are only words, but this change of tone is being noticed. Israel Hayom, the nation’s most widely distributed free newspaper, known for its right-wing leanings, lamented the “equal language” used by the United States to describe the killing of a Palestinian in the village of Burkah and the attack the next day that killed an Israeli in the heart of Tel Aviv. An Israeli diplomatic source who follows American-Israeli relations closely noted that while this choice of words is not unprecedented, “it was deliberate.”
Top Image: Golbez (CC BY-SA 3.0) / Oren Rozen (CC BY-SA 4.0) / Ervins Strauhmanis (CC BY 2.0)