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Is it Time to Rethink U.S. Aid to Israel?

In the first century BCE, Talmudic sage Hillel the Elder coined the phrase: “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?” These words of inspiring urgency have reverberated through the ages, fading so much into the rabble of popular discourse that Ivanka Trump once misattributed them to Harry Potter actress Emma Watson. If any modern nation is a testament to Hillel’s ancient maxim, it is his own: Israel.

Like any other country, Israel is not without its problems. Its genesis, however, was the culmination of a lengthy and righteous struggle for self-determination against a backdrop of international complacency and persecution, an intellectual battle that remains unfinished. Since its war for independence, however, Israel’s military victories have succeeded in large part, due to its extensive support from the United States of America — a relationship that requires immediate review as the U.S. itself approaches financial breaking point.

The USSR may have been the first nation to recognise Israel de jure in May of 1948, but it quickly transpired that the U.S.-Israel relationship would triumph over the Soviet one — an unsurprising move given the USSR’s restrictive policies toward would-be olim and Jewish communities at large. Seventy-two years on, and Israel remains the only steadfast U.S. ally and Western-style democracy in the Middle East. Hence, U.S. strategy has an obvious interest in Israel’s military edge over its often-hostile neighbours. But amidst increasing economic uncertainties as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, the incoming Biden administration should consider rethinking its Israeli aid program.

Both far-left and far-right tinfoil-hat-types alike are prone to exaggerating the nature and extent of U.S. aid to Israel. Ultra-progressive Rep. Ilhan Omar fell into hot water in 2019 after implying that U.S. political leaders only defend Israel for financial gain. Meanwhile, alt-right nationalists, including the perpetrator of the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue attack, despise Democrats and Republicans alike for their support of Israel as part of a masterplan by Israel and Jews to hoard American resources, while inflicting policies such as mass immigration and progressive education on an unsuspecting public.

Much of this fear-mongering surrounds the Israel lobby, of which The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is at the apex. Yet this lobby is one among countless medium-level interest groups in American politics. AIPAC has not even featured in the list of the top-spending lobbying groups since 1997. Far from being the project of a nefarious Jewish lobby, U.S.-Israel aid is, as noted by Brookings Institution fellow James Kirchick, a “logical extension of America’s postwar power projection.”

It doesn’t necessarily follow, however, that the conditions of this relationship are above reconsideration. While progressive calls to cut foreign aid to Israel stemming from a desire to undeservedly ostracise the country as a pariah state should be ignored, there are arguments for recalibrating U.S. aid that even the most ardent supporter of both Zionism and Americanism might entertain. Firstly, this aid is currently conditioned on the premise that Israel must use it to purchase U.S. military equipment — even if native technology is cheaper and better. Israel consequently compromises on its defence, whilst losing potential export markets as other nations scramble to copy their American inventory. Secondly, Israeli officials consistently admit that these hefty aid packages incentivise them to overspend, undermining their potential to streamline and innovate.

Moreover, U.S. military aid to the Middle East does not bankroll Israel alone. Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority would likewise have to make military cuts if the U.S. reconsidered its spending on the region. In the theoretical event of its prickly neighbourhood’s downgraded defence status, Israel itself might be freer to reduce its own military spending.

Hillel was indeed right to ask, “If I am only for myself, then what am I?” A country that cares only for its own balance sheet is a short-sighted one. There are, of course, other battle-lines to consider. As Washington continues to back Israel’s normalization deals with a slew of Arab nations, Iran, whose long-reigning ayatollah has referred to Israel as a cancer in need of removal, grows ever more emboldened by an unholy alliance with China and Russia. Yet there is no suggestion that a streamlined approach to aid would encourage a more aggressive Iran to undertake direct military action against Israel. Iran realizes the folly of such moves.

Nevertheless, it is equally true that excessive U.S. aid is dampening the spirit of the “Start-Up Nation,” rather than fortifying it, whilst ensuring that millions of American tax dollars are parcelled out inefficiently. It’s good that Biden and Harris have vowed to fight any radical Democrat attempts to condition Israeli aid on the basis of a distorted view of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Still, their platform leaves much to be desired. More helpful than obliging Israel to buy up U.S. military machinery, would be a Biden presidency that sticks its neck out for Israel on the international stage, rather than following in Obama’s footsteps and “joining the jackals.”