U.S. taxpayers have provided the Israeli military that invaded Gaza on Thursday night with more than $121 billion since the state’s founding, subsidizing about 25 percent of the tiny country’s annual defense budget in recent years.
That subsidy has increased even as Israel’s economy has experienced a growth spurt and the country has discovered stores of natural gas. Indeed, President Obama last year pledged to begin early negotiations to extend the annual military subsidy to Israel for another decade and has sold Israel powerful bunker buster bombs and helped finance the Iron Dome missile defense system that has protected Israelis from Hamas rockets and missiles in the current war.
One would think with that kind of record, pro-Israel conservatives would find a rare bit of common ground with a president they have criticized for being hostile to the Jewish state. But at least for some, the military aid is part of the problem.
“The experience of the Obama years has sharpened the perception among pro-Israel Americans that aid can cut against Israel by giving presidents with bad ideas more leverage than they would otherwise have,” said Noah Pollak, the executive director of the Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI). Pollak’s group has been one of Obama’s toughest critics, running television advertisements in 2012 that blamed Obama for dithering as Iran continued to enrich uranium.
It goes without saying that ECI is not the sole voice of the pro-Israel community. The emergency committee does not match the influence in Congress of the much larger American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which has shown no signs of ending its efforts to push Congress to pass the annual military aid bill.
But getting legislators to support aid to Israel in recent years has not required much effort at all. The committee votes are rarely contested and the money for Israel is rolled into the larger bill for foreign aid.
For Pollak and others this is part of the problem. “Aid to Israel is a low bar for politicians to claim they’re pro-Israel and it’d be better if there were more substantive things one had to do to earn that title,” he said. “And aid provides easy fodder for critics to claim that the alliance is a burden on the United States or that it’s a one-way street of America giving and Israel receiving. All things being equal, why not remove these falsehoods from the debate?”
Pollak is not alone. Elliott Abrams—a former deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush and leading pro-Israel writer and policy analyst—told The Daily Beast, “My view is over time it would be healthy for the relationship if the aid diminished. Israel should be less dependent on American financial assistance and should become the kind of ally that we have in Australia, Canada or the United Kingdom, an intimate military relationship and alliance, but no military aid.”
This is also the view expressed by leading Israeli politicians. Naftali Bennett, Israel’s minister of economics and the leader of the right-wing Israel Home party,said in 2013, “Today, U.S. military aid is roughly 1 percent of Israel’s economy. I think, generally, we need to free ourselves from it. We have to do it responsibly, since I’m not aware of all the aspects of the budget, I don’t want to say ‘Let’s just give it up,’ but our situation today is very different from what it was 20 and 30 years ago.”
Today, Israel is prosperous. In 2000, the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was $124.9 billion. In 2013, the Israeli GDP was $291.3 billion. This is before Israel has seen any real revenue from the fields of natural gas it recently discovered. Israel has become so prosperous that legislation is now before the country’s Knesset to create a sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned investment vehicle designed to invest the surplus revenue Israel collects from selling its natural gas.
“I have heard discussions of a sovereign wealth fund, by which the Israelis mean they want to handle the revenues carefully the way Norway does and not waste them,” Abrams said. “But I do not believe a country that has a sovereign wealth fund can be an aid recipient.”
Abrams was careful to say that he did not favor cutting the military aid while Obama was still president. “Were there a reduction now, it would be attributed to administration hostility to Israel and be seen as a weakening of U.S. support,” he said. “It should be done only in a context of robust American political support and close relations between American and Israeli leaders.”
Michael Oren, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Washington until 2013, said it was a mistake to view the aid to Israel as something exceptional. While it’s true the aid to Israel represents more than half of the total U.S. annual budget for foreign military financing, Oren says that statistic can be misleading.
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