It’s Time to End America’s Blank Check Military Aid to Israel
Last month, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez declared that American aid to Israel is “something that can be discussed” in Washington. Her comments made news precisely because America’s policy of giving Israel billions in aid without expecting any policy changes in return hasn’t actually been discussed — or at least questioned — in either party in more than a quarter-century. That needs to change.
To understand why, ask yourself this question: Why did Israelis last month re-elect a prime minister who opposes a Palestinian state and — by championing settlement growth and vowing to annex parts of the West Bank — is working to make one impossible?
There are several common answers. One is historical: Over the last two decades the second intifada and rocket fire from the Gaza Strip have created an enduring right-wing majority among Israeli Jews. A second answer is demographic: Netanyahu’s center-left rivals lean heavily on the votes of secular Ashkenazi Jews, whose share of the Israeli population is shrinking. Netanyahu relies more on Orthodox Jews, whose share is rising.
There’s truth to both these explanations. But there’s a third, which American politicians and pundits rarely acknowledge: Israelis re-elected Netanyahu because he showed them he could undermine the two-state solution with international impunity. Indeed, he made that accomplishment a central theme of his campaign.
Again and again in recent years, Netanyahu has mocked political rivals who warned that his policies toward the Palestinians were making Israel a global pariah. In a speech to supporters in 2017 he quoted former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who predicted in 2011 that, “Israel’s delegitimization is on the horizon.” To which Netanyahu responded, “Nonsense… Israel is enjoying an unparalleled diplomatic spring.”
In a campaign ad this year, Netanyahu juxtaposed an ominous 2013 quote from former foreign minister Tzipi Livni — “The prime minister of Israel is leading the State of Israel to severe isolation” — with images of him alongside Donald Trump and other world leaders. In another ad, he showed himself in the Oval Office telling a dejected-looking Barack Obama that Israel will never return to the 1967 lines.
Netanyahu’s message, as Hagai El-Ad of the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem has noted, was that Israel can have it all: It can deny Palestinians basic rights and enjoy international favor at the same time. Even presidents like Obama, who disapprove of Israel’s actions, don’t penalize Israel for them. They fold.
Netanyahu was right. It’s not just Trump who has enabled his assault on the two-state solution. Obama did too. For eight years as president, Obama warned that Israeli policies in the West Bank were endangering Palestinian rights, American interests and Israel’s future as a democratic and Jewish state.
And yet, during those eight years, Obama never used American aid to Israel as a lever to change the policies he decried. Obama watched Netanyahu rebuff him again and again. He watched as Netanyahu in 2011 travelled to the White House to publicly repudiate his vision of a Palestinian state near the 1967 lines.
He watched as Netanyahu in 2014 “flatly refused” to give Secretary of State John Kerry “the slightest hint about the scale of the territorial concessions” he was willing to make to the Palestinians. He watched as Netanyahu used settlement growth to “sabotage,” in the words of one American official, Kerry’s efforts at brokering a two-state deal.
Then, after all that — and after Netanyahu’s fervent lobbying against the Iran nuclear agreement — Obama in 2016 rewarded him with the largest military aid package in Israeli history.
“America is a thing you can move very easily,” Netanyahu once boasted to settlers. Obama and Trump have both illustrated the point.
The American government’s capitulation — under both Democrats and Republicans — is the unspoken elephant in the room when Americans discuss Israel’s embrace of permanent occupation. It is impossible to understand the looming death of the two-state solution without understanding that, for more than a twenty-five years, no American president has made Israel pay a price for undermining it. During that time, the notion that an American president might refuse to subsidize policies that brutalize Palestinians, harm America’s image, and threaten Israeli democracy, has become almost inconceivable. It’s time for a new generation of American progressives — especially progressive Jews — to make it conceivable again.
One reason conditioning aid has become inconceivable is that any American president who proposed it would be labeled anti-Israel, if not anti-Semitic. But by that standard, these epithets should be affixed to most of the presidents of the mid to late twentieth century.
During the cold war, as Nathan Thrall details in his indispensable book, The Only Language They Understand, presidents we now routinely think of as pro-Israel routinely used American aid to influence Israeli policy.
When Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, after attacking Egypt alongside Britain and France in 1956, mused about annexing Egyptian territory, Dwight Eisenhower threatened to end all US aid unless Israeli troops withdrew immediately.
In 1975, when Israel refused Henry Kissinger’s demand for a partial withdrawal from the Sinai desert, which it had conquered in 1967, Gerald Ford vowed a “reassessment” of “our relations with Israel,” and refused any new military or economic assistance until the withdrawal was done.
When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1977, Jimmy Carter told Menachem Begin that Israel’s use of American armored personnel carriers violated the Arms Export Control Act, which prevented American weaponry from being used for offensive operations. Unless Israel left Lebanon immediately, Carter warned, future arms sales “will have to be terminated.”
In 1982, when the Reagan administration determined that Israel’s use of cluster bombs in Lebanon may have violated America’s Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement with the Jewish state, Reagan banned new sales of the bombs to Israel for six years. In 1991, George H.W. Bush initially refused to give Israel the $10 billion in loan guarantees it requested to resettle Soviet immigrants until it froze settlement growth in the West Bank.
This history not only undercuts the claim that conditioning American aid reflects hostility to Israel, it also undercuts the claim that conditioning aid doesn’t work. In recent years, former diplomats like Dennis Ross, and establishment American Jewish leaders like Malcolm Hoenlein, have insisted that only American reassurance, not American pressure, produces Israeli concessions.
But during the cold war, American pressure produced Israeli concessions again and again. When Eisenhower threatened American aid in 1956, Israeli troops began leaving Egypt within 36 hours. Ford’s threat to halt new arms sales forced a partial Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai in 1975 and Carter’s threat forced Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 1977. The following year, Carter again threatened aid during the Camp David talks that led to Israel leaving the Sinai completely. And although Bush failed to restrain settlement growth, his initial refusal to provide loan guarantees, according to the Oxford historian Avi Shlaim, “forced” Israel to participate in the 1991 Madrid Conference, where for the first time it publicly negotiated with a delegation of Palestinians.
Of course, American pressure was rarely the sole reason for Israel’s actions. Had Egyptian President Anwar Sadat not offered peace, it’s unlikely Israel would have fully left the Sinai. Had Palestinians not launched the first intifada, which raised the price of Israel’s occupation, and had the PLO not recognized Israel’s existence, it’s unlikely Israel would have signed the 1993 Oslo Accords. Had Saudi Arabia not unveiled the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002, Ariel Sharon may not have withdrawn Israeli settlers from Gaza in a bid to undercut the Saudi effort three years later.
Palestinian and Arab behavior matters. And it matters who leads Israel. But Israelis are more likely to elect rejectionists to lead them — and rejectionists are more likely to remain rejectionists once in office — when they know their rejectionism will not harm Israel’s most important alliance.
Netanyahu’s decade-long political dominance in Israel, and his decade-long defiance in Washington, would simply not have been possible under the old rules. Which is why progressives need to bring back those old rules — or at least a modified version of them — if they truly want Israel to change course.
To condition American aid on Israeli behavior would not single Israel out. In theory, the Foreign Assistance Act, as amended in the late 1990s, prohibits the United States from providing aid or training to any foreign military units that have committed “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.”
Congress also places additional human rights conditions on American aid to numerous specific governments, including Afghanistan, Burma, Cambodia, Columbia, El Salvador, Egypt, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Before Trump ended American assistance to the Palestinian Authority, its aid was among the most heavily conditioned of all.
What distinguishes American aid to Israel is precisely its exemption from the rules and limitations that govern assistance to other nations. While the United States phased out economic assistance to the Jewish state a decade ago, Israel receives far more military aid than any country where the United States is not currently at war. Outside of active American combat zones like Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria of that foreign military financing goes to Israel. Israel also receives its financing in a more advantageous way than other countries. Every other foreign government receives a set amount of money per year, which it can spend on American weapons. Seth Binder of the Project on Middle East Democracy compares it to a debit card: You can only spend what America has already given you. Israel, by contrast, enjoys something called “cash-flow financing.” Binder compares it to a credit card: Israel can buy American weapons merely by committing to spend money America will give it in the future. Under the Memorandum of Understanding Obama announced in 2016, Israel is due to receive $3.8 billion per year until 2028. And because of cash-flow financing Israel can spend some of that future money now. That helps it buy expensive items — as it did in 2017 when it purchased 17 F-35 fighters at close to $100 million per plane — which would be hard to afford using America’s aid for only one particular year.
The United States also gives Israel its aid right away. While most other nations can access American aid only when they agree upon an arms purchase, Israel is given a lump sum at the beginning of every fiscal year. Since Israel doesn’t spend all that money right away, it puts the rest in the bank, where it accrues interest, which makes the amount it actually receives in American aid even higher than the official $3.8 billion figure.
Finally, Israel is the only nation that can spend part of its aid buying weapons from its own manufacturers, not those in the United States. In that way, Israel has used American assistance to fund its defense industry, which now ranks as the 8th largest arms exporter in the world. The ten-year deal Obama signed in 2016 phases out this “offshore procurement” in 2028. Israel, however, is still allowed to spend at least 20 percent of its aid on Israeli weaponry through 2024, and smaller percentages after that: A total of more than $5.6 billion.
But even observers who acknowledge that it’s not inherently anti-Israel to condition American aid, and that such conditionality has proven effective at changing Israeli behavior in the past, might still resist doing so for one simple and understandable reason: Security. Israel faces genuine threats, both from hostile governments like Iran and violent groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah. American aid helps protect Israel from them.
Americans should care about keeping Israelis safe. That means continuing to give Israel the roughly $500 million per year the US currently provides for missile defense and guaranteeing Israel’s military edge over its regional foes. But there are ways to condition aid that don’t weaken Israeli security. They actually enhance it.
What follows does not exhaust the possibilities. In the years to come, Democrats should consider a range of proposals that balance their commitment to Israeli security with their commitment to Palestinian rights. But it’s worth detailing two types of conditionality in particular. The first involves specific Israeli practices that the United States should refuse to fund because they serve no legitimate security goal and produce immense suffering.
One such practice is the detention of Palestinian children. In the West Bank, Israel maintains two legal systems: a civil system that guarantees robust legal protections to its Jewish citizens and a military system that guarantees far fewer rights to its Palestinian non-citizens. Under this system of military law, the Israeli army routinely arrests Palestinian children.
Between 2012 and 2015, Defense of Children International-Palestine interviewed more than 400 Palestinian children — almost one-third of them under the age of 16 — that Israel had arrested in the West Bank. It found that many were arrested in the middle of the night. Most were blindfolded, strip-searched and had their hands bound. In the vast majority of cases, neither they nor their parents were told why they were being arrested.
A majority reported being physically abused during their arrests and a quarter reported physical abuse while being interrogated in detention. While in detention — which can last from 24 to 96 hours, depending on a child’s age — almost all were interrogated in the absence of their parents or a lawyer. Which helps explain why the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has reported that, “ill-treatment of children who come in contact with the military detention system appears to be widespread, systematic and institutionalized.” This harrowing B’Tselem video, which shows soldiers in March arresting a nine-year old at school despite his teacher’s desperate pleas, shows what that looks like up close.
Minnesota Representative Betty McCollum has introduced legislation to ensure that no American money funds the detention of Palestinian children. Shamefully, only one Democratic presidential candidate, Representative Seth Moulton, has endorsed it, according to McCollum’s office. For a party that claims to prize human dignity, this shouldn’t be a close call. Using American money to subsidize Iron Dome or David’s Sling, which shoot down Hamas or Hezbollah rockets, is morally defensible. Using American money to traumatize children by pulling them from their homes or schools, often binding, blindfolding, strip-searching and beating them in the process, and then interrogating them without a parent or a lawyer present, sometimes for days, is morally indefensible.
Israel is a world-class military power. The Palestinian children it detains are mostly accused of throwing stones at an occupying army. Israel can afford to offer them the same legal protections it affords Jewish children suspected of wrongdoing. And by foregoing “torture,” which is how a 2013 report by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child describes Israel’s treatment of many underage Palestinian suspects, Israel may also lead fewer of them to engage in violence as adults, which makes Israelis safer.
In addition to ensuring that American money isn’t used to detain Palestinian children, the US should ensure that it isn’t funding the demolition of Palestinian homes. It’s well known that Israel demolishes the houses of suspected Palestinian (though not Jewish) terrorists. But the practice is far broader than that. In the West Bank, most Palestinian homes are bulldozed not because their inhabitants are accused of violence but merely because they lack building permits. The problem is that in Area C, which encompasses sixty percent of the West Bank, and which right-wing Israeli politicians seek to annex, Israel tries to keep the Palestinian population as low as possible, which means a Palestinians’ chances of getting a building permit are, in B’Tselem’s words, “slim to none.”
So when Palestinians grow sufficiently desperate for places to live, they build without permits, and hope the bulldozers don’t come. But often they do. According to B’Tselem, Israel has demolished at least 1400 Palestinian houses in the West Bank since 2006, leaving more than 6,000 people homeless. Sometimes, as in the recent cases of Susiya and Khan al-Ahmar, entire villages are threatened with demolition so Israel can expand settlements onto their land. For such work, Israel has in the past used American-made Caterpillar bulldozers, some of which it has bought with American aid. This must end. There is no security justification for asking Americans to pay so Israel can demolish the homes of people who have been accused of no crime other than failing to possess building permits that — as non-citizens under military law — they cannot get. If Democrats can’t grasp that, they should spend a moment watching Palestinian families watch their homes being bulldozed before their eyes.
Finally, America should extend this principle — funding aspects of Israeli policy that have a plausible security rationale and refusing to fund aspects that don’t — to Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Shooting down missiles and blocking tunnels deserve American support. But why does Israeli security require banning businesses in Gaza from exporting processed foods like cookies and potato chips to Israel and the West Bank? Why does it threaten Israeli security to allow people in Gaza to visit the West Bank to attend a grandparent’s funeral? Why does Israel bar students in Gaza from studying at West Bank universities? A few years ago, Israel denied exit permits to most of the students at a music school in Gaza, thus preventing them from performing in the West Bank, until the Israeli human rights group Gisha convinced a member of the Knesset to intervene.
It is understandable that Israel inspects containers entering and exiting Gaza. It is understandable that Israel conducts background checks to ensure that the people entering Israel or the West Bank have no ties to terrorism. But blanket prohibitions on the movement of everything from college students to potato chips don’t bolster Israeli security. To the contrary, they weaken it by fostering Palestinian hatred and despair, and denying people in Gaza exposure to more open, liberal societies. Which is why current and former Israeli security officials have repeatedly warned that Palestinian hopelessness creates the conditions for violence, and criticized the blockade.
These blanket prohibitions on the movement of goods and people aren’t designed to reduce terrorism. They’re designed, as Netanyahu and other Israeli officials have acknowledged, to keep Gaza and the West Bank separate so Palestinians cannot achieve their own state. That’s not a goal American taxpayers should subsidize.
Critics may respond that it should be up to Israelis — not Americans — to decide which Israeli policies are moral and which bolster Israeli security. That’s true. But it’s up to Americans to decide how to spend American money. And funding the detention of Palestinian children, the demolition of Palestinian homes and the virtual imprisonment of Palestinians in Gaza doesn’t only harm Palestinians. It also harms America.
In 2010, General David Petraeus observed that, “Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the region, “I paid a military security price every day as the commander of CentCom because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel.” That doesn’t mean American leaders should give Arab governments a veto over American support for Israel. But it underscores the importance, for America’s own national security, of deciding which Israeli policies are worth subsidizing and which are not.
The problem with this first type of conditionality — conditions on which Israeli policies American money can support — isn’t that it’s illegitimate. It’s that, on its own, it may be ineffective. Restrictions on funding certain Israeli practices may draw valuable attention to them in the United States. But money is fungible. Israel could simply pay for child detention, home demolitions and restrictions on travel from Gaza with its own money and use American aid for other purposes. Which is why Democrats should consider a second, broader, form of conditionality as well.
This second form of conditionality doesn’t require reducing overall American aid to Israel by even a dime. It merely requires threatening to reduce “off-shore procurement”: the unique arrangement through which America allows Israel to spend billions in American aid on its own weapons rather than American ones. In his 2016 Memorandum of Understanding, Obama pledged not to phase out off-shore procurement until 2028. But as prominent Republicans insisted at the time, such memorandums are just blueprints; they’re not legally binding. And since 2016 Netanyahu has, by declaring his support for annexing parts of the West Bank, announced a radical policy shift to which the United States is entitled to respond with policy shifts of its own.
As former Bush Pentagon official, and Orthodox rabbi, Dov Zakheim has suggested, the United States should use off-shore procurement to try to alter Israeli policies that not only deny Palestinians basic human rights, but pose an existential threat to Israel. Currently, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza live, in different ways, as Israeli subjects but cannot become Israeli citizens. That’s colonialism. Palestinians — like all people—deserve to be citizens of the country in which they live. Denying them that right is a recipe for intifada after intifada since no people will indefinitely endure subjugation. And the more Palestinians lose hope of becoming citizens of their own country, the more they will demand citizenship in Israel, which Israel cannot grant without ceasing to be a Jewish state.
The United States should not condition off-shore procurement on the creation of a Palestinian state since creating one is not solely within Israel’s power. But America can use off-shore procurement as leverage to keep Israel from foreclosing a Palestinian state. The US can insist that Israel not annex any part of the West Bank. (Palestinian leaders have in the past suggested that Israel could annex certain settlements as part of a two-state deal, but only in return for land inside Israel proper. If Israel annexes settlements unilaterally and without compensation, the basis for that trade disappears).
The US can also insist that Israel stop settlement growth, which eats away at the territory on which Palestinians would establish their state (and which often involves the theft of land that individual Palestinians own). In 2017, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, the settler population grew at close to double the rate of the Israeli population as a whole. That’s partly because the Israeli government essentially pays Jews to move into the West Bank by allocating far more government money to settlements than to cities and towns inside Israel proper.
Finally, while the United States cannot demand that Israelis and Palestinians reach a two-state deal, it can demand that the Israeli government accept the basic outlines of one, as detailed in the Clinton parameters in 2000 and the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002, as Mahmoud Abbas has done, and negotiate on that basis. Israel can refuse. But then America can refuse to stop allowing Israel to spend American money on Israeli arms.
Like the first, this second form of conditionality would elicit howls from the Israeli and American Jewish political establishments, which would accuse the US of undermining Israeli security. But it’s worth remembering that, overwhelmingly, Israel’s top security officials consider the two-state solution safer than permanent occupation. In 2015, one former head of the Mossad, Israel’s external security agency, Meir Dagan, warned that Netanyahu’s policies toward the Palestinians were “leading to either a binational state or an apartheid state.” In 2017, another former Mossad head, Tamir Pardo, called the death of the two-state solution an “existential threat” to Israel. Such views are widespread. In 2016, Major General Gadi Shamni, former head of Israel’s Central Command, which encompasses the West Bank, noted that, “The overwhelming majority of the senior ranks of the defense establishment think we are moving in very problematic directions in regard to the Palestinians. For every 50 people who think as I do, you’ll find only that “there is something that happens” to the people who run Israel’s security agencies that “makes them left-wing.”
This may sound strange to Americans. How could Israelis, who prize security, elect leaders who are entrenching an occupation that so many Israeli security professionals consider dangerous? But it’s not that strange: Ideologues overrule security professionals in our political system too. The Pentagon considers climate change a grave threat to national security; Donald Trump considers it a Chinese hoax. The police condemn laws that make it easier to own a gun. Police-loving Republicans pass them anyway.
By conditioning off-shore procurement, the United States can prod and empower those in Israel’s security establishment who fear permanent occupation to more forcefully oppose it. And America can weaken Netanyahu by showing ordinary Israelis that his policies undermine Israel’s most important relationship. As B’Tselem’s Hagai El-Ad has argued, “Perpetuating the occupation and paying no price for it – having it both ways – is Netanyahu’s single goal. Breaking…that mold is the biggest hope we have of finally ending the occupation.” With this shift in policy, Democrats can keep this hope alive.
If a Democratic presidential candidate endorses this shift — of the major candidates, only Bernie Sanders has so far come close — it will likely help them among Democratic voters. A University of Maryland poll this spring found that 57 percent of Democrats think the US should respond to settlement growth with “economic sanctions” or “more serious action.” But that candidate will come under ferocious assault from Republicans and establishment American Jewish groups. And it will be up to progressive American Jews to thrust themselves into that fight.
That won’t be easy. If other progressive Jews are like me, they feel an internal dissonance when it comes to pressuring Israel, a voice inside their head that says: Don’t turn on your own. The voice says that Israel, whatever its flaws, is family, and the Palestinians are not. It says that when anti-Semitism is rising, including on the left, you don’t throw chum in the water. Once American Christians grow comfortable condemning and pressuring Israel, maybe we’ll find they enjoy it just a little too much.
I can never totally silence that voice. I’ve heard it all my life from some of the people I love most. But it grows quieter at this time of year, in the extended interlude between Passover and Shavuot, when Jews contemplate the journey from physical to spiritual freedom.
The Jewish family is born in the Book of Genesis, in the land of Israel. But the Jewish people are born in the Book of Exodus, in slavery in Egypt. They then spend the rest of the Torah trying to return to the place where Abraham and his descendants already live near the beginning of the story. Why the detour, asks Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his Haggadah? His answer: Because the Jewish people “had to suffer the experience of slavery and degradation before it could learn, know and feel intuitively that there is something morally wrong with oppression.” God wanted Jews to gain that moral intuition before they settled, as a people, on their land.
Netanyahu — like his father before him — fears this moral impulse in Jewish tradition, which he sees as inimical to Jewish survival in a predatory world. He is right to fear it. Because the moral intuition that Sacks describes could help end the international impunity that Netanyahu has reveled in for the last decade. If Sacks is right, then ensuring that the United States does not help Israel arrest a child, demolish a home or imprison a people is just about the most Jewish thing we can possibly do.
Does a new generation of American Jews feel this moral intuition deeply enough to challenge the forces that sustain American complicity in Israeli oppression? The next chapter of American Jewish history will rest, in large measure, on the answer.
Peter Beinart is a Senior Columnist at The Forward and Professor of Journalism and Political Science at the City University of New York. He is also a Contributor to The Atlantic and a CNN Political Commentator.