What Democrats Need To Learn From Obama About Aid To Israel
Twice, President Barack Obama launched negotiations with Israel on a long-term Memorandum of Understanding regarding U.S. military assistance. Once was in March 2013 during his visit to Israel. Those talks progressed, but were later put on hold (by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request) until after the Congressional review of the Iran nuclear deal. The second time was in late 2015, following conclusion of the Iran deal. Those talks proceeded more quickly, and less than a year later, in September 2016, the two sides signed a 10-year, $38 billion agreement.
One instruction Obama never gave those of us conducting those negotiations, on both occasions, was to try to attach conditions to the assistance over the Palestinian issue. Quite the contrary.
That obviously was not because he was indifferent to Palestinians’ aspirations, or the importance of ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
On his second day in office in 2009, he appointed George Mitchell to serve as his special envoy for Middle East peace with a mandate to launch and guide peace talks. When those first-term efforts failed, Secretary of State John Kerry picked up the baton in the second term, leading to nine months of negotiations toward a final status agreement. Those talks failed as well.
Throughout, Obama never wavered from his belief that there was no resolution to the conflict other than a two-states for two peoples solution; that it was the only way Israel’s Jewish and democratic character, and indeed, its long-term security, could be assured; that it was the only path to end the occupation and ensure Palestinians can achieve their legitimate aspirations for independence in a state of their own; and that all of these factors made this goal a manifestly important United States interest.
In its pursuit, Obama had no shortage of disagreements with Netanyahu over settlement expansion and other Israeli policies inconsistent with the goal of two states. He did not seek out conflict, but he was not afraid to air those disagreements, considering their importance to his understanding of U.S. interests, and his belief that our relationship with Israel was strong enough to withstand them.
But he never allowed these differences to call into question the commitment of the United States to Israel’s security as expressed through the military assistance package, including while negotiating the new MOU.
It wasn’t as though the idea of conditioning aid, or conditioning the conclusion of a new deal, was never heard. Advocates outside the administration urged Obama to adopt that approach. But he disagreed.
First, he saw benefits to U.S. interests in our closest regional ally being able to deter and defend against a wide range of threats having nothing to do with the Palestinians. Israel has faced threats from Iran, Hezbollah, Syria, ISIS, and other regional adversaries, in addition to those posed by Hamas and other terrorist groups in Gaza. Nearly all of the assistance the U.S. provides is deployed against those threats, which, given the anti-Israel ideology of those foes, would undoubtedly persist with or without a two-state solution.
All of those actors also threaten U.S. troops, interests, and other allies, so Israel’s capabilities serve our interests, as well as their own. Furthermore, the assistance relationship is part of a broader security partnership in which the U.S. has access to top-notch Israeli intelligence, joint training with the IDF, and breakthrough technologies. Benefits flow in both directions.
The MOU provides $3.3 billion of Foreign Military Financing (FMF) each year, which Israel uses to purchase major U.S. military equipment. An additional $500 million per year goes to support missile defense programs (Iron Dome, David’s Sling, and Arrow 3).
The vast majority of the FMF dollars flow back into the U.S. economy and support thousands of jobs in our defense sector. While that is not the primary motivation for the assistance, it is the reason the MOU phases out a longstanding (and outdated) carve-out for Israel to spend a portion of the funds on purchases from Israeli firms.
While generous on the part of American taxpayers, our aid is not altruism.
Second, Obama understood that while Israel bears its share of responsibility for the stalemate with the Palestinians, it is not solely responsible by any means. The Palestinians also bear significant responsibility, and bringing an end to the incitement and legitimization of violence by the Palestinian Authority, the refusal to recognize Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state, and the rocket-and-tunnel terror of Hamas are also critical elements to achieving an end to the conflict. While Israel did not do all that Obama wished it would to advance a two-state solution, he also knew Israel could not end the conflict on its own even if it did so.
Nothing has changed about that logic. The MOU represents a U.S. self-interest, as well as a moral commitment to a close ally, which is why Obama regularly described Israel’s security as “sacrosanct.” Those who advocate withholding or conditioning security assistance need to bear that in mind. The United States needs to keep its commitments.
At the same time, nothing has changed about the profound U.S. interest in achieving an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a two-state solution. It is critical to our ability to sustain our values-based partnership with Israel over time.
We therefore should continue to urge Israel to make serious efforts to keep two states alive if it cannot be achieved in the near term, and certainly not to take actions, like the unilateral annexation in the West Bank Netanyahu put on the table earlier this year, that will kill it.
Countries have a right to expect that allies take their interests into account. So it is unrealistic for Israel, a close U.S. ally which benefits from the partnership, as we do, to expect that we will not raise our concerns, or even look for ways to use leverage if they are ignored.
Some Democratic presidential candidates have said that U.S. assistance must not support annexation. Of course it should not, and as currently structured, it could not. There is no need to layer on conditionality that was expressly left out of the MOU, because that scenario cannot happen.
But there is nothing anti-Israel, and nothing at odds with our commitment to Israel’s security, about a position that the United States cannot support actions by Israel that harm our interests — including, fundamentally, our ability to sustain the partnership we have built and both benefit from. Unilateral annexation would do that, and we should say so clearly.
Israelis should be realistic about attitudes in American society and look beyond the current MOU and aid debate. The U.S.-Israel relationship is based on interests and values, and it retains broad support across American society. But if the common democratic values at its heart are put at risk by the demise of the two-state solution, anyone who thinks our relationship will be sustainable over time as it has been badly misjudges the reality.
Whenever the new Israeli government is formed, clarity that annexation is off the table and the two-state solution remains the objective (even while acknowledging the requirement for a new approach by better Palestinian leadership), with policies to match, will help reset this debate.
Daniel B. Shapiro is a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. He served as United States Ambassador to Israel and Senior Director for the Middle East and North Africa on the National Security Council during the Obama administration.