Three of the four leading Democratic presidential candidates have recently said they would consider cuts in U.S. military aid as a means to pressure Jerusalem into changing its policy in the West Bank. Their statements are both hypocritical and completely out of touch with the realities of Israeli politics, Palestinian-Israeli relations and developments in the Middle East. The candidates all understand the nature of U.S. military aid to Israel and deliberately distort it.
Two of the three, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, belong to the radical branch of the party. They are battling two other contenders: former Vice President Joe Biden, who represents the moderate, mainstream branch of the party; and Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who falls between the two ideological poles. Warren and Sanders hold radical views about many political, economic and social issues, and are isolationists with regard to U.S. foreign policy.
On Oct. 19, 2019, Warren said at an event in Iowa that military aid to Israel could be conditional on halting settlement expansion in the West Bank. “Right now, [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu says he is going to take Israel in a direction of increasing settlements. That does not move us toward a two-state solution,” she said. “It is the official policy of the United States of America to support a two-state solution, and if Israel is moving in the opposite direction then everything is on the table.”
Warren was merely echoing Sanders, who said in June that he would “absolutely” consider dangling cuts to American military aid to Israel to put pressure on Jerusalem. He added, however, that he would not make decisions that render Israel militarily vulnerable.
A month later, Sanders said on the Pod Save America podcast that Israelis “absolutely have the right to live in peace, independence, and security,” but added that under Netanyahu, Israel had an “an extreme right-wing government with many racist tendencies” and he would consider using American military aid as leverage against it.
Last weekend, at a J Street event in Washington, D.C., Sanders said in response to a question about aid to Israel: “$3.8 billion [a year] is a lot of money, and we cannot give it, carte blanche, to the Israeli government. If you want military aid, you’re going to have to fundamentally change your relationship [to Gaza].” He added that if elected, he would tell the Israeli government that some of the aid money “should go right now into humanitarian aid in Gaza.”
Buttigieg, a former U.S. naval officer, has said: “I think that the aid is leverage to guide Israel in the right direction … If, for example, there is follow-through on these threats of annexation, I’m committed to ensuring that the U.S. is not footing the bill for that.”
To see the hypocrisy and double standards clearly, we need only compare these statements about cutting military aid to Israel and the response to cuts authorized by U.S. President Donald Trump in aid to the Palestinian Authority and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA).
In September 2019, in a letter to Trump, Sanders and Warren joined 32 democratic senators in condemning those cuts. Sanders and Warren ignored the Palestinians’ repeated rejection of peace negotiations and peace proposals offered by President Bill Clinton and Vice President Biden, as well as by Israeli prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert. They also ignored the unrelenting Palestinian campaign of delegitimization against Israel and the P.A.’s monthly payments to terrorists convicted of murdering Israelis.
Warren and Sanders further ignored UNRWA’s absurd mission, abuses of authority and corruption.
Unlike the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees agency (UNHCR), which helps to settle refugees around the world, UNRWA perpetuates the refugee status of millions of Palestinians. UNRWA schools use books filled with hatred toward Israel and opposition to any peace process. In Gaza, Hamas uses UNRWA schools as cover for the hiding and launching of missiles.
UNRWA should have been dismantled decades ago and its functions transferred to the U.N. Refugee Agency.
Then there’s the fact that the very use of the term “aid” in the context of U.S.-Israeli defense relations is itself misleading. A more accurate and appropriate term would be “investment.”
First, the aid is all military. Second, most of the funds are reinvested back into the U.S. economy, as Israel is required to spend 76% of the money with American defense manufacturers.
Third, U.S. military aid to Israel has historically been viewed as an investment in peace and security. Successive American administrations have viewed the aid package as key to helping Israel maintain its qualitative military edge over potential threats in the region, especially those emanating from Iran and its proxies Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah.
Fourth, in return for aid, Israel provides the U.S. military and defense industries with valuable data, develops innovative military technology like missile defense systems and border surveillance technology which the United States benefits from, and shares intelligence and battle-proven military doctrines.
Despite serious disagreements between President Barack Obama and Netanyahu, in Sept. 2016 they signed a memorandum of understanding committing $3.8 billion annually in U.S. military aid for the next 10 years. Unlike three of the current Democratic presidential candidates, Obama and Biden recognized the value of a long-term investment in U.S.-Israel defense collaboration.
It should be noted that while the memorandum of understanding lasts for 10 years, Congress must approve it annually. The threats made by the three candidates should therefore be taken seriously.
It is also important to note that the candidates’ threats didn’t appear in their initial statements, but rather in responses to questions posed by activists. Buttigieg, for example, was responding to a student activist from IfNotNow, an extreme anti-Zionist Jewish group that rejects Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. The activist had asked the mayor during an election event at the University of Chicago on Oct. 18 whether he “would make aid to Israel contingent upon ending the occupation.” Two days later, another IfNotNow activist asked Warren her position on making aid conditional on stopping settlement expansion.
IfNotNow has adopted a strategy of using Q&A sessions to obtain on-camera statements from leading candidates linking military aid to Israeli policy in the West Bank. The desirable answer is embedded in the question. The candidates, Israel, and U.S. supporters of Israel should be aware of this strategy and be prepared to expose and combat the racist and anti-Semitic positions of IfNotNow and similar extreme movements such as Jewish Voices for Peace.
It could be that the threats made by the leading Democratic presidential candidates (excluding Biden) were mere campaign maneuvers. They were vague, and they all referred to statements made by Netanyahu during his own election campaign in September 2019 regarding the possible annexation of land in the West Bank.
However, election promises in the United States are different from those in Israel. Netanyahu is known for failing to implement promises made during election campaigns over the past decade, but is regularly reelected regardless. In the US, voters take election commitments seriously and punish presidents who fail to implement them. In 1992, for example, voters punished President George Bush, Sr. for his failure to keep his 1988 campaign promise not to raise taxes. This is why Trump has put so much effort into carrying out his campaign promises, including the transfer of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
That Democratic presidential candidates would find it objectionable to push the Palestinians and UNRWA to change their corrupt behavior while at the same time being adamant that military aid to America’s closest ally in the Middle East be used as leverage against it is an indication of how prevalent anti-Israel sentiment has become within the Democratic Party. Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg apparently feel they must voice severe criticism of Israel to satisfy the radical branch of the party.
Even if the Democratic Party fails to defeat Trump in 2020, a Democrat will eventually be president, and the Democrats may win control of both the House and the Senate. The anti-Israel trend in the party is deep, and is expanding and intensifying. It is visible not only in the threats of the leading Democratic presidential candidates but in other areas as well.
This is a serious problem, and the next Israeli government will have to find effective ways to cope with it.
Professor Eytan Gilboa is director of the Center for International Communication and a senior research associate at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. Currently, he is Israel Institute Visiting Professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
This article first appeared on the website of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.