columnIsrael at War

Should aid to Israel be linked to Ukraine?

Biden says he’ll veto a stand-alone bill for assistance to the Jewish state. Russia may be an aggressor, but the war there is not the same as the fight against Hamas.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv on Feb. 20, 2023. Credit: Adam Schultz/White House.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv on Feb. 20, 2023. Credit: Adam Schultz/White House.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

The White House is outraged, and as far as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is concerned, it’s a joke.

Democrats view the decision of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives to pass a stand-alone emergency aid bill for Israel as a political stunt. And they’ve made it clear that in its current form, the bill will die in the Senate, thus guaranteeing that the military aid, which is meant to ensure the resupply of the Israel Defense Forces as it wages a difficult and costly campaign to eradicate the Hamas terrorists in Gaza, won’t get there in a timely fashion.

Part of the accusation is true since the GOP couldn’t resist including something to delight their voters and outrage their opponents. It has coupled the aid with a spending cut to the Internal Revenue Service, something that Democrats can’t stomach.

That would reverse the gift to the agency in the form of $80 billion to expand the IRS’s capacity to conduct audits that was included in the Democrats’ misnamed omnibus Inflation Reduction Act in 2022. So, it comes as little surprise that President Joe Biden has threatened to veto the House funding bill in the unlikely event that it is passed by the Democrat-run Senate.

But despite the angry and sorrowful denunciations of the measure as a betrayal of Israel, the Republicans are hardly alone in playing politics with aid to the Jewish state.

The administration’s laundry list

The administration had proposed a massive aid package for Israel as part of its supporting Israel in the wake of the atrocities Hamas perpetrated on Oct. 7 after terrorists infiltrated the border, murdered more than 1,400 people and dragged as many as 250 others back to Gaza. But it lumped the Jewish state’s needs in with some of its other priorities in a $106 billion proposal of its own.

The Biden bill would give $14.3 billion to pay for military assistance, though, as is always the case, almost all of it will be spent in the United States, making it as much of an aid package to American arms manufacturers as to the Jewish state. 

But that impressive sum is only a small percentage of the Democrats’ proposal.

Some $61.4 billion of the $106 billion total package will go to the administration’s major foreign-policy priority: Ukraine. That’s despite the fact that the White House knows that a majority of Republicans are opposed to spending so much more on funding Ukraine’s war against Russia after the United States has already sunk approximately $150 billion into bolstering Kyiv in the last year.

That wasn’t the only non-Israel element of Biden’s package. It also included $14 billion in immigration enforcement, $4 billion to counter China’s influence in the developing world and $3.4 billion to invest on an industrial base to build submarines.

On top of that, it also included $9.6 billion in “humanitarian aid,” some of which will go to the Gaza Strip. The problem with that is it remains unclear how anyone could promise that anything being shipped into the Hamas-controlled areas will not fall into the hands of the terrorists, like almost all of the billions in Western assistance that have poured in over the years since Hamas began ruling the coastal enclave as an independent Palestinian state in all but name.

So, despite the pious sermons from both sides of the aisle about their opponents putting politics above the need to send vital military assistance to the Jewish state, neither party’s hands are clean. But now that the House Republicans have passed their bill, Biden is going to have to do more than merely claim it’s the GOP’s fault if Israel doesn’t get much-needed assistance if he wants any sort of aid to be approved.

The Ukraine stalemate

Right now, that isn’t the way the Democrats are talking. And they’re not alone. Many Senate Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are on Biden’s side with respect to the need to keep spending on Ukraine. McConnell has said that defeating the illegal and brutal Russian invasion is “the most important thing in the world.” And many in the pro-Israel community, who are reflexive supporters of a foreign policy that emphasizes America’s global reach and willingness to intervene in conflicts, agree with him.

The reason why the White House coupled the money for Israel with Ukraine is that the president knows that although almost all Republicans are strong supporters of Israel (thus giving the lie to the smear that they are all isolationists), the majority of the party is not in favor of continuing to fund what they rightly consider an endless and unwinnable war.

There simply is no way the current House of Representatives will sink another $61 billion into Ukraine; thus, the only way to get them to do that was to link it to Israel.

Since the Democrats almost always get their way in standoffs with House conservatives over funding bills, the White House’s assumption was that rather than shoulder the blame for stiffing Jerusalem, the GOP will fold and go along with the package.

Perhaps that would have happened a few years ago, but as the demise of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) illustrated, the House Freedom Caucus of hard-core conservatives is done being pushed around by what it considers to be a bipartisan coalition of establishment politicians it dubs the “uniparty.” If the aid package to Israel is to be passed, it will not come as part of a laundry list of administration needs.

The Republicans decision to include their grudge against the IRS in their proposal undercuts their claim to be putting forward a “clean” bill. But if that is removed—and it should be, despite the well-deserved hostility with which most citizens regard the tax agency—it still begs the question as to whether the causes of Ukraine and Israel should be linked.

The argument for the two nations being part of the same struggle rests not just on the notion that both countries were subjected to barbaric invasions by opponents determined to destroy them. Rather, it is a Cold War-style worldview that sees these countries as bastions of liberal democracy upon whose survival the fate of the free world hangs.

That philosophy has been given a major boost by the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin since Oct. 7.

Throughout his long tenure as his country’s authoritarian leader, Putin has sought to distance himself from the antisemitism that was so much a part of Russian policy under the Tsarist and Soviet empires, which he still hopes to reassemble. As opposed to his predecessors, he was the tyrant in Moscow who had a good relationship with the Jews and Israel. 

He publicly opposed Islamist terrorism as a threat to Russia as well as the West, even as he sought to thwart Western interests in the Middle East and allied himself with Iran. It was that willingness to take Israel’s security needs into account in Syria—where Russian forces partnered with Iran to save the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad—that is in no small measure responsible for Israel’s correct decision to avoid being pulled into the war in Ukraine.

But in a sign of how much his war in Ukraine has dictated his policy elsewhere, Putin chose not to condemn the Oct. 7 atrocities and this past week welcomed a delegation of Hamas terrorists to Moscow. That strengthens the position of those who believe Putin’s Russia has already morphed into a 21st-century version of the same “evil empire” that the West must defeat now just as it did in the past. 

And to bolster those who see it that way, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has changed his tune on Israel. In the past year, Ukraine had sought to blackmail the Jewish state to give them sophisticated weapons that the Israel Defense Forces desperately needed and consistently voted against Israel in the United Nations.

But since Oct. 7, Zelenskyy has come down hard against Hamas and in favor of Jerusalem—something that he rightly understands will help his cause in Washington even as it made Ukraine less popular elsewhere.

It’s also true that the war in Ukraine has nothing to do with the campaign against Islamist terror that Israel is fighting.

Regardless of the justified sympathy that Americans have for Ukraine’s plucky and successful war to defend their independence that was forced upon them in February 2022, that conflict is no longer about that country’s survival. It is, as even Ukraine’s top military commander, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, conceded in an interview with The Economist published this week, has become a “stalemate” that neither side has the capacity to break.

Ukraine gained back most of the ground it lost in Russia’s initial invasion. The fighting has now become a World War I-style deadlock with trench warfare as Kyiv seeks to recapture the territories Putin annexed in 2014. At that time, no one in either party thought funding a Ukrainian war against a nuclear power that is essentially unconquerable made sense.

The ability of both sides to dig in and use sophisticated drones, precision munitions and artillery means that the war will continue in this manner until, as Zaluzhny conceded, either side comes up with some sort of technological breakthrough that will bring about a decisive result.

It took the development of tanks and the general exhaustion of the Germans to allow the Allies to win in 1918 after more than four years of slaughter. But even if some mad genius comes up with a war-winning weapon, it’s painfully obvious that neither Russia nor Ukraine has the ability to win the current war.

Not all Americans have bought into the myth that Ukraine is a liberal democracy. It is, in fact, as corrupt as other former Soviet republics and doesn’t allow dissent under Zelenskyy any more than Putin does against his rule. That’s why Republicans believe that the best course of action is for their government to work to bring about a compromise peace that will end the slaughter.

Not the same as Gaza

Is that morally equivalent to the current calls for a ceasefire in Gaza?

Not really.

Putin’s Russia is a tyranny that has committed terrible atrocities against the Ukrainians. But it is more than a terrorist movement funded by Iran, as is the case with Hamas. Though we may wish it weren’t true, it is still a European power with nuclear weapons. By contrast, Hamas can be eliminated if the world simply lets the IDF do the job it needs to do. 

There is no amount of U.S. aid to Ukraine that would give Zelenskyy the ability to crush Russia in the same manner. Some believe that it is in America’s interest to allow the war to go on indefinitely, so as to bleed Moscow dry in the hope that this will prevent it from future outrages. Yet that is a cynical policy that will only prolong the bloodshed while draining U.S. forces of armaments that it needs to deal with other threats.

That was illustrated by the fact that one of the reasons why Washington needs to give so much aid to Israel is that the stockpiles it had put in place in Israel to be used in an emergency have already been shipped to Ukraine.

No matter where you come down on the question of how much funding Ukraine should get, there is nothing more cynical or irresponsible than Biden’s ploy by which Israel can only get the funding it needs if Ukraine’s war machine is given tens of billions more.

Much as some might wish it to be so, there is no bipartisan consensus in favor of continued unlimited aid to Ukraine. There is, however, a bipartisan consensus in favor of funding Israel.

All but two House Republicans—the libertarian extremist Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) and the always-bizarre Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.)—favor immediate passage of an Israel aid bill. And there were 12 moderate Democrats who broke with their party’s stand in order to get the funding to Israel now. The vast majority of Democrats would do the same if given the signal to do so by Biden.

As is the case with the front in Eastern Ukraine, no amount of rhetoric will break the stalemate in Congress over that war. The debate over the issue will continue and won’t be resolved one way or another until the voters decide whether or not to re-elect Biden or the fractious House GOP majority.

Still, Biden’s tactic of holding military aid to Israel hostage to the cause of funding Ukraine has already failed, and Kyiv’s supporters in both parties should concede as much. It’s time for Congress to pass a truly clean Israel assistance bill that would gain the enthusiastic support of both parties—and get it to where it’s needed as soon as possible.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him: @jonathans_tobin.

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