In the last eight months, opposition to the aid that Israel receives from the United States has grown. There are good reasons for the Jewish state to stop the funding, but the latest push to end the aid program is not rooted in an understanding that it is in Israel’s best interests to no longer be dependent on American-made weapons. Nor is it based on an understanding that the symbolism of the assistance works against maintaining support for an alliance that benefits both countries.
Instead, the burgeoning movement to go ahead with it is rooted in contempt for Israel’s democratically elected government and the majority of its citizens, and as a way to exert pressure on the Jewish state and downgrade the long-term and crucial alliance. That’s why, although I agree that in the long run that Israel will be far better off giving it up, this isn’t the time to do so.
For it to happen in the context of the debate over judicial reform in Israel in which critics of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are falsely labeling coalition members as opponents of democracy and would-be authoritarians would lend credence to these libels. Nor should it be carried out at a time when doing so would buttress the campaign of hate against Israelis who are Mizrachi, nationalist or religious being waged by mainstream pundits like The New York Times’ Bret Stephens and Nicholas Kristof, and The Washington Post’s Max Boot.
Netanyahu’s kept promise
The man who has done the most to wean his country from American assistance is Netanyahu. After he won his first term as prime minister in 1996, he addressed a joint session of Congress for the first time and spoke of his desire to end U.S. economic assistance to the Jewish state.
Economic aid, as opposed to military funding, was desperately needed in Israel’s first years as the newborn state struggled to absorb hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors and then hundreds of thousands of Jews who had been forced to flee their homes in the Arab and Muslim world after 1948. After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, as it was forced to maintain an ever-larger military establishment to deal with ongoing threats from its Arab neighbors, Jerusalem went further into debt.
Israel’s economic misery was partly the result of its military burdens but also a product of its dysfunctional Socialist economic model that had been imposed upon the country by the Labor Zionist establishment.
That system was deeply inefficient, profoundly corrupt and existed mainly to prop up Labor’s rule, as well as the lifestyles of its voters and failed institutions like the kibbutzim. It was perpetuated by an autocratic political class, and maintained by a stifling and paternalistic bureaucracy. More than anything else, it also acted as a permanent brake on the Jewish state’s economic development.
That truth is swept under the rug amid the current complaints about assistance to haredi Jews or to the communities in Judea and Samaria. Yet the Socialist past is still lauded by the left as a symbol of an Israel that was somehow purer and more admirable than it is today, despite that being utterly contradicted by the historical facts.
Netanyahu kept his promise to Congress and phased out the economic aid. As a result of his relentless push to replace an outdated economic system with a free-market model, Israel has grown in economic strength and prosperity.
But the military aid was kept in place for the very good reason that it was still desperately needed if Israel was to maintain its qualitative edge over all of the myriad conventional threats to its existence. It was further needed to defend against terrorist movements that had been empowered by the Oslo peace process in the 1990s.
Rather than an act of charity, the financial assistance has always been a function of U.S. interests rather than those of Israel. It received few weapons or aid until after its victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, when it became more of a regional power that could serve as a strategic asset to the United States rather than a burden.
The current level of military aid was set in 2016 in an agreement reached between Netanyahu and then-President Barack Obama. The $38 billion price tag on the package that is spread out over a 10-year period, ending in 2026, is often cited as evidence that Americans are being unfairly taxed to benefit a nation that doesn’t need it. Moreover, the aid is routinely spoken of as evidence that the Jewish state is the main beneficiary of American munificence, despite it being far less needy than many other countries.
These claims ignore a basic fact about U.S. military aid to Israel. Almost all of it is spent in the United States. As such, it might better be described as federal assistance to American arms manufacturers and their employees.
Is Israel really the biggest aid recipient?
It is also misleading to speak of Israel as the largest recipient of American aid.
The United States has always spent far more on subsidizing the defense (and, by extension, the economic prosperity) of its NATO allies. The proportion of the U.S. budget that actually goes to NATO military capability is about $7 billion. That is nearly twice as much as is spent on Israel, without even taking into account the return in arms development and intelligence that America gets from Jerusalem. The difference is that it is spent in the context of the U.S. defense budget rather than an aid package.
Yet even that figure is now dwarfed by the massive sums being sent to Ukraine to fight Russia. In 2023, Ukraine is getting approximately $150 billion from American taxpayers—nearly 40 times the amount Israel is given to spend in the United States on arms. That figure is likely to grow as the Biden administration has committed itself to indefinitely funding a conflict that has become an unwinnable stalemate in which Ukraine’s independence is no longer in question.
Seen in that context, U.S. aid to Israel isn’t nearly the big deal its critics make it out to be.
It’s equally true that dependence on American arms is also partly the result of Washington’s pressure on Jerusalem to stifle the development of its own arms industries. The most famous example of that was the all-out push to cancel the development of the Lavi fighter plane in 1987 and instead purchase American-made F-16s. The United States has always preferred this dependence because it gave it political leverage over the Israelis.
Since then, Israel has helped develop many weapons in joint projects with America in ways that benefited both countries’ national defense, of which the Iron Dome missile-defense system is the most well-known and successful. It is equally true that Obama wanted to lock up a long-term aid package precisely because he saw it as a way to exercise control over the Jewish state. He sought to force it to accept his appeasement of Iran’s nuclear quest, in addition to creating an unstable and likely terrorist-run Palestinian state.
As such, Israel would do well to begin planning for a future in which it can and should pay for its own weapons and develop more of them at home.
A symbol of ending the alliance
Nevertheless, the current agitation to end aid is not about the best interests of either country.
The anti-Israel left, including groups like J Street, have supported limits or conditions placed on aid so as to hamstring the Jewish state’s efforts to fight terrorists and force it to make concessions to Palestinians who don’t want peace. They have now been joined by more mainstream figures, like Boot, who support a severing of ties because of their hatred for Netanyahu and his government.
Much like Stephens, Boot speaks of his affection for the notion of a Jewish state—one expressed in nostalgia for the old Socialist Israel ruled by the left. He despises contemporary Israel, whose Mizrachi, nationalist and religious voters elected Netanyahu’s coalition. American liberals who have accepted the lies about Netanyahu’s efforts to reform Israel’s judiciary being an authoritarian coup have bought into the false notion that it is an intolerant nation that no longer shares American values.
Those taking this position claim that they are merely aiding the left’s anti-Bibi resistance movement that seeks to retain power, despite losing elections, and unironically claims to be defending democracy. But the idea that you can love Israel while hating its Jews is both despicable and a gift to the Democratic Party’s increasingly influential intersectional left-wing that spreads the “apartheid state” libel and views it as an expression of oppressive white privilege.
Smart defenders of Israel like JNS columnist Caroline Glick and Tablet’s Liel Leibovitz are right to argue that ending U.S. aid is necessary in the long run to defend Israel’s interests, and ultimately, its independence. Still, cutting these ties in the context of the debate about judicial reform and the efforts to topple Netanyahu would be perceived as the first step towards ending the alliance with the United States rather than a move towards a healthier relationship. Israel’s friends must reject this linkage. It would be better to wait until a moment, like that of 1996, when Netanyahu can end the aid as an indication of the Jewish state’s economic, military and political strength, as opposed to a retreat away from a relationship with Washington that remains key to Israel’s future.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter: Jonathans_tobin.