Re-thinking U.S. Aid to Israel
From Where I SitOpinion

Re-thinking U.S. Aid to Israel

Questions are raised about whether the current model is healthy for Israel.

Dave Schechter is a veteran journalist whose career includes writing and producing reports from Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Dave Schechter, freelance contributor for the AJT.
Dave Schechter, freelance contributor for the AJT.

If an American Jew — a columnist for a Jewish newspaper, for example — suggested what I am about to quote, they might be hauled into the court of Jewish opinion, excoriated in some quarters and lauded in others.

But these are the thoughts of Israelis who, while grateful for U.S. aid, find in recent events reasons to reevaluate that pillar of the relationship.

Michael Oren is a historian and former Israeli ambassador to the United States (2009-13). Yossi Klein Halevi is a journalist, author, and frequent commentator on Israeli affairs for English-language audiences. Donniel Hartman is president of the Israel-based Shalom Hartman Institute. All three have American backgrounds and made aliyah many years ago. On the Israeli political spectrum, they consider themselves to be centrists.

This is what prompted their concern: In September, Democratic progressives in the U.S. House forced removal from a spending bill of $1 billion for Israel to restock its Iron Dome anti-missile system. The money was approved days later in a separate, 402-9 vote. (Senate action has been stalled by Kentucky Republican Ron Paul’s insistence that the funds be taken from aid to Afghanistan.)

Since 2011, the U.S. has provided $1.6 billion for the Israeli-developed Iron Dome. By way of context, the current 10-year “memorandum of understanding,” which expires in 2028, annually provides Israel $3.3 billion in “Foreign Military Financing” grants (to finance purchase of U.S.-made material) and $500 million for missile defense.

Oren’s essay, published Sept. 23 by the online magazine Tablet, was written after the initial setback. Even anticipating eventual approval of the money, “the event must serve as an overdue wakeup call to begin rethinking the nature of American aid, one of the mainstays of our alliance with the United States,” he wrote.

“Though generous, U.S. aid to Israel is hardly free. Under its terms, Israel cannot buy whatever it wants from the United States,” Oren said, citing Tomahawk missiles and strategic bombers. “Israel cannot, moreover, sell what it wants to whomever it desires, most expressly to China,” he said, noting sales nixed by Democratic and Republican presidents.

“Behind closed doors, Israelis are questioning why a country as militarily and economically robust as theirs should continue to appear dependent on any foreign power,” Oren wrote. “Isn’t it time . . . to begin asking whether Israel can continue to depend on U.S. military aid, whether its downsides outweigh its benefits, and whether or not more secure and mutually advantageous alternatives exist?”

Hartman and Halevi, a senior research fellow at the Hartman Institute, addressed these issues in the Sept. 26 edition of its “For Heaven’s Sake Podcast,” in an episode titled “Is Funding the Iron Dome Really an Israeli Victory?”

Yes, the House okayed the $1 billion, but Halevi wondered: “. . . maybe we made a mistake, the pro-Israel community, and the State of Israel, in setting the bar for pro-Israel support too low.” Pro-Israel Democrats, he said, took the position that: “This is a safe weapon. This isn’t even really a weapon at all. So we can give this to Israel. This is purely defensive.”

Halevi warned that “they’re setting us up for a very uncomfortable situation . . . the next time a vote comes around for offensive weapons, which we need.”

Hartman also had questions: “I apologize for the heresy. Why were we asking them to fund the Iron Dome? What, we don’t have a billion dollars? What is it? Is America my bank? Why would I turn, did I turn to America to ask, ‘Could you please fund buses in Jerusalem? Could you please fund new highways?’ I felt like I was in Israel in the 1950s. It didn’t feel like Israel 2021.”

The problem, as Hartman put it: “I, start-up nation, wealthy country, 300-plus-billion-dollar budget, in the midst of this period of like, please help me replenish my missiles. I almost felt as if Israel was forgetting what it means to be a sovereign country . . . When you come and ask somebody for something which you don’t really need, what are you doing? You’re creating a parent-child relationship with America. And I don’t think that’s a healthy relationship for any country . . . You want independence? Well, act independent.”

Halevi told me that reaction to the podcast has been “almost all positive.” With so much at stake, American Jews should be no less willing to have this conversation.

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