Israel's U.S. Aid Addiction: Time for Rehab

We take too much for granted from America, as our shabby treatment of the Obama White House during the Gaza war amply demonstrated

David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg
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An Iron Dome air defense system fires to intercept a rocket from Gaza Strip in Ashkelon, July 5, 2014.
The Iron Dome anti-ballistic system is one aspect of American aid.Credit: AP
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

There have been times during the latest Gaza fighting when it looked like Israel was fighting two enemies. Hamas was, of course, the official foe, but the attitude of the government towards the Obama administration didn't look much less hostile.

As he tried to broker a cease-fire, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was repeatedly portrayed as a naive dupe in the service of Hamas or his own stupidity. The American ambassador, Dan Shapiro, was reportedly treated like an envoy from a banana republic, instructed by Netanyahu not to second-guess him on Hamas-related matters. Cairo was given the honor of trying to mediate an agreement, leaving America on the sidelines.

Is this any way to treat a friend? And not just any friend, just about the only true friend we've got.

There seems to be too much a sense of entitlement vis a vis the United States in Israel these days. It appears in the mantra repeated by Netanyahu and others that despite whatever recent flare-up there's been we're still close allies. More dangerously, it manifests itself in the insulting treatment of the Obama White House. The logic seems to be that Obama will be gone in another two years and that we can always count of the friendship of the U.S. Congress and the American people.

Let us count the ways

On the surface, there is a certain logic to assuming the permanency of Israeli -U.S. ties. Even when we're at loggerheads over Iranian nukes or the downfall of Hosni Mubarak or building West Bank settlements, nothing seems to upset the basics of our friendship.

The U.S. is Israel's biggest trade partner and source of foreign investment. When we're at war, we rely on the U.S. for fighter jets and other weaponry. When we're engaged in diplomacy, we count on America to back us in the UN Security Council or make our case to a skeptical Europe. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have gone there to work or study, and often never come back. And, of course, we can always counts on Washington slipping a check under our doorstep every year for $3.1 billion.

Unlike the other elements of the bilateral relationship, that aid is a particular anomaly: We've long become a wealth country, capable of paying our bills - yet we still stand in line in front of Egypt, Pakistan and sub-Saharan Africa waiting for a handout.

Money not well spent

From the cold perspective of someone sitting on Capitol Hill, the White House, or from Main Street, it's not money well spent. Those on Israel's right feel they can dis America with impunity. And yes, if the $3 billion a year were redirected to aid to Africa, it would probably disappear into ill-conceived foreign aid programs or into the pockets of local politicians.

Yes, Israel is a bulwark of America in a troubled and volatile Middle East. Yes, Israel provides critical intelligence and serves as a testing ground for military technology. Yes, Israel is a democracy that deserves America's unstinting support.

But it would be in Israel's interest to provide all those services to Washington with or without aid. America's other wealthy and democratic allies, such as England and Germany, are expected todo the same without expecting financial assistance.

Having said that, there is really no economic case for giving up aid to Israel. Whether it is between two countries or inside a single country, aid rarely is put to effective use or jumpstarts the recipient's economy.

The U.S. has poured some $104 billion into Afghanistan since it invaded the country, exceeding what it spent on Europe during the Marshall Plan, with nothing to show for it. The vast income gaps between wealthy northern Italy and the country's underdeveloped south have basically remained unchanged over the decades, even though billions have been dedicated to the effort.

Where aid has done badly by us

By contrast, the annual aid Israel gets, which including both its military and civilian component adds up to about $120 billion since Israel was created in 1948, has never had the kind deleterious effect on the economy handouts are supposed to have.

Israel has developed a high-tech, innovative, export-oriented economy that has grown so much since U.S. assistance began to arrive in vast amounts in the 1970s that the aid amounts to less than 1% of gross domestic product. Four decades ago, at its peak, the same amount of aid equaled 14.2% of GDP.

Even Israel's defense industry, which should have withered because three-quarters of the aid money has to be spent in the U.S., has been at the forefront of weapons development and is a major exporter.

If there is one place, the aid has had a nefarious effect is in our outsized defense budget. Providing more than a quarter of the whole, the American aid no doubt encourages waste and misspending. It also ties our hands in term of defense exports by giving Washington a say in what we can sell to whom.

But there is a good political case for Israel's voluntarily giving up the American largesse.

That Israel has been able to build such tight network of political, military and intelligence ties with the United States has more to do with America's domestic politics than with its its strategic interest. But that perfect constellation of forces that have created the special relationship between Israel and America isn't going to last forever.

For the foreseeable future, Israel will be able to count on the Jewish community for support, but it is slowly losing traction among the great majority of American Jews, who have increasingly difficultly squaring their liberal values with a Jewish state that seems to be going off in a different direction.

Younger Americans in general are less supportive of Israel than older ones; and support among fundamentalist Christianity seems to be on the decline.

The opinion polls showing record high levels of support for Israel among ordinary Americans should be taken with a grain of salt. Americans are sympathetic to Israel, but it's not a bread-and-butter issue for them. Israel's strength inside the Washington Beltway is based on core constituencies that seem to be on the wane and on the absence of any core constituency opposed to it.

America isn't about to turn hostile, but the days when we could count on it to stand by us through thick and thin appear to be numbered. Israel should be readying itself for the new reality and take the initiative itself rather than waiting.

Offering to gradually cut the aid package, perhaps starting in 2018 when the next agreement on assistance goes into force, would put the army on a badly needed diet. Better still, it would encourage Israel's right to behave better, which is in Israel's best interests.

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