Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's every word is followed as closely as Donald Trump’s, and she's certainly no great friend of Israel. But even if her call this week to reduce American aid to Israel was aimed at punishing Benjamin Netanyahu for his bad behavior and Israeli voters for reelecting him, it’s a goal whose time has come.
Fortunately for Israel, Ocasio-Cortez got her facts wrong. In an interview with Yahoo’s podcast Skullduggery, she said that cutting aid “is certainly on the table.”
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Unless you spend your days in the bubble of the Democratic Party’s left wing, it really isn’t. The chance that America will reduce military aid to punish Israel is about as likely to happen as her Green New Deal.
This has less to do with Israel’s strategy than with America’s domestic politics.
The Republican Party can’t do enough to express its love for Israel, and mainstream Democrats remain firmly in the pro-Israel camp. Trump may take the attitude that America's allies should cover more of the cost of their own defense, but he treats Israel as an extraordinary exception because that’s what his base wants. They could care less about South Korea or Germany, but Israel is a matter of religion.
True, this could change quickly. A Democratic victory in 2020 in presidential and congressional races could make the weather in Washington for Israel chillier. Another war with Hamas or an upsurge in violence in the West Bank that leads to large numbers of Palestinian deaths could make it even colder.
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There’s even a risk that Trump could turn on Israel and begin treating it with the same contempt he does his other allies. Given that his base of evangelical Christians are so fervently pro-Israel, this is unlikely, but in a pique over the Netanyahu government’s disparaging of his son-in-law’s peace plan, anything is possible. Trump isn’t a man of principles – his Zionism is just a part of a sales pitch to supporters.
The downside of American aid
Far more than its critics realize, military aid to Israel is a win-win for both sides, so far. Israel, of course, gets free money, but the United States benefits as well because its defense industry wins contracts. The companies also gain free marketing from the sight of their weaponry used successfully on the battlefield.
However, the advantage for Israel is diminishing under the new 10-year aid agreement that went into effect last October. While Israel gets more money, less and less may be spent at home buying equipment from local arms makers. This year the "shekel component" of the $3.8 billion in aid is $850 million; by 2028 it will be nil.
The upshot is that more and more Israeli defense spending will be done in the United States, and less and less will be spent at home. Fewer orders from the Israel Defense Forces will not just mean smaller revenues and profits, but less money for research and development, the lifeblood of Israel’s tech-oriented defense sector. Less R&D will lead to less innovation and erode the Israeli defense industry’s competitive advantage. That means fewer jobs and the army losing a part of its technological edge.
Giving up U.S. aid won't be easy: American aid accounts for a fifth of Israel’s defense budget and 1% of gross domestic product.
But it would be better for Israel to have less to spend in total – and more to spend at home. Spending more on arms locally would boost the economy and force the defense establishment to think more carefully about where its money is going. It’s not hard to imagine that the IDF’s ballooning pension budget is in part made possible by the U.S. subsidies, and Israel should act while the environment is favorable and it can take the initiative, rather than wait for its opponents to strike.
The reductions could be designed to be gradual and rational, rather than as arbitrary numbers imposed as a punishment for defying U.S. policy.
Ironically, the old chestnut about America getting its money’s worth from the aid because Israel is such a strategic asset is nowadays more true than ever. Twenty or 30 years ago, you could have argued that Israel was as much a hindrance to American interests in the Middle East as it was a help because of the Palestinian issue.
Today, the Palestinians are a sideshow to much bigger worries about Islamic extremism or Iranian ambitions. Meanwhile, the United States has become increasingly reluctant to get entangled in a Middle East perpetually in crisis. Israel has filled the vacuum to the point that Washington's other allies in the region now look to it for help.
It would be a gross exaggeration to call Israel America’s proxy, but the two countries’ common interests have become wider and their disagreements narrower.
Forgoing American aid won’t really change this symbiotic relationship. The critical part of the bilateral relationship is the United States supplying arms and political support to Israel. Providing money is marginal by comparison. Israeli taxpayers can cover the $3.8 billion in aid that America provides every year. They can’t build a fleet of F-35s jets from scratch or orchestrate international sanctions against Iran.