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American Military Aid to Israel Serves Both Countries Well

A response to a dangerous proposal

Richard Goldberg
July 27, 2023

Corinna Kern/Picture Alliance via Getty Images

Corinna Kern/Picture Alliance via Getty Images

This article is part of Ending U.S. Aid to Israel.
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This summer marks the 15th anniversary of one of the most remarkable and course-altering events in the history of the U.S-Israel relationship—an event that most people have never heard of.

A fourth-term Republican congressman from the northern suburbs of Chicago had a big idea—basing America’s advanced X-band missile defense radar in Israel and layering it on Israel’s own missile defense architecture. Just a few years earlier, then-Rep. Mark Kirk had successfully lobbied the Pentagon to provide Israel with a direct feed from U.S. satellites capable of detecting Iranian missile launches in real time—something Israel could not do on its own. But it wasn’t enough.

Just knowing of an incoming missile threat wasn’t the same as engaging that threat along its 11-minute flight path from Iran to Tel Aviv. Israel’s domestically produced Green Pine radar could engage a target with only a minute or two to spare, leaving one or two shots to decide between survival and second Holocaust. The American X-band, on the other hand, could track something as small as a baseball flying 2,900 miles away and enable the Arrow system to start engaging an Iranian missile about halfway into its flight.

I was a young, bright-eyed Hill staffer at the time, charged with designing the campaign to persuade both the U.S. and Israeli governments that putting one of America’s only spare X-band radars on a plane to Israel was in the mutual interest of both countries. Pentagon officials were opposed; they had already promised the radar to an Arab state. But when we explained to Vice President Dick Cheney how such a simple transfer could transform U.S.-Israel military cooperation and create a legacy for the Bush administration, he called Secretary of Defense Robert Gates who agreed to give the radar to Israel—if Israel ever asked for it.

Convincing the highest levels of the American government to deploy a $200 million radar to Israel proved much easier than winning the approval of the Israeli prime minister, defense minister and IDF chief of staff. At first you could chalk it up to disbelief that a relatively unknown rank-and-file member of the U.S. House could deliver on something of this magnitude. Then-Defense Attaché Benny Gantz looked across the table at us in Washington like we were lunatics.

But after weeks of intense diplomacy, two key hurdles emerged: the parochialism of Israel’s own defense industrial base and bigger-picture questions related to Israeli sovereignty and freedom of action. The first was easy to dismiss. The manufacturer of the Green Pine radar, a subsidiary of Israel Aerospace Industries, argued a U.S. radar was unnecessary and would harm Israeli industry and jobs. But on the merits, Green Pine could not compete with the U.S. X-band, manufactured by Raytheon, and Israel would continue investing in its own radar research and development to ensure it had contingencies should the U.S. ever reclaim its asset.

The second concern was more existential. This deployment would be the first-ever full-time U.S. military footprint on Israeli territory. Israeli leaders argued over whether that would encroach on Israel’s sovereignty and, more importantly, its future freedom of action to act against military threats without U.S. approval. In the end, they came to a simple conclusion: Israel would take whatever action it deemed necessary, even if the U.S. disagreed, but in the meantime, if hosting a U.S. radar could mean the difference between the continuation or end of the Zionist experiment, Israel would accept the radar.

When then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak finally made the request, Secretary Gates said yes and quipped, “What took you so long to ask?” A Pentagon official still eyeing the radar for another country tried to interfere, prompting Vice President Cheney and Secretary Gates to order its immediate transfer—catching Israel by surprise and installing it on a random hilltop in the Negev Desert manned by a few dozen U.S. Army soldiers from European Command.

The details of U.S. military assistance to Israel are not always well understood, leading some supporters of Israel to mistakenly align with Israel’s detractors in advocating for an end to such aid.

Fifteen years later, the integration of the U.S. and Israeli missile defense systems has led to complex bilateral exercises to perfect the interoperability of our systems and train for a day we pray never comes. Technology- and intelligence-sharing has deepened. Israel’s freedom of action has not been curtailed, its defense industry has continued to flourish, and its security has been strengthened with the assistance of the U.S. taxpayer.

American military leaders know and love their Israeli counterparts for their shared values, pro-American spirit, ingenuity, and courage. The explosion in military-to-military cooperation has deepened the U.S. defense community’s understanding of Israel’s threats and requirements, making America’s foreign military financing—the technical term for U.S. aid provided for Israel’s military needs—more impactful than ever. Skeptics should watch the videos released from this year’s bilateral Juniper Oak exercise to better appreciate the breadth of this cooperation, which has continued to expand under every president, Republican or Democrat.

The details of U.S. military assistance to Israel are not always well understood, leading some supporters of Israel to mistakenly align with Israel’s detractors in advocating for an end to such aid. Their opposition sits atop multiple false assumptions that, upon examination, upend their entire case—that Israel doesn’t need the money, that Israel could go shopping for advanced military platforms someplace else (or manufacture domestically), and that Israel would somehow become more impervious to potential U.S. political pressure by refusing assistance.

Despite the accurate depiction of Israel as the “startup nation,” hub for high-tech innovation and home of a growing number of unicorns, the Jewish state remains a relatively small country of 9 million people. The 2024 budget recently enacted by the Knesset totals $143 billion with just under $18 billion set aside for the Ministry of Defense, though some international estimates put Israel’s annual military expenditures at more than $23 billion. Israel’s spending of more than 5% of its GDP on defense dwarfs America’s current 3.5% spending estimate. South Korea spends less than 3% of its GDP on defense while Japan spends just over 1%.

The impact of U.S. foreign assistance on Israel’s defense spending capacity cannot be understated. In accordance with a 10-year Memorandum of Understanding between the United States and Israel—a process conceived by the Clinton administration and continued under the Bush and Obama administrations to bring stability to budget planning in both countries—Congress is poised to approve $3.3 billion in military aid for Israel along with another $500 million in support for U.S.-Israel missile defense programs, stretching Israel’s defense budget by more than 20%. Because U.S. funds cannot be used for research and development, Israel is able to use its limited resources to continue developing technological innovations to solve its unique threats and challenges while using American funding to subsidize the purchase of military platforms the IDF absolutely needs to survive the 21st century: F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, F-15s, aerial refueling tankers, bunker busters, and more.

Modern military aircraft aren’t cheap. Israel this month approved a purchase of 25 new F-35s for $3 billion while it negotiates to buy 25 to 50 new F-15s for billions more. Last year Israel agreed to buy four KC-46A refueling aircraft for $927 million. The capabilities these platforms provide the Israeli Air Force in a multifront confrontation with Iran and its terror proxies are game-changing. An American subsidy for Israel’s purchases of platforms that Israel would otherwise still need to buy out of its own defense budget takes enormous pressure off Israel’s military planners without harming Israel’s domestic industry.

It’s a fair criticism to point out how America’s own bureaucracy and decaying defense-industrial base often create delivery timelines too far in the future to confront the threats of the present. In this department, Taipei has more grievances than Jerusalem. Congress must fix this national security crisis, not for Israel’s sake but for its own as U.S. military leaders warn China will soon outmatch the United States in the Indo-Pacific. Still, these delays are already factored into Israeli decision-making.

Israeli defense leaders have no interest in returning to the days of domestically produced fighter aircraft platforms like the Lavi or the Kfir. The American fighter jets long ago won the cost-benefit analysis inside the IDF headquarters. While Israel maintains its own line of production on a wide range of military platforms and systems for export to allies like India, those export markets do not produce strategically game-changing assets for import like the United States. For that, Israel’s only alternatives would be Russia and China—imports that would immediately end the U.S.-Israel strategic relationship as we know it, cutting Israel off from intelligence and technology it needs to survive. Even the most remote flirtations with China as a security partner would severely undermine American support for Israel on both sides of the political aisle.

Any notion that Israel would simply spend $3.8 billion more on its own defense in the absence of U.S. aid is not grounded in reality. Most of Israel’s budget, like America’s, consists of automatic spending programs. The coalition nature of Israeli governing throws most of the discretionary budget up for grabs for a wide range of domestic priorities. Israel’s new defense budget already reflects a large increase from prior years—driven by intense domestic industry lobbying efforts that included unfounded predictions of major job losses due to U.S. requirements to spend all foreign aid in America by 2028, albeit with a multiyear phase-in. The scare tactics worked. Israel’s defense budget will grow 8% in 2024 as compared to 2022. But that budget can only go so high—making the extra $3.8 billion from the United States critical given Israel’s growing security threats.

Taking away that $3.8 billion would not increase Israel’s freedom of action in the Middle East nor reduce the ability for a U.S. president to pressure the Israeli government in areas of policy disagreement. The United States is and will remain the superpower Israel relies on for much more than foreign aid. The tremendous danger to Israel for its enemies to sense daylight between Jerusalem and Washington is palpable both in the prime minister’s office and the IDF headquarters. If America wanted to curtail Israel’s freedom of action, it could do so with or without cutting a check for Israel’s security.

Yet even under a president hellbent on appeasing Iran, Israel today uses American-made aircraft to target Iranian forces in Syria at will, while conducting daring missions deep inside Iran. To the extent Israel restrains itself out of concern for the United States, it does so now and would do so in the future for reasons completely disconnected from U.S. foreign aid. Taking away $3.8 billion simply takes away $3.8 billion—and denies Israel a 20% increase in its defense spending capacity.

Attacking aid to Israel in response to the hostile actions of any White House toward Israel also forgets that Congress, not the White House, appropriates money under the U.S. Constitution—and Congress, despite a relatively small but growing number of far-left antagonists, would overwhelmingly approve $3.8 billion for Israel on an up-or-down vote. And likely would for years to come.

Just as it was a no-brainer to host the X-band radar in the Negev Desert, it’s a no-brainer for Israel to support continued defense aid from the United States. And it’s equally a no-brainer for the United States to support that aid.

Taking away that $3.8 billion would not increase Israel’s freedom of action in the Middle East nor reduce the ability for a U.S. president to pressure the Israeli government in areas of policy disagreement.

The Congressional Budget Office projects the United States will spend roughly $6.2 trillion in 2023, making the $3.3 billion it provides in foreign military financing to Israel something of a rounding error. When you add in the $500 million for missile defense cooperation with Israel and subtract all the automatic federal spending on programs like Medicare and Social Security, U.S. military assistance for the Jewish state comes to just 0.2% of America’s $1.7 trillion discretionary budget.

And as detractors of Israel fail to comprehend, the return on investment for the U.S. taxpayer on aid to Israel is worth much more than the upfront cost.

American military assistance is not provided in a vacuum. What may have been perceived as a political intervention in foreign policy by the U.S. Congress decades ago has evolved into the foundation of a complex bilateral security architecture that underlines an entire theater strategy for the American armed forces. For Washington, Israel is the front line of democracy in the one of the most dangerous and unstable parts of the world. From terrorists to their state sponsors, investing in Israel’s capability to degrade or destroy mutual threats pays a limitless dividend for the security of every American. Israel is an added layer of deterrence toward mutual adversaries, an irreplaceable feedback loop for intelligence, tactics, and technological innovation, and—from time to time—the special forces of global democracy.

In 1981, the Israeli Air Force prevented Saddam Hussein from developing nuclear weapons when it bombed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor using eight American F-16s. In 2007, Israel used 10 modified American F-15s to stop Bashar Assad from getting the bomb as well. From Syria to Sudan, from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, from Gaza to Iraq, Israeli military operations have changed the course of history multiple times—preventing wider conflicts that would otherwise require American blood and treasure. And although Israel often acts unilaterally and clandestinely to protect operational security, even when such decisions will spur policy disagreements with the sitting U.S. administration, history teaches us the incalculable national security value of military assistance to Israel.

In just 18 months, the U.S. taxpayer has already committed more than $41 billion in security assistance to Ukraine with billions more spent on humanitarian relief. American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cost trillions. Just as American policymakers are recognizing that providing the same kind of foreign military financing to Taiwan could prevent an untold cost of war with China down the road, Congress and the U.S. defense establishment instinctively understand the benefits of aid to Israel.

Unlike most purchasers of U.S. military platforms, Israel is in a constant state of war with terrorists on every border. Israeli employment of American arms acts as both a research laboratory for U.S. system developers and a demonstration for other export markets. The urgent threats Israel confronts also encourages Israeli innovation and a culture that puts a premium on going quickly from identifying a new military requirement to fielding a necessary combat capability.

Moving quickly is something the Pentagon is not known for when it comes to fielding new weapons. Considering the growing threat from China, Americans will pay a higher price in the future if this perennial Pentagon problem is not addressed. Addressing that shortcoming is one of the big ideas behind the November 2021 establishment of the U.S.-Israel Operations-Technology Working Group that identifies military requirements common to both countries and develops combined plans to research, develop, procure, and field weapons systems to both militaries as quickly and economically as possible. In working more closely together to field new weapons, as my colleague Bradley Bowman has argued, Israel can benefit from American economy of scale, and the U.S. can benefit from Israeli procurement agility. Both countries benefit from each other’s innovation.

As disagreements between the Biden administration and Netanyahu government boil over, the inclination by some supporters of Israel to search for policy solutions that free Israel from a perceived yolk of dangerous U.S. foreign policy is often well-intentioned, even if their solution is misguided. Jerusalem is indeed frustrated with a White House that treats the democratically elected leader of Israel with disdain while offering the world’s state sponsor of terrorism, Iran, billions of dollars in cash. Not to mention the unprecedented meddling by an American president in Israel’s domestic politics at a moment of great social upheaval.

But tension between a left-wing American president and a right-wing Israeli government is a phenomenon observed across three decades—from Clinton to Obama to Biden. And each time it’s been the Congress that steps into the breach, appropriating assistance to Israel and using the power of the purse to defeat hostile executive policies whenever possible.

It’s also understandable for supporters of Israel to grow frustrated with members of Congress who work against Israel’s security interests every day—stabbing Israel in the back by supporting sanctions relief for Iran, condoning Palestinian pay-for-slay and defending U.N.-sponsored antisemitism—only to get a kosher seal of approval from pro-Israel institutions so long as they vote “yes” on foreign aid to Israel. But cutting off that aid is not the appropriate response to that outrage since it would stab Israel through the heart, not just the back, and leave it even more vulnerable to Iran. The more thoughtful response would be to defend aid to Israel and then use the American political system to hold accountable at the ballot box those who endanger both America and Israel’s security.

The trend inside the Democratic Party should not be ignored. The threat that one day someone like AOC might be House speaker or someone like Chris Van Hollen, Chris Murphy or Bernie Sanders might be Senate majority leader has likely already prompted contingency planning in Jerusalem—not just for the risk posed to U.S. assistance but to the broader bilateral relationship. But right now, they’re not in charge of congressional appropriations—and the Democratic president, despite all his flawed Middle East policies that undermine Israel’s security and his constant meddling in Israel’s domestic politics, still pushes his party to support robust military aid to Israel.

There may yet come a day when the threats, requirements, and Israeli budget allow for a tapering of foreign assistance without harming our mutual national security interests. That day is not today. Iran is on the verge of enriching uranium to 90% weapons-grade, Hezbollah has tens of thousands of rockets and a growing arsenal of precision guided munitions in Lebanon, and Tehran’s proxies are trying to take over the West Bank. Cutting off American military aid to Israel would be a strategic disaster for both countries.

Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, served as deputy chief of staff and national security adviser to former U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, director of countering Iranian weapons of mass destruction for the White House National Security Council, and a Navy Reserve Intelligence Officer.