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Two years ago, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez famously wept in Congress after changing her vote on funding Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system from “no” to “present.” The New York Times said that the incident showed progressive members of “the Squad” “caught between their principles and the still powerful pro-Israel voices in their party, such as influential lobbyists and rabbis.” (The line was later removed with no correction.) In People magazine, the congresswoman’s procedural maneuver to avoid voting was appreciated for its pathos: “Ocasio-Cortez Opens Up About Israel Iron Dome Vote That Left Her in Tears: ‘Yes, I Wept.’” In the end, the resolution passed the House 420-9.
Ocasio-Cortez’s bit of Kabuki theater fit neatly into the premade mythology of a domineering Israel lobby, popularized by academic John Mearsheimer, whose views are experiencing a burst of popularity in isolationist corners of the right. His central claim—that America has been pressured by an all-powerful, determined ethnoreligious lobby into acting against its own interests—is made explicit in references to “influential lobbyists and rabbis,” in Rep. Ilhan Omar’s tweets that U.S. support for Israel is “all about the Benjamins,” and in graphics like The New York Times’ infamous “Jew-tracker” that policed support for Barack Obama’s Iran deal according to the religion of members of Congress.
Belief in the mythic power of “the lobby” rests on a common article of faith that is shared by Israel’s loudest critics and most fervent supporters—namely, that U.S. military aid forms the cornerstone of the “special relationship” between the two nations, and that this aid is a gift that powerfully benefits Israel. Cutting off Israel’s D.C. cash pipeline, it’s assumed, would dramatically alter the balance of power in the Middle East: in one scenario by endangering Israel’s security, and in another by forcing its recalcitrant leaders to accept the enlightened proposals of Western policymakers.
While this fantasy version of the U.S.-Israeli relationship is useful for stirring up emotions and demonstrating partisan loyalties, it does more to flatter the self-importance of Israel-aid opponents and supporters alike than it does to describe an increasingly warped reality, in which Israel ends up sacrificing far more value in return for the nearly $4 billion it annually receives from Washington. That’s because nearly all military aid to Israel—other than loan guarantees, which cost Washington nothing, the U.S. gives Israel no other kind of aid—consists of credits that go directly from the Pentagon to U.S. weapons manufacturers.
In return, American payouts undermine Israel’s domestic defense industry, weaken its economy, and compromise the country’s autonomy—giving Washington veto power over everything from Israeli weapons sales to diplomatic and military strategy. When Washington meddles directly in Israel’s domestic affairs, as it does often these days, Israeli leaders who have lobbied for these payments—including current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—are simply reaping the rewards of their own penny-wise, pound-foolish efforts.
As the costs to Israel of U.S. aid have skyrocketed over the past decade, the benefits of the relationship to the U.S. have only grown larger. Aid is popular with key voting blocs (few of them Jewish). It functions as a lucrative backdoor subsidy to U.S. arms makers, and provides Congress and the White House with a tool to leverage influence over a key strategic ally. The Israeli military, often ranked as the fourth-most powerful in the world, has become an adjunct to American power in a crucial region in which the U.S. has lost the appetite for projecting military force. Israeli intelligence functions as America’s eyes and ears, not just in the Middle East but in other key strategic theaters like Russia and Central Asia and even parts of Latin America. Controlling access to the output of Israel’s powerful high-tech sector is a strategic advantage for the U.S. that alone is worth many multiples of the credits Israel receives. Meanwhile, the optics of bringing the snarling Israeli attack dog to heel helps credential the U.S. as a global power that plays fair—but must also be feared.
It’s no wonder that one well-known regional expert we consulted, who served in high security-related positions in the U.S. government, was horrified when we proposed ending American aid to Israel. When we asked which of our arguments were overstated or mistaken, this person answered: “None of them. But my job is to represent the American interest. Aid to Israel is the biggest bargain we have on our books. Ending it would be a disaster for us. I just don’t see who it benefits.”
We do. The alternative to this unequal relationship based on dependence is a more forthrightly transactional relationship, which would allow Israel to benefit economically, diplomatically, and strategically. It might also, we believe, diminish the current American infatuation with treating the Jewish state as a moral allegory in U.S. political psychodramas, rather than as a tiny country in the Middle East with its own local challenges and considerable advantages to offer the highest bidder. The current hyperpolarized atmosphere around Israel is not good for anyone—not for an America whose political class is looking to distract people from its own failings; not for a majority of the world’s Jews who live in Israel; and not for American Jews, who have come to identify their civic role with serving as props in an expiring piece of political theater. When the curtain comes down, they’ll find themselves without a role—and cut off from the 3,000-year-long Jewish historical continuum that is, or was, their inheritance.
Ending aid would not mean the end of the U.S.-Israeli military alliance, intelligence sharing, trade, or any mutual affinity between the countries. Rather, it would allow both sides to see what each is getting in return for what. In the words of retired IDF Major General Gershon Hacohen: “Once we are not economically dependent on them, the partnership can flourish on its own merits.”
Contrary to the blather about an “eternal relationship,” the U.S.-Israel alliance is a fairly recent coinage. America was not particularly involved in the creation of the Jewish state. When Israel declared its independence and was attacked by eight Arab armies in 1948, Washington extended diplomatic recognition to the new nation but refused to sell it arms, even pressuring other countries to deny weapons to the Israelis.
In 1956, when Czechoslovakia, then a satellite of the Soviet Union, sent a shipment of weapons to Egypt, Israel’s Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion implored American President Dwight Eisenhower “not to leave Israel without an adequate capacity for its self-defense.” But Eisenhower believed that a policy of “evenhandedness” would allow his administration to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict and strengthen America’s position in the Middle East, so he refused the request. When Israel, in partnership with Britain and France, seized the Suez Canal, Eisenhower made them give it back, and aligned the U.S. with Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser—in what Eisenhower later described as one of the worst mistakes of his presidency.
Eisenhower’s approach to the Middle East would change during his later years in office, but not before the Israelis found a different superpower patron: France. In addition to gunboats and fighter planes, the French supplied the Israelis with their single greatest strategic asset to date—the country’s nuclear program, which by the mid 1960s had produced several nuclear bombs despite the best efforts of President John F. Kennedy and his State Department to stop it. France continued to be Israel’s leading military supporter until the runup to the Six-Day War, when French leader Charles de Gaulle imposed an embargo on weapons sales to the country in expectation of a Soviet-backed Arab victory. After Israel took out the Egyptian and Syrian air forces on the ground in the first six hours of the war using French Mirages, it became clear that de Gaulle had bet wrong—and a newly powerful Israel entered the market for a new great power backer.
This, then, is when the U.S. began substantial arms sales to Israel, picking up the card that de Gaulle had discarded and playing it back against the Soviet Union, which as the dominant power in the region was backing the Arab states. From the beginning, the U.S. military partnership with Israel came with political conditions. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel’s fate hung in the balance until Henry Kissinger convinced Richard Nixon to resupply Israel with ammunition for U.S.-made weapons systems, which America was withholding. In 1975, the Ford administration suspended arms sales as a tactic to pressure Israel into signing a new “Sinai accord” with Egypt.
Formal U.S. military aid to Israel, as opposed to loans and cash-on-delivery arms sales, started in 1979, when the Carter administration offered it as a carrot to get Israel to agree to withdraw from all of Sinai as part of a peace deal with Egypt. The same deal provided a comparable sum of U.S. military aid and arms to Egypt, for many years the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign military financing after Israel. Notably, the aid to Egypt was given despite the country’s displaying no capacity to deploy military force outside its own borders—the goal being to achieve a rough form of U.S.-brokered parity between the two recent foes.
These days, the appearance of massive U.S. largesse to Israel reinforces the claim that America provides Israel with a “blank check.” In 2019, leading liberal and progressive candidates vying for the Democratic nomination for president, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, and Julian Castro, all voiced support for making aid a condition of Israel allowing the U.S. to dictate its internal politics. “I would use the leverage of $3.8 billion—it is a lot of money,” said Sanders. “We cannot give ‘carte blanche’ to the Israeli government.”
Sanders is right that $3.8 billion is a lot of money. But he is either irresponsibly mistaken or being deliberately manipulative in his claim that it is offered “carte blanche.” U.S. financing for the Israeli military more than pays for itself, and has always had conditions attached. Aid to Israel has never been an act of charity or a payment extorted by “the lobby,” but a tool to advance American interests. The list of these interests can change—historically, it has included counterterrorism, nuclear nonproliferation, and a balance of military power that favors America’s dominant strategic position in the Middle East. What doesn’t change is that America’s foreign policy relationships are always rooted in the calculations of American politicians and elites.
Shortly before he left office, President Obama signed the largest aid package in history, committing the U.S. to send Israel $38 billion over a decade starting in 2018. The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) capped the efforts of an administration that had spent the previous eight years downgrading the U.S.-Israeli alliance to the point of spying on pro-Israel members of Congress. After all the acrimony over the Iran deal, the landmark aid agreement shut up Obama’s critics by “proving” that he was in fact a stalwart ally of Israel, even as he was gifting Iran with a nuclear bomb—which the Iranians would presumably use to fulfill their threats to “wipe the Zionist entity off the map.” Even Obama’s archnemesis Netanyahu thanked the U.S. president for the “historic deal.”
In reality, the MOU advanced Obama’s goal of paying lip service to Israeli fears while constraining future Israeli actions, in line with a new American strategic architecture in which the interests of traditional allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia would be “balanced” with those of their mortal enemy, Iran. It deepened Israel’s reliance on U.S. arms and military spending, while extending Washington’s reach into Israel’s domestic affairs. Paradoxically, the “most generous” package ever was an instrument to downgrade the U.S. commitment to Israel. The MOU purchased both influence over Israel and the acquiescence of American Jews who were expected, in the face of such public generosity, to go along with the White House policy of strengthening Iran, while upholding the narrative that Obama was Israel’s “best friend.”
Why is it important to present Israel as America’s best friend, and as central to American decision-making? Because it’s easier than telling the truth, which is that many American foreign aid arrangements are ultimately rooted in enriching a morally profligate arms industry that is financially headquartered in the U.S. but invested in conflict on a global scale. Recently, U.S. military aid to both Israel and the Palestinian territories has been dwarfed by U.S. aid to Ukraine, which last year totaled over $75 billion. That’s more aid than Israel has received from the U.S. during the entirety of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Last week, President Biden authorized the military to deploy up to 3,000 reservists to Europe in support of Ukraine’s war effort. There are, at present, an undisclosed number of American troops operating in Ukraine alongside the other 80-some countries where the U.S. has forces stationed. By contrast, no American soldier or pilot has ever risked their lives for Israel, and no American missile or aircraft has ever flown in Israel’s defense. Such are the myths and realities of “the lobby.”
In any age of political decay, social dysfunction, economic volatility, and geopolitical danger, it has been convenient and comforting to blame the Jews. The current American elite is not interested in frank public discourse about its own complicity in our national troubles. Ending aid won’t end the practice of scapegoating Jews, but it will remove a favorite decoy and dog whistle of American public officials, administrators, bureaucrats, philanthropists, and thought leaders. It might even force them to be more honest with the public—not least about what our Middle East strategy is actually supposed to accomplish.
The Israeli political class has known about the lopsided reality of the U.S.-Israel arrangement for some time, but for the past eight or nine years seems to have decided the farce had some value. For them, U.S. aid is valuable not because it is a good deal for Israel’s military-tech complex, but because the appearance of close strategic alignment with the U.S. serves as a public, tangible pledge, renewed annually, of Great Power backing, in a world that is largely hostile to the country’s existence. Even now, as it’s clear from Washington’s courtship of Iran that U.S. security pledges no longer mean what they once did (ask the Afghans, or before them the Vietnamese, Cambodians, and a long list of other former recipients of U.S. military aid), the value of these pledges to Israel has been based on the belief that other parties believe in them—and are therefore constrained accordingly. The point is for the world’s only hyperpower to be seen publicly putting a big diamond ring on Israel’s finger, even if the diamond is actually made of glass. The more “special” the relationship appears to others, the better.
As the price of its dependency, Israel is now being forced to downgrade its own defense industries. Whereas the previous MOU contained a special provision for Off-Shore Procurement (OSP) that allowed Israel to spend around 26% of the aid it received on domestic products, the new terms require that all aid received from Washington be spent inside the U.S. In 2018, Israel’s Defense Ministry projected that the new MOU would cost the country $1.3 billion annually in lost revenue and cause the loss of some 22,000 jobs. Moshe Gafni, a former chairman of the Knesset’s financial committee, warned of the deal’s “severe ramifications for the delicate fabric of the State of Israel, harming its security.” A separate assessment in 2020 by the Israeli think tank INSS, concluded that “anywhere between several thousand and 20,000 of the 80,000 jobs in the defense industries in Israel will be lost.”
In return for accepting Obama’s aid package, Israel has now become dangerously reliant on U.S. military technology. The result of this enforced dependency, according to the retired General Hacohen, is stunting the IDF. “Israel is so addicted to advanced U.S. platforms, and the U.S. weaponry they deliver, that we’ve stopped thinking creatively in terms of operational concepts,” Hacohen told the U.S. publication Defense News in 2016—two years before the new MOU went into effect.
This is especially dangerous because, having short-circuited Israeli competition and dumped tens of billions of dollars worth of equipment into Ukraine, the U.S. is increasingly having trouble arming itself—let alone anyone else. A recent report from the Government Accountability Office found systemic problems in the U.S. procurement system leading to widespread delays. The report found that more than half of the 26 major defense acquisition programs under review “had yet to deliver operational capability” and were delayed due to “supplier disruptions, software development delays, and quality control deficiencies.” And what does get produced often isn’t up to par. As part of its “special arrangement,” Israel gets preferential access to the F-35, but is then locked into a fleet of aircraft both riddled with technical problems and a poor fit for Israel’s strategic air priorities. At the risk of stating the obvious, it would be nice to be able to shop on the open market.
The consequences for Israel’s economy and to the country’s security posture will get more severe in coming years as the full bill from the MOU comes due. According to a congressional report, the “phasing out [of] Off-Shore Procurement (OSP) is to decrease slowly until FY2024, and then phase out more dramatically over the MOU’s last five years, ending entirely in FY2028.” As a consequence, the report notes “some Israeli defense contractors are merging with U.S. companies or opening U.S. subsidiaries”—in other words, transferring their personnel and capacities from Israel to the U.S.
So, in return for a so-called “aid package” that actually costs Israel a fortune, the Jewish state is now tethered to its benefactor’s Iran-centric foreign policy and prohibited from capitalizing on its own considerable capabilities, while granting the U.S. access to its best military and scientific minds at a heavily reduced rate of pennies on the dollar. In turn, the ostensible largesse of this arrangement transforms Israel into a scapegoat for every lunatic conspiracy theorist in America to indulge in Jew-baiting in the guise of pontificating about “U.S. foreign policy.”
Had this been 1981, say, you could safely argue that Israel hardly has any choice but to depend on the kindness of strangers and disregard any unpleasant blowback. Back then, the Jewish state worked tirelessly behind the scenes to make sure that President Reagan’s sale of the AWACS weapons system to the Saudis came with a consolation prize for Jerusalem as well.
But the Israel of 2023 is immeasurably wealthier and more powerful than the dusty socialist country of 40 years ago, where local electrical grids could be overloaded by American hair dryers.
The growth of Israel’s independent capacities are particularly obvious in the military arena. According to some estimates, Arab states purchased about a quarter of Israel’s $12.5 billion arms exports in 2022, a number that keeps growing. Add to that India, a growing market—and the recent buyer of a $1.1 billion Phalcon advanced early-warning system—and you have a robust nation perfectly capable of striking bilateral deals with partners that aren’t superpowers hellbent on containing and downgrading their allies.
Still, a small but powerful cadre of Israelis seems invested in the idea that nothing has changed. Certain former generals, politicians, investors, and intellectuals in Israel—often graduates of elite American universities who enjoy strong ties to American corporations and NGOs—can’t imagine a scenario other than fealty to the Big Brother across the ocean. They see Washington not only as a crucial ally, but as the center of all power and legitimacy. It is the U.S., after all, that bestows fellowships in prestigious think tanks and sabbaticals at Harvard that have become essential markers of global professional success—and who helps them fight their enemies at home. While this small, American-adjacent clique is increasingly finding themselves on the unkind end of the voters’ ballots (see under: Barak, Ehud), they maintain a powerful ability to stoke fears about how displeasing America could threaten the entire Jewish future.
In this, they are joined by Jewish communal leaders stateside. It is a bitter irony that organized pro-Israel political advocacy in America places “support full security assistance to Israel” at the top of its list of policy objectives. In doing so, these groups are setting a strategic trap in which being “pro-Israel” requires supporting a policy of U.S. soft power projection that conditions Israel to act as a satrap of Washington, and go along with a regional policy that poses a direct threat to the country’s longer-term prosperity and survival.
Indeed, in order to maintain their own power, the entire cosmos of American Jewish organizations, with few exceptions, is now dedicated almost exclusively to maintaining an arrangement that cripples Israel’s capacity for independent action, while locking American Jews into a permanent posture of appearing to suck the U.S. government dry in order to fund their own niche overseas project.
This goes deeper than politics. Instead of looking at the Jewish state through the prism of a commitment that is as old as human civilization itself, and whose stakes include the physical survival of the Jewish people, American Jews have been herded into understanding Israel through the narrow prism of a 60-year-old political deal that has passed its sell-by date.
With Israel and Israelis increasingly a mystery to them, the only issue around which American Jews feel permitted to organize these days is antisemitism—and even then only as defined from above. Hence, we aren’t actually allowed to look at the major sources and manifestations of this phenomenon, which are anti-Zionism and attacks on religious Jews, but instead are urged to sign on to celebrity-driven, Instagram-friendly messaging campaigns whose actual beneficiaries—like those of other viral “justice” crusades—are, at best, unclear.
The whole charade has to end. External hostility has more or less been the Jewish fate since the time of the ancient Greeks. Yet Jews are still here—having somehow survived the previous 3,000 years and revived their historic homeland again without relying on U.S. military aid packages or officially sanctioned declarations against antisemitism that elevate people who hate us.
The irony is that American history, Jewish history, and the modern State of Israel already share a deeper, richer link than any provided by aid or social media: a belief in divine election, which also guided the Founding Fathers as they struggled to erect the political and moral foundations of the early republic.
If that sounds too lofty, too overblown, too religious, the same point stands on grounds of mere self-preservation, as evidenced by the history of Jews in Egypt, in Spain, and in Vienna whose survival strategy was to seek protection by those who happened to be in power at a given moment. The imperative to transcend such a strategy is not insular or backwards; it’s the powerful realpolitik of Jewish history.
Cut the stranglehold of aid. Let America pursue its interests. Let Israel, too, follow its own interests, which sometimes align with those of Washington and sometimes don’t. If Israelis think it will ensure their security to decapitate the Iranian regime, or give the Golan Heights on a platter to Bashar Assad, or develop their own homemade fighter plane and sell it to India or Saudi Arabia, let them go ahead. And let American Jews who care about being Jewish focus on observance and learning their people’s history, instead of pimping for Lockheed Martin. If the commitment to Israel is deeper than mere political fashion, if it is more than a secularized idolatry, then it’s time to prove it—by smashing the ideological idols of America’s Israel debate.
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Jacob Siegel is Senior Editor of News and The Scroll, Tablet’s daily afternoon news digest, which you can subscribe to here.