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In response to Jacob Siegel and Liel Leibovitz’s call for ending U.S. aid to Israel, participants in Tablet’s symposium on the subject mostly argue for keeping the status quo. Though their reasons and priorities differ, people as diverse as Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, Democratic Congressman Ritchie Torres, former diplomat Dennis Ross, and retired Israeli General Amos Yadlin all see aid as the sine qua non of the U.S.-Israel partnership. Just two of the responses—from Caroline Glick and Rudy Rochman—are against American aid, but their arguments focus exclusively on how aid hurts Israel. All of the views expressed so far have omitted a crucial point—the U.S. would also benefit by ending the current aid arrangement.
Rather than being a zero-sum equation, it is in the best interests of both the U.S. and Israel to phase out aid gradually. That outcome, we believe, would allow both countries to reorient their strategic priorities and would actually strengthen the partnership between them.
There’s no question that Israel is America’s strongest partner in the Middle East, but today the U.S. seeks to do less in the Middle East, not more. The biggest threat to U.S. security interests comes from communist China, which aims to dominate the Indo-Pacific and with it a plurality of global GDP. In this environment, it is increasingly difficult for Washington to justify spending a disproportionate share of military aid and political capital in the Middle East when its greatest security challenges are elsewhere.
To avert a strategic calamity, the United States must fortify its allies and partners in East Asia. All of them could use more American security assistance. Not least Taiwan, which is hampered by a nearly $19 billion U.S. arms backlog and the likely impossibility of a U.S. resupply once China invades. This reality is even more pressing given the United States’ own munitions stockpiles, which have been sapped by the war in Ukraine.
U.S. defense expert Elbridge Colby has made the case that given Washington’s need to focus its attention on East Asia and the possibility of a war with China, it must free up allies like Israel to act more independently through a policy of “allied autonomy and empowerment.”
Granting Israel a freer hand to pursue its regional security interests will allow the country to push back more forcefully against Iran and its proxies, while also improving the security of the Gulf states, thereby allowing the U.S. to focus on China. “Instead of a bear hug of Israel, Washington should defer more to Israel’s judgment about how best to manage its security challenges,” Colby argues. We agree and see the current security assistance as an obstacle to this goal.
The problem is that it is practically impossible for the U.S. not to squeeze Israel in such a bear hug while it is still sending the country nearly $4 billion in aid per year. As long as aid continues, the temptation to dictate Israel’s policies will be too strong for Washington to resist, while Israeli officials will be inclined to seek approval for every action they take. For Israel to grow truly independent so that the U.S. can devote its energies elsewhere, both countries must act to cut the umbilical cord.
Indo-Pacific allies and partners are also getting short shrift. The Philippines (which, unlike Israel, the U.S. is treaty bound to defend) receives some $100 million in military aid annually, the most of any country in Asia. Based on mere arithmetic, the U.S. government is saying that Israel’s security is 38 times more important than the Philippines, one of the United States’ most vital allies on Earth. It would make more strategic sense for the United States to give these resources to the Philippines or another front-line state against China like Vietnam that can check Beijing’s moves in Asia.
Israel too, of course, has an interest in making sure China does not displace the United States on the world stage. It benefits from the U.S.-led international order, which is grounded in sovereignty, free trade, and human dignity. A Chinese-led world order would do away with all three and strengthen Israel’s greatest regional threat, Iran.
Proponents of continuing current aid levels argue that Israel cannot acquire the arms required by the IDF without them. In his response, Richard Goldberg rejects the “notion that Israel would simply spend $3.8 billion more on its own defense in the absence of U.S. aid.” This argument does not hold water. The $3.8 billion of aid accounts for 3% of Israel’s annual budget. Put another way, the entire $3.8 billion was less than 1% of Israel’s GDP in 2022. The numbers show that the aid is not irreplaceable.
In order to avoid undermining the IDF’s procurement plans, the aid should be drawn down gradually, over the course of 10 to 15 years, giving Israel time to adjust and to determine which platforms to purchase and which to build itself. Ending the aid need not result in Israel unnecessarily reducing the IDF’s order of battle or preventing the procurement of American arms that it desires.
Indeed, even 3% of a state budget is no trivial matter and would presumably come at the expense of other things. But in absolute terms, Israel’s budget itself has been growing every year by sums of this magnitude, in line with GDP growth. It is hard to believe that given its current trajectory of growth, Israel could not shoulder a gradual drawdown of aid. It has enough wealth to do without Uncle Sam’s pocketbook.
We disagree with Goldberg’s claim that “Taking away that $3.8 billion would not increase Israel’s freedom of action.” Israel used to make policy decisions independently of the United States. In 1956, when it received no American military aid, Israel together with the United Kingdom and France invaded Egypt, much to the chagrin of the Americans. And the Eisenhower administration used economic aid as leverage in compelling Israeli withdrawal.
After it started taking military assistance, Israel grew much more deferential to Washington. For instance, the George H.W. Bush administration successfully pressured Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir not to retaliate after Iraq launched Scud missiles into Israel during the Gulf War. The aid has also made Israel more reluctant to take forceful action against Iran’s nuclear program when faced with an American red light, such as that given by the Obama administration in 2012. There is no question that Israel has taken American dollars at the expense of its independence.
Indeed, an IDF less dependent on the United States would have more freedom of action against Iran and its Arab proxies, and this would redound to the advantage of both countries. Israel would be better prepared to handle its most acute threats and the United States its own, making each country more secure.
Ending military aid is not meant to punish or weaken Israel. On the contrary, it’s meant to reward and strengthen it. As has been the case for decades, assistance makes the United States Israel’s patron and Israel the United States’ client. Rather, they should be two independent, but nonetheless closely aligned, peers. Paring back aid will modernize their relationship.
Another objection was raised by Yadlin and Golov, who argue that “More than anything, the aid symbolizes America’s commitment to Israel’s security …” Perhaps the aid is a symbol, but we argue that Israel’s enemies are best deterred when it demonstrates its willingness to use decisive force to protect itself. At the same time, U.S. policies in the past few years have done much to provoke Israel’s enemies and undermine its deterrence. For example, when Washington courts Tehran, American officials implore the mullahs for a nuclear deal and float the idea of a “reassessment” of relations with Israel. Stronger policies in practice against real threats would increase deterrence much more than any symbolism of military aid can. On the contrary, an Israeli initiative to phase out aid, making it clear that Israel feels confident and independent, would itself be of strong symbolic value.
Finally, doing so will further discredit the claim that Israel is a strategic liability. Once Israel receives no more American tax dollars, Americans will consider it an even stronger partner that costs the United States nothing. This will be especially so on the right, which admires countries that are powerful and self-sufficient, such as the United Kingdom and Australia, both of which receive no military aid. As long as Israel remains a dependent, it will never make it into this elite club.
More and more Americans who are fundamentally sympathetic to Israel are increasingly antagonistic to the idea of foreign aid in general. They do not understand why a rich country like Israel is receiving so much. The reverse is also true: It is precisely Israel’s image as a strong and independent nation that takes care of itself that attracts the admiration and political support of Americans.
So far congressional calls to cut aid have been limited to progressive “Squad” members like Rashida Tlaib, other left-wing Democrats, and libertarians like Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky. Yet reducing Israel’s annual appropriation doesn’t have to be retaliation for killing Palestinian terrorists or part of a knee-jerk aversion to foreign aid. It should be a joint decision, preferably initiated by an Israeli proposal.
U.S. officials should understand that the best way to ensure a peaceful, secure Israel and a strong America is to make sure both countries spend money sensibly and strengthen their own military capabilities. Right now, the status quo is lacking.
Daniel J. Samet is a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is completing his dissertation on U.S.-Israel defense relations.
Dr. Raphael Benlevi is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Haifa and director of the Churchill Program for National Security of Tikvah Fund-Israel. He served for seven years as an officer in the IDF Intelligence Branch and in Israeli Air Force Headquarters and is the author of the forthcoming book Cultures of Counterproliferation: The Making of US and Israeli Policy on Iran’s Nuclear Program (Routledge, 2023).