Death, Taxes, and American Aid to Israel

Three things you can count on: death, taxes, and American support for military contractors channeled through the tiny but prosperous democracy.


Obama and Netanyahu
White House

According to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), considered by many to be the most influential lobbying group in the country, "Israel spends 75 percent of U.S. aid in the United States, purchasing military equipment." Supporters of Israel characterize this as necessary assistance to a stalwart ally, the only democracy in the Middle East, eternally besieged by enemies on all sides. Critics take the view that direct military support for Israel makes the U.S. culpable for the nearly half century-long military occupation of the stateless Palestinians, and sows mistrust for America's role in the peace process.

Many of those who lack a passion for either side in the conflict are simply cynical about the consequences of foreign aid, seeing the billions of dollars spent on Israel's security as the means for the U.S. military industrial complex to perpetuate itself. Meanwhile, Israel, with an economy that has more than doubled in the past decade thanks to its booming tech industry, is freed from bearing the full financial burden of its own military commitments to spend on things like a generous social welfare state and settlements on land in the West Bank that would be the foundation of any "two-state" peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Though it has long seemed like a fact of life, America was not always Israel's benefactor. During its War of Independence, it was the Soviet Union who came to the nascent Jewish state's aid. Though the notoriously anti-semitic Josef Stalin initially saw Zionism as a Western imperialist construct, he changed course in 1947, sensing an opportunity to hasten the decline of the British Empire in the Middle East. Under Stalin, the Soviet Union supported the UN Partition of Palestine, helped arm the Jews of Palestine during its battle against the Palestinian Arabs (and later the multi-national Arab League), and was the first nation to recognize the State of Israel, which Stalin hoped would be far more socialistic than it ended up being. 

Not too long after, the Soviets changed course, supporting socialist dictatorships in oil-rich Arab states. Filling the void as Israel's big brother and arms dealer was France. French troops fought side by side with Israeli (and British) troops against Egypt in 1956 over the Suez Canal, and they even helped the Israelis build their first nuclear reactor, which led to Israel's eventual (though never acknowledged) development of nuclear weapons.

This special relationship was also short-lived, as the Franco-Zionist bond began to fray in the 1960s, following a sustained war in Algeria that led to the French relinquishing their longtime colony. In the aftermath, French President Charles de Gaulle became increasingly interested in improving Franco-Arab relations, culminating in French support for the Arab belligerents (Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq) of 1967's Six Day War with Israel.

Though U.S. military aid to Israel began in 1962, it was during the Six-Day War that President Lyndon B. Johnson laid the groundwork for the client state relationship between the U.S. and Israel that endures to this day. Johnson, whose presidency was collapsing under the weight of Vietnam, said of Israel, "They haven't got many friends in the world, they're in about the same shape I am."

According to Ha'aretz, total U.S. military aid topped $100 billion this year. $3 billion of Israel's approximately $15 billion 2014 military budget came directly from U.S. taxpayers, and despite increasingly sour relations between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a U.S.-Israel breakup remains pretty much unthinkable.

Even in the bitterly divided U.S. Senate, not a single member supports cutting aid to Israel. There is never even a debate, it's just rolled into a larger foreign aid bill and effectively rubber-stamped.

Support for Israel knows no party. During the summer of 2014's Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip, the Senate's most left-wing member, socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), affirmed his support for Israel during a heated town hall meeting in his home state, going so far as to tell pro-Palestinian hecklers to "shut up." On the right, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), backtracked on his previously stated support for an immediate cessation of aid to Israel (and indeed, of all foreign aid), disingenuously telling Yahoo News "I haven't really proposed that in the past."

In fact, Paul not only proposed a budget in 2011 that explicitly eliminated foreign aid, he described aid to Israel as "welfare to a wealthy nation" and said "Israel's ability to conduct foreign policy, regain economic dominance, and support itself without the heavy hand of U.S. interests and policies, will only strengthen the Israeli community."

With a potential run for the Republican presidential nomination looming, Paul may have felt he had no choice but to deny his past positions in the face of all evidence. Still, even when proposing cutting direct military aid, Paul maintained, "I support Israel. I want to be known as a friend of Israel." Support for Israel and support for billions in military aid need not be mutually exclusive, as a number of prominent Israel proponents have suggested the very same thing.

In the Daily Beast, Eli Lake cited Noah Pollak, executive director of the Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI), as saying the Obama administration's policies on Iran have demonstrated to supporters of Israel that aid can work against your interests "by giving presidents with bad ideas more leverage than they would otherwise have." Lake also cites Elliott Abrams, once a deputy national security advisor to President George W. Bush and a noted voice in the pro-Israel camp, as advocating for "an intimate military relationship and alliance, but no military aid." But Abrams cautioned that cutting aid during the Obama administration would send a message of "administration hostility to Israel and be seen as a weakening of U.S. support." Essentially, Abrams thinks the U.S. should cut all aid to Israel, but only when the leaders of both countries are on better terms than they are now. Such a scenario seems as likely as a debate on the Senate floor about military aid to Israel. That is, not very.

U.S. aid to Israel has averaged about $3 billion a year since the mid-1980s, when Israel's annual GDP was about $25 billion. Israel's GDP in 2013 was over $291 billion. Downsizing or eliminating military aid would no longer be a game-changer for Israel's defense. It would, however, signal Israel's maturation into a fully-realized independent state, allowing it to act in what it perceives as its own interests without oversight from Washington. The U.S. would also be freed from bearing the moral responsibility for Israeli actions that run counter to its own policies (such as settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem).

In 1996, Israel's prime minister addressed a joint session of Congress, offering thanks for "all that we have received from the United States (and) this chamber." He added, "But I believe there can be no greater tribute to America's long-standing economic aid to Israel than (to) achieve economic independence." He proposed "gradually reducing the level" of U.S. aid to Israel and ultimately ending it altogether.

That Israeli Prime Minster's name was Benjamin Netanyahu.