Foreign Policy

What If the U.S. Cuts Off Aid to Israel?

Ending U.S. aid would give Washington less leverage in the Middle East. That's why it's worth doing.


On March 14, 2024, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–N.Y.), a man who 13 months prior had vowed at Jerusalem's Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center that "as long as Hashem breathes air into my lungs, the United States Senate will stand behind Israel with our fullest support," peered solemnly over his glasses into the Senate's C-SPAN cameras and informed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that it was time for him to go.

"The Netanyahu coalition no longer fits the needs of Israel after October 7," Schumer declared, referring to the shock Hamas massacre and mass kidnapping event just across the militarized border separating the Palestinian Gaza Strip from the Israeli envelope around it. "Nobody expects Prime Minister Netanyahu to do the things that must be done to break the cycle of violence, preserve Israel's credibility on the world stage, and work towards a two-state solution….At this critical juncture, I believe a new election is the only way to allow for a healthy and open decision-making process about the future of Israel."

And if Netanyahu, in such an election, were to win enough votes to form another government, then continue prosecuting the war against Israel's attackers in ways Schumer doesn't approve?

"Then," the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in U.S. history warned, "the United States will have no choice but to play a more active role in shaping Israeli policy by using our leverage to change the present course."

It's an increasingly common refrain among American critics of Israeli policy, including many who are otherwise wary of Washington thumbing the scales on world affairs: The $3.8 billion that the U.S. gives each year should directly influence Israeli behavior—on war, on humanitarian assistance to Gaza, on settlements in the West Bank, even on proposed reforms to the judiciary branch—or be withdrawn.

"The Netanyahu government, or hopefully a new Israeli government, must understand that not one penny will be coming to Israel from the U.S. unless there is a fundamental change in their military and political positions," Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) said last November, reiterating a critique he and several other candidates made when seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

President Joe Biden, a stalwart supporter of Israel throughout his half-century in public office, seemed this spring to be moving closer to Sanders' point of view. Three days before Schumer's well-telegraphed speech, Politico reported, based on "four U.S. officials with knowledge of internal administration thinking," that Biden "will consider conditioning military aid to Israel if the country moves forward with a large-scale invasion of Rafah."

The Rafah offensive was indeed tabled a few days later. But then, after the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) on April 1 pulverized a World Central Kitchen aid convoy in Gaza, killing seven, Biden informed Netanyahu in a tense phone call that (in the words of a White House readout) Israel needed to "announce and implement a series of specific, concrete, and measurable steps to address civilian harm, humanitarian suffering, and the safety of aid workers," or else, for the first time in a generation, the U.S. would hold up military aid.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D–Calif.) and three dozen other members of Congress sent a letter to the president April 5 urging him "to reconsider your recent decision to authorize the transfer of a new arms package to Israel, and to withhold this and any future offensive arms transfers until a full investigation into the airstrike is completed." NBC declared this a potential "turning point" in U.S.-Israeli relations.

But that turn lasted fewer than 10 days. On April 14, Iran fired more than 300 potentially lethal missiles and drones into Israel, marking the first time the Islamic republic had directly attacked the Jewish state, after decades of supporting proxy harassments from Hamas, Lebanon's Hezbollah, Yemen's Houthis, and various armed factions in Syria and Iraq. Largely thanks to the technological and regional military agreements that the U.S. and Israel have jointly forged, virtually all of the projectiles that did not misfire were intercepted.

"Now is not the time to abandon our friends. The House must pass urgent national-security legislation for…Israel, as well as desperately needed humanitarian aid for Palestinians in Gaza," Biden wrote in The Wall Street Journal three days later, in support of a supplemental $26.38 billion Israeli package. "I've been clear about my concerns over the safety of civilians in Gaza amid the war with Hamas, but this aid…is focused on Israel's long-term defensive needs to ensure it can maintain its military edge against Iran or any other adversary."

That same day, after months of delay, embattled House Speaker Mike Johnson (R–La.) announced that the aid bill would finally be introduced on the House floor. The only attached condition was imposed not on Israeli policy makers but on the controversial United Nations Relief and Works Agency operation in Gaza. So much for a turning point.

Yet the conversation about leverage is precisely the one America needs to be having while confronting yet another deadly and seemingly intractable standoff in the Middle East. A realistic contemplation of Washington's regional and global system of carrots and sticks, at a time when American imperial appetites are on the noticeable decline, might reveal some awkward if potentially game-changing truths. Beginning with: There are many on the pro-Israeli side who want the same policy result as Bernie Sanders, for precisely the opposite reasons.

Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with U.S. President Joe Biden; Jim Watson/AFP via Getty
(Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with U.S. President Joe Biden; Jim Watson/AFP via Getty)

End it, Don't Mend it

Three months before the October 7 massacre, the American Jewish publication Tablet published a provocative essay by Jacob Siegel and Liel Leibovitz bluntly headlined "End U.S. Aid to Israel."

The brief: "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…consists of credits that go directly from the Pentagon to U.S. weapons manufacturers," they wrote. "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."

Critics of Israel, particularly in light of the subsequent war with Hamas, will surely blanch at the notion that Washington has anything like "veto power" over Tel Aviv. Yet America has nonetheless coordinated and consulted on policy far more closely with Israel, including during this conflict, than it has on, say, nearby NATO ally Turkey in its ongoing battles with Syrian Kurds. All at a time when the comparative purchasing power of America's Israeli aid has plummeted.

"The Israel of 2023," Siegel and Leibovitz observed, "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." Boy howdy is it.

Israel now has a highergross domestic product (GDP) per capita than Japan and Italy, and is closing in fast on France and the United Kingdom. In 1981, as the hawkish former Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams pointed out in Commentary last year, "the United States provided Israel with $4.5 billion in economic and military aid at a time when the entire GDP of the Jewish state was only $25.4 billion." Now? GDP is north of $500 billion.

Annual U.S. aid has gone from 17.7 percent of the Israeli economy to 0.7 percent; even with the big new cash infusion, that figure goes up this fiscal year to just 5.7 percent. And as Biden himself crassly observed when selling the supplemental, the strings attached include "send[ing] military equipment from our own stockpiles, then us[ing] the money authorized by Congress to replenish those stockpiles—by buying from American suppliers….[We're] help[ing] our friends while helping ourselves." So America is sending money that Israel no longer needs to lock in long-term contracts for the military-industrial complex. (The 10-year, $38-billion Memorandum of Understanding signed by President Barack Obama in 2018 allowed for Israel to spend about a quarter of the annual total on its own domestic defense production until this year, after which the percentage is to be ratcheted steadily down to zero.)

This close military partnership, which has been the basic bilateral setup since not long after the 1967 Six Day War, has produced benefits for both Washington and Jerusalem. Israel gets some of the world's most advanced defense tech, such as the Iron Dome and David's Sling missile-interception systems; the U.S. gets premium intelligence in a volatile region and a privileged seat at the table for making commerce-lubricating peace deals.

But it's also true those contracts could be freely entered into, without a cent of U.S. taxpayer money, just as both Sanders and anti-interventionist Republicans like Sen. Mike Lee (R–Utah) would prefer. What would happen to American influence then?

"Weaning Israel off of American assistance would have the added advantage of removing the issue of conditioning such aid or using it as leverage, ideas that sometimes surface when the United States and Israel differ on important policy issues, such as the peace process," former Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin and former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt Daniel Kurtzer wrote four years ago in The National Interest.

In other words, say goodbye to Schumer's—and Biden's—serially insisted-upon "two-state solution," which has been a political non-starter in Israel especially since October 7. And don't be surprised if the country's regional Qualitative Military Edge, enshrined in U.S. law, would be deployed more freely in preemptively striking Iran's offensive capabilities, whether in missile production, nuclear development, or senior-level military planning.

So would cutting aid to Israel actually lead to more, not less war? Making predictions in the Middle East is a fool's errand. But one way to think through the scenario planning, and move faster toward a world where foreign policy commitments are more commensurate with the domestic public opinion of the countries involved, is to remember a factor that too often escapes attention: Israel is hardly the only country along the Arabian Peninsula to receive billions in American military aid.

What Leverage Bought

If the U.S. permanently cut off all aid tomorrow—and even if the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the infamous "Israel lobby," were suddenly to close up shop—the bonds of affection between the two countries would still remain strong. According to a Gallup poll, Israel has for the past quarter-century been among the leading countries toward which Americans have the most favorable opinion. Eighty-five percent of the world's Jewish population lives either in the U.S. or in Israel, in roughly equal numbers (the numerical capital of Jewry is not Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, but New York City). There are some 200,000 dual citizens living in Israel; at least 33 were killed by Hamas on or after October 7, and five more were still believed to be held hostage as of May 1. Even as Americans—particularly Democrats, and the young—have soured on Israel's prosecution of the war, there remains between the countries a shared liberal democratic (and capitalistic) culture and decades' worth of human intercourse.

Now consider Saudi Arabia.

The country that has purchased more U.S. military equipment than any other—at $140 billion and counting—has been unpopular with the American public for the entire 21st century, and not only because it was home to most of the September 11 hijackers. The House of Saud's dictatorial monarchy routinely ranks near the bottom of global freedom indices, women only recently were granted the right to drive a car, and the regime infamously assassinated Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Saudi Arabia has been a prime mover in the brutal, decade-long Yemeni civil war, a conflict that the United Nations estimates has led to nearly 400,000 deaths, most of them civilian.

Yet in the absence of any American sympathies at all, Riyadh has still been a key strategic partner with Washington for going on eight decades. Why? Oil production is certainly part of it, though Russia and Venezuela also have tons of the stuff. The truth is that the kingdom has been deft enough diplomatically, and flush enough with spendable petrodollars, to keep insinuating itself into whatever preoccupations the American empire has at the moment: the Cold War, the Gulf War, the Iraq War, containing Iran, and doing the often messy work of behind-the-scenes negotiations on military logistics, CIA skulduggery, and peace deals.

It is in that latter category that the Saudis find themselves yet again the object of not-quite-requitable American desire, this time in the form of a tantalizing peace pact with Israel, one that could potentially dwarf in practical and symbolic significance the historic 2020 Abraham Accords between the Jewish state and Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates. The Saudi asking price thus far? Just a military security guarantee, the likes of which America has only with Japan, South Korea, and the members of NATO.

Such are the realities of American leverage in the Middle East. Washington now includes among its major non-NATO allies Qatar (circa 2022, in exchange for help with U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan), Tunisia (2015, for its role in the Arab Spring), Morocco and Kuwait (2003, for assistance in the war on terror), Bahrain (2002, ditto), and more than a dozen other countries, including Israel and Egypt.

When states are both relatively poor and militarily insecure, as Israel was in the 1970s and Egypt remains to this day, the lure of access to the world's dominant military can persuade otherwise reluctant leaders to do things they and/or their populations would rather not. Like siting U.S. military bases, or taking the American side in a regional conflict—or recognizing Israel's right to exist.

Israel since its 1948 inception has been the single largest recipient of U.S. aid, at north of $300 billion in constant 2024 dollars. Clocking in at No. 2, with more than $150 billion, is Egypt. This American money bought the modern Middle East's most foundational peace treaty. That 1979 deal, brokered by President Jimmy Carter, not only formally ended the longtime antagonists' various wars; it marked the first time an Arab country formally accepted Israel's existence. For that move against the preponderance of his country's public opinion, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat paid two years later with his life.

Such are the inherent and ongoing tensions of bribing authoritarians to make unpopular deals, particularly in countries predisposed toward resenting Israelis and/or Americans. The basing of non-Muslim U.S. troops near Saudi Arabia's holy Islamic sites of Mecca and Medina was the original radicalizing complaint of Osama bin Laden. The Jordanian population, long encouraged to treat neighboring Israel as the enemy, was ill-prepared to accept King Hussein's 1994 signing of mutual recognition, nudged in part by President Bill Clinton's promise to forgive $700 million of the country's debt. A 2022 poll of the Hashemite kingdom by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies found opposition to diplomatic recognition at a staggering 94 percent.

That number would almost certainly be lower if the Jordanian monarchy didn't choose to stoke anti-Israeli sentiment in public while cooperating privately to such a degree that the country shot down several Iranian missiles before they could even cross into Israeli airspace. King Abdullah II called for three noisy days of national mourning last October over the deadly explosion outside of Gaza's Al-Shifa Hospital even after Israel's involvement and the initial death toll had both been convincingly debunked. Queen Rania that same month told CNN that the world "silence" in the face of Israel's war was "deafening," and that "to many in our region, it makes the Western world complicit." The kingdom tamps down criticism of the normalization deal (which it still publicly defends) and prevents protesters from ransacking the Israeli embassy but otherwise keeps the rhetoric ratcheted.

A poor country with rampant unemployment, Jordan is a top-10 recipient of U.S. aid, and it relies heavily on Israel for trade and resource cooperation. Caught literally between Iran and Israel, home to a large and restive Palestinian population, beset by months of anti-Israel protests, the monarchy is increasingly fragile and constantly triangulating. If the U.S. were to suddenly pull the rug out from underneath Jordanian aid, some 6 percent of the country's GDP would go poof.

It is easy to look upon such realities as an excuse to keep perpetuating the American foreign policy status quo. If leverage in the authoritarian Arab neighborhood has bought peace deals with Israel, the reopening of the Suez Canal, and the forging of an anti-Iran axis in the Persian Gulf, why threaten to unravel these projects by beating a hasty retreat?

That question implies a far-too-rosy picture of the status quo, and it ignores the extent to which American public opinion deviates from the conventional wisdom in Washington.

Imperial Autopilot

The American-led world order, with its emphases on international cooperation, tariff reduction, and mutual military treaties, arose out of the ashes of World War II as a bulwark against communism. That comprehensible project, while the source of semi-constant controversy in implementation, was broadly popular in the United States; it was articulated regularly by every president from Harry Truman to George H.W. Bush. With the end of the Cold War, and the failure to secure an explicit postwar settlement, came the end of domestic support for America's starring global role.

What happens when institutions wheeze on long after their rationales have collapsed? Elite corruption and populist revolt.

Corruption doesn't necessarily have to mean self-enrichment, though surely the people near the top of the American foreign policy pyramid rarely have to scrounge up their next meal. It's more about the temptations of using America's unmatched power. In the immortal 1993 words of the United States' then-ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine Albright, spoken to the more restraint-oriented Colin Powell, "What's the point of having this superb military that you're always talking about if we can't use it?" Albright's interventionist point of view ended up winning the battle for Clinton's foreign policy, and then Powell became the chief salesman for President George W. Bush's disastrous war of choice in Iraq.

Afghanistan was America's longest and least popular war, yet imperial autopilot, along with the fallacy of sunken costs, meant that it took more than two decades until Biden finally (and messily) ended it. NATO, and Washington's preeminence within it, is still the dominant military paradigm on the decidedly non-American continent of Europe, even with the open skepticism about the alliance expressed serially by the former and possibly future president Donald Trump.

America has already retreated under both Trump and Biden from its legacy role in reducing global tariffs, embracing instead the kind of made-in-America mercantilism that generations of their predecessors had mostly resisted. Wherever there is some 75-year-old, Washington-forged institution and commitments thereof, there is active domestic politics railing against it.

Washington's leading role in the Middle East is somewhat younger, at around a half-century, but similarly archaic. We no longer need to counter the Soviet Union, no longer depend on foreign oil, and no longer cling to the messianic delusion that liberal democracy in the region can be spread at the point of a gun. If you could somehow wipe the slate clean and craft a new U.S. approach to the Middle East that would better align with public opinion, what would that look like?

Almost certainly, the vast majority of foreign aid to this and other regions would vanish overnight. Nos. 3 through 10 on the 2022 aid-recipient list—Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Yemen, Egypt, Jordan, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan—would be cut off. But Nos. 1 and 2 might well remain.

The Intolerability of October 6

The Republicans who unsuccessfully opposed the $95 billion aid package to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan were onto something, as have been such presidential candidates as Pat Buchanan, 1992 Clinton, and 2000 George W. Bush. Americans are generally weary of throwing billions abroad at problems that should be solved by someone else, particularly when there are unresolved problems galore at home.

But specifically, Americans favor helping with the defense of Ukraine (No. 1 on the 2022 aid recipient list), Israel (No. 2), and Taiwan. In the absence of a coherent and comprehensible strategy, one that reflects the more modest ambitions of voters, foreign policy remains subject to the temporal emotions and legacy attachments of the public. Jordan probably wouldn't win an up-or-down referendum on U.S. support; Israel almost certainly would. Both, however, could benefit from being cut off.

The Israeli case for independence is largely about latitude, but not only: Having to spend $3.8 billion a year rather than receive it means making some responsible choices about budget priorities. Authoritarian Arab governments, too, need to take, rather than continue to shirk, responsibility.

The horrors of October 7 revealed that the seemingly operable status quo of October 6 was in fact untenable. It was, and is, untenable for Israel to live next to neighbors, to the north and southwest, who regularly fire rockets into the country and sporadically dig tunnels to execute acts of terrorism. It's untenable for Gaza's residents to live under the dictatorial whims of a theocratic death cult that takes money from foreign governments not to build prosperity but to harass and murder Israelis. It's untenable for the region's autocrats to loudly pin the blame for their own heavy-handed misgovernance on American and Israeli scapegoats while quietly reaching out for assistance from Washington and Tel Aviv.

Qatar enjoys the status of being a major non-NATO ally with the U.S. while also financing and sheltering the leadership of Hamas. That too is untenable, and the designation should be withdrawn. Residents of the Palestinian West Bank live in a harassed and conflict-ridden uncertainty and emasculation, with second-class property rights and lousy government services. Untenable. Iran flexes its muscle to turn parts of Israel's neighbors into vassal states rather than fully fledged independent entities. None of this is tenable.

Meanwhile, the U.S. floats above the whole region, handing out aid and military contracts like a grand seigneur, hoping on Mondays to build peace, on Tuesdays to launch airstrikes, and on Wednesday try to tamp down the resulting messes from spreading into a regional war. It does deals with some of the most hideous regimes on earth while the captive populations seethe.

It is axiomatic, yet catastrophically underappreciated in Washington: Those with the most power will inevitably behave corruptly, and those without responsibility will inevitably behave irresponsibly. An Israel less tethered may feel less constrained, sure, but it may also find itself more isolated on the world stage, and therefore a tad more cautious. Arab leaders without the American security blanket may find themselves having to speak blunt truths to their populations, including about the true sources of their comparative lack of prosperity and freedom. And a United States less compromised by getting its thumbs in every pie will potentially have more, not less, moral standing in the world.

So cut off Israel. And Egypt, and Jordan, and Saudi Arabia as well. Let them bear the responsibility of their own actions, and the costs of their own security. It's time to consciously manage America's imperial drawdown, rather than careen between fading Atlanticism and resurgent populism. What's the point of having this superb military? To defend America.