With Israel, It’s Time to Start Discussing the Unmentionable (phasing out US aid)

On 23/07/2023

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N.Y. Times Opinion: Nicholas Kristof

Israel is in the headlines, evoking tumultuous debate. Yet one topic
remains largely unmentionable, so let me gingerly raise it: Is it time to
think about phasing out American aid for Israel down the road?
This is not about whacking Israel. But does it really make sense for the
United States to provide the enormous sum of $3.8 billion annually to
another wealthy country?
I don’t think any change should happen abruptly or in a way that
jeopardizes Israeli security. The reason to rethink American aid is not to
seek leverage over Israel — although I do think we should be tougher on
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is extinguishing any hope of a
two-state solution and is, in the words of former Prime Minister Ehud
Barak, “determined to degrade Israel into a corrupt and racist dictatorship
that will crumble society.”
Rather, the reason to have this conversation is that American aid to
another rich country squanders scarce resources and creates an unhealthy
relationship damaging to both sides.
Today, Israel has legitimate security concerns but is not in peril of being
invaded by the armies of its neighbors, and it is richer per capita than
Japan and some European countries. One sign of changed times: Almost a
quarter of Israel’s arms exports last year went to Arab states.
The $3.8 billion in annual assistance to Israel is more than 10 times as
much as the U.S. sends to the far more populous nation of Niger, one of the
poorest countries in the world and one under attack by jihadis. In
countries like Niger, that sum could save hundreds of thousands of lives a
year, or here in the United States, it could help pay for desperately
needed early childhood programs.
Aid to Israel is now almost exclusively military assistance that can be
used only to buy American weaponry. In reality, it’s not so much aid to
Israel as it is a backdoor subsidy to American military contractors, which
is one reason some Israelis are cool to it.
“Israel should give up on the American aid,” Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli
minister of justice, told me. He has argued that the money can be used more
effectively elsewhere.
Daniel Kurtzer, a former American ambassador to Israel, agreed.
“Israel’s economy is strong enough that it does not need aid; security
assistance distorts Israel’s economy and creates a false sense of
dependency,” Kurtzer said in an email. “Aid provides the U.S. with no
leverage or influence over Israeli decisions to use force; because we sit
by quietly while Israel pursues policies we oppose, we are seen as
‘enablers’ of Israel’s occupation.”
“And U.S. aid provides a multibillion-dollar cushion that allows Israel to
avoid hard choices of where to spend its own money and thus allows Israel
to spend more money on policies we oppose, such as settlements.”
At some point when running for president in the last election, Bernie
Sanders, Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren all suggested conditioning aid
to Israel. A poll of American Jews found a majority supported assistance
but also favored some restrictions on aid so it could not be used to expand
It’s not just liberals. “Cut the stranglehold of aid,” Jacob Siegel and
Liel Leibovitz argued recently in Tablet magazine, saying that the aid
benefited America and its arms manufacturers while undercutting Israeli
There’s a legitimate counterargument that any reduction in aid could be
perceived as a pullback of support for Israel in ways that might invite
aggression by, say, Iran. That risk can be mitigated by approaching the
issue as a long-term discussion for the next bilateral memorandum of
understanding about aid, due by 2028 and likely to stand for 10 years, and
by reaching other security agreements with Israel (as Beilin and Kurtzer
Martin Indyk, who twice served as America’s ambassador to Israel, also
favored new security agreements and said that it’s time to have this
discussion about ending aid.
“Israel can afford it, and it would be healthier for the relationship if
Israel stood on its own two feet,” he told me.
The issue is politically sensitive, of course. Just a couple of years ago,
more than 325 members of the House of Representatives signed a letter
opposing any drop in aid to Israel.
“There’s a serious conversation that should be had ahead of this next
memorandum of understanding about how best to use $40 billion in U.S. tax
dollars,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, an advocacy
group. “Yet instead of a serious national security discussion, you’re
likely to get a toxic mix of partisan brawling and political pandering.”
I think we can do better, if we all approach this in a non-ideological,
patient way exploring what is best for both countries.
Aaron David Miller, who was for many years a State Department Middle East
analyst and negotiator, argued for barring aid to any military units that
commit gross violations of human rights. He also told me, “Under the right
conditions and in a galaxy far, far away, with U.S.-Israeli relations on
even if not better keel, there would be advantages to both to see military
aid phased out over time.”
That’s the way we should think about this, as a conversation we need to
move toward. We’d all benefit by finding the maturity to discuss the

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