Opinion

It's time for Israel to remove the golden handcuffs

Why Israel should reject U.S. military aid

In a 420-9 vote, the House on Thursday approved $1 in billion in funding for Israel's missile defense system. The "Iron Dome" appropriation represents about a quarter of the $3.8 billion in military aid the United States provides to Israel annually — in recent years, exceeded only by aid to Afghanistan, and far more than any other nation receives.

This was a victory for pro-Israel lawmakers, but a superficial one. The vote was briefly delayed by resistence from progressive Democrats, reflecting a shift in the balance of power within the Democratic Party. Their influence boosted by slim congressional majorities, the left wing has challenged their party's traditional support for the Jewish state.

Israel shouldn't wait for that balance to shift further. If military aid is to be a fooball in partisan squabbles, the Jewish state can refuse to play.

This time, Israeli officials were quick to paper over any conflict. Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid blamed the previous government, which cultivated close ties to the Republican Party and, in his phrase, "abandoned Congress and the Democratic Party and caused significant damage to Israel-U.S. relations." Lapid expressed confidence that the bilateral relationship would improve moving forward.

That confidence may be misplaced. Backed by changing opinion among younger voters, liberals, and women, future Democratic administrations are likely to less friendly than Biden's. This aid measure passed. The next one — or the one after that — might not.

Israel needn't depend on that uncertain future. At one time, Israel was reliant on foreign allies. Now, as a high-income country with a growing economy and thriving technology sector, it's rich enough to pay for its own defense. In 2022, American aid will make up about 20 percent of Israel's $17.8 billion defense budget. That's a lot of money, but not an impossible loss for a country with about $400 billion GDP.

Moreover, the aid isn't really aid. Because almost all of it is reserved for purchases from U.S. suppliers, it's effectively a subsidy to the American arms industry. That bargain makes sense for members of Congress who want to benefit local industries or their own donors. It's not clear that it makes sense for Israel, which has domestic producers to support and an interest in getting the best price and products.  

Beyond the money, however, the main reason to reconsider American aid is that it implies the U.S. possesses a special authority over Israel, and the value of strategic independence is inestimable. Our military aid is a symbol of American largesse that comes with an expectation of Israeli deference. That's a bad position for a state rightly proud of its independence. Israel should not need Washington's permission to act in its own interest.

Critics of the Jewish state might see a reduction of U.S. aid as a success for their cause, but they should be careful what they wish for. In its present form, military assistance is a source of leverage those same critics hope to use to influence Israel's conduct. If it disappeared, they'd have less influence rather than more.

American friends of Israel, on the other hand, have mobilized in support of the aid. In the short term, they're right: Restocking the Iron Dome is essential. In the longer term, however, it's worth considering whether tying Israel's security to American party politics is counterproductive. Although a squeeze play would likely to fail, it would be an embarassment for Israel if a future Congress or president tried to condition aid on policy concessions. It would be an act of statesmanship to close the books before that can happen. 

There are hints that the idea of pivoting away from American aid is getting more consideration in Israel. Of course, revising this aspect of a "special relationship" isn't so simple as tearing up a check, but weaning off American funding would be good for Israel. And by forcing us to confront Israel as sovereign and equal rather than a needy dependent, it would also be good the United States.

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