I was a bit bored by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen‘s (R-FL) House Foreign Affairs briefing last week on Israel. ‘Blah blah blah never give up the Jordan Valley.’ I thought maybe there would be real Congressional work discussed. But, like opposition witnesses, that’s not necessary for “member briefings” (as opposed to hearings). After the proceedings, however, I took the initiative and asked about some official government business.
Considering that the briefing focused on Israel’s security, I wondered about U.S. security aid to Israel. During a Wall Street Journal interview last month, Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak floated a $20 billion general bump in U.S. security help “over the next generation or so.”
I asked freshman Member of Congress Ann Marie Buerkle (R-NY) what she thought about Barak’s idea. She’d never heard of it, so I briefly sketched it out. “When it comes to Israel, we have to be vigilant and reliable,” Buerkle then told me. “We have to give them whatever they need.”
I put the question to the witnesses, too. Former Israeli ambassador to the UN Dore Gold, the only Israeli panelist without a heavy Hebrew accident, knew what I was talking about but didn’t seem like he wanted to talk about it. “What this request reflects is a judgement in Israel that the Middle East could very well move in the wrong direction,” he said before excusing himself.
Retired General Uzi Dayan, who hadn’t heard of Barak’s request, gave a longer answer. “The American aid for Israel is very crucial and we appreciate it very much. And Israel is always looking toward the future,” he said. “A part of meeting Israel’s security demands is technology and security aid.” Dayan mentioned an American general who had said that helping Israel is “much cheaper than sending troops” and that, for the U.S., “Israel is the best [aircraft] carrier and also the cheapest one.” I pressed Dayan on whether he supported Barak’s aid request. “Sure,” he said. “It’s your decision, but we will appreciate it.”
While I was talking to witnesses, Noah Silverman of the Republican Jewish Coalition stepped up and interrupted, saying that he thought Barak had “walked back” the request. If so, I hadn’t seen it. After introducing myself, I asked him what he meant. “It was there then it wasn’t there,” he replied. Had the article in the Journal been taken off line or somehow retracted or corrected? No: “I inferred that he got a signal that wasn’t what Israel was sending out,” Silverman explained. “I read into the fact that there was nothing else about it.”
Indeed, the issue had been dropped. But Silverman’s eagerness to sweep the initial ask under the carpet was indicative of something else. The right wing of the U.S. pro-Israel community has to manage a delicate balance of forces that pits the slash-and-burn economic policies of the Republican Party against the desire to keep up robust U.S. support for Israel. They also have to tip-toe the chasm between doting but uniformed members of Congress and strategic thinking about how to benefit Israel — well, strategic at least in terms of public relations.
Let’s get back, briefly, to the Journal article with Barak’s ask:
Defense analysts say Israel spends about 9% of its gross national product on defense, or roughly $17 billion per year. U.S. military assistance accounts for $3 billion of that.
So the U.S. taxpayer is dishing out about 17 percent of Israeli defense spending this year. (Oh, and look, tax day!)
Barak told the Journal that, because of regional unrest and uncertainty, he’d like the U.S. to cough up an extra “$20 billion to upgrade the security of Israel for the next generation or so.” Taking a generation as 20 years, that averages out to a 33 percent increase per year, pushing U.S. security aid up to $4 billion annually. If Israel’s spending stays constant, U.S. taxpayers would then be footing the bill for about 22 percent of Israel’s defense budget.
The State Department says this aid, by the way, is supposed to be “aimed at ensuring for Israel the security it requires to make concessions necessary for comprehensive regional peace.” No wonder, then, that some neoconservatives reacted harshly to the suggestion of more U.S. money to Israel. In fact, cutting — though not eliminating — U.S. aid to Israel has long been a goal pushed by neoconservatives on their right-wing Israeli associates in the Likud Party. Several neoconservatives, including Richard Perle, Doug Feith and David and Meyrav Wurmser, pressed Benjamin Netanyahu to do just that in his first go round as prime minister. The advice was delivered in a strategy paper called “Clean Break,” which focused on introducing right-wing economic reforms and getting out of the ‘Oslo process’ for peace with the Palestinians.
When Barak made his latest ask, Israeli Commentary writer Evelyn Gordon played almost exactly by this game plan and announced that she was “cringing in shame.” Even before the latest budget showdown, Gordon wrote: “The U.S. currently faces a massive deficit that threatens the country’s very future, and Congress is slashing ruthlessly in an effort to curb it.” (Incidentally, a $200 million increase in U.S. aid for an Israeli missile defense system made it through the shutdown showdown.)
But the problem was not the U.S. deficit per se, but rather that, as Gordon put it, “Israel’s government urgently needs to improve its public relations.” But Gordon had just the PR salve. Much like scrambling Arab regimes, Gordon called for a cabinet shake-up: “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should fire his defense minister immediately.” Barak came from Labor, a liberal Zionist party he recently ditched in favor of his cabinet post. And neocons just hate Labor. This is nothing new. Just see the first line of ‘Clean Break’: “Israel has a large problem. Labor Zionism…”
What’s interesting is how this firing was to be accomplished. “If the American Jewish community yells loudly enough, Netanyahu will listen. So now it’s time to start yelling,” writes Gordon. Well that’s kind of funny. When liberal American Jews criticize Israel for its actions, right-wing pro-Israel activists get all up in arms about the inappropriateness of public criticism. Liberal American Jews are not supposed to tell Israel how to go about its business, especially in security areas. See, Israel is a democracy, and can make its own decisions. Never mind that the occupation of the Palestinian territories, too, seems like pretty bad public relations. But when neoconservatives have a bone to pick, as with Barak, they call for “yelling” as public pressure. Their shamelessness — and hypocrisy — knows no bounds.