By Mitchell Plitnick
Not so long ago, a presidential candidate showing any hint that she would consider reducing aid to Israel was considered political suicide. Those days are over. This week, both Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg said they would consider using aid to Israel as leverage to get Israel to stop building settlements. The response has been almost total silence from Israel’s supporters in the United States.
The lack of response is somewhat surprising. While polls indicate that Americans support the idea that Israel’s disregard for Palestinian rights should impact the aid it gets from the United States, the numbers don’t indicate a sea change in public opinion. Many polls over the years reflected the willingness of the American public to use aid to press Israel to make concessions it did not want to make.
I suspect the reason there has been so little reaction to Warren’s and Buttigieg’s statements is indifference. It isn’t that pro-Israel groups which see any gains for Palestinian rights as a dangerous loss for Israel don’t care if the U.S. cuts aid to Israel. Rather, they see no danger of it happening any time soon, regardless of the outcome of the 2020 election. In many ways, seeing the United States continuing to quibble over settlement expansion and grasping on to an increasingly ephemeral two-state solution serves right-wing Israeli interests very well.
Any attempt by a president to cut aid to Israel would likely be futile. The current memorandum of understanding (MOU) that Barack Obama negotiated in the waning days of his administration runs through fiscal year 2028. It guarantees $3.8 billion in annual aid to Israel. That means that in each budget, the MOU commits the president to recommend that amount of aid to Israel, and Congress often budgets even more. The president is also obligated by law to ensure that Israel maintains its “qualitative military edge” (QME) and issue regular reports to Congress as to the state of Israel’s QME and to justify any arms sales in the Middle East against the QME assurance. The QME means that Israel has the military capability to repel any attack from any combination of regional foes.
On top of this, Israel must use more than 70 percent of the $3.8 billion in U.S. aid per year buying equipment, supplies, and arms from American companies. In other words, the aid is largely a massive subsidy to U.S. weapons manufacturers. By the end of the current MOU, Israel will be required to spend all the aid with U.S. companies (as all other recipients of U.S. military aid are). So, some of the U.S.’s biggest and most powerful corporations have a significant interest in sustaining U.S. aid to Israel.
These are major obstacles, but they are not impossible to overcome, given enough time, resources, and a strong enough movement to make it happen. But, crucially, it is Congress, not the president, who ultimately decides whether aid continues. If Congress says the United States is sending $4 billion to Israel, the president can only try to convince Congress otherwise. She would have no power to simply stop it. That’s one reason why, when presidents have wanted to use aid to pressure Israel in the past, they’ve used loan guarantees rather than actual aid money to do it. ?
Moreover, there is little indication that, despite a recent trend toward greater support for Palestinian rights among Democrats, there is any significant political will to use aid to leverage Israeli behavior.
The difference this time is that even in the event that a President Warren or Buttigieg would try to use military aid to Israel as leverage, they would use it to pursue, as Warren put it, “…a two-state solution, and if Israel is moving in the opposite direction, then everything is on the table. Right now, [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu says he is going to take Israel in a direction of increasing settlements, that does not move us in the direction of a two-state solution.”
This complete disconnect from the realities on the ground in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is, no doubt, a delight to the pro-Likud right. Be it in the offices of AIPAC, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) or Christians United for Israel (CUFI), the prospect of the growing energy among Democrats to support the rights of the Palestinian people being siphoned off into a quixotic battle for the lost cause of a settlement freeze. Even if Israel did stop building, there are more than enough settlements to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state—and, for those who argue that Israel can simply abandon or demolish the smaller settlements, then it shouldn’t matter if Israel builds even more. But the fact is, the two-state solution is no longer viable.
I say this with no relish. The two-state solution has reflected the international consensus since at least 1988. It has been the basis for diplomacy for even longer, since the Rabat summit in 1974. Whatever its flaws, and there are many, it was the basis for hope for many years.
But today, there is no substantive support for a genuine two-state solution in Israel. While a plurality (34 percent) of Israelis, in a survey done in March, support a two-state solution, a larger plurality, 42 percent support some level of unilateral annexation of the West Bank by Israel. Even among those who oppose annexation, many still support Israel maintaining control of the Jordan Valley, which constitutes almost 30 percent of the West Bank. Most Israeli Jews also support a united Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and a large majority opposes any concessions regarding the Palestinian right of return and on full sovereignty, which would include the ability to defend itself, for any Palestinian state. To complicate matters further, there is no significant support for the Israeli vision of a two-state solution among Palestinians in 2019.
If there is good faith and an arbitrator between the two parties that is prepared to level the playing field between Israel and the Palestinians, and take the legitimate concerns of both sides into equal consideration, an arrangement can be found that will satisfy the legitimate needs of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. But any hope must first rest on jettisoning from the fulcrum of negotiations the obsession with a two-state solution that is simply not feasible and replacing it with a foundation based on equal rights for Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. Those rights must be fully equal and treated as such on the individual, collective, and national levels. Once that’s established, Israelis and Palestinians can work out whatever solution they can agree upon.
That should be the goal of U.S. policy, not a freeze on settlements or hunting the two-state solution snipe. As long as we fight with Israel over this settlement or that one, as long as we hold on to the myth that a state which holds only one group as having full and equal rights can still be a democracy, and as long as our politics tolerate second class citizens in Israel, and millions of non-citizens with no rights at all just because of their ethnicity in the West Bank and Gaza, we remain part of the problem, not part of the solution.
I applaud the activists in IfNotNow who try to get Democratic presidential candidates to say they will use military aid to Israel to leverage a change in policy. But if all that’s accomplished is a call for a freeze on settlement expansion, it’s self-defeating. The conditions for a two-state vision, such as the one Bill Clinton envisioned in his late and unlamented Parameters, are now two decades in the past. We must start basing our goals on current conditions. The supporters of Israeli policies have been doing that for years while we live in the past. And that’s why they’ve been winning.