By Yousef Munayyer
American politicians vying for the Oval Office in 2020 recently engaged in a watershed shift in the conversation about the American-Israeli relationship. Several Democratic presidential candidates voiced their support for policies of accountability toward Israel that could leverage the latter’s US support to change its behavior toward the Palestinians.
South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg vowed to ensure that American support for Israel “does not get turned into U.S. taxpayer support for a move like annexation.” Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren concurred in a recent statement, saying the US should “create consequences for [Israel’s] problematic behavior.” Former mayor of El Paso, Texas, Julian Castro was less committed in his comments but still said he “would not take that off the table.” Even Senator Amy Klobuchar (D. Minnesota), running a centrist campaign——and was the only 2020 contender to vote earlier this year for the Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act of 2019 (Senate Resolution S.1) that contained anti-BDS legislation——avoided taking a declarative position recently, stating that “It’s not a good idea to negotiate these things right now.”
By far, Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) has been the most specific in his description of how he would handle the issue of US support for Israel. Sanders opposed the idea of unquestionable support for Israel. Speaking of the annual allotment of foreign military financing that goes to it, Sanders said “some of the $3.8 billion should go right now to humanitarian aid in Gaza.”
Buttigieg, Warren, and Sanders are today among the top polling candidates in the Democratic race for president and all have signaled some willingness to leverage US support to condition Israeli behavior. To be sure, recent polling suggests that among Democrats this is becoming a politically expedient position. Nearly 70 percent of respondents in a recent poll of likely Democratic primary voters said they would be less likely to support a candidate who would continue the current carte blanche approach to US-Israel relations.
While there is a clear shift among Democrats on this issue, not all candidates have gotten the message. The leader in the race, former Vice President Joe Biden has been unequivocal in his opposition to leveraging US support for Israel. Still, the shift is undeniable and will likely foreshadow a shift in American-Israeli relations in the years to come.
History of Leverage
Leveraging US support for Israel to condition its behavior might seem like a departure from reality, especially given the current political context of the Trump Administration’s approach that essentially hands Israel every item on its wish list. But in reality, leveraging aid is not new and has been the policy choice of previous administrations at different points in time.
In 1975, for example, Israel’s intransigence on its position in the occupied Sinai Peninsula––despite American backchannel efforts to woo Egypt––led to “one of the worst periods in American-Israeli relations,” according to then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. President Gerald Ford wrote to the Israelis “to express [his] profound disappointment over Israel’s attitude during the course of the negotiations,” and to inform them that he “gave instructions for a reassessment of United States policy in the region, including our relations with Israel, with the aim of ensuring that our overall American interests are protected.” Shortly thereafter, arms sales were slowed down and negotiations for additional deliveries were canceled as were trips by Israeli officials to the United States. Ford would come under pressure from Congress to relent, and he eventually did, but so too did the Israelis. Ford’s position helped pave the way for the 1978 Camp David Peace Accords between Israel and Egypt.
Ford’s successor, President Jimmy Carter, found himself in a similar situation with Israelis in 1978 when Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon and bombardment of civilian areas led to hundreds of casualties. Carter wrote to then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to express his disappointment “that you have not heeded my request that Israeli military units be withdrawn immediately from Lebanese territory.” Carter added that “current Israeli military actions in Lebanon are a violation of our agreements covering the provision of American military equipment and that, as a consequence, if these actions are not immediately halted, Congress will have to be informed of this fact, and that further deliveries will have to be terminated.”
Carter’s successor, President Ronald Reagan, was outraged over Israel’s invasion of and conduct in Lebanon in 1982, including its use of cluster munitions against civilian targets, which was explicitly prohibited by American law. The Israelis had previously refused to accept American cluster munitions supplies because they rejected to accept the restrictions on their use. But after doing so and violating these terms in 1982, the Reagan administration announced that it was halting such transfers and maintained the freeze on cluster munitions for six years.
Reagan’s successor, President George H.W. Bush and his administration, froze $10 billion of Israeli loan guarantees that were aimed at supporting the influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union into Israel, to demand that it freeze settlements in the occupied territories. He even threatened to use his veto if Congress got in the way.
This history demonstrates that both Republican and Democratic administrations have considered leveraging US support for Israel to condition Israeli behavior in the past, even if they came up against pressure from Congress to relent. With shifts in public opinion today and voices demanding accountability continuing to grow, especially among Democrats, a new administration willing to condition aid to Israel might find increased flexibility in the future.
The US’s Exceptional Military “Aid” to Israel
Often referred to as “military aid,” US military financing represents the most direct form of US support for Israel today.
Israel is far from being the largest weapons buyer of US-made weapons. That distinction belongs to Saudi Arabia, in part because the Foreign Military Financing (FMF) program does not exactly work like a normal business transaction where one party pays the other for goods and services received. Instead, FMF offers participating countries American tax money to use for shopping from the US military industry. Israel is the single largest recipient within the program, allotted over $3 billion annually. The second largest recipient in the program is Egypt which receives about $1.3 billion. This top pairing of Israel and Egypt is a product of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty. The annual aid assistance to Egypt helped secure that treaty and finalize what seemed at the time to be a total Egyptian shift into the American orbit and away from that of the Soviet Union. In many ways, financing Egypt is a significant indirect contribution to Israel as well. Prior to 1979, Egypt was Israel’s most significant military adversary; thus, removing it as a concern meant lessening Israel’s spending on defense. In fact, Israel’s defense spending continued to shrink after the agreement. It also shrank after the signing of the Jordanian-Israeli Peace Treaty of 1994. Despite this, and the subsequent strengthening of the Israeli economy after the two threats subsided, the amount of allotted American aid to Israel only grew.
It is not just the sheer numbers that set Israel apart when it comes to foreign military financing. There are also special perks legislated by Congress of which Israel––and often only Israel––takes advantage. The FMF program is intended to aid American allies to build their military capacity for self-defense and to advance US interests. The program also stipulates that recipients of American aid use allotted monies to purchase equipment from American arms manufacturers. However, Israel is excepted from this stipulation; it is allowed to use 26 percent of the annual aid to build its own domestic military industry. This infusion of money into the Israeli military industry has helped Israel become one of the largest arms exporters in the world and often a competitor with the United States in third country markets. In fact, Israel’s arms exports were recently valued at $7.5 billion, down from nearly $10 billion in 2017. This is more than double what Israel receives in US Military financing every year. It is hard to see, under these conditions, how such financing can be considered “aid.”
Moreover, Israel is the only country that is congressionally mandated to receive the entirety of its FMF allotment in a lump sum and at the beginning of the fiscal year. Israel can then have the funds in an interest-bearing account with the Federal Reserve Bank, adding to the pot of money it can use to buy US weapons. Through this congressionally legislated mechanism, the American taxpayer is not only paying for money Israel gets to use for free to purchase and develop weapons, but also for the cost of the interest owed by the central bank to the Israeli account.
The United States also coproduces with the Israeli military industry specific projects, including missile defense technology. The United States has provided over $1.5 billion specifically for the Iron Dome missile defense system since 2011 and in 2014 coproduction partnership began between the Israeli company Rafael and the American company Raytheon. Now, somewhere between 60 and 70 percent of the interceptor missiles are produced in the United States, giving Israel a stake in the American arms industry and technology.
What Options Could the Next Administration Have?
Proponents of continued blank check support to Israel will make the argument that conditioning US military financing would jeopardize its security. This argument garners significant political support from many corners of Congress. But for the reasons outlined above, US military financing goes above and beyond ensuring Israeli security. In fact, what it ensures is the profitability of Israeli military industries. The United States is not merely selling Israel weapons––as it does with Saudi Arabia for example, where it is paid money in exchange for US manufactured military articles. Instead, the United States is giving Israel weapons for free while simultaneously subsidizing the Israeli military industry. The conversation on conditioning military financing to Israel needs to begin with an understanding that it is already conditioned heavily in Israel’s favor.
The next administration, should it choose to leverage US military financing to shift Israeli behavior, will face significant domestic pressure to prevent it from changing the carte blanche approach because Israel’s security is considered paramount. But said administration could begin making this shift––and effectively sending a message about future relations––if Israel does not respect the rights of Palestinians. The current arrangement could be made less exceptional immediately. There could be an end to the fast cash and interest mechanism and Israel could even be removed from the FMF program all together. Per capita GDP in Israel is approximately $40,000 which is more than the per capita GDP of the next nine countries in the FMF program combined. Israel’s military export revenue far exceeds what it receives in military financing. A new administration can begin the conversation about leveraging US support for Israel by simply treating Israel like other countries to which it sells weapons. Given Israel’s relative economic strength, there is no justification to give it handouts, especially when its military is engaged in ongoing human rights abuses.
Morally speaking, the United States should not sell any weapons to Israel so long as its military is involved in oppressing Palestinians. But politically, that sort of shift in policy is very difficult. However, there are steps that can be taken in the direction of decreasing American complicity in Israel’s abuses which are likely more politically feasible. Starting there would give a new administration after the 2020 elections a place to commence the process of resetting the relationship and escalating it as necessary until Israeli behavior begins to adjust to the requirements of international law. Only Israel has been immune to pressures from the United States regarding changing its practices toward the Palestinians. A new administration would do well to change business as usual in Washington.
Yousef Munayyer is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC, where this article originally appeared.