By David K. Shipler
“If the United States decided it wanted to stand by the Palestinian people, we’d have our state in forty-eight hours,” Muhammad Arrar told me several months ago. He was a sinewy man in his mid-forties, a council member in Jalazoun, the West Bank refugee camp. “Israel is America’s fifty-first state,” he continued, in a standard line you hear from Palestinians. Then he added a plea: “In America in the 1700s, a majority of Americans stood up with their weapons and fought, and they raised their rights of liberty.”
This refrain was on the lips of virtually every Palestinian I encountered in the camps, in schools, in government offices; it was a naïve caricature of Israel as a kind of vassal state that could quickly be brought to heel by a flick of the superpower’s wrist. I tried to explain the limits of Washington’s power. Nobody accepted my brilliant analysis. I could see, through their veneer of courtesy, that they thought I was the one being naïve—or disingenuous.
But the relationship is complicated and contradictory, and its core—the dollars and hardware that bolster Israel’s military security—remains undamaged by the recent tiff between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Largely overlooked in the reporting on Monday’s speech by White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough—whose criticisms of Netanyahu were given front-page coverage—was his affirmation of the nuts-and-bolts commitment, his impressive listing of the muscular, technologically advanced weaponry already in the pipeline. He pledged unflagging support, while criticizing Republicans for holding the defense budget, which includes aid to Israel, at 2006 levels.
“For Israel alone,” McDonough said in his address to the liberal Jewish lobbying group J Street, “we’ve requested more than $3 billion in foreign military financing and more than $100 million to improve Israel’s capability to defend against ballistic and cruise missile threats. And we’ve asked for an additional $55 million for Iron Dome,” the anti-missile system that was so effective against Hamas rockets from Gaza last summer. At Israel’s request during the seven-week war last July, the United States approved an extra $225 million worth of Iron Dome missiles and batteries, McDonough noted.
He said nothing about the severe international criticisms of Israel for using air strikes, naval bombardment, and ground artillery against densely populated areas of Gaza; he neither defended nor condemned Israel for the way it had conducted the war. But he did point out that “next year, when we deliver the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Israel will be the only country in the Middle East with a fifth-generation aircraft. In other words, we will continue to ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge. As the president has said so many times, we have Israel’s back.”
The J Street audience applauded these promises politely. But the 3,000 Americans who had gathered to condemn Netanyahu’s turn away from a two-state solution were much more enthusiastic about McDonough’s tough lines advocating an end to the occupation. When he asserted that Israel’s security would be more certain if Palestinians had a state of their own, practically everyone, many of them college students, jumped to their feet, cheering.
What is to be made of this? J Street firmly opposes cuts in military aid, even as it urges the U.S. to press Israel for a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians. And there is no place in the mainstream American political spectrum for the idea of leaving Israel less well defended, especially in an era of ISIS, Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, and the like, not to mention Iran. As cumbersome as F-35s will be against non-state actors in amorphous movements, voting to keep fitting Israel with high-tech weapons never hurt a member of Congress. No political penalty is exacted for such support. It is denying aid that would carry a price. My guess is that if you polled the 3,000 liberal Jews who rose to their feet to applaud a Palestinian state, you wouldn’t find more than a handful—if that—who favored cutting Israel’s military assistance. The position extends across much of the spectrum, not only to conservative Jews but also to evangelical Christians who regard Israel’s existence as a manifestation of biblical prophecy.
So, what leverage does the U.S. have that it’s willing to use? And how effective would it be? The answers are: not much, and not very.
Israel has been the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid of any country since World War II, over $125 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service. Nearly all of it now takes the form of military aid, which makes up about a quarter of Israel’s defense budget. Significant economic assistance was tapered off as Israel’s economy boomed. Large Economic Support Fund grants, which began in 1971, ended in 2008.
It might have been possible for the U.S. to tie economic assistance to a halt in building Jewish settlements in the West Bank (and, earlier, the Gaza Strip). Every president, Republican and Democratic, considered the settlements illegal under international law, and an obstacle to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. If those administrations had put their money where their mouths were, if Israel had been told that for every dollar it spent on settlements, it would receive a dollar or two or three less in economic aid, the projects might have been curtailed.
That is because Israel’s security concerns can be seen as a series of concentric circles, going from a center of risk that brooks no compromise, outward through layers of options and choices less and less vital to safety and survival. As vigorously as some Israeli officials saw West Bank settlements as a return to ancient biblical lands, or as a hold on territory vital to security, the building policy stood in an outer circle of options that might have been traded for economic aid.
It’s now too late for that. Only minor tools are left to the United States. An irritated administration in Washington might lower its diplomatic shield and allow a U.N. Security Council resolution supporting a Palestinian state—a symbolic step. But the real lever, military aid, appears too crucial to pull. The president could only tinker with some of the variables of assistance that are not mandated by statute. He could adjust the level of technology provided and the timing of new weapons systems offered. And if Congress agreed—currently out of the question—some of Israel’s unique privileges could be cut back. Unlike any other country, Israel by law gets its entire year’s assistance in a lump sum within the fiscal year’s first month. Alone among recipients, Israel is allowed to use over one-quarter of the aid to buy weapons from its own manufacturers rather than from the U.S., a policy that has promoted the development of Israeli defense industries. Of course it’s not all a giveaway; the U.S. has also benefited from joint research leading to technological advances.
And there’s the rub. In this difficult friendship, Israel and the U.S. don’t just tolerate each other. They need each other. They share vital intelligence, they improve the sophistication of weapons systems. The U.S. pre-positions arms in Israel for American use if needed in the region: missiles, artillery shells, and armored vehicles. At the same time, ironically, Washington can’t enlist Israel’s preeminent armed forces in combat without alienating Arab countries and jeopardizing fragile military coalitions. In 1990, the U.S. pleaded with Israel to stay out of the first Gulf War, even as Iraqi missiles hit Israeli territory. Today, Washington hasn’t dared call on the Israeli Air Force to help in Iraq and Syria.
It’s not pressure but comfort that Israel needs, for it will not compromise on granting Palestinians statehood until enough Israelis feel safe enough to do so. That will take more than the forty-eight hours that Muhammad Arrar imagines.