Ending Military Aid to Israel: The Death of a Taboo?

If there is one thing that characterizes American-Israeli relations more than any other it is US military aid to Israel, which currently amounts to nearly $4 billion dollars a year. Few things in Washington have seemed more guaranteed than this US aid, as well as congressional approval for it. This support has been so sacrosanct that any critical conversation around it has long been considered taboo. In the last several weeks, however, no less than two dozen articles have been authored, from various perspectives and political leanings, arguing over the utility of US Military aid to Israel, or rather the lack thereof. This likely foreshadows a coming change in policy and, at minimum, indicates that the taboo around discussing this facet of the US-Israel relationship may now be dead.

US Military Aid to Israel: What It Is and How It Works

US Military aid to Israel, or more precisely US military financing for Israel, functions through the United States’ Foreign Military Financing (FMF) program. Israel is the single largest recipient of US military financing through this program, at $3.8 billion a year. Egypt comes in second at $1.3 billion. Together they make up the majority of the nearly $10 billion annually allotted for this purpose. Egypt’s military financing itself was a product of negotiations to bring the country under American influence as part of the Camp David Accords in the late 1970s. The peace accords, sealed with financing for the Egyptian military and economy, brought an end to hostilities and recognition of Israel by Egypt. In other words, the majority of the FMF program serves Israeli interests.

Over the last several decades, different memorandums of understanding (MoU) between Israel and the United States have been negotiated to set expectations around military aid over time. The long-term aid provides a framework for congressional approval on an annual basis while affording military budget planners in Israel longer-term clarity around which to plan. The last MoU was agreed to in 2016 by the Obama administration and covers fiscal years 2019 through 2028, amounting to $38 billion in military aid ($3.8 billion per year) over a ten-year period. The agreement succeeded the previous MoU, signed in 2007 by the George W. Bush administration and totaling $30 billion. The United States has separately approved funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile system, in addition to the yearly allocation of military aid.

Over the years, US foreign aid for Israel has evolved, not just growing in amount but also evolving in structure. Historically, elements of the package have been added, removed, increased, or decreased over time for various reasons. For example, one mainstay of US foreign aid to Israel over the decades was economic assistance aimed at supporting a struggling Israeli economy. This assistance lasted from 1971 until being phased out in 2007 as the Israel economy grew stronger over time. An important factor in Israel’s economic growth over this period was the evolution of its tech sector, which itself was boosted by its military industries. In this too, US assistance played a key role.

Israel received an exemption allowing it to spend a portion of its annual FMF allotment in its own domestic arms industry.

Although according to US law FMF dollars are supposed to be spent to purchase defense articles from US manufacturers, Israel received an exemption from this rule that allowed it to spend a portion of its annual FMF allotment in its own domestic arms industry. This exception, which began in the late 1980s, saw Israel injecting some 26 percent of its US FMF allotment into its own domestic arms industry annually. The impact of this over time was the creation of an Israeli defense industry that not only became strong enough to meet most domestic needs but also became a major player in the global arms market, and in fact the largest per capita arms exporter in the world. As with economic assistance before it, this “offshore procurement” (OSP) element of the FMF package for Israel is being phased out under the current MoU and will go down to zero by the end of the agreement. It is probably no coincidence that as this arrangement winds down, a bigger conversation around US military aid for Israel is beginning to take shape.

A New Conversation

Many have recently questioned the utility and benefits of US military aid to Israel. “Does it really make sense for the United States to provide an enormous sum of $3.8 billion annually to another wealthy country?,” asked Nicholas Kristoff in the New York Times. Right-wingers Liel Liebowitz and Jacob Siegel wrote in Tablet magazine, in a piece that provoked numerous responses: “Cut the stranglehold of aid. Let America pursue its interests. Let Israel, too, follow its own interests, which sometimes align with those of Washington and sometimes don’t.” And Ivan Eland chimed in at the National Interest on the large sum given to Israel, adding, “Ending that largesse is long overdue.”

What is perhaps most notable about the slew of articles making arguments for ending US military financing to Israel is the range of voices writing them. From liberal writers in major mainstream publications to right-wingers in niche Zionist publications, and everyone in between, calls for ending US military aid are being made. Importantly, different voices call for ending aid for different reasons. While progressives have pressed for ending US military aid to Israel over its human rights abuses against Palestinians, others are focusing on the fact that Israel does not need US aid to support its economic growth—and still others argue that US aid to Israel actually hurts Israel strategically.

The death of a longstanding taboo of any sort, let alone one so long held that has seemingly evaporated overnight, begs the question: Why this is happening now? There are a range of factors that likely provide insight into this question.

New MoU Negotiations Are Approaching

While the last MoU between Israel and the United States was announced in 2016, the negotiations around its terms began as early as 2013 before intensifying in the 18 months prior to the agreement. Based on the previous MoU timeline, initial conversations around the parameters of a new MoU may well be starting this year. The discussion around possible changes is already taking place in the media and in policy circles now, and will set the stage for when the next negotiations begin in earnest between Israel and the US.

Offshore Procurement Is Expiring

Another proximate factor likely has to do with the phasing out of the offshore procurement element of the FMF package. The percentage of FMF money that Israel could use in its own domestic military industry has been phased out gradually, and is set to go from about 26 percent of the total to zero over its ten-year period. However, the steepest drops begin in the second half of the term of the MoU, between the years 2024 and 2025 where it drops from about 22 percent to 14 percent in one year. In other words, while the coming end of this perk for Israel has been known for some time, the biggest material impacts on financing for its domestic military industry are only now about to start kicking in.

No “Aid” Is Needed

US Military Aid to Israel was born in a very different geopolitical and economic moment than the one that exists in Israel today. When it was first instituted, Israel was still dealing with Arab nations on its borders who were in states of war with it, including several who were backed by the superpower of the Soviet Union. Today, the Cold War is a historic relic, Israel has peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan (who are both American client states), and Syria and Lebanon are both deterred and debilitated by their own internal crises. Today, more Arab states (the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan) have normalized relations with Israel, making its surrounding region less bellicose than ever before. At a time when Israel, with its small population and weak economy, needed to be on a constant war footing against much larger Soviet-backed states, the argument for American aid was far easier to make. Today, Israel has a robust economy with a GDP that is greater than half a trillion dollars, and it is a global arms exporter. In fact, Israel sells arms representing about three times the value of US military aid annually. That is not a country that needs a handout.

The Growing Progressive Drumbeat Against Aid

Over the last decade and a half a Palestinian rights discourse has begun to permeate Democratic Party politics in the United States, pushed forward by progressive activists and lawmakers who have been calling for a shift in US policy toward Israel. In recent years, for the first time legislation was introduced in Congress that would put restrictions on US military aid to Israel over its treatment of child prisoners, and numerous progressive lawmakers have backed the bill or called for similar forms of accountability. As recently as a few weeks ago, Senator Bernie Sanders introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would condition US military aid to Israel. Over time it is likely that these calls will grow given continuous trends in public opinion, especially among Democrats.

Israel’s Political Upheaval

There is little doubt that in addition to all of the above, the tumultuous protests which have rocked Israeli politics over this past year, along with the far-right Israeli government’s attack on the judicial system, have contributed to a broader conversation around reassessing the US-Israel relationship. Supporters of Israel have sold the idea that the US and Israel are like-minded democracies and that those “shared values” are at the center of the relationship. Whatever one thinks of this argument, it becomes harder to sustain when an extremist government attacks the nation’s judicial system over the objections of hundreds of thousands of protesters in the streets.

All these reasons have come together in this moment to make greater space for a conversation around reassessing military aid possible. The next big question is when and how does this conversation translate to policy shifts, and what direction will those shifts take?

Hedging Bets

Even if one ignores Israel’s human rights abuses against Palestinians, as US policymakers too often do, the policy of providing billions of FMF dollars to Israel makes less sense today than ever. Israel does not need the handout, has a robust military industry that the US helped subsidize for years, and is increasingly becoming hard to defend due to its right-wing, theocratic leanings. Historically, US policy has phased out types of assistance to Israel as it no longer was necessary, as with economic aid and offshore procurement. Could the US actually end military aid to Israel in the years to come?

We have yet to see public opinion shifts on Israel create more significant change on the national political level.

As a policy decision this is a no-brainer. Human rights reasons should be first on the list, but even beyond them there are many more. Politically, however, this is another matter. Each president who has announced an MoU around US military aid to Israel has made a point of noting that their aid package was larger than any before, precisely because they understood it to be good politics. US dollars for Israeli war machines is the retail politics that tickles the soul of pro-Israel interest groups in the United States, and the talking points around this have become as routine as shaking hands and kissing babies at the county fair. While public opinion is clearly changing, and while pro-Israel interest groups are clearly shaken by these trends, we have yet to see those shifts create more significant change on the national political level. For any American politician to end military aid to Israel, it would likely have to be sold to the public as a pro-Israel policy step and not as a step to hold Israel accountable for any of its behavior. That will not be an easy task, especially in the politically charged climate of American politics.

Any US administration taking such a step would likely seek to pair it with other steps that would be seen as a clear boost in support to Israel so as not to allow an end to the military aid to be perceived as a blow to the relationship. What that could be is not exactly clear, especially given how much support the US already gives to Israel, but managing the optics of the end of military aid would surely be a major part of the conversation. For now, the big news is that a conversation long thought to be impossible has finally begun.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Shutterstock/Oren Ravid