Using American aid to exert diplomatic pressure on Israel is widely considered an extreme and drastic measure. In the early 1990s, when President George H. W. Bush demanded that Israel freeze construction in the settlements as a condition for US guarantees for a $10 billion loan that Israel sought to help it absorb a wave of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, the earth shook and the right-wing government collapsed. But the possible use of military aid (the economic aid was stopped in 2008) as a pressure tactic on Israel was always the province of marginal elements in the American political arena. Both parties viewed US support for Israel’s defense as a sacred cow. That all went by the wayside last week.
Two leading Democratic contenders for the presidency, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, announced that as far as they were concerned, the cow was no longer sacred. Addressing the annual J Street conference on Oct. 29, Sanders proposed conditioning the aid on a change in Israel’s Palestinian policies and shifting part of the $3.8 billion US aid package to humanitarian relief for the Gaza Strip’s two million residents. Warren cited the precedent set by Bush of linking US guarantees to Israeli construction across the Green Line.
The crisis in relations between Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Bush contributed in no small measure to the 1992 election victory of Israel’s Labor party led by Yitzhak Rabin. Are the indications of a similar crisis harbingers of a transformation in the Israeli public opinion and progress in the peace process with the Palestinians? Or was Senator Michael Bennet was right when he warned at the J Street event that cutting US aid could backfire and strengthen the Israeli right and undermine prospects of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement?
Al-Monitor directed these questions to three former senior Israeli politicians and diplomats. Danny Ayalon, who served as deputy foreign minister from 2009 to 2013 and before that as Israel’s ambassador to the United States, represents the relatively moderate stream of the Israeli right. Sanders’ remarks, Ayalon told Al-Monitor, reflect ignorance and a lack of understanding of US interests. “There was good reason that [Vice President] Joe Biden strenuously objected to that position and why President [Barack] Obama unconditionally increased military assistance to Israel,” he stressed. Ayalon expressed regret that a senior and seasoned senator “is being dragged into erroneous positions by radical elements in the Democratic Party that are unsupported by a majority of the American people.”
Arye Mekel, who served as Shamir’s diplomatic adviser during the crisis with the Bush administration and subsequently as Israeli consul general in New York and ambassador to Greece, told Al-Monitor that Sanders and Warren’s remarks “are perceived here as anti-Israel, which disqualifies them from any contact with us.” Mekel believes that while Israel was under pressure from a US president at the time of the crisis over the guarantees, the pressure now is being exerted by two politicians who Israel considers leftists and in any case, in his estimation, likely to drop out of the race. “Israeli public opinion has not changed since the 1990s and if anything, it has shifted to the right,” according to the retired diplomat. Mekel further believes the average Israeli does not know the details and cannot tell the difference between the cuts in US economic aid and in US military assistance.
Mekel added that although the crisis with Bush contributed to his political downfall, Shamir never regretted his refusal to freeze construction in the settlements. “He regarded the preservation of the entire Land of Israel as the main issue, and all the rest as secondary,” the former prime minister’s adviser recalled, adding that when the demands by the US president appeared to pose a threat to the Land of Israel's sovereignty, Shamir “adamantly rejected them and was willing to pay a personal price for that, too.” It is worth noting that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who served at the time as deputy foreign minister, encouraged Shamir to stand firm against the threat of withholding the guarantees that were vital for Israel to handle the massive immigration wave from the former Soviet states. Netanyahu is not known to have expressed regret over his decision, either.
The third respondent, who served in senior Labor government posts and asked to remain anonymous since he is still involved in behind-the-scenes diplomatic activity, suggested that Israel take the latest threats regarding US aid seriously. He identified an ongoing shift in the American position, starting with Obama, of scaling back US troop and money investment outside its borders. He believes Israel will increasingly find that “America wants a return on its money.” He therefore recommended that Israel prepare itself for the possibility of new trends, adding, “Already now, people here have started quaking over being left alone to face Iran.”
Officially, Israel is not taking the two contenders’ threats very seriously, relying on the defense industry lobby in the United States to push back. Under Israel’s agreement with the Obama administration, the part of the US assistance that Israel can use to fund research and acquisitions by its local defense industry will decline over time (from $815 million this year to $450 million in 2025 and zero by 2028). The rest of the US assistance would be transferred to the American industry that provides Israel with weapons. In other words, Israel would gradually be forced to use all the American security assistance for weapons acquisitions in the United States.
In a July 2018 position paper, the Institute for National Security Studies contends that this arrangement could harm Israeli capabilities. They explain that the Israeli security industries constitute centers of technological knowledge and significantly contribute to Israeli employment, GDP, exports and foreign relations. Thus, by gradually losing US funding, these industries are likely to suffer, damaging the independence of Israeli military technology.
Maj. Gen. (res.) Gershon Hacohen, who served as commander of Israel’s war colleges and head of Israel's Northern Corps, went even further. In a July 2016 interview with Defense News, Hacohen argued that US aid "harms and corrupts us,” and Israel should therefore welcome its decline. US interests — rather than Israel's interests — are better served by Israel's ongoing need for predictable, long-term US military aid, he insisted. "Israel is so addicted to advanced US platforms and the US weaponry they deliver that we've stopping thinking creatively in terms of operational concepts," he said.
Perhaps, then, the threat of cuts in US military assistance is actually a welcome development.