This fall, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to provide Israel with an additional $1 billion of military aid, above the $3.8 billion annually already committed. Yet the case for the aid is weak.
America’s rock-solid commitment to Israel’s existence is not the issue, and never was. Nor is the issue Israel’s access to weapons, whether offensive or defensive. The relevant issues are who should pay for the weapons that Israel buys and whether there is a better use for the aid money, even if we limit it to alternative ways of promoting Israel’s security and well-being.
Substantial foreign aid standardly requires a showing of need. Does Israel need our financial assistance? Can it not support its military budget on its own?
Israel’s per capita gross domestic product is over $40,000 — similar to that of France and Great Britain. We have defense commitments to them, but we don’t give them any military aid. To Israel, we provide around $1,700 a year for every Israeli family.
Israel has a vibrant economy that typically grows at over 3% a year. It’s GDP is over $400 billion, with U.S. aid only 1% of its economy. If we gave no assistance at all, just the amount of the annual expansion of its economy would cover the lost aid several times over. This aid program fails the needs test.
Members of Congress standardly tell us that our aid is “an important investment to support our friend and democratic ally.” Reference is made to “supporting the only democracy in the Middle East” and to “enhancing our shared values.” But if we are serious about the investment-in-democracy justification, then attention must be given to the actual causal relationship. Is our military aid paying off in sustaining Israeli democracy? Or does unconditioned and abundant aid subvert Israeli democracy, by enabling a cost-free, permanent occupation of the West Bank?
After 54 years, Israeli rule over the Palestinians cannot be viewed as temporary. To remain a democracy, Israel must either end the West Bank occupation or give millions of Palestinians the right to vote. If it chooses the latter, it will cease to be a Jewish state, and this it will not do. If Israeli democracy is the purpose of our aid, we should be asking: How best can it be used to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
At some point, there will be a return to negotiations with the Palestinians. The outstanding issues are difficult, but not impossible. Here are two ways, large amounts of money can help resolve two of the most difficult issues.
First, we could fund a Return-to-Israel program for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. This is very expensive. Funds should focus on those settlements farthest from the Green Line, which would pose a special problem to reaching any agreement on borders, land swaps and settlements. Many settlers moved to the West Bank because of economic factors and government subsidies for settlements. With incentives to return and compensation for their homes, many would return to Israel proper.
Money can also help solve the refugee issue. Very few refugees will ever return to Israel, despite their claimed right of return. Fair compensation for the land they owned when they were dispossessed in 1948 will go a long way to being accepted by the refugees themselves as an alternative to return.
The value of the land that was taken from the refugees is vast, and no Israeli government has ever been willing to provide anywhere near just compensation. Israel has, however, supported establishing an international fund from which refugees, including Jewish refugees forced to leave the Arab countries, would be compensated. But it is unrealistic to believe adequate contributions will be made when the time comes. The U.S. could make a real difference if, right now, it started putting the $3.8 billion year into an international trust fund for Palestinian and Jewish refugee compensation if and when a peace agreement is signed. As it grows, it would not only provide an incentive for serious negotiations, it would provide a basis for a stable peace if negotiations are successful.
These are not the only ways our aid to Israel could be used to promote an end to the conflict. It’s time to rethink the entire aid package, time to focus our efforts in support of our values and Israel’s best self.
Jerome M. Segal (Jeromesegal53@gmail.com) retired as a senior research scholar at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy; he is president of the Jewish Peace Lobby.