U.S. aid, Israel and wishful thinking

By Bernd Debusmann
April 12, 2010

In June 1980, when an American president, Jimmy Carter, objected to Jewish settlements in Israeli-occupied territories, the Israeli government responded by announcing plans for new settlements. At the time, settlers numbered fewer than 50,000.

In 2010, another American president, Barack Obama, is calling for an end to settlements he considers obstacles to peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Israeli authorities responded by announcing new ones, illegal under international law. Settlers now number close to half a million.

In the three decades between 1980 and 2010, there have been multiple U.S.-Israeli spats over the issue and they often fell into something of a pattern, spelt out in 1991 by James Baker, President George H W Bush’s secretary of state: “Every time I have gone to Israel in connection with the peace process … I have been met with an announcement of new settlement activities. It substantially weakens our hand in trying to bring about a peace process.” That is as true now as it was then.

Also part of the routine: suggestions from critics of Israeli policy that the United States uses its vast aid program to Israel as a lever to change its behavior. “Cut off the Cash and Israel Might Behave” said a headline at the height of the latest U.S.-Israeli spat over settlements. The headline ran over an essay in a British newspaper, The Independent, by Avi Shlaim, a professor of international relations at the University of Oxford who served in the Israeli army.
The folder in which to file that idea might be labeled Wishful Thinking.

Since the end of the Second World War, Israel has been the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign aid, according to the Congressional Research Service, the research arm of Congress. Since 1985, aid to Israel has run at around $3 billion a year, a sizable sum for a country with a population roughly equal to that of New York City.

Attempts to use aid as a lever have been few and far between. In 1991, the elder Bush asked Congress to delay $10 billion in loan guarantees to get Israel to stop building new settlements. This sparked a determined lobbying effort by the American Israeli Political Action Committee, the biggest pro-Israel advocacy group, and prompted Bush to describe himself as “one lonely guy” facing powerful political forces in the shape of “a thousand lobbyists on the Hill.”

The quip illustrated both the limits of presidential power and solid congressional support for Israel. It runs across partisan divides and was highlighted once again during Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Washington in March, when President Barack Obama made known his displeasure over yet more settlements by dispensing with standard protocol. No joint declaration, no dinner, no photo opportunity, exit through the back door.


That contrasted markedly with warm remarks from the Democratic House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and the leader of the House Republicans, John Boehner. “We in Congress stand by Israel. In Congress we speak with one voice on the subject of Israel,” said Pelosi. “We have no stronger ally anywhere in the world,” said Boehner.

Vice President Joseph Biden, a staunch defender of Israel in his 36 years in the Senate, even after he was blindsided during a Jerusalem visit by an announcement of 1,600 new  Jewish settlements, said “there is no space absolutely no space between the United States and Israel when it comes to security, none. No space.”

Such joined-at-the-hip thinking is the reason why U.S. military aid to Israel has been designed to give the recipient a “qualitative military edge” (QME) over its potential adversaries. The QME dates back to President Lyndon Johnson and is not connected to the ups and downs of the relationship – a day after Netanyahu’s tense meeting with Obama, the Pentagon announced an agreement to supply Israel with three new tactical transport aircraft, part of an order worth up to $1.9 billion.

Providing Israel with generous economic and military aid made sense, from an American point of view, during the Cold War when the Soviet Union was propping up its client states in the Middle East and the United States needed a reliably pro-American outpost. As the late Secretary of State Alexander Haig once put it: “Israel is the largest, most battle-tested and cost-effective U.S. aircraft carrier that cannot be sunk, does not carry even one U.S. soldier, and is located in a most critical region for U.S. national security. ” In short, a strategic asset.

Is it still? Or is lack of progress on making peace with the Palestinians turning Israel into a liability for its long-term benefactor. In March, in written testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Central Command chief General David Petraeus, listed “insufficient progress towards a comprehensive Middle East peace” as number five on a list of 15 threats to U.S. national security.

Petraeus, whose Central Command covers 20 countries in the Middle East and South and Central Asia, assigned no blame for the lack of progress but said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fomented anti-American sentiment “due to a perception of U.S. favoritism to Israel. ” Al Qaeda and other militant groups, he said, exploited Arab anger over the Palestinian issue to mobilize support.

That places Israel and foot-dragging over settlements in the liability column of the ledger. But that won’t affect continued U.S. military aid. Under a ten-year agreement signed in 2007, military aid will reach $3.15 billion a year by 2013 and will stay at that level until 2018. Progress towards peace or not.


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This so-called “friend” and “strategic asset” is actually neither. How many friends do you know who’d take money from you year after year, yet completely ignore you when you ask them to do something? And how many Israeli troops helped us out in the Gulf Wars, Iraq, and Afghanistan? So please tell me just what we Americans get out of this “special relationship.”

Posted by Antonius76 | Report as abusive

Lately during elections, I find amuzing watching US. politicians traveling to Israel, wearing Jewish clothes, and proclaiming that there is no one else in the world who loves Israel more than He or She does.Even Obama, did it prior to his election. Elections are coming in November and we will watch the same movie clips and proclamations again and again. This is the state that America is in.

Posted by adello | Report as abusive

yr2009, you are trying to make israel bigger than what it is. israel had absolutely nothing to do with stopping soviet expansion. the afghans took care of that. the only weakness that was exposed was isrel’s in its war against hezbollah back in 2006. we saw how the “mighty” IDF was brought to its knees and was sent home like cowards.

Posted by sidrock23 | Report as abusive

In 1982 the Israeli air force destroyed over 100 Soviet made Syrian aircraft, and lost just 1 US made aircraft. Beat that.

Israel destroyed Saddam’s nuclear program. That was a pretty useful action, in hindsight.

Nasrallah admitted that had he known the outcome of the 2006 war, he would have not ordered the event that caused it. You see, for the Hizballah, the mere fact they weren’t completely annihilated by the IDF in 2006 is a great victory, but between us, it’s a somehow delusional way of looking at the facts.

BTW, Israel didn’t participate in the war(s) against Iraq simply because it wasn’t invited…

Posted by yr2009 | Report as abusive

Israelis have the misfortune of their country being run by a bunch of shoddy little war criminals – a bit like the United States, so no wonder there’s a sense of camaraderie. Why the United States even bothers to prosecute Israeli spies nobody is quite sure, since it sends the wrong message to American criminals that what they do may eventually be punished.

Posted by HBC | Report as abusive

How many JDF members does it take to monitor comment sections?

Posted by chinggutchuk | Report as abusive

The lack of a peace settlement keeps the money flowing! My concern is the effect of propaganda upon the US people and government. Middle East experts should be peace seekers – not perpetuators of BS.

Posted by chinggutchuk | Report as abusive

Israel will have peace when it admits that Palestinians are as much human beings as Jews.

Anyone wanting to know what really happened in 1948 should read Israeli historian Ilan Pappe’s book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. He explains that the Zionists used mass terror to expel the Palestinians from their ancestral homeland. Until this original sin is rectified by Israel, it has no right to complain about Palestinian terror.

In fact, Israel proved terror works. The Palestinians are just following the Zionist model.

Posted by Gaius_Baltar | Report as abusive

For America’s Middle East policy to ever be effective it must focus all it’s effort with a three pronged policy for Israel security:
1. No illegal settlements.
2. No illegal settlements.
3. No illegal settlements!

Posted by humanwrites | Report as abusive

America’s Middle East initiatives will only become effective when we truly demand that there is but one three-pronged solution:

1. No illegal settlements.
2. No illegal settlements.
3. No illegal settlements!

As GW once said: ‘What is it about no negotiation that they don’t understand?”

Posted by humanwrites | Report as abusive