In a ceremony Wednesday in Washington, the national security advisors of Israel and the United States officially affirmed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that secures the next decade of U.S. military aid to Israel. The deal, $38 billion over 10 years, is the largest package of defense aid in the history of U.S.-Israel relations. It sent a clear message to the world that despite personal tensions between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the United States is absolutely committed to ensuring Israel’s security by making sure it has the capability to defend itself from almost any imaginable security threat.
Unlike the previous MOU, which stood at $3.1 billion per year, the current deal also anchors U.S. funding for missile defense systems into the yearly sum, rather than allocating it on an ad-hoc basis per Israeli requests. The major point of controversy during negotiations—and the White House’s key stipulation to which Israel originally objected—concerned the MOU’s effect on the Israeli defense industry. Currently, 26 percent of American funds were allowed to be converted to shekels and spent domestically. This arrangement will fade out over the course of the decade, so that by the end of the upcoming MOU, Israel’s aid money will be spent solely on American arms and technology.
Not surprisingly, a predictable debate arises in Washington every so often regarding this support. Pro-Israel voices claim that this defense relationship is not only crucial for an important American ally and a lone democracy in a turbulent region, but is also beneficial for the United States as well, both strategically and financially—since 74 (and soon, 100) percent of the aid must be spent in America.
On the other side, opinions range from those who don’t think Israel should receive defense or any kind of aid, to those who think aid should be contingent upon significant policy shifts, especially regarding settlements. And of course, there are those who don’t think any country should receive American aid.
Surprisingly, however, some of the voices now arguing to end American defense support for Israel are serious Israel supporters in the U.S., as well as right-wing Israelis whose patriotism is rarely questioned.
Renowned Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby argued that it is “possible to support Israel and uphold the importance of the U.S.-Israeli relationship while simultaneously opposing the annual subsidy Congress provides to the Israeli military.” Jacoby, like others, noted Israel’s “booming economy” and first-class arms industry, and proposed that out of “national self-respect, Israel should want to wean itself off the U.S. dole.”
Jacoby’s most interesting point was borrowed from a former Israeli general, who said in an interview with Defense News last month that “Israel is so addicted to advanced U.S. platforms and…weaponry they deliver that we’ve stopped thinking creatively in terms of operational concepts.” Continued dependence on U.S. aid “has institutionalized Israeli reliance on air power and ever-more-advanced technology, at the expense of focusing more intensively on ground maneuvers and the unique threat posed by enemies waging asymmetric warfare,” Jacoby summarized.
Jacoby noted that right-wing Israeli politician Naftali Bennett “also wants to cut the cord,” and quoted former defense minister Moshe Arens as saying “we love to get it…but we could get along without it.” Eli Lake, writing for Bloomberg View, similarly suggested that Israel “negotiate a deal to wean the country, over time, off the military aid.”
Some of these points are worth taking a deeper look.
It’s true that Israel’s economic state is light-years ahead of where it was when defense aid began in the 1980s. At its height, the same $3 billion comprised 20 percent of Israel’s GDP; today it is about one percent.
But that alone does not make the case for why Israel should reject U.S. defense aid. Arguments about GDP in general don’t take into account the specifics of Israel’s defense budget. At about $16 billion per year, Israel’s defense budget is 5.6% of its GDP—the highest percentage in the Western world. And in that context, $3 or even $4 billion a year is not insignificant. Arens’s “we love to get it…but we could get along without it” perhaps is more fitting in this context. Israel would most certainly survive with a military budget reduced by a quarter—but belts would have to be tightened all around.
It is true that Israel today has no conventional military threats in the near- or mid-term, which has led many to question the necessity of the aid and of such a large military budget. The peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan have held strong. Iraq and now Syria are no longer directly dangerous. Iran’s nuclear threat has been pushed back for about the next decade. And the combination of Iran’s regional aggression and the rise of militant radical Islam—like ISIS and its affiliates—has led to an unofficial but growingly public and open alliance between Israel and the Saudi-led coalition of Gulf states.
But the flip-side is that all these countries are also arming themselves to the teeth. For now, this is in expectation of a rising Iran or the threat of ISIS. But who knows what might happen down the road. As even recent history taught us, regimes change quickly in this part of the world. And so in this sense, the F-15s now in Saudi Arabia that now face Iran might one day be turned toward Israel—consider that Iran’s air force was comprised mainly of F-14s before the Islamic Revolution. Most recently, we witnessed how a considerable arsenal of American arms was looted by ISIS thugs. And while Jacoby’s sentiment is nice, Israel doesn’t have the luxury of geographic distance from its military threats as does the U.S., from where he writes. More importantly, it is precisely because Israel is so overwhelmingly powerful that its neighbors refrain from attacking it.
In part due to necessity and in part due to American subsidies, Israel has become a world-class arms producer and exporter, creating and selling widely-admired UAVs, avionics, radar systems, active defense systems, armor and upgrade kits, and more. While it’s true that the U.S. and Israel at times compete on certain products, Israel’s arms industry is largely built up as a niche provider of advanced complementary electronic systems or upgrade kits for American-made platforms. Having been able to rely on platforms produced and subsidized by the United States has allowed for Israel to develop their arms industry in this direction. That is also the main reason why those, such as Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick, who call to scrap U.S. aid and F-35 sales and launch a national project to develop a world-class fighter instead are delusional. Israel’s experience with the Lavi Fighter in the 1980’s proved that this was a colossal mistake that sapped the resources of a small country. It’s no accident that only a handful of countries, far larger and wealthier than Israel, have succeeded in producing a world-class automobile, let alone a fighter. Even Europe’s much larger countries eventually banded together to jointly produce and fund the Eurofighter. Expecting Israel to shift its entire R&D and production base to build its own fighter would be a folly pursuit.
To some extent, Jacoby and others are right that Israel has become more reliant on airpower and technology than creative military concepts. But this has more to do with the nature of conflicts, Israel’s enemies, and the international system. Perhaps the IDF was over-reliant on airpower in the Second Lebanon War, and should have launched its ground maneuvers far sooner. But it’s difficult to argue with the criticality of such high-tech platforms like Iron Dome, David’s Sling, and the anti-tunnel system that is becoming operational. These systems, funded in large part by U.S. aid, give Israel a third option of restraint against Hamas and Hezbollah, instead of aerial bombing campaigns or full conquest and regime change. Israel’s legendary military innovation can be helped as much by a budget boost as it can be stifled by it.
Some critics of U.S. aid, including in Israel, note that during a time of economic recession in the U.S., Israel would be wise to forgo this aid of its own volition, and gain the admiration of a tight-pocketed American public. They further point out that Israel today is the largest recipient of U.S. foreign military aid—about half of all military aid doled out. However, this approach misses out on two things. The first is that much of the American public seems to be just fine with the current support level. A Pew study conducted in February 2015 noted that 48 percent of Americans say the U.S. level of support for Israel is about right, while 29 percent say the U.S. isn’t supportive enough. That means 77 percent of Americans have no problem with the current level of support (although they were not asked specifically about the military aid). In April, 80 of the 100 senators signed a letter to President Obama asking to increase military aid to Israel.
The other key point, however, is that while Israel receives the biggest sum of defense aid, the U.S. is actually getting more bang for its buck than these critics realize. In 2015, the U.S. had 150,000 troops stationed in 800 bases in 80 countries around the world. 35,000 of these were positioned in 20 Middle Eastern countries. This global military presence—which ensures everything from the protection of vulnerable allies to open shipping routes and an open economy—cost the U.S. taxpayer $156 billion a year, according to The Nation. Even with Iraq and Afghanistan out of the equation, this still amounted to a whopping $85 billion a year. In that context, $3 or $4 billion to shore up a key ally in a dangerous neighborhood seems altogether affordable. U.S. troops have never had to go into Israel to fight its fights—as it has done or is prepared to do in all those other countries (28,000 American troops are now stationed in South Korea while American bombers fly overhead after Kim Jong-Un’s latest provocation). And this doesn’t take into account the plethora of innovation and joint projects developed in Israel with the help of this aid. These technologies are, of course, all shared with the U.S. Even after the direct funding to the Israeli industries dries up in 10 years’ time, we can surely expect Israel to fully share its innovations with the U.S.
This brings us to the last of the major issues that comes up time and again from those arguing for Israel to end its reliance on U.S. aid: the notion of national pride and independence in policymaking. And this is where the advocates for this direction seem to be short-sighted, perhaps viewing this defense aid as charity.
While a large part of America has been supportive of Israel since its creation, and supportive of the idea of a reborn Jewish homeland in Israel, the U.S. refused to militarily support Israel until it squarely fit in with its strategic interests in the Middle East during the Cold War. After being the first to recognize Israel, the U.S. would maintain a cold distance from the Jewish state until the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. It wasn’t until Israel showed its military dominance in 1967 that the U.S. would truly see Israel as a useful Cold War ally.
Israel would play the Cold War proxy as long as it faced off against a host of Soviet-backed Arab armies, as it did in 1973. The military aid really took off and reached its current levels in the 1980s, at the height of the Cold War. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, the U.S.-Israel military relationship had taken on a life of its own—backed by the centuries-old American affinity for the Zionist idea and kinship with the Jewish people.
But the Cold War has long been over, Israel’s conventional enemies are, for now, gone, and, as mentioned, Israel’s economy is vastly better off than when defense aid started. What all this points to, however, is the need to review and revise the U.S.-Israel defense relationship—not scrap it outright.
So what might this relationship look like given today’s geopolitical realities and looking forward for the foreseeable future?
Over the past eight years, the United States has signaled a major foreign policy shift in the direction of isolationism. Frustrated from failed adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and perhaps overlearning the lessons of strategic overreach, the U.S. has been far more cautious to undertake military action. Military action is contingent only on direct threats to U.S. national security, defined in what turns out to be very narrow terms. Threats to U.S. allies, or at least those formerly considered so, might at best warrant military training, intelligence, advanced arms sales, or a remote-controlled aerial campaign. Moreover, the Middle East is not nearly as important for the U.S. as it once was—America is less dependent on Middle Eastern oil, and views East Asia as a far greater strategic priority. Obama has also voiced frustration and perhaps exhaustion with certain “free riders” who enjoy American support and have little to offer in return.
But while the Middle East may have disappointed as far as its potential benefits, it has continued to steadily export global instability, in the form of collapsed states and civil wars that breed refugees and radical Islamic terror—both of which have shown little regard for the borders of the greater Middle East. ISIS-planned or -inspired terror has struck from California to Florida, throughout Europe and the Middle East, while hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees have flooded into Europe and millions more are causing those states untouched by the war to become unstable themselves.
President Obama and a large percentage of the American people may shy away from notions of empire—this has been evident since his first day in office. But it is becoming increasingly clear to many that the U.S. cannot wholly cede from its role as global stabilizer. That is why a reimagined U.S.-Israel defense relationship can offer a prime example for a model that synthesizes America’s begrudging realization that it must remain active in world affairs with its reticence to do so.
Both countries could strive to coordinate their foreign policies in a manner that ensures the U.S. won’t need to come in on its own to solve some of the problems around Israel. As it turns out, some serious people are already discussing such a possibility. Reporting on a group calling itself the “Commission on the Eastern Mediterranean”, Haviv Rettig Gur wrote in the Times of Israel that retired American and Israeli Navy chiefs, national security officials, diplomats and businesspeople are imagining a greater maritime role for Israel in the Eastern Mediterranean, especially as the Jewish state must now prepare to defend its vast natural gas fields. Taking this thinking forward, it is not crazy to imagine a beefed-up Israeli navy that could also help tackle challenges like pirates in the Red Sea, while IDF special forces could help train pro-West militias in Syria and more. Israel is already reported to be providing crucial intelligence and even some arms to its friendlier neighbors—seeking to stave off Iran and ISIS-like forces at the same time.
To be sure, defense officials and military officers from both countries meet regularly to discuss foreign policy and security priorities, share strategies, and trade intelligence. On some level, it is implied and intuitive that the cooperation is deep and strong given such a natural range of common interests. But the next era of U.S.-Israel strategic relations, which has yet to define itself in the post-Cold War period, might need to more explicitly map out and coordinate such priorities.
If found successful, this model might then be applicable to other U.S. allies. As the U.S. pulls its own troops out of the region, it can focus on shoring up other allies who share similar values and a similar world view, delineating areas where certain countries hold certain advantages, and ensuring minimal U.S. involvement in distant and turbulent parts of the world.
This kind of model would allow the U.S. to help maintain a regional and world order that supports free trade, discourages aggression, and (ideally) encourages liberal democracy, all the while reserving U.S. troops for when they are needed most.
This model would also allow supporters of Israel calling for ending the defense relationship to take more pride in the role Jerusalem plays in such regional order, based in no small part on this defense aid, rather than viewing it as charity or a guilt offering.
Given that Israel has never asked for nor does it need U.S. troops, this Israeli model would be a fine starting point to help the U.S. improve relations with other allies–helping both sides achieve their strategic aims.
Dan Feferman is a major (res.) in the Israel Defense Forces, where he served as a foreign policy strategist and planner and an intelligence officer. He researches, writes, and speaks about Middle East security and diplomacy matters.
[Photo: Embassy of Israel]