Against steep odds, Israel won its war of independence in 1948 without a nickel of US military aid. Israel likewise fought its second major war, the 1956 Suez campaign, with no arms from the United States. In 1967, when Israel was threatened simultaneously by Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, Jerusalem’s urgent pleas for US weapons were rebuffed by President Lyndon Johnson, and Israel fought the Six Day War primarily with weapons previously supplied by France.
It was only in the wake of the 1967 war that the United States began to make significant military aid available to Israel. And it was only during the Yom Kippur War of 1973 — when President Richard Nixon gave the dramatic order to resupply the embattled Jewish state using “everything that can fly” — that US security assistance for Israel began to flow in earnest. By the 1980s, Israel was getting roughly $1.8 billion a year in military funding. For the past decade or so, the annual amount has totaled $3.8 billion. No other country has received so much military aid from the United States for such an extended period.
It’s time for that aid to end.
There have been any number of calls in recent months for curtailing US funding for Israel’s military, but this is not a new position for me. Since as far back as the Obama administration, I have argued that America’s military largesse to Israel should be discontinued. Of course, Israel’s most unhinged foes have always railed against the aid it receives from the United States. But it is as a strong supporter of Israel that I want to see the spigot closed — not to drive Jerusalem and Washington apart but to make their relationship stronger.
Make no mistake: America’s generosity has proved over the years to be both a tremendous boon to Israel and a phenomenally successful investment by the United States in its own security interests. It has confronted Israel’s enemies with concrete evidence of superpower support. It has extended America’s strategic reach in the Middle East without requiring the deployment of US troops. And it has powerfully underscored the unique bond that exists between the two countries — a relationship rooted in a mutual commitment to liberal democracy, resistance to common enemies, and a shared legacy of Judeo-Christian roots.
But billions of dollars each year in US military aid to Israel can no longer be justified. Both nations would be better off without it.
To begin with, from America’s perspective the annual grant to Israel is unaffordable. The United States is nearly $33 trillion in debt, and the federal government’s current budget is more than $1.7 trillion in the red. In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — the most urgent crisis now facing the West — Washington has funneled more than $75 billion in assistance to Kyiv, with billions more certain to follow. Vast new sums will be needed as well to counter an increasingly belligerent China, which is intent on displacing the United States as the linchpin of the international order and has been massively increasing its military spending and threatening to invade Taiwan. America has acute national-security concerns. Subsidizing Israel’s military budget is not among them.
Of course, Israel has acute national-security concerns too, as it always has. US military aid, however welcome in the past, now only makes them more acute. The billions given to Israel each year come with too many strings attached. Nearly all the dollars are provided in the form of credits that may be spent only on purchases from US defense companies. Israel is not free to use the money on military research and development, or on manufacturing arms within its own borders. It is not allowed to buy or sell defense equipment to or from other countries without US approval. It’s a great arrangement for US defense behemoths like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. For Israel, it’s a lot more problematic.
Inevitably, he who pays the piper calls the tune. The United States has never been shy about leveraging its aid to get what it wants. Time and again, US presidents have treated Israel as a client state, asserting a veto over Israel’s right to act in what it considers its own interest. In January 1991, for example, President George H.W. Bush forcefully pressured Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir not to retaliate after Iraq fired long-range Scud missiles at Tel Aviv at the start of the Gulf War. During Israel’s war with Hamas in the summer of 2014, President Obama refused to let Israel take possession of precision Hellfire missiles, even though the Defense Department had already approved the sale. In 1979, during a visit to Jerusalem amid negotiations between Israel and Egypt, a frustrated President Jimmy Carter reportedly snapped at a roomful of Israeli government ministers: “You will do whatever the United States tells you to do.”
Deference to US demands was one thing when Israel was small, poor, and desperate. But the Jewish state is now an economic powerhouse, with military and intelligence services that are among the world’s most formidable. As a matter of sovereign self-respect, it should want to be treated by its closest ally as an equal, not as a junior partner. Strategic autonomy is a key component of deterrence — and that autonomy is not worth downgrading for the sake of military credits.
Surely it is obvious that America has more pressing uses for the $3.8 billion it gives Israel each year. Surely it is just as obvious that Israel — which didn’t need US aid to prevail on the battlefield in 1948, 1956, and 1967 — can defend itself without going hat in hand to America. The ties that bind the United States and Israel are too important to continue being entangled with money. The era of lavish military aid that began with the Yom Kippur War has now lasted 50 years. It doesn’t need to last any longer.