A longtime reader, unabashedly Zionist, chastises me.
“I can’t believe you’re going to vote for Gary Johnson for president,” she writes. “You’ve always been a great supporter of Israel. How can you be with a candidate who wants to eliminate US aid to Israel?”
I replied that Johnson, the Libertarian Party nominee, has a number of positions I strongly disagree with. But this isn’t one of them. I want to eliminate US aid to Israel too.
Johnson has said that he “advocate[s] ending all foreign aid” and has criticized the federal government for “spending us deeper and deeper into debt while we shell out billions in foreign aid we can no longer afford.” The Libertarian platform endorses a policy of no foreign intervention, “including military and economic aid.”
At the same time, Johnson has said unequivocally that “Israel has been and will remain an important ally.” Both he and his running mate, Bill Weld, are former Republican governors; both appear to hold Israel in the same esteem that most Americans do — particularly Americans with Republican or conservative leanings.
But is it possible to support Israel and uphold the importance of the US-Israeli relationship while simultaneously opposing the annual subsidy Congress provides to Israel’s military? Of course it is. The Jewish state, with its booming economy, doesn’t need American charity. If only out of national self-respect, Israel should want to wean itself off the US dole — and America shouldn’t want its friendship for its stalwart Middle East ally to be tainted by financial dependence.
Admittedly, this is not the traditional pro-Israel view. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) characterizes US military aid to Israel as “the most tangible manifestation of American support.” That aid currently amounts to $3.1 billion a year, and will likely rise to $3.8 billion if a proposed 10-year aid package — which AIPAC vigorously supports — is approved. For decades, pro-Israel groups like AIPAC have stressed that US aid represents “the immutability of the US-Israel alliance.” And Israel-bashers agree: Many of them venomously denounce US aid precisely because they detest the close ties between Washington and Jerusalem that the aid reflects.
But the US-Israel alliance would be stronger, not weaker, if the financial largesse were removed from the picture. That money comes with strings attached — strings that by definition limit Israel’s freedom to make choices.
For example, Israel is required to spend 75 percent of each year’s assistance in the United States. That money may not be used to pursue military R&D or acquire weapons in Israel itself, even though the country has a domestic arms industry with a global reputation. (Under the new package being negotiated, Israel would have to spend all US aid in the United States.) Military aid to Israel thus amounts to a significant subsidy for the US defense industry. That may be great for Lockheed Martin, but it has inevitably distorted Israel’s military decision-making.
In an interview with Defense News last month, the former commander of the Israel Defense Force’s Northern Corps, and one-time commander of its military colleges, argued that US defense assistance “harms and corrupts” his country’s national security interests.
“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,” said Major General Gershon Hacohen, who is now a reservist in the IDF. Dependence on US aid, he contends, 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.
Hacohen thinks Israel should break its addiction to US aid, and he’s not alone in saying so. Naftali Bennett, an Israeli cabinet minister who made a fortune in software engineering before entering politics, also wants to cut the cord. US military aid, he points out, amounts to only 1 percent of Israel’s nearly $300 billion GDP. A generation ago, American aid might have been indispensable. But the country today, he says, “is much stronger, much wealthier, and we need to be independent.” Support for winding down the military handouts comes as well from elder statesman Moshe Arens, a former Israeli defense minister and ambassador to Washington. “We love to get it . . . but we could get along without it,” Arens told a parliamentary conference in 2013.
Besides military aid, the United States for many years supplied Israel with economic assistance funds. By the 1990s, the notion that Israel’s surging high-tech economy needed to be propped up by American taxpayers had become embarrassing. The subsidies were phased out. By 2007 they were gone, and no one regrets their disappearance.
What happened with economic aid should now happen with military aid. Israel is healthy enough to stand on its own two feet, and it should be a matter of pride for it to do so. The ties that bind Americans and Israelis are among the strongest in the world. Disentangle them from foreign aid and they’ll be even stronger.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at email@example.com.