Since the 1970s, the United States has provided billions of dollars annually in military-related economic assistance to Israel. Most of this is tied to the 1979 peace agreement between Israel and Egypt brokered by Pres. Carter at Camp David, with a commitment made to Israel in return for its complete withdrawal from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula of providing a greater proportion of military aid than what’s given to Egypt.
In September 2016, the Obama administration signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) committing $38 billion of military aid to Israel over ten years ($3.8 billion per year), in order to guarantee Israel’s qualitative military edge over its regional adversaries. At the same time, this aid constitutes an indirect US governmental subsidy to domestic defense contractors, as it mostly (if not entirely) requires contracts with American firms.
In recent weeks, there has been a flurry of media attention revisiting this question of aid to Israel, mostly raised by sources friendly toward Israel and its security concerns (even if critical of certain Israeli policies). The first recent such analysis was in the online journal, Tablet, written from a right-wing pro-Israel viewpoint by Jacob Siegel and Liel Leibovitz: “End U.S. Aid to Israel: America’s manipulation of the Jewish state is endangering Israel and American Jews.” They argue that US aid is restraining Israel from acting independently in its self-interest, and putting a damper on more fully developing its defense industry.
Next came a NY Times column by Nicholas Kristof, writing from a somewhat barbed liberal perspective that “With Israel, It’s Time to Start Discussing the Unmentionable.” He includes affirmative discussions on this proposition with two former US ambassadors to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer and Martin Indyk, the former politician and veteran peacemaker Yossi Beilin, and an ex-prime minister, Ehud Barak.
In a news article in Haaretz published on the same day as Kristof’s piece, the headline proclaims: “Former U.S. Ambassadors: Time to Reconsider Military Assistance to Israel,” with the subhead explaining that “The two former U.S. ambassadors to Israel claim that the aid provides ‘no leverage or influence’ over Israeli decisions, and [yet] cause U.S. to seem like ‘enablers’ of Israel’s occupation.” A newsletter article in Jewish Currents reports on this issue rather gleefully, with the subhead that “Once a consensus position, US funding of Israel now has new detractors from the heart of the political establishment.”
But this issue has been raised by “establishment” figures before. Beilin and Kurtzer co-authored an article in 2020 advocating new “bilateral agreements” between Israel and the US, rather than the current relationship of unilateral aid. On the PBS Newshour recently, Amb. Kurtzer, now a Princeton University professor, argued the case for transforming Israel from the number one recipient of US military aid since 1980 to a partner in the development of defense technology:
Israel is a mature country with a mature economy. In fact, its GDP per capita is stronger than Japan’s.
And so, in fact, it really doesn’t need the U.S. military assistance, number one. Number two, this has nothing to do with the current crisis in Israel. It’s not punitive. But it’s, rather, a way to make this relationship sound and on a much better footing than it currently is.
What I have argued for is to substitute for the military assistance two agreements between our countries, one that would effectively give Israel access to American technology and America access to Israeli technology, and, secondly, to set up a joint R&D mechanism so that we can really build technology together.
That would be a far better way than this kind of dependency relationship that we have established over the years.
. . . . It would have to be phased out. . . . In the 1990s, we phased out our economic assistance over 10 years. And I think it would take at least five, perhaps more years to work out the agreements that I have been calling for.
And I think, frankly, it’s better for both of our countries. The Israeli military industry will grow as a result of it. And there won’t be this shadow hanging over our relationship that somehow we [the US] can exercise pressure as a result of aid. We don’t do that anyway. . . .