The New Debate Over Aid to Israel

Once a consensus position, US funding of Israel now has new detractors from the heart of the political establishment.

Alex Kane
August 8, 2023

US General Martin E. Dempsey meets with Israel's military chief of staff Benny Gantz as they disembark from an Israeli Black Hawk helicopter in October 2012.

Heidi Levine/Sipa USA via AP Images

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Last month, the online Jewish magazine Tablet, a reliably right-wing Zionist publication, published an article by staffers Jacob Siegel and Liel Leibovitz with a surprising headline: “End U.S. Aid to Israel.” In contrast to prevailing wisdom, the article argued that “American payouts undermine Israel’s domestic defense industry, weaken its economy, and compromise the country’s autonomy” and called for “the stranglehold of aid” to be cut so that both the US and especially Israel could pursue their own interests. About a week later, the Tablet piece was cited by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in his own writeup arguing that it is time to “rethink American aid” to Israel because the aid “squanders scarce resources and creates an unhealthy relationship damaging to both sides.” Kristof’s column attracted significant attention because he quoted three former United States officials, including two former ambassadors to Israel—Martin Indyk and Daniel Kurtzer—who agreed that the US ought to at least discuss ending the annual allotment of $3.8 billion in military aid it sends to Israel every year.

Together, the Tablet and New York Times stories have mainstreamed a debate that was previously confined to fringe corners of the left and the right. After the Times article came out, Kurtzer went on PBS Newshour and reiterated that Israel doesn’t need US aid. Kurtzer is part of a growing chorus. In July, David Rothkopf—the former CEO and editor-in-chief of FP Group, which publishes Foreign Policy magazine—wrote in The Daily Beast that “aid to Israel cannot be a blank check.” And just last week, Washington Post columnist and Council on Foreign Relations fellow Max Boot joined the appeals to end aid.

These entrants to the aid debate fall into three different camps: conservatives like Siegel and Leibovitz, who argue that US aid harms Israel’s autonomy; foreign policy establishment figures like Kurtzer, who believe aid doesn’t make economic sense; and liberals like Rothkopf and Boot, who see cutting aid as a response to right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s extremist coalition. Unlike Palestine solidarity advocates, who have long called for restricting US funding on the basis of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, newer opponents of the aid package are focused not on human rights but on the health of the US-Israel relationship. But even if recent calls for restricting aid are not aligned with Palestine solidarity activism, Middle East scholar Yousef Munayyer said that the fact that US aid to Israel is being debated at all is a sign that the traditional consensus on US aid to Israel is beginning to break down. “For a long time, the United States giving Israel a blank check for military aid was so uncontroversial, it was not even a topic of discussion,” said Munayyer, who is head of the Arab Center Washington DC’s Palestine/Israel program. “Now you are hearing conversations about it across the political spectrum. Clearly, the idea doesn’t hold the kind of hegemony it once did.”

US military assistance is a critical pillar of the US–Israel alliance. The aid, which currently totals $3.8 billion yearly and makes up around 16% of Israel’s defense budget, “sends a message to the world about the big connection between the United States and Israel, the tie that you cannot break no matter what’s going on,” Jacob Nagel, a former head of Israel’s National Security Council, told Jewish Currents. (Negel was the lead Israeli negotiator during the talks that led to the US promising Israel $3.8 billion in annual aid from 2019–2028.) In addition to its material and symbolic importance to Israel, this aid package benefits the US in various ways. For one, it empowers an Israeli army that shares the same regional foes as the United States, such as Iran. And because the memorandums of understanding governing US aid require Israel to use most of the money on US-made weapons, the aid package also functions as a large subsidy to US defense contractors. Although Israel has enjoyed the unique status of being able to use about 25% of the aid money to buy Israeli-made weapons since the 1980s, that program—known as Off-Shore Procurement—will be phased out by 2029. Lastly, because Israel is often the first country to gain access to new US weapons systems, its deployment of such weapons allows US officials to get a look at how the weapons perform in conflict zones. According to Nagel, the aid arrangement benefits the defensive capabilities and geopolitical standing of both countries, in addition to being good for “the economy of Israel. And it’s good for American industry—it’s good for Lockheed Martin and Boeing.”

The US aid package to Israel has enjoyed deep bipartisan support in Congress and the White House, but progressive critics have long asked to either end the entire aid package or at least condition it on Israel changing its policies towards Palestinians. Palestinian rights advocates have often pointed out that US weapons sent to Israel—guns, fighter jets, missiles, and tanks—have contributed directly to the deaths of Palestinian civilians. Human rights activists have also argued that the aid helps Israel to entrench its repressive military rule over Palestinians and subsidizes an Israeli weapons industry that exports arms to authoritarian regimes around the world. Withholding aid, some say, could also be used as leverage to force Israel to change these policies.

In recent years, a growing group of progressive Democrats in Congress have brought the issue from the political margins into the limelight. Since 2017, Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum has regularly introduced legislation that would ban Israel’s army from using US aid to detain and abuse Palestinian children. This year’s version of the McCollum legislation has 28 Democratic co-sponsors. The progressive argument against aid to Israel is also growing in popularity among the general public. A 2021 poll conducted by the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs found that 50% percent of all Americans—including 60% percent of Democrats—want the US to restrict aid to Israel so that it cannot be used in military operations against Palestinians. Zaha Hassan, a human rights lawyer and a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Jewish Currents that such polls establish “that Americans—particularly Democrats—don’t want the US to be associated with a regime that carries out human rights abuses rising to the level of crimes against humanity and apartheid.”

Progressives haven’t been the only longstanding critics of US aid to Israel. On the US right, libertarians oppose all US foreign aid, while paleoconservatives like Pat Buchanan view Israel as an strategic albatross that pushes the US towards unnecessary involvement in the Middle East. Even some Israeli right-wingers want to wean Israel off its US subsidy. In 2016, former Israeli general Gershon Hacohen argued that US aid has institutionalized the Israeli army’s reliance on air power instead of allowing it to pursue innovative ground warfare. Meanwhile, Moshe Feiglin, a hardline former Likud lawmaker and former deputy speaker of the Knesset, has long claimed that US aid allows the US to dictate choices to Israel. This argument about Israel’s autonomy resonates among Jewish conservatives in the US, including Tablet’s Siegel and Leibobitz—who argue that aid allows the US “veto power over everything from Israeli weapons sales to diplomatic and military strategy.” In a follow-up Tablet piece, right-wing Israeli-American columnist Caroline Glick similarly wrote that the US aid package harms Israel, citing an incident during Israel’s 2014 bombing campaign in Gaza when the Obama administration briefly held-up the export of Hellfire missiles to Israel, which Glick said hampered Israel’s fight with Hamas. (The missiles were exported to Israel the following month.)

Given the increasing unpopularity of the aid package on both ends of the US political spectrum, some are proposing a new model that they say would benefit both Israel and the US. Former Israeli official Yoram Ettinger, who worked at the US embassy in Israel in the early 1990s, told Jewish Currents that instead of providing Israel aid, the US should create joint investment funds with the goal of developing military technology beneficial to both countries. Ettinger said such an arrangement would be politically sustainable in the US because “Americans prefer an ally free of foreign aid.” Former US ambassador Kurtzer likewise told Jewish Currents that joint research and development funds should replace aid to Israel. “When you parachute in this money, you’re relieving Israel from the need to make a choice on whether to buy another F-35 or provide money for education,” Kurtzer said. Instead, “Israel should want to have a relationship with the United States based on absolute equality: Two sovereign countries that make an arrangement to share technology and to do research and development together,” he said. “[Israel should] not be on the dole—a country as wealthy as Israel does not need the money.”

While alternatives to aid are gaining some support, many in the US and Israel are invested in the continuation of aid. “The vast majority of [Israeli] military people want very convenient and quick solutions to their challenges,” Ettinger said. Many Israel supporters in the US likewise support the status quo. A week and a half after the Tablet article calling to end aid to Israel, Democratic Rep. Ritchie Torres and Republican Senator Ted Cruz both published responses disagreeing with the proposal, with Torres calling it “a solution in search of a problem.” AIPAC—the flagship Israel lobby group in Washington—repeatedly highlighted Torres’s article on their Twitter feed.

In a White House controlled by President Joe Biden, who is an ardent supporter of aid to Israel, the prospects for actually ending the US aid package are slim. And even those who are calling for an end to US aid to Israel are not necessarily pushing for an end to the US–Israel alliance. Kurtzer—who has been advancing arguments against aid since 2020 and said that his call to end aid is not a punitive response to the current Netanyahu government—made it clear that the US will continue supporting Israel, aid or no aid. “We’ll continue to do all the other things that we do anyway: protect Israel at the UN and try to enhance Israel’s relationships with countries that they don’t currently enjoy relationships with,” he said. That places Kurtzer at odds with those who want to couple the end of the US aid package with a more fundamental shift in how the US relates to Israel. “[Ending aid to Israel] is a fine argument to make, but it rings hollow if you don’t also couple that with ending US diplomatic support for Israel at the UN,” Hassan said. “When there’s a UN Security Council resolution on settlements, the US should not be blocking it.”

Even if the mainstream debate is not centered around how the US aid package impacts Palestinians, however, Munayyer said he welcomes the discussion and hopes that more conversation will lead to people finding “the right reasons” for ending aid to Israel. “People are trying to find ways to make pro-Israel arguments to end aid to Israel. It’s a product of an American discourse that can’t find a way to do anything unless they can make it pro-Israel,” Munayyer said. “But the real reason to end military aid is because it enables horrific human rights abuses on the ground, and the American taxpayer is absolutely complicit in it.”

Alex Kane is a senior reporter for Jewish Currents.