We Americans have funny notions about foreign aid. Recent polls show that, on average, we believe 28 percent of the federal budget is eaten up by it, and that, in a time of austerity, this gigantic bite of the budget should be cut back to 10 percent. In actual fact, barely 1 percent of the federal budget goes to foreign aid of any kind.
In this case, however, truth is at least as strange as fiction. Consider that the top recipient of US foreign aid over the past three decades isn’t some impoverished land filled with starving kids, but a wealthy nation with a per-head gross domestic product on par with the European Union average, and higher than that of Italy, Spain or South Korea.
Consider also that this top recipient of such aid—nearly all of it military since 2008—has been busily engaged in what looks like a nineteenth-century-style colonization project. In the late 1940s, our beneficiary expelled some 700,000 indigenous people from the land it was claiming. In 1967, our client seized some contiguous pieces of real estate and ever since has been colonizing these territories with nearly 650,000 of its own people. It has divided the conquered lands with myriad checkpoints and roads accessible only to the colonizers and is building a 440-mile wall around (and cutting into) the conquered territory, creating a geography of control that violates international law.
“Ethnic cleansing” is a harsh term, but apt for a situation in which people are driven out of their homes and lands because they are not of the right tribe. Though many will balk at leveling this charge against Israel—for that country is, of course, the top recipient of American aid and especially military largesse—who would hesitate to use the term if, in a mirror-image world, all of this were being inflicted on Israeli Jews?
Military Aid to Israel
Arming and bankrolling a wealthy nation acting in this way may, on its face, seem like terrible policy. Yet American aid has been flowing to Israel in ever greater quantities. Over the past 60 years, in fact, Israel has absorbed close to a quarter-trillion dollars in such aid. Last year alone, Washington sent some $3.1 billion in military aid, supplemented by allocations for collaborative military research and joint training exercises.
Overall, the United States covers nearly one quarter of Israel’s defense budget—from tear gas canisters to F-16 fighter jets. In their 2008-2009 assault on Gaza, the Israeli Defense Forces made use of M-92 and M-84 “dumb bombs,” Paveway II and JDAM guided “smart bombs,” AH-64 Apache attack helicopters equipped with AGM-114 Hellfire guided missiles, M141 “bunker defeat” munitions, and special weapons like M825A1 155mm white phosphorous munitions—all supplied as American foreign aid. (Uniquely among Washington’s aid recipients, Israel is also permitted to spend 25 percent of the military funding from Washington on weapons made by its own weapons industry.)
Why is Washington doing this? The most common answer is the simplest: Israel is Washington’s “ally.” But the United States has dozens of allies around the world, none of which are subsidized in anything like this fashion by American taxpayer dollars. As there is no formal treaty alliance between the two nations and given the lopsided nature of the costs and benefits of this relationship, a far more accurate term for Israel’s tie to Washington might be “client state.”
And not a particularly loyal client either. If massive military aid is supposed to give Washington leverage over Israel (as it normally does in client-state relationships), it is difficult to detect. In case you hadn’t noticed, rare is the American diplomatic visit to Israel that is not greeted with an in-your-face announcement of intensified colonization of Palestinian territory, euphemistically called “settlement expansion.”
Washington also provides aid to Palestine totaling, on average, $875 million annually in Obama’s first term (more than double what George W. Bush gave in his second term). That’s a little more than a quarter of what Israel gets. Much of it goes to projects of dubious net value like the development of irrigation networks at a moment when the Israelis are destroying Palestinian cisterns and wells elsewhere in the West Bank. Another significant part of that funding goes toward training the Palestinian security forces. Known as “Dayton forces” (after the American general, Keith Dayton, who led their training from 2005 to 2010), these troops have a grim human rights record that includes acts of torture, as Dayton himself has admitted. One former Dayton deputy, an American colonel, described these security forces to Al Jazeera as an outsourced “third Israeli security arm.” According to Josh Ruebner, national advocacy director for the US Campaign to End the Occupation and author of Shattered Hopes: Obama’s Failure to Broker Israeli-Palestinian Peace, American aid to Palestine serves mainly to entrench the Israeli occupation.
A Dishonest Broker
Nothing is equal when it comes to Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip—and the numbers say it all. To offer just one example, the death toll from Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s 2008-2009 assault on the Gaza Strip, was 1,385 Palestinians (the majority of them civilians) and 13 Israelis, three of them civilians.
And yet mainstream opinion in the US insists on seeing the two parties as essentially equal. Harold Koh, former dean of the Yale Law School and until recently the top lawyer at the State Department, has been typical in comparing Washington’s role to “adult supervision” of “a playground populated by warring switchblade gangs.” It was a particularly odd choice of metaphors, given that one side is equipped with small arms and rockets of varying sophistication, the other with nuclear weapons and a state-of-the-art modern military subsidized by the world’s only superpower.
Washington’s active role in all of this is not lost on anyone on the world stage—except Americans, who have declared themselves to be the even-handed arbiters of a conflict involving endless failed efforts at brokering a “peace process.” Globally, fewer and fewer observers believe in this fiction of Washington as a benevolent bystander rather than a participant heavily implicated in a humanitarian crisis. In 2012, the widely respected International Crisis Group described the “peace process” as “a collective addiction that serves all manner of needs, reaching an agreement no longer being the main one.”
The contradiction between military and diplomatic support for one party in the conflict and the pretense of neutrality cannot be explained away. “Looked at objectively, it can be argued that American diplomatic efforts in the Middle East have, if anything, made achieving peace between Palestinians and Israelis more difficult,” writes Rashid Khalidi, a historian at Columbia University, and author of Brokers of Deceit: How the US Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East.
American policy elites are unable or unwilling to talk about Washington’s destructive role in this situation. There is plenty of discussion about a one-state versus a two-state solution, constant disapproval of Palestinian violence, occasional mild criticism (“not helpful”) of the Israeli settlements, and lately, a lively debate about the global boycott, divestment, and sanction movement (BDS) led by Palestinian civil society to pressure Israel into a “just and lasting” peace. But when it comes to what Americans are most responsible for—all that lavish military aid and diplomatic cover for one side only—what you get is either euphemism or an evasive silence.
In general, the American media tends to treat our arming of Israel as part of the natural order of the universe, as beyond question as the force of gravity. Even the “quality” media shies away from any discussion of Washington’s real role in fueling the Israel-Palestine conflict. Last month, for instance, The New York Times ran an article about a prospective “post-American” Middle East without any mention of Washington’s aid to Israel, or for that matter to Egypt, or the Fifth Fleet parked in Bahrain.
You might think that the progressive hosts of MSNBC’s news programs would be all over the story of what American taxpayers are subsidizing, but the topic barely flickers across the chat shows of Rachel Maddow, Chris Hayes and others. Given this across-the-board selective reticence, American coverage of Israel and Palestine, and particularly of American military aid to Israel, resembles the Agatha Christie novel in which the first-person narrator, observing and commenting on the action in calm semi-detachment, turns out to be the murderer.
Strategic Self-Interest and Unconditional Military Aid
On the activist front, American military patronage of Israel is not much discussed either, in large part because the aid package is so deeply entrenched that no attempt to cut it back could succeed in the near future. Hence, the global BDS campaign has focused on smaller, more achievable targets, though as Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the Jerusalem Fund, an advocacy group, told me, the BDS movement does envision an end to Washington’s military transfers in the long term. This makes tactical sense, and both the Jerusalem Fund and the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation are engaged in ongoing campaigns to inform the public about American military aid to Israel.
Less understandable are the lobbying groups that advertise themselves as “pro-peace,” champions of “dialogue” and “conversation,” but share the same bottom line on military aid for Israel as their overtly hawkish counterparts. For instance, J Street (“pro-Israel and pro-peace”), a Washington-based nonprofit which bills itself as a moderate alternative to the powerhouse lobbying outfit, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), supports both “robust” military aid and any supplemental disbursements on offer from Washington to the Israeli Defense Forces. Americans for Peace Now similarly takes the position that Washington should provide “robust assistance” to ensure Israel’s “qualitative military edge.” At the risk of sounding literal-minded, any group plumping for enormous military aid packages to a country acting as Israel has is emphatically not “pro-peace.” It’s almost as if the Central America solidarity groups from the 1980s had demanded peace, while lobbying Washington to keep funding the Contras and the Salvadoran military.
Outside the various factions of the Israel lobby, the landscape is just as flat. The Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank close to the Democratic Party, regularly issues pious statements about new hopes for the “peace process”—with never a mention of how our unconditional flow of advanced weaponry might be a disincentive to any just resolution of the situation.
There is, by the way, a similar dynamic at work when it comes to Washington’s second biggest recipient of foreign aid, Egypt. Washington’s expenditure of more than $60 billion over the past thirty years ensured both peace with Israel and Cold War loyalty, while propping up an authoritarian government with a ghastly human rights record. As the post-Mubarak military restores its grip on Egypt, official Washington is currently at work finding ways to keep the military aid flowing despite a congressional ban on arming regimes that overthrow elected governments. There is, however, at least some mainstream public debate in the US about ending aid to the Egyptian generals who have violently reclaimed power. Investigative journalism nonprofit ProPublica has even drafted a handy “explainer” about US military aid to Egypt—though they have not tried to explain aid to Israel.
Silence about US-Israel relations is, to a large degree, hardwired into Beltway culture. As George Perkovich, director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told The Washington Post, “It’s like all things having to do with Israel and the United States. If you want to get ahead, you don’t talk about it; you don’t criticize Israel, you protect Israel.”
This is regrettable, as Washington’s politically invisible military aid to Israel is not just an impediment to lasting peace but also a strategic and security liability. As General David Petraeus, then head of US Central Command, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2010, the failure to reach a lasting resolution to the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians makes Washington’s other foreign policy objectives in the region more difficult to achieve. It also, he pointed out, foments anti-American hatred and fuels al-Qaeda and other violent groups. Petraeus’s successor at CENTCOM, General James Mattis, echoed this list of liabilities in a public dialogue with Wolf Blitzer last July: “I paid a military security price every day as a commander of CENTCOM because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel, and that [alienates] all the moderate Arabs who want to be with us because they can’t come out publicly in support of people who don’t show respect for the Arab Palestinians.”
Don’t believe the generals? Ask a terrorist. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, mastermind of the 9/11 attacks now imprisoned at Guantánamo, told interrogators that he was motivated to attack the United States in large part because of Washington’s leading role in assisting Israel’s repeated invasions of Lebanon and the ongoing dispossession of Palestinians.
The Israel lobby wheels out a battery of arguments in favor of arming and funding Israel, including the assertion that a step back from such aid for Israel would signify a “retreat” into “isolationism.” But would the United States, a global hegemon busily engaged in nearly every aspect world affairs, be “isolated” if it ceased giving lavish military aid to Israel? Was the United States “isolated” before 1967 when it expanded that aid in a major way? These questions answer themselves.
Sometimes the mere act of pointing out the degree of US aid to Israel provokes accusations of having a special antipathy for Israel. This may work as emotional blackmail, but if someone proposed that Washington start shipping Armenia $3.1 billion worth of armaments annually so that it could begin the conquest of its ancestral province of Nagorno-Karabakh in neighboring Azerbaijan, the plan would be considered ludicrous—and not because of a visceral dislike for Armenians. Yet somehow the assumption that Washington is required to generously arm the Israeli military has become deeply institutionalized in this country.
Fake Peace Process, Real War Process
Today, Secretary of State John Kerry is leading a push for a renewed round of the interminable American-led peace process in the region that has been underway since the mid-1970s. It’s hardly a bold prediction to suggest that this round, too, will fail. The Israeli minister of defense, Moshe Ya’alon, has already publicly mocked Kerry in his quest for peace as “obsessive and messianic” and added that the newly proposed framework for this round of negotiations is “not worth the paper it’s printed on.” Other Israeli high officials blasted Kerry for his mere mention of the potential negative consequences to Israel of a global boycott if peace is not achieved.
But why shouldn’t Ya’alon and other Israeli officials tee off on the hapless Kerry? After all, the defense minister knows that Washington will wield no stick and that bushels of carrots are in the offing, whether Israel rolls back or redoubles its land seizures and colonization efforts. President Obama has boasted that the US has never given so much military aid to Israel as under his presidency. On January 29, the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted unanimously to upgrade Israel’s status to “major strategic partner.” With Congress and the president guaranteeing that unprecedented levels of military aid will continue to flow, Israel has no real incentive to change its behavior.
Usually such diplomatic impasses are blamed on the Palestinians, but given how little is left to squeeze out of them, doing so this time will test the creativity of official Washington. Whatever happens, in the post-mortems to come there will be no discussion in Washington about the role its own policies played in undermining a just and lasting agreement.
How much longer will this silence last? The arming and bankrolling of a wealthy nation committing ethnic cleansing has something to offend conservatives, progressives and just about every other political grouping in America. After all, how often in foreign policy does strategic self-interest align so neatly with human rights and common decency?
Intelligent people can and do disagree about a one-state versus a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. People of goodwill disagree about the global BDS campaign. But it is hard to imagine what kind of progress can ever be made toward a just and lasting settlement between Israel and Palestine until Washington quits arming one side to the teeth.
“If it weren’t for US support for Israel, this conflict would have been resolved a long time ago,” says Josh Ruebner. Will we Americans ever acknowledge our government’s active role in destroying the chances for a just and lasting peace between Palestine and Israel?