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The ten-year US-Israel aid deal has expired, so Israel is asking that military aid levels continue to trend upward. This may seem like a no-brainer from Israel's point of view, but it is a mistake that reflects a myopic view of US-Israel relations.
A decade ago, then-prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu in 1996 cut a deal under which the economic portion of the $3 billion annual US aid to Israel would be gradually eliminated. In addition, for every $2 cut from the economic aid package, half would shift over to military aid. As a result, aid had dropped to $2.4 billion, all of it military.
So far so good. Both the overall aid reduction and the shift toward the military side made sense. After all, the Israeli economy has already surpassed some European countries and is growing at a healthy clip.
AT THE SAME time, Israel's military needs have been growing. Though we already spend a much larger share of our budget on defense than the US, let alone Europe, that percentage will likely have to increase, after years of budget cuts. The costs of implementing the lessons of the war in Lebanon, including increased training, reserve duty and updating ground forces, are astronomical, as are the costs of state-of-the-art air power and missile defenses that need to be ready to address the Iranian threat.
The US, moreover, has a strong interest in helping Israel with these expenses. Israel's military strength is more important than ever in the face of a rising string of Iranian proxy forces arrayed from Gaza through Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.
Reducing this US commitment would send the wrong signal at the wrong time. In any case, about 75 cents of every dollar sent to Israel goes straight back to the US, since it must be spent on American weapons systems.
Given all this, it would seem to make eminent sense for the White House to accede to Israel's request, reported in Defense News, to increase annual military aid gradually over the next decade to about $3 billion. Yet, paradoxically, such an increase would be more in America's interest than in Israel's.
Rather than asking for increased aid, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert should have said this on his recent White House visit:
"Mr. President, as you know, we must raise our military spending in response to rising threats with profound implications for all free nations. We fully appreciate your willingness, on behalf of the American people and national interest, to help us meet these expenses by increasing military assistance.
"Yet rather than asking American taxpayers to increase their contribution, there are things that you can do that cost nothing that will help us more, and about which we feel so strongly that we are willing to take the increased financial burden of our defense needs upon ourselves.
"Accordingly, I propose that we agree that military aid will remain at current levels for five years, and that Israel absorb its rising expenses. In the meantime, our objective should be to reduce the threats facing Israel and the US over these five years - in part so that military expenses can again be reduced - and that this be done by changing the US approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict."
By this point, Olmert should have gotten Bush's attention by committing three heresies: forgoing an opportunity to increase US assistance, giving policy priority over financial assistance, most revolutionary of all, suggesting a fundamentally new direction for US policy.
This last aspect, that Israel is shy about influencing US policy, may come as a surprise to many (particularly anti-Semites). But the fact is that Israeli attempts at influencing the US are overwhelmingly micro and reactive. Israel tried, for example, to influence the wording and sequencing of the road map, but proposed no comprehensive alternative to it. Similarly with the latest "benchmarks" document, and the endless series of plans that put Israelis and Palestinians on a somewhat equal footing and the conflict between them in a regional vacuum.
There is no reason for such timidity. Botswana, or any country, automatically assumes it has a right to push for what US policy toward Botswana, or Africa, should be. Yet Israel historically either goes along, attempts to tinker on the edges (as is the case with the current road map paradigm), or acts unilaterally (as in the case of Oslo and disengagement, both of which surprised the US without attempting to influence US policy).
WHAT ISRAEL does not do is develop and campaign for an alternative US approach toward the region. So let's return to Olmert's undelivered monologue:
"US policy looks to unlock the two-state solution by fostering, through negotiations and gestures, an Israeli-Palestinian relationship. What this model misses is that the obstacle does not lie between Israelis and Palestinians but among Palestinians and within the Arab world. The Palestinians have refused to embrace the state being offered them not because Israel has failed to paint such a 'political horizon' in sufficiently vivid colors, but because they are unable to abandon the dream of destroying the Jewish state.
"We believe that you, Mr. President, can have a profound impact on the conflict simply by speaking clearly about its true source: the refusal to accept Israel. You should say that it is not the lack of a Palestinian state that creates this refusal, but this refusal that blocks the creation of a Palestinian state.
"Israel, you should say - and I will back you up - supports Palestinian statehood. It is Hamas and those who seek to destroy Israel who don't.
Therefore the Arab states that oppose normalization with Israel and refuse to begin resolving the refugee problem, far from advancing Palestinian statehood, are playing into the hands of those who would destroy this dream."
If an Israeli leader wanted to take such a tack, he or she would be told not to bother, that the US would never say such things. That may be true. But if saying the truth about what is wrong with US policy will not change it, neither will going along in silence. Further, if we do not dare think about, let alone say, how US policy can be extricated from its dead end - who will?
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