Time to say thank-you to Congress

In a surprise move, Obama vetoed the UNSC resolution condemning settlements. It’s time for Israel to say thank you, and the best way would be for Netanyahu to propose cutbacks in American aid, thereby strengthening the alliance with the US.

UNSC 311 (photo credit: AP)
UNSC 311
(photo credit: AP)
Last week’s US veto of a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements once again highlighted the critical role Congress plays in the US-Israel alliance. And it’s long past time for Israel to give Congress a tangible expression of thanks for its ongoing support.
Granted, the veto decision was technically made by President Barack Obama, not by Congress. The question is why.
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Obama agreed with every word of the resolution, as UN Ambassador Susan Rice told the council explicitly after the vote. He is ideologically opposed to the veto;this was the first he has cast in over two years in office. Administration officials worried openly that the vote would damage Washington’s status in the Arab world at a time when the upheavals there have already thrown its influence into question.
And he certainly wasn’t motivated by a sudden attack of pro-Israel sentiment: According to media reports, he was prepared to sell out Israel’s most vital negotiating interests to avoid having to cast this veto. To tempt the Palestinians into withdrawing the resolution, he reportedly offered various perks, including a pledge of support for a Quartet statement that, for the first time, would back their demand for a state with borders based on the 1967 lines. That would deal a double blow to Israel’s security: by undermining its quest for defensible borders (which the 1967 lines emphatically are not), and by showing that American promises can’t be trusted. After all, such a statement would nullify the pledges former President George W. Bush gave Israel in exchange for its 2005 disengagement from Gaza: a “steadfast commitment” to “secure, defensible borders” and acknowledgment that a “full and complete return” to the 1967 lines is “unrealistic.”
So given all this, why did Obama nevertheless veto the resolution? Because Congress sent an unequivocal bipartisan message that it wouldn’t tolerate anything else. And while technically, Congress has no say over America’s UN votes, Obama wasn’t prepared to pick a fight with Congress on this matter when he will need its support on numerous vital domestic issues.
Too many Israeli prime ministers forget that Congress wields such power. They view their personal relationship with the president as the be all and end all of US-Israel relations, and are therefore prepared to concede on important issues for the sake of retaining the president’s support. Last week’s vote thus provides a timely reminder that the president and America are not synonymous: Israel can stand up to the president without sacrificing American support, because this support is based on shared interests and values rather than any specific policy.
Indeed, the vote provides particularly telling proof of that fact, because on the specific issue of settlements, most congressmen’s views are closer to Obama’s than to Israel’s. Their demand for a veto wasn’t a statement of support for Israel’s settlement policy, but for the broader principle of protecting a close ally from a one-sided UN condemnation, which this clearly was: Given the Palestinians’ refusal to negotiate during the 10 months when Israel did freeze settlement construction, along with Israel’s proven willingness, in both the disengagement and the treaty with Egypt, to uproot settlements for the sake of peace, the idea that settlements are solely to blame for the impasse in the peace process is ludicrous.
Nevertheless, there is one specific issue through which Israel could say a very tangible thank-you to Congress. And it shouldn’t be hard for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, because he invented this playbook. All he has to do is exactly what he did during his first term in office: go to Washington and propose a phased, multiyear cutback in American aid to Israel from the podium of Capitol Hill.
American aid is clearly important to Israel’s security, in two ways. First, Israel’s lousy neighborhood has always necessitated outsized security expenditures, and the current regional unrest means they are likely to grow rather than shrink. America’s help in financing these expenses makes it easier for Israel to retain its qualitative military edge.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, American aid is a tangible expression of the alliance, telling the world in unambiguous terms that Israel is not alone and friendless. It is for precisely this reason that even now, when America faces a severe budgetary crisis, Congressional opposition to cutting aid to Israel is overwhelming: Congress does not want to send the message that its support for Israel is faltering.
But if Netanyahu proposed the cut himself, no waning of American support for Israel would be implied. On the contrary, that would strengthen the alliance, by showing that Israel is ready and willing to contribute to the current Congressional goal of cutting expenditures.
By Western standards, Israel is not yet a wealthy country: Its GDP per capita last year was $28,600, less than half of, say, Norway’s $58,000. But neither is it the impoverished country it was when American aid began decades ago, as its recent admission to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) demonstrates. Its budget for the coming year is NIS 348.1 billion, or about $96 billion; it could certainly afford a phased cutback that would reduce American aid from the current $3 billion a year to, say, $1.5 billion over a period of 10 to 15 years.
Netanyahu should have headed to Washington with this offer the minute the new Congress took office. But it’s never too late to say thank-you. And now would be a particularly appropriate moment. 
The writer is a journalist and commentator.