In two months, Israel will mark the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, the country’s bloodiest debacle. Despite the decades that have passed, the war is still a source of great national trauma. It is a reminder of Israel’s vulnerability and what happens when the country becomes overconfident and forgets to prepare itself for war.
When we look at the region today, can we say for certain that another Yom Kippur War cannot happen? I am not sure.
Yes, Israel is more powerful today than it was back in 1973, but the country’s borders are still threatened in a way unimaginable to other countries. We are surrounded by terror groups with more firepower than most conventional armies and are openly threatened with annihilation by a radical regime run by religious fundamentalists.
As in 1973, we are also distracted today, albeit not by a victory in a previous war, but by a division caused over the last few months by our own government.
In addition to this anniversary being a period of national reckoning, it is also a moment to review our ties with the United States, which took an important turn during the Yom Kippur War.
A few days into the war, when it genuinely seemed like Israel’s survival was on the line, President Richard Nixon decided to launch Operation Nickel Grass and sent planeloads of weapons and supplies to Israel.
Until then, America had been slow in its supply of weapons to the Jewish State, trying to strike a delicate balance between supporting Israel and not overly upsetting Arab nations. What happened in 1973 was a whole new level of support, and sent a clear message to the region about just how strong the relationship and alliance was between the two countries.
The war followed a few years later by the Camp David Accords and peace with Egypt, led to the beginning of the military aid that Israel has received in the years since, something so-called experts – on the Right and Left – are now calling to end.
Stances toward US-Israel relations
Each side has its arguments. On the Right, there are those who claim that Israel needs to stop receiving aid from the US since the acceptance of the current $3.8 billion in annual funding gives America too much influence over Israeli policy.
As Liel Leibovitz and Jacob Siegel wrote in Tablet Magazine recently: “American payouts undermine Israel’s domestic defense industry, weaken its economy, and compromise the country’s autonomy – giving Washington veto power over everything from Israeli weapons sales to diplomatic and military strategy.”
The two go on to claim that the annual aid makes Israel “dangerously reliant on US military technology” and that this is stunting the IDF.
Let’s analyze both of these arguments, starting with the first: America has veto power over everything in Israel.
This is a strange argument to make since, last I checked, the presence of 500,000 Israelis living in the West Bank does not exactly make the Americans happy; Washington DC did not exactly break out in thunderous applause when the Netanyahu government announced the construction of thousands of new units in West Bank settlements earlier this year; and the judicial overhaul is not exactly something that the Biden administration has approved for Israel.
For argument’s sake, let’s say that the Tablet writers were thinking more about military operations. But even that is not true. Yes, the US – as a close ally – makes its voice heard and can influence Israeli decision-making, but that did not give the US a veto over the late former prime minister Menachem Begin’s decision to destroy Osirak in 1981 or former prime minister Ehud Olmert’s decision to destroy Syria’s nuclear reactor in 2007.
This bogeyman-like veto, whose existence the Tablet writers fear, did not stop the IDF from pushing deeper into Lebanon in the final days of the Second Lebanon War (exactly 17 years ago this week) despite fierce opposition from former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, or get Israel to cut short a Gaza operation in 2014 despite then-president Barak Obama’s warnings (the operation continued for another three weeks).
Now, even if we assume that these writers (and others who support their argument) are right and Israel does need to stop taking aid from the US because of Washington’s exaggerated influence, who exactly do they think Israel will buy its weapons systems from?
Do they want Israel to buy MiG fighter jets from Russia, J-20s from China, or fourth-generation Eurofighter Typhoons (older models than American-made F-35 that Israel operates) from Airbus?
Or maybe they think that Israel is going to magically develop and manufacture its own stealth fighter jet? While I think Israel can definitely do it, such a project will take years and almost certainly turn into a waste of time and resources.
Assuming these anti-aid proponents do not want Israel to start buying Russian or Chinese aircraft, that means Israel will need to continue relying on Lockheed Martin and Boeing. In that case, have they forgotten that when a country buys aircraft it also needs a regular supply of spare parts and that the failure to receive those parts in real time can literally ground squadrons? What this means is that even without the financial aid, the US will retain a modicum of leverage and influence over Israel just with spare parts.
Now, let’s move to the arguments of the Left. Here, they split into two categories – those who believe that Israel does not deserve the aid because its policies contradict American interests (settlements, judicial reform, etc) and others who believe that Israel does not need the aid because of its wealth.
Regarding the first argument, there is little to say. These are people who want to see Israel weak and vulnerable, so it will do their bidding. They are like the members of Congress who support BDS and want Israel maligned and under America’s thumb.
The wealth argument is one that actually has merit. Israel is a wealthy country and does not really need the $3.8 billion in foreign military financing. As it is, the country’s defense budget is about 5% of the national GDP, making US aid an even smaller fraction. Nevertheless, there are three important arguments for why the aid should continue in general – and even more so, why it is particularly needed right now.
The first reason is that for people who care about ensuring Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME), the existence of these funds – which almost exclusively have to be spent in the US – is critical for ensuring that QME. Having this money means that Israel will continue to have access to the most advanced military platforms made in the US.
While it is true that even without the aid, Israel would still be able to ask Congress for approval to purchase advanced aircraft, having money on the table that needs to be spent in the US adds an additional layer of pressure to get that approval.
Using the same weapon systems also ensures that the IDF and US military share a level of interoperability not usually seen between most militaries. This is unique in the world, strategically valuable, and part of Israel’s deterrence backbone.
The second reason to keep the aid is because considering the threats Israel faces in the region, those few billion dollars are actually the cheapest investment the US can be asked to make. Imagine if after the Yom Kippur War Israel asked the US to send troops to Israel, such as in South Korea where 24,000 American soldiers are currently stationed; Japan where there are 38,000; or Germany where they total 34,000.
It is likely that if the US would have agreed to send them back then, similar numbers of US troops would still be here today and would be costing the US taxpayer a lot more than a few billion dollars, not to mention the potential loss of American life that has no price tag.
In Israel today there are almost no American soldiers and the reason is that while the US does help Israel, it helps Israel to defend itself – by itself.
This idea is actually part of the Israeli ethos. The Jewish people returned to their homeland after centuries in exile so they would no longer need to depend on someone else to protect them. The US aid helps Israel do so at far less cost than in other countries that are less threatened than Israel.
And then there is the final reason for the aid to continue: When Nixon sent planeloads of emergency weapons and supplies to Israel in 1973 the Arab world took notice. It understood that the relationship between the countries was unique – and that each would come to the other’s aid.
If US military support ends, what does that show Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas? What will they think, those who already start every day plotting ways to weaken and hurt Israel? Will it make them believe that Israel is stronger as a result and now more independent, or will it make them think that there is a problem in the US-Israel relationship – which they can now take advantage of to further harm Israel?
In the Middle East, posture and signals mean a lot. A time like the present, when Israel’s adversaries believe the country is divided and weak, is not the moment for such a dramatic change to one of the most public demonstrations of the unique alliance between the countries.
As a result, while the economic argument might have some standing, it is easily overruled by the other arguments including the larger issue – the message ending the aid would send now to the region.
Israel and the US have weathered many storms over the years, and both countries have pressure points and influence that they wield over one another.
There are shared values, there are shared interests, and there are ways that each country helps the other. US military aid to Israel is the clearest illustration of US commitment to Israeli security since it transcends political tension such as is taking place currently, with one of the countries enacting policies that the other dislikes.
The current situation might not be perfect, but it is the best way to advance American and Israeli interests in an increasingly volatile Middle East.