Washington Watch: Derailing the locomotive

By shifting US aid to Israel to defense budget, as Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia proposes to do, Israel would be viewed as another military client.

Aid to Israel has long been the locomotive that pulls foreign aid through Congress. For just as long, some lawmakers have been saying they’d vote for aid to Israel only if it were separated from the rest of the world.
The latest to embrace that idea is Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, number two in the House Republican leadership. Last week he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that if the GOP wins control of the House, he will try to “protect” Israel’s $3 billion aid package by removing it from the foreign operations appropriations bill. But is that in the national interest?
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Over the decades I’ve been around Capitol Hill, I’ve heard Republicans and Democrats alike use the same excuse for voting against foreign aid: I’d love to vote for aid to Israel but I can’t support everything else in the bill.
Some are sincere, but for many it’s a transparent excuse to vote against all foreign assistance while trying not to offend Israel’s supporters.
Cantor’s idea is really a cynical election ploy; no president – Republican or Democrat – would allow it to happen, nor would large numbers of lawmakers in both parties.
Cantor has spoken of moving Israel’s $3 billion security assistance package to the Pentagon budget.
Another proposal is to put it in a stand-alone bill.
Friends of Israel have long been the only consistent backers of foreign aid, in part because of the fear that across-the-board cuts – even if they exempted Israel – would eventually make it easier to cut all aid, including Israel’s.
I’ve heard lawmakers from both parties say, “I held my nose and voted for the bill because I would not hurt Israel.”
Others support Israel’s aid because it’s the only way to get their own pet foreign-aid priorities through Congress.
CANTOR’S PROPOSAL is bad for Israel for several reasons. It would foster resentment and animosity not only toward Israel but also the American Jewish community, which would be seen as the driving force behind the move, particularly because it’s advanced by the only Jewish Republican in Congress.
Putting the account in the defense budget would leave the Pentagon in charge of Middle East policy – not an appealing idea in light of the job it’s done running two wars.
It would also undermine US relations with other countries considered important to our national security. At home, it would generate strong resentment within the Congressional Black Caucus, which has complained for years – not without reason – that starving Africa gets shortchanged in the aid budget every year, while prosperous Israel gets the biggest single chunk.
Once the door is opened, other countries will inevitably insist on special treatment. Egypt will be first in line, demanding parity with Israel. American taxpayers send Egypt billions every year to assure its adherence to its peace treaty with Israel, and Cairo expects the same favorable terms Jerusalem gets.
It will be a political and diplomatic nightmare.
One possibility I doubt Cantor considered, and the most troubling for Israel, is that his proposal risks sparking a debate over whether Israel actually needs that $3 billion every year, especially when its economy is performing better than ours.
Israel was just graduated from “developing” to “developed” nation by its unanimous acceptance into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Will deficit hawks and Tea Party followers in Cantor’s own party insist that Israel be graduated” from the US foreign aid program as well? The OECD praised Israel’s economic reforms and its scientific/technological leadership. Wikipedia called Israel “one of the most advanced countries in Southwest Asia in economic and industrial development.”
The independent Swiss Institute for Management Development ranks its economy as first in the world for resilience to economic cycles, and first for its R&D spending as a percentage of GDP.
Thirty billion dollars and growing – the amount the Obama administration has pledged over the next decade – buys a lot of hardware for the IDF, but it also comes with obligations that limit freedom of action.
Israelis have long debated whether US aid hampers their government’s ability to take actions Washington dislikes. Leverage is the flip side of any aid package.
By shifting US aid to the defense budget, Israel would be viewed as another military client rather than as a diplomatic, cultural and political partner.
This is a dangerous and irresponsible proposal, bad for Israel and bad for the United States. Like so many, it is being driven by partisan politics, not by US policy objectives or the needs of the Jewish state.