Israel deserves US military support but shouldn’t be given blank checks.
By CELESTINE BOHLEN
The crisis in US-Israeli relations isn’t going away. If anything, it keeps getting worse, precisely because it has exposed and crystallized a gap between the goals, expectations and even the national interests of these old allies.The basic relationship may still be “rock solid,” as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it recently, but it is being tugged in opposite directions. Maybe now is the time to take money out of the equation.Israel will get $2.7 billion in military aid from the US this year – or 18 percent of Israel’s military budget. By 2013, that will lock into an annual level of $3.15 billion for five years. It also has almost $4 billion outstanding in available US loan guarantees, left over from $9 billion extended at former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s request in 2003.That makes Israel the largest recipient of US aid in the world, if you don’t count Iraq and Afghanistan. It also benefits from some of the easiest terms: Unlike other recipients, which must buy 100 percent American, Israel can spend about one quarter of its US military aid at home, which amounts to a significant boost to its defense industry.THE PROBLEM with this kind of largesse is that it muddies the picture, both for Israel and the United States. The best thing for the relationship would be for the US to cut Israel’s allowance.Under that scenario, Israel could pay less heed to US pressure and do what it thinks it must for its own national security. Many would argue that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is doing that anyway. The difference would be that the US wouldn’t be there to help pay for it.Housing blocks for Jews in east Jerusalem? Pursuit of terrorists in the Gaza Strip, even in southern Lebanon? A security fence that rings the whole country? If this strategy makes Israel feel more secure, maybe it should just pursue it and not complain about “restraints” imposed by the US. Then Israel could start thinking seriously about what its defensible borders should look like, perhaps even question the logic and the cost of tying up its military protecting unsustainable settlements in the West Bank.AdvertisementOnce freed from its reputation as a stalking horse for the US, Israel could explore deeper relations with more moderate Arab states as a counterweight to Iran.THE ADVANTAGES for the US are obvious: It would save money at a time when the federal debt is zooming out of sight. The sums aren’t great – a drop compared with the $1.4 trillion budget deficit in fiscal 2009 – but it would take some of the sting out of Israel’s stubborn opposition to US policies.Severing the financial links could also correct the perception that the US, as Israel’s patron, can’t be an honest broker in the Middle East.That assumption, widely held in the Arab world, was put on the record by Gen. David Petraeus, head of the US military’s Central Command, when he told Congress that the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict “foments anti- American sentiment due to a perception of US favoritism toward Israel.”Similar words have been used by James Jones, the US national security adviser, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.The message is clear: Failure to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians isn’t just about Israel anymore. It’s about US national-security interests.Obviously, there can be no peace without Israel’s participation. But at the moment, it seems no amount of US hectoring is going to sway Netanyahu and his cabinet. If that’s their considered opinion, let them have it – and pay for it.It wouldn’t be the first time the US withheld aid from Israel. This happened several times in the 1990s, and again in 2003, when Israel built settlements in the West Bank, regarded as illegal by the US and much of the international community.By law, US loan guarantees can’t be used to finance settlement construction. In the cases where the US invoked that clause, the loan guarantees were reduced by an amount equal to the cost of the disputed construction.These sanctions had zero effect: Israel went ahead with its settlements anyway. When a new threat to withhold $1 billion in remaining loan guarantees was hinted at last January by George Mitchell, the US special envoy to the Middle East, Israeli Finance Minster Yuval Steinitz just shrugged, and said his country doesn’t really need the money anyway.Cutting Israel’s aid may have been a meaningless gesture in the past, but this time might be different. President Barack Obama isn’t the only one who is rapidly losing patience with Netanyahu’s insistence on stoking tensions with new building projects in east Jerusalem.Figuring out where to cut in a way that would have political impactwould be a tricky business. As a key ally in the region, Israeldeserves US military support, more, say, than neighboring Egypt, whichgets $1.5 billion in military and economic aid, in spite of itsrepressive regime.No one in the US wants to see Israel made vulnerable. By the sametoken, the US shouldn’t sign blank checks for policies that could be atodds with its own interests.Back in 2007, when US President George W. Bush pushed through a 10-yearmilitary aid agreement with Israel, Nicholas Burns, then undersecretaryof state, said the US considered the cumulative $30 billion inassistance to Israel “to be an investment in peace – in long-termpeace.”Now may be a good time to check the return on that investment. The writer is a Bloomberg News columnist.
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