Why it’s time for Obama to cut off America’s subsidies to Israel
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s come-from-behind re-election victory this week, fueled by an overt embrace of apartheid policy and racist fear-mongering about Arab voters, has put the United States in a difficult situation. So long as Netanyahu pretended that he was committed to democratic values and a two-state solution, the Americans could look the other way or blame Palestinian intransigence for a lack of progress.
But now, despite some shameless backtracking, it’s clear that Netanyahu is, at best, an unreliable partner for peace, if not an outright foe of an independent Palestine. As many have pointed out, the divergence of U.S. and Israeli interests has never been more pronounced, and the big question is how the U.S. should adjust. While the Obama administration has indicated it may support a United Nations resolution calling for an independent Palestine along 1967 borders, it should go even further: by cutting the U.S.’s massive subsidies to Israel and withdrawing diplomatic cover for Netanyahu’s every move.
Of course, unquestioning deference to Israeli priorities is still essentially mandatory in U.S. politics — even Sen. Elizabeth Warren doesn’t challenge them. But if the Israeli prime minister is flat-out admitting that the West Bank and Gaza will never be rid of the occupation no matter what, then that deference will eventually become untenable.
Now that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are winding down, Israel has reclaimed its spot as top recipient of American aid dollars. In the 2015 budget, the Obama administration has requested (and will almost certainly receive) $3.1 billion in aid to Israel, or $378.33 per Israeli citizen. As Matt Yglesias shows, on a per-capita basis, this is six times what Afghanistan gets as the second-largest recipient, and 94 times what Nigeria gets as the fifth-largest.
It’s a mark of Israel’s massive influence in American politics that it keeps getting that money despite the fact that foreign aid is consistently the least popular kind of government spending — and doubly so because Israel is a rich country that plainly needs no aid.
But Israel’s wealth also means that cutting aid off would not concretely harm its military readiness. Israel has plenty of its own money for that. Most of the U.S. aid money is spent on U.S. military hardware anyway; probably the only entities that would be significantly affected would be American defense contractors.
Withdrawing aid would be a symbolic act, and a powerful one at that, likely producing a screaming emergency in Israeli politics. Without an unquestioning American backstop, Israel would be almost as isolated diplomatically as Iran.
For that, Israel has nobody to blame but itself. Netanyahu has treated Obama with nothing but sneering contempt for his entire presidency. More fundamentally, as Peter Beinart writes, liberal American Jewish leaders have been arguing for years that if Israel were free from violent pressure, it would jump at the chance for a durable peace. But it clearly didn’t, even though the occupied territories have been quiet since last summer’s bloody pummeling of Gaza. Israel practically ignored the question for almost the whole election — until Netanyahu turned to apartheid and race-baiting.
As Max Fisher argues, the bedrock reality here is 50 years of Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. “This is an issue that looks less gray all the time: the occupation is wrong, it is the problem, and Israel is responsible.”
Netanyahu’s victory has sharply discredited liberal American Zionist groups like J Street, which hoped Israel would accept a negotiated settlement. It’s increasingly impossible to avoid the conclusion, even for moderates like President Obama, that Israel will simply never agree to any Palestinian rights in the occupied territories — unless it is forced into it.
If Israel doesn’t want to end up as a crumbling pariah police state, like South Africa under John Vorster, then the way forward is clear: negotiate a fair and lasting peace with the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Until that happens, America should treat Israel as it really is, not the ally committed to humane, democratic values that it pretends to be.