News and Commentary

ISRAEL: How Bernie Sanders Could Actually Hurt The Palestinians
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during the 2019 J Street National Conference at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, DC on October 28, 2019.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

Israel is such a special place that it can even turn Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) into a fiscal conservative. At the J Street conference this week, Sanders discussed cutting aid to Israel.

“We have the right to say to the Israeli government that … our people believe in human rights … in democracy, we will not accept authoritarianism or racism … we demand that the Israeli government sit down with the Palestinian people and negotiate an agreement that works for all parties … I would use the leverage — $3.8 billion is a lot of money, and we cannot give it carte blanche to the Israeli government.”

Though his blood pressure seems to rise when talking about aid to Israel, he is much more at ease providing aid to Latin American nations “even when we may not agree with everything they do.” Nonetheless, Sanders is certainly right: The U.S. absolutely has the right to dole out money as it chooses. But it is worth taking a stroll down memory lane to recall why it is that the United States began giving aid — both monetary transfers and weapons sales — to Israel.

Origins of U.S. Aid to Israel

Historically, there are two main reasons:

  1. Strategic Asset: In the late 1950s, Israel was recognized as a potential strategic asset that could advance U.S. interests in the region. This recognition has only grown over the years. Suffice it to mention Israel’s destruction of Iraqi and Syrian nuclear programs over the decades, and Israel’s value becomes self-evident.
  2. Nuclear Weapons: Once the United States understood that Israel had nuclear weapons (Israel’s policy is ambiguous on the subject), it wanted to ensure that Israel would never incorporate those weapons in its arsenal — and thus to provide it with the necessary means to fight and win with conventional weapons against Israel’s quantitively larger enemies surrounding them. In a 1987 interview to the Christian Science Monitor, Amos Rubin, economic adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, echoed this point: “If left to its own, Israel will have no choice but to fall back on a riskier defense which will endanger itself and the world at-large. … To enable Israel to abstain from dependence on nuclear arms calls for two to three billion dollars per year in U.S. aid.”

History of U.S. Aid to Israel

The first major weapons sales from the U.S. to Israel happened in the early 1960s, when it agreed to sell anti-aircraft missiles to Israel. In the mid-1960s, the U.S. agreed to sell tanks, and in the late 1960s, aircraft. Aid in the form of military grants, as opposed to loans, began in the early 1980s after the Camp David Agreements with Egypt. Since 1997, Israel has been steadily receiving $3 billion in aid annually; with the last agreement signed during the Obama administration, the dollar value was slightly raised, but with a few pernicious caveats added.

Israel is often touted as receiving the most foreign aid of any country, which is true but also misleading. U.S. army installments in the Yellow Sea, Korea, southeast Asia, Persian Gulf, and all throughout Europe are a few examples of the massive military investment expended to help keep global peace. These expenditures come from the military budget, as opposed to the foreign aid budget, involve boots on the ground, and cost far more than the aid to Israel. This point is made in a book called “The 36 Billion Dollar Bargain,” where a cost-benefit analysis is conducted concerning the U.S. aid to Israel vis-à-vis other areas in the world.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that it might not be a wise idea for the government of Israel to reassess its need for aid from the United States, and initiate ways to restructure or ultimately reduce the aid.

Unintended Consequences of Cutting U.S. Aid to Israel

For Bernie and friends, who get ulcers when thinking about aid to Israel, it might be prudent to think of potential ramifications that would result from cutting aid to Israel — for whatever reason they may conjure.

If they are unhappy with Israel’s policies now, they will only become unhappier. Israel’s reliance on U.S. aid and support can sometimes distort its military policy. Instead of crushing Hamas, for example, Israel fights with weaker, more symbolic policies and rely heavily on Iron Dome and other missile defense systems in lieu of more concrete deterrence.

In a scenario without U.S. aid, Israel would be unable to afford unending cycles of violence with the Palestinians and other enemies. Today, the Palestinians send a $10 kite bomb and Israel responds with a tank shell; Palestinians send a homemade rocket and Israel responds with an F-16. And those costs are peanuts compared to the three major Israeli military operations with Gaza over the last decade. Squeezed on aid, Israel would be forced to take decisive action in Gaza, Judea and Samaria, and other places. It would need to actually win wars and do so quickly. Israel’s policies would become that much harsher toward the Palestinians, as there would be no room for error.

Israel’s presence in Judea and Samaria, as well as its blockade on Gaza is sound policy and backed up by international law. Yet the dangers of the Middle East may not be clear to someone sunbathing on Lake Champlain (Vermont), or for someone who put foreign policy as the 17th out of 31 policy topics on his campaign website. Indeed, Israel does not have the luxury of putting animal rights as the top policy issue, as another 2020 Democrat did.

Aid to Israel Benefits the U.S.

In reality, military aid to Israel has generated many security and economic benefits for the United States. Too bad for Israel that Sanders probably hates all the American companies who have benefited. From weapons improvements, increased product sales, close cooperation between the militaries, and research and development cooperation, aid to Israel has not been a handout — it is has been a good investment for the U.S.


Gideon Israel is the founder and president of the Jerusalem-Washington Center, which works to strengthen the relationship between the U.S. and Israel.