With fires raging constantly in California, no one would reasonably argue to cut the firefighters’ budget. Yet several leading Democratic presidential candidates recently called for cutting American military aid to Israel despite it increasingly acting as the primary bulwark against rising Iranian aggression and instability across the Middle East. Now is not the time to reduce Israeli military capabilities, but to enhance them.
Just three years after President Obama signed the current 10-year military aid package to Israel, saying it would “make sure that Israel has the full capabilities it needs in order to keep the Israeli people safe … and defend itself, by itself, against any threat,” several Democratic presidential candidates are threatening to void that commitment.
Speaking at the J Street National Conference recently, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), an influential leader of the Democratic base and party, blamed Israel for the dire conditions in Gaza. He argued, “If you [Israel] want military aid, you are going to have to fundamentally change your relationship to the people of Gaza,” adding that “it is fair to say that some of that should go right now into humanitarian aid in Gaza.” Gaza is controlled by the virulently anti-Semitic, anti-Israel Islamic extremist organization Hamas — which is armed by Iran, is a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, and regularly launches missile attacks against Israeli civilians. Sanders’ position effectively means a permanent reduction in U.S. military aid to Israel while rewarding Hamas for immiserating Gaza.
South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg suggested a U.S. military aid cut if Israel annexed the West Bank. And Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), the seeming Democratic frontrunner, said a couple weeks ago: “It is the official policy of the United States of America to support a two-state solution, and if Israel is moving in the opposite direction, then everything is on the table.”
Yet former Vice President Joe Biden rejected conditioning Israel aid as “absolutely outrageous” and a “gigantic mistake.” His view is obviously important and welcome, but his policy views don’t seem to resonate with the Democratic base; his political position, furthermore, is slipping.
The focus on conditioning Israeli aid is a very recent phenomenon. Elizabeth Warren co-sponsored a security assistance bill declaring it the policy of the United States “to ensure that Israel maintains its ability to counter and defeat any credible conventional military, or emerging, threat from any individual state or possible coalition of states or from non-state actors.” This passed the Senate in August 2018 with no objection from Bernie Sanders.
The new position for conditioning or cutting military aid to Israel based on the Palestinian-Arab situation misunderstands the purpose of the aid.
U.S. aid doesn’t go to the Israeli government for discretionary spending, but to defense contractors that are overwhelmingly U.S. companies — thereby providing jobs for American workers, who then provide the weapons to Israel.
More important, cutting military support for Israel would undermine U.S. interests. America needs a strong Israel to lighten our own military footprint and financial commitment in the Middle East, as the Democratic presidential candidates all claim they seek. We also need a strong Israel to help reduce threats to U.S. interests in the region.
Israel is an asset of growing importance in confronting the Middle East’s twin threatening forces: Sunni radicalism and Iran’s regional and nuclear expansionism.
With its relentless attacks in Syria, as well as increasingly in Lebanon and Iraq, the democratic Jewish state is the only actor effectively rolling back Iran and its proxies in the region. These proxies pose an existential threat not only to the Jewish state, but also to American allies Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan. Israel is working with Egypt to fight ISIS in Sinai and the Muslim Brotherhood (Hamas) in Gaza. It is working with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan to protect it from external and internal enemies. The more active the Israeli military is, the less active U.S. soldiers need to be in the region.
America strategically needs a strong Israel now more than ever. Instead of threatening to cut military aid, the U.S. should now be focused on bolstering Israel’s military and deterrent capabilities. For example, accelerating delivery of weapons to Israel, replenishing and updating U.S. weapons prepositioned in Israel, undertaking more joint research and development, elevating Israel’s status for sharing military technology and intelligence with the United States, and concluding a narrowly defined mutual defense pact.
Recently, House Republicans overwhelmingly voted with Democrats to reject President Trump’s policy on Syria. Now congressional Democrats should work with Republicans to reject leading Democratic presidential candidates’ demands to cut aid to Israel, and work with President Trump to bolster Israel’s military and deterrent capabilities.
Michael Makovsky, a former Pentagon official in the George W. Bush administration, is president and CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA).