Foreign Affairs and Defense
Ostensibly, winner Avi Gabbay and runner-up Amir Peretz couldn’t be more different. Peretz is a veteran hard-left activist, an early leader of the Peace Now movement, who was advocating Palestinian statehood back when most Israelis still considered the idea anathema. Gabbay is a moderate who once supported Benjamin Netanyahu’s center-right Likud party and, more recently, co-founded the centrist Kulanu party. Yet they sounded almost indistinguishable when answering five questions posed by Haaretz (in Hebrew) before Monday’s run-off (an abbreviated English version is here).
Asked about the idea of unilaterally withdrawing from parts of the West Bank, for instance, both men rejected it. “I don’t believe in unilateral withdrawal,” Gabbay said bluntly. Peretz was wordier, but still quite clear. “We won’t continue to settle the territories, but at the same time, we mustn’t forget the lessons of the unilateral withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza (and also from other conflict areas around the world),” he said.
What makes this surprising is that several Labor-affiliated former senior-defense-officials-turned-activists have been pushing unilateral withdrawal. Among them are former Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin, the man slated to be Labor’s defense minister had it won the last election, and former Shin Bet security service chief Ami Ayalon, a one-time Labor Knesset member. Thus one might expect the idea to appeal to rank-and-file members.
But Peretz and Gabbay thought otherwise. Israel’s unilateral pullout from Gaza in 2005 resulted in three wars and 16,000 rockets on Israel (compared to zero from the Israeli-controlled West Bank), while its unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 enabled Hezbollah to grow from a terrorist nuisance into a major strategic threat, whose arsenal of 150,000 rockets is larger than that of most national armies. Thus the candidates evidently concluded that even left-of-center Israelis no longer believe the activist “experts” who persist in denying that unilateral withdrawal endangers Israel’s security.
Moreover, both candidates promised to freeze settlement construction, but only outside the major settlement blocs. This is a sharp rejection of the line the Obama Administration spent eight years peddling—that construction anywhere beyond the 1949 armistice lines, even in areas everyone knows will remain Israeli under any agreement, is an obstacle to peace. It turns out even left-of-center Israelis consider it ludicrous for Israel to stop building in the settlement blocs and large Jewish neighborhoods of east Jerusalem. They simply don’t buy the idea that construction in these areas, which will clearly remain Israeli, is a legitimate excuse for the Palestinians’ ongoing refusal to negotiate.
No less noteworthy was one glaring omission. Though both candidates promised immediate final-status negotiations with the Palestinians and deemed a peace deal essential, their only stated reason for this position was to keep Israel from becoming a binational state. Neither so much as mentioned the fear that Israel could face growing international isolation if it didn’t resolve the conflict. That claim has been a staple of left-wing advocacy for years. It was most famously expressed by former Labor chairman (and former prime minister) Ehud Barak who, in 2011, warned that Israel would face a “diplomatic tsunami” if the conflict continued.
This argument has been getting harder and harder to make in recent years, as Israel’s diplomatic reach has steadily expanded. But it would have sounded particularly fatuous coming just days after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s historic visit to Israel, which caused many who had previously parroted Barak’s warning to throw in the towel. Typical headlines from center-left commentators included “Where’s the diplomatic isolation?” and “Modi visit shows Israel can improve foreign ties even without a peace process.” Judging by the fact that neither Peretz nor Gabbay mentioned this argument, they evidently think even Labor Party members will no longer buy it.
As an aside, it’s far from clear that diplomatic ties would continue expanding under a Labor government, because center-left governments typically view the Palestinian issue as their top priority, and therefore devote much less time and energy to expanding ties with the rest of the world. In contrast, since Netanyahu’s government believes a Palestinian deal is currently unobtainable, it has invested enormous effort in expanding Israel’s other diplomatic relationships. And that effort matters. As Kenya’s UN ambassador said last week, it’s only recently that “the lights have gone on” in Israel and it has started engaging. Previously, he spent years asking Israeli officials, “Why are you not engaged? Where is Israel?” But the possibility that Labor might choose to focus on the Palestinians instead doesn’t change the fact that Israel clearly can expand its diplomacy even without a peace process.
Finally, Peretz and Gabbay both rejected the increasingly popular argument among left-wing activists that fully integrating Israeli Arabs requires inviting elected Arab parties into the governing coalition, no matter how extreme those parties are. Inter alia, they include one parliamentarian doing jail time for smuggling cell phones to imprisoned terrorists, another who calls Arab policemen “traitors,” and a third who canceled a meeting with American Jewish leaders because he “cannot in good conscience” enter a building that houses a Zionist organization. Gabbay, typically blunt, said the Arab parties’ Joint List “includes anti-Zionist elements … so we can’t cooperate with this composition.” Peretz concurred: “Incidents that have occurred in the Joint List undoubtedly make it very hard to add them to any future coalition. Effectively, the difficulty is so great as to make this impossible.”
In short, both men upheld the traditional view that integration requires bolstering Arab moderates rather than bolstering radical politicians who support terrorists and/or want to abolish the Jewish state. Evidently, they believed any other position would repel Labor voters.
The bottom line is that, even among mainstream left-of-center voters, many ideas pushed by left-wing journalists and activists remain toxic. It’s a point worth remembering for all those foreigners who get much of their information from these very same sources.
Originally published in Commentary on July 14, 2017
Though Israel’s diplomatic situation has improved remarkably, there’s been one glaring and nontrivial exception: Europe. Hence, it’s encouraging to discover that even in Europe, patient, persistent diplomacy can bear fruit if it focuses on a few clear, consistent messages. Consider, for instance, the following recent events:
On any other day, the Wall Street Journal’s report on Tuesday would have been a major bombshell. Instead, it was unjustly overshadowed by the news that Donald Trump had shared sensitive third-party intelligence (apparently provided by Israel) with Russia. Granted, the intelligence story reveals something important about the U.S. president. But the WSJ story revealed something important about long-term trends in the Middle East–and for once, it’s unabashedly good news. Major Arab states have grown tired of having their relationship with Israel held hostage to the Palestinian problem, and they’re actually seeking to do something about it.
The Journal reported that the Gulf States are discussing a proposal to normalize certain types of commercial relations with Israel in exchange for Israeli gestures toward the Palestinians (the report is behind a paywall, but the Times of Israel helpfully provided a detailed account of what the WSJ article said). Two countries, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have already told both America and Israel that they’re willing to adopt it, the Journal added.
The U.S. Army recently announced that it has horrifying video footage of Islamic State fighters herding Iraqi civilians into buildings in Mosul. The plan was not to use them as human shields–that is, to announce their presence in the hope of deterring American airstrikes. Rather, ISIS was deliberately trying to ensure that American troops killed them, by “smuggling civilians into buildings, so we won’t see them and trying to bait the coalition to attack,” an army spokesman said at a briefing for Pentagon reporters. The motive, he explained, was hope that massive civilian casualties would produce such an outcry that the U.S. would halt airstrikes altogether.
There’s an important point to this story which the spokesman neglected to mention: This tactic is borrowed directly from Hamas. And it was borrowed because the world’s response to successive Hamas-Israel wars convinced ISIS that creating massive civilian casualties among residents of its own territory is an effective strategy. Admittedly, Hamas hasn’t yet been caught on video actually herding civilians into buildings before launching attacks from them. But there’s plenty of evidence that Hamas prevented civilians from leaving areas whence it was launching rockets or other attacks at Israel, thereby deliberately exposing them to retaliatory strikes.
During the 2014 Gaza war, for instance, the Israel Defense Forces warned civilians to evacuate the town of Beit Lahiya before launching air strikes at Hamas positions. But according to Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid, who based himself on interviews with Palestinians in Gaza, Hamas gunmen showed up and warned that anyone who left the town would be treated as a collaborator. Since Hamas executes collaborators, that was equivalent to saying that anyone who tried to leave would be killed on the spot. Thus, faced with the alternative of certain death at Hamas’s hands, most Beit Lahiya residents understandably opted to stay and take their chances with the IDF.
There’s also plenty of evidence that Hamas deliberately launched attacks from buildings where it knew civilians were present. Just last month, for instance, I wrote about a case during the 2009 Gaza war in which Hamas directed sniper fire at Israeli troops from the third floor of a well-known doctor’s home, thereby forcing the soldiers to choose between becoming sitting ducks or shooting back and risking civilian casualties. Unbeknownst to the soldiers, Hamas was also storing explosives in the house (using civilian buildings as arms caches or wiring them with explosives is standard practice for Hamas). Consequently, when the soldiers fired at the Hamas position, an unexpectedly large explosion ensued, killing three of the doctor’s daughters and one of his nieces.
In short, Hamas repeatedly used tactics aimed at maximizing the number of civilian casualties on its own side. Yet instead of blaming Hamas for this, the world largely blamed Israel. Mass demonstrations were held throughout the West condemning Israel; there were no mass demonstrations condemning Hamas. Journalists and “human rights” organizations issued endless reports blaming Israel for the civilian casualties while ignoring or downplaying Hamas’s role in them. Western leaders repeatedly demanded that Israel show “restraint” and accused it of using disproportionate force. Israel, not Hamas, became the subject of a complaint to the International Criminal Court.
Hamas thereby succeeded in putting Israel in a lose-lose situation. Either it could let Hamas launch thousands of rockets at Israeli civilians with impunity, or it could strike back at the price of global opprobrium.
Alan Dershowitz, who aptly calls this the “dead baby strategy,” has been warning for years that unless it “is exposed and rejected in the marketplace of morality, it’s coming to a theater (or school or hospital) near you.” After all, why wouldn’t other terrorist organizations adopt a strategy that has so obviously proven successful?
Now, ISIS has proven his point: It has chosen to deliberately sacrifice civilians rather than employing the more obvious tactic of using them as human shields. Granted, the organization enjoys killing, but based on its track record, it’s also far from stupid. So if it has concluded that dead civilians are more useful than living human shields, it’s because, like Hamas, it considers this a win-win strategy. At worst, America’s reputation will be tarnished, since many people worldwide will blame it for the civilian casualties rather than putting the blame on ISIS, where it belongs. And at best, negative public opinion will force America to abandon the airstrikes altogether.
Nor is the latter hope as far-fetched as it may seem at first glance. It’s true the “dead baby strategy” never persuaded Israel to stop airstrikes against Hamas, but there’s a fundamental difference between the two cases: Israel’s citizens were under direct attack by Hamas rockets and tunnels, and in a choice between sacrificing its citizens’ lives and suffering global opprobrium, any self-respecting country would choose the latter. But ISIS isn’t launching rockets at America from Mosul; the threat it poses is far less immediate. Consequently, the incentive for America to simply back away from the fight if the civilian death toll climbs too high is much greater.
In short, by blaming Israel for civilian casualties that were actually deliberately caused by Hamas’s actions, the world ensured that other terrorist organizations would adopt a similar strategy. Or to put it more bluntly, it ensured that many more civilians would die, because terrorist groups would see a profit in their deaths.
ISIS obviously bears primary blame for all civilian deaths in Mosul. But a portion of that blame is shared by every journalist, “human rights” activist, politician and demonstrator who blamed Israel rather than Hamas for civilian deaths in Gaza–because they are the ones who persuaded ISIS that deliberately sacrificing civilians is an effective way to fight a war.
Originally published in Commentary on April 5, 2017
A review of a comedy of manners set in England in the 1920s wouldn’t seem the obvious place to look to understand why the average Westerner really has no business trying to tell Israelis how to run their country. But two sentences in this New York Times book review encapsulate the problem perfectly: “Historical details, which abound, are often fascinating. (Who knew that beards interfere with gas masks?)”
I’m sure most New York Times readers don’t know that. But virtually every adult Israeli does, other than a few recent immigrants. That’s because almost every adult Israeli either has a gas mask or did at one time (mine still lives in my closet), and many of us have actually worn them. They were distributed nationwide before the 1991 Gulf War, out of fear that Saddam Hussein would put chemical warheads on the missiles he launched at Israel during the war. Israel, incidentally, was one of only two countries Saddam launched missiles at, even though it wasn’t one of the 39 countries actually waging war on Iraq at the time.
Since then, Israel has run several nationwide campaigns to get people to exchange their old gas masks for new ones. That gas masks have an expiration date is another fascinating “historical” detail most Westerners probably don’t know (the campaigns ended a few years ago, after the implosion of both Iraq and Syria reduced the risk of a chemical attack). Israel also passed a law requiring every new house to include a bomb shelter capable of doubling as a sealed room, since ordinary bomb shelters offer no protection against chemical attacks (yet another little-known “historical” detail). That’s one of many factors contributing to the country’s sky-high housing costs, but not one Israelis complain about. In-house bomb shelters are even more necessary today, given the thousands of rockets launched at Israel by both Hezbollah and Hamas over the last 10 to 15 years.
Even Israelis who were children in 1991 undoubtedly remember being woken by sirens in the middle of the night, rushing to makeshift sealed rooms (heavy-duty plastic wrap, tape and damp towels), putting on their masks and sitting for hours waiting for the all-clear. The adults also remember being unable to fall asleep at night while awaiting that siren. The chronic sleep deprivation experienced by people under missile bombardment is another little-known historical detail (somehow, it never seems to interest human rights organizations as much as the sleep deprivation of captured terrorists during interrogations).
As for beards, this being Israel, a public battle raged for months in 1990-91 over whether Haredi men, who normally don’t shave for religious reasons, should be given special, more expensive masks that can accommodate beards, or whether they could reasonably be expected to shave, given that in Jewish law, saving a life trumps most other religious precepts. There was even a high-profile court case by a secular bearded man charging discrimination because Haredim got the special masks while he did not (he won).
Of course, there’s no reason why reviewer Susan Coll or any other Westerner should know any of these “historical details.” Thankfully, no Western country has faced the threat of bombardment with chemical warheads, or even conventional rockets, in more than 70 years. The problem is that so many Westerners who share her ignorance feel fully qualified to tell Israel what it should do, despite not knowing the most basic facts about the security challenges it faces.
If you don’t even know that beards interfere with gas masks, something every Israeli has been forced by hard necessity to learn, or if you see that fact as nothing but a “fascinating historical detail,” what makes you qualified to give advice to a country whose security challenges are so clearly outside your knowledge and experience? What makes you qualified to decide how Israel should cope with the hundreds of thousands of missiles pointed at it? What makes you qualified to insist that withdrawing from the West Bank doesn’t pose a serious risk, or that bombing rocket storehouses in Gaza causes disproportionate harm?
Most people wouldn’t dream of proposing solutions to, say, the mystery of dark matter unless they were experts in cutting-edge astrophysics. Yet hundreds of thousands of people worldwide see no problem with propounding solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict despite not knowing even elementary facts.
It would be nice if some of those people would evince a little more humility. But as long as they don’t, they really shouldn’t be surprised that Israeli voters keep rejecting their prescriptions.
Originally published in Commentary on March 22, 2017
There’s been a lot of talk lately about the Trump Administration’s plan to slash funding for the State Department, so I’d like to offer my own modest proposal in that direction: Kill the department’s human rights bureau.
This isn’t because I think America shouldn’t care about human rights. On the contrary, I think it ought to shine a spotlight on the world’s worst abusers, given that the UN Human Rights Council and so-called human rights organizations fail to do so. But since the bureau, judging by its latest annual human rights report, does nothing but channel those institutions’ Israel obsession, I see no reason to waste taxpayer dollars on it.
Haaretz reporter Amir Tibon did a numerical analysis of the report earlier this month and discovered two astounding facts. First, the document “devotes 141 pages to the human rights situation in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, more than to any other country in the world except China,” which gets the same number. Second, “Even when viewed as two separate reports, the number of pages devoted to each of the areas–Israel and the occupied territories–surpasses that of any other country in the Middle East region.” For instance, Israel alone, excluding the territories, gets 69 pages; by comparison, Iran gets 48 and Syria 58.
Since a normal reader would assume the amount of space devoted to a country bears some relationship to the magnitude of its human rights offenses, any such reader would have to conclude that Israel is a far worse human rights violator than, say, Syria, where the government has slaughtered hundreds of thousands of its own citizens. It must certainly be worse than Iran, which has abetted that slaughter with both money and troops.
But the report becomes even more surreal when you start examining the “crimes” to which the State Department devoted all that ink. Take, for instance, the demolition of illegal construction in the Israeli Bedouin town of Umm al-Hiran.
We’ll leave aside the question of why demolishing illegal construction–with the approval of several courts, including the Supreme Court, and while offering the residents alternative land plus cash compensation–constitutes a human rights violation at all. It’s enough to consider a single sentence, which is based on a report by an Israeli NGO, the Negev Coexistence Forum: “The NCF reported that construction work on [the planned new town of] Hiran progressed and expanded during the year, reaching to within a few yards of Bedouin houses in Umm al-Hiran, and residents suffered from the dust raised by construction.”
Is this a joke? Or do State’s human rights gurus seriously think people suffering from the dust of nearby construction constitutes a human rights violation? By that logic, the only place anyone could build without violating human rights would be in wilderness areas. In other words, we’d essentially have to shut down all construction worldwide.
Or take its section on press freedom, which quotes another NGO, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. It begins as follows: “The independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction. In December, however, ACRI published a report detailing a variety of legislative and rhetorical attacks on media throughout the year by elected officials, especially Prime Minister Netanyahu, and expressed concern about the chilling effect of these attacks on press freedom.”
In other words, State thinks it’s reasonable to fear a “chilling effect” on Israel’s media even though its own first sentence admits there’s no evidence of any such thing (“The independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views”). Even worse, however, the nonexistent human rights problem it alleges would be solvable only by creating a real one. How could Israel possibly prevent elected officials’ “rhetorical attacks on media” without suppressing their own freedom of speech?
But far worse than such inanities is the way the report traffics in unsupported libel. Take, for instance, this gem: “There were reports some children worked in forced labor in the West Bank, including in settlements. NGOs reported employers subjected Palestinian men to forced labor in Israeli settlements … The PA was unable to monitor and investigate abuses in these areas.”
In other words, the State Department accused Israel of subjecting Palestinians–including children–to forced labor, without citing a single example to substantiate this accusation. It did so despite admitting that it doesn’t actually have any evidence aside from unspecified “reports” by unspecified “NGOs,” which even the Palestinian Authority wasn’t prepared to back (it “was unable to monitor and investigate” the allegations). Nor is this lack of evidence surprising, since the accusation is groundless (shockingly, Israel isn’t running forced labor camps in the settlements). So why was such a vile, unsubstantiated allegation even included in the report?
A human rights report worthy of the name would prioritize, devoting most of its attention to the world’s worst abusers. It would reflect enough basic good judgment to excise inanities like “suffering from construction dust.” It would either try to confirm unsubstantiated allegations or omit them because they were unsubstantiated. And it might even include some original investigating about human rights abuses in the many oppressive dictatorships that “human rights” organizations find less enthralling than democratic Israel.
Instead, the State Department apparently just copy-pasted anything it could find from such organizations, no matter how ludicrous or unsubstantiated. That inevitably resulted in paying absurdly excessive attention to Israel, because that’s what most “human rights” organizations do. If you doubt that, just consider this stunning graph from the Elder of Ziyon blog analyzing Amnesty International’s tweets during one month in summer 2015: Amnesty spared only four tweets for Syria’s ongoing civil war, but devoted over 60 to Israel and Gaza, most of them rehashing a war that had ended a year earlier with less than half a percent of Syria’s death toll.
In short, the human rights bureau simply generated a U.S.-sponsored version of the same anti-Israel bias Ambassador Nikki Haley so rightly condemns at the UN. And if so, then really, who needs it?
Originally published in Commentary on March 20, 2017
I’m not naïve enough to think that better PR would solve all of Israel’s international relations problems. But there’s no question that incompetent PR makes its situation much worse. As one example, consider Tuesday’s shocking revelation: Within about 24 hours of the most high-profile civilian casualty incident of the 2009 Gaza war, Israel had obtained evidence casting doubt on its responsibility for that death. But it sat on this evidence for more than eight years, finally releasing it only as part of a defense brief in a civil suit by the victims’ father.
The incident in question took place on January 16, 2009, when Israeli troops fighting in Gaza came under sniper fire. The troops fired two shells at an observation post that seemed to be directing the snipers. The observation post was located on the third floor of a building which, unbeknownst to the soldiers, was also the home of a well-known doctor, Izzeldin Abuelaish. Three of Abuelaish’s daughters were killed, along with one of his nieces; several other family members were wounded. Abuelaish, who worked in Israel, maintained good relations with Israelis and advocated for Israeli-Palestinian peace, later became famous worldwide when he published a book about this incident and his response to it, called I Shall Not Hate. Israel was blamed worldwide for the Abuelaish casualties and never publicly challenged the assumption of its guilt. Yet it now turns out that within a day after the incident, it had evidence indicating that its shells may not have caused the carnage.
The evidence came in the form of laboratory tests conducted on six pieces of shrapnel extracted from the two casualties treated in Israel (the other wounded weren’t brought to Israel, nor were any of the dead, so no shrapnel from the other victims was available). The tests showed that alongside traces of various explosives used by both the Israel Defense Forces and Hamas, at least one fragment contained an explosive called R-Salt, which isn’t used by the IDF but is commonly used in improvised explosive devices in Gaza. Moreover, all six fragments contained potassium nitrate, another substance not used in IDF weaponry that is used in Hamas’s homemade Qassam rockets.
A follow-up report a month later, which compared the shrapnel to the specific type of Israeli shells fired, concluded that four of the six fragments could not possibly have come from those shells; a fifth “may have come” from an IDF shell, and apparently, no conclusions were possible about the sixth.
All of the above indicates that Hamas or a smaller Palestinian organization was using the house as a weapons cache. According to the IDF, there is no other way to account for the presence of non-IDF explosives in the shrapnel.
This in no way implies culpability on Abuelaish’s part; Palestinian terrorists routinely store weaponry in civilian houses without the owners’ consent or even knowledge. But it does raise the possibility that the Israeli shells, which were intended to take out the observation post without significant damage to the house, would not have caused such extensive casualties had the house not contained a concealed weapons cache–something the soldiers couldn’t have known–which exploded when the shells hit. And if so, then Israel clearly isn’t responsible for the deaths: It used a reasonable amount of force to respond to a legitimate military threat and could not have foreseen the deadly consequences.
One of the most common accusations leveled at Israel by its critics is that because it possesses precision weaponry capable of feats like destroying a single room without damaging the rest of the building, any civilian casualties it causes must be the result of criminal negligence at best and deliberate murderousness at worst. That conclusion is obviously possible only if you ignore various salient facts, such as that mistakes are inevitable in wartime when soldiers must often make split-second decisions based on imperfect information.
But one of those salient facts is Hamas’s habit of storing arms and ammunition in civilian houses–without, obviously, informing Israel of the caches’ locations. This means that no matter how carefully Israeli troops choose their munitions, they have no way to protect against the possibility that an arms cache they didn’t know about will set off secondary explosions, resulting in far more extensive damage than they intended.
This fact is essential to understanding why the blame for most civilian casualties actually rests not with Israel, which does try hard to use proportionate military force, but with Hamas, which deliberately endangers its own civilian population by hiding weapons in their houses. Yet since it is frequently not well understood overseas, Israel has every interest in publicizing high-profile examples as heavily as possible.
Instead, it sat on its information about the Abuelaish case for eight years. The lab report was kept so secret that even Abuelaish’s lawyers didn’t know of its existence until last week, although the suit was filed back in 2010. And then, having finally been forced to disclose the report to defend against the lawsuit, the government nevertheless made no attempt to publicize it; it came to light only because a reporter took the trouble to read the defense brief and realized that the information was newsworthy.
Obviously, information like this won’t change a single Israel hater’s mind. But there are many people of goodwill, especially overseas Jews, who sincerely want to believe that the IDF strives to avoid civilian casualties, but can’t understand why, if so, they nevertheless keep occurring.
Israel has many valid answers to that question, including the fact that its civilian-to-military casualty ratio is actually lower than that of other Western armies. But these answers are useless if it doesn’t take the trouble to publicize them. Sitting on exculpatory information about a high-profile case for eight years is hardly the way to assuage its supporters’ concerns.
Originally published in Commentary on March 15, 2017
One demand that President Donald Trump repeatedly raised before taking office is for U.S. allies to contribute more to the costs of their defense. Given that Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. military aid, it would seem an obvious target for this demand. Indeed, asked by a reporter last March whether Israel should pay for American protection, Trump replied affirmatively. Thus, it’s worth recalling why Israel is America’s largest recipient of military aid, and why it’s cheap at the price.
Unlike all the other allies Trump complains about, Israel isn’t under America’s military protection and doesn’t want to be. It never has and never will ask American troops to defend it. The annual aid is intended to ensure that this situation continues, by helping Israel purchase the weaponry it needs to defend itself by itself.
Israel is perhaps unique among American allies in that it genuinely doesn’t want America to protect it militarily. The belief that it must defend itself by itself is deeply ingrained in Israel and enjoys virtually wall-to-wall consensus, and this would remain true even if America gave it no military aid at all.
Moreover, while the price tag may sound astronomical–aid to Israel currently totals $3.1 billion a year, and is slated to rise to $3.8 billion in 2019–it’s cheap compared to the cost of U.S. troop deployments to protect other American allies. For instance, maintaining U.S. bases in Japan costs America about $5.5 billion a year, and that’s in a country where troops haven’t had to fire a shot in decades. The costs rise sharply when America actually has to send soldiers into action.
The 1991 Gulf War, for instance, was fought to liberate one ally, Kuwait, from Iraqi invasion and protect another, Saudi Arabia, from falling to Iraq as well. Even with allies picking up most of the estimated $61 billion tab, it cost the U.S. about $9 billion, and that’s just the money spent on the war itself. It doesn’t include the incalculable human cost of the 383 U.S. soldiers who were killed and the 467 who were wounded or the costs of treating the latter. Yet the Gulf War was a short, low-casualty war; most U.S. wars have been far more expensive and had much higher casualty tolls.
Nor can Israel be accused of failing to contribute financially to its own defense. It’s pathetic that 23 of NATO’s 28 members spend less than 2 percent of GDP on defense when that’s the alliance’s own agreed-upon floor, and most member states could easily afford it. But Israel can hardly be faulted on that score: Its defense spending constitutes 5.2 percent of GDP, well above America’s 3.5 percent, and is the largest single item in Israel’s budget by a large margin. By comparison, America’s defense spending comes in well below its spending on both healthcare and social security.
Needless to say, the U.S. also gets many tangible benefits from the Israeli defense capabilities that its aid helps finance. One is intelligence. Just last July, Haaretz reported that in the battle against ISIS, “According to Western intelligence sources, Israel has supplied more intelligence to its allies than any other intelligence organization.” Another is combat testing of weapons systems and ensuring beneficial modifications. For instance, America’s F-16 fighters contain over 600 modifications introduced by Israel. As Haaretz reported in 2010, “between 10 percent and 15 percent of every new F-16 made in America … consists of Israeli systems.”
In addition, America derives strategic benefit from having an ally willing to police its own neighborhood to some degree rather than relying on the U.S. to do so. For instance, as I’ve noted before, Israel’s destruction of a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007 prevented ISIS from getting its hands on the raw material for a nuclear bomb. The reactor was located in one of the swathes of Syria ISIS captured. Similarly, America was able to defend its allies in the Gulf War only because Israel had destroyed Iraq’s nuclear program a decade earlier. After the war, then-Defense Minister Dick Cheney publicly thanked Israel for doing so, though the U.S. had condemned the operation at the time. Had America had an Asian ally willing to take similar action in, say, North Korea, the U.S. wouldn’t now be worrying about Pyongyang’s nukes.
Nevertheless, Israel would doubtless continue providing these services even if the U.S. slashed its military aid, and obtaining them is not the aid’s main purpose. Rather, that purpose is to ensure that American soldiers, who are expected to put their lives on the line to defend most other U.S. allies (at least as long as America continues to see defending its allies as an American interest), will never need to do so for Israel.
Consequently, the aid is a win-win situation. Israel gets help in buying the arms it needs to defend itself. And America gets an ally that doesn’t need or want its military protection. That’s infinitely preferable to having to put its soldiers in harm’s way. And it also turns out to be a lot cheaper.
Originally published in Commentary on January 25, 2017