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