In the span of one weekend, conditioning security assistance to Israel moved from a topic on the fringes of American politics to one that is on its way to becoming a hot-button topic. As Democratic presidential candidates spend more time on the stump, it was inevitable that the question of whether aid to Israel should be sacrosanct or not would come up. Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg were both asked last weekend whether U.S. assistance to Israel should be used as a way of influencing Israeli behavior, and they both answered in ways that opened up the door to that possibility while being ambiguous about whether and how they would actually pursue it. Warren responded to a question about tying aid to settlement construction that American policy supports a two-state solution and that “everything is on the table” if Israel moves in the opposite direction. Buttigieg said that he would use assistance to Israel as “leverage to guide Israel in the right direction.” That leading candidates from the party’s progressive and moderate wings gave similar answers about using assistance to Israel as a way of influencing Israeli behavior is a good indication that at some point in the not too distant future, tying security aid to specific Israeli policies will be a mainstream Democratic position if things continue along the same path.
Observers of the U.S.-Israel relationship know that this is not new. President George H.W. Bush famously withheld loan guarantees to Israel meant to help in settling Soviet refugees in response to Israeli settlement construction beyond the Green Line, and President Ronald Reagan suspended arms sales to Israel following Israel’s bombing of the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor. That conditioning or withholding assistance to Israel is not new does not make it less significant, given the Israeli government’s increasing willingness to irrevocably abandon a two-state outcome and greater skepticism of Israel generally and Israeli behavior specifically in progressive circles. There are policy and politics angles to this, and a very clear message being sent to Prime Minister Netanyahu and any potential successors that they may ignore at Israel’s peril.
Conditioning aid to Israel is a mess from a policy perspective. If it is intended as a way of punishing Israeli behavior, then it downgrades a vitally important defense and intelligence relationship for the purposes of making a values statement, and does it to an ally whose behavior is far from perfect but has not approached anything like apartheid-era South Africa or Russia following its invasion and annexation of Crimea. If it is intended to alter Israeli behavior going forward – which is how Warren and Buttigieg both framed it – then it turns into a question of feasibility and whether it will accomplish its objective. The answers to those questions are unknowable, but the evidence suggests that it would create more problems than it solves.
Anyone who has dealt with Israelis knows that threats tend to be met with greater bluster and determination to maintain the original course of action than the opposite. If U.S. assistance to Israel was an issue existential to Israel’s survival, that would create a different calculus, but as valuable and important as $3.8 billion in annual security assistance is to Israel, the country would be able to live without it. It is for precisely this reason that some influential Israeli security figures have called to end the security assistance program, believing that Israel can manage without it and remove any leverage that the U.S. has over Israeli actions – the same reason that most Israelis in the security establishment do not want a formal defense treaty with the U.S. It is also worth noting that cancelling out all assistance to the Palestinians has not changed Palestinian behavior one iota, but has rather given them an easy rationale to take an even harder line and boycott the U.S. entirely.
Even if conditioning security assistance were to work in changing Israeli behavior in the West Bank, it would still bring a potential unintended outcome of greater casualties on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides. If withholding security assistance means less money for Iron Dome batteries, for instance, it makes larger numbers of Israeli civilian casualties a certainty when rockets are shot from Gaza, which in turn makes an Israeli ground invasion and exponentially higher Palestinian casualties just as certain. It will also incentivize riskier preemptive Israeli actions, not only against Palestinian terror groups but also against Iran, if Israel believes that its qualitative military edge has been eroded or that it cannot afford to wait and rely on what are now its lesser capabilities. While such an outcome is not the aim of those who advocate conditioning aid, it may come about nonetheless.
There is also the problem of other downstream effects of conditioning security assistance to Israel. Whenever a new administration succeeds the current one, at the top of any list of priorities should be reversing the indiscriminate cuts in aid to the West Bank and Gaza carried out by the Trump White House. Doing so will be exponentially harder, if not impossible, once aid to Israel has been conditioned. There are no Republicans and few Democrats, including those on both sides of the aisle who feel most strongly about restoring aid to the West Bank and Gaza, who will be comfortable raising the banner of reversing aid cuts to the Palestinians while aid to Israel is being cut. Not only will it feel squeamish given Israel’s strategic value to the U.S., it will be out of line with public sympathies and thus be politically unwise. The smarter approach is to allow absolute gains on both sides, rather than use the Trump administration’s approach of maximizing Israeli relative gains but apply it to the Palestinians.
Even if every one of these objections is overcome, there still remains a significant logistical hurdle, which is determining whether U.S. security assistance is specifically used in furtherance of Israel’s occupation, and precisely how much and in what manner. If Israel purchases ammunition from the U.S., is it being used against Palestinian protestors or on the border with Syria? Is a missile defense battery deterring Iran or making it easier for Israel to repel military action aimed at assisting the Palestinians? Are jets used to respond to rocket fire from Gaza defending Israelis from terrorism or furthering Israeli control of Gaza’s borders? If the approach is to treat all dollars as fungible and reduce security assistance by the equivalent amount that Israel spends on military and police activity in the West Bank, even if it can be quantified how does one decide what is spent on legitimate security and what is spent on occupation? Not only are there no easy answers to these questions, I am not sure that there are answers at all.
The politics of what is going on are easy to understand. Netanyahu is wildly unpopular with Democrats, as are many of the policies he has undertaken. Both of these variables have only accelerated during the Trump era, and thus defending Israeli policies in the wake of ongoing threats to annex the West Bank and a growing chorus of Israeli politicians who openly talk about establishing facts on the ground that will make a two-state outcome impossible makes less and less sense in a Democratic primary. Despite this, Warren and Buttigieg were both independently ambiguous in what they actually envision doing as part of opening up the assistance discussion – particularly in Warren’s case, where she herself did not specifically reference aid in her answer – and clear that whatever they envision is tied to Israeli actions on two states. In other words, a leading moderate and a leading progressive running for president are united in their wariness of putting anything specific on the table and also opening the door wide open to business as usual for Netanyahu or any Israeli prime minister who is willing to simply roll back the clock ten years and remain in line with a two-state agenda.
If a debate about conditioning aid eventually moves front and center, two things are guaranteed to happen. First, future iterations of it will not be as cautious or non-committal as the versions advanced by Warren and Buttigieg, and may not tie it to incentivizing certain Israeli behavior that is relatively easy for Israel to fulfill. Second, it will not end well for Israel, whether or not aid is ultimately conditioned. Either Israel will lose out on security assistance and the formal U.S.-Israel relationship will be irrevocably altered, or Israel will become an increasingly larger and more prominent target in American domestic politics. If there is any good news here, it is that all of this can be easily avoided by a prime minister who is willing to lay the groundwork for an eventual two-state outcome rather than race toward taking unprecedented actions in a scorched earth campaign against two states. For Israel’s sake, let’s hope that whoever ends up in the premiership reads this clear situation for what it is and takes the easy steps to obviate the damage.