Last fall while the Democratic presidential campaign was in full swing, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg were both asked about their views on utilizing American security assistance to Israel in order to influence Israeli policies. Both of them gave relatively vague answers indicating that they might be in favor of doing so, but neither said precisely how or in relation to what. Warren said that “everything is on the table” if Israel moves away from two states, while Buttigieg said that he would use American assistance as “leverage to guide Israel in the right direction.” At the time, I wrote the following: “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.”
That debate has now moved front and center, and the first prediction has happened with the second certain to follow. My purpose in pointing this out is not to extoll my powers of prophecy (though I am happy to accept any and all accolades!) but to illustrate how avoidable this all was and how we have arrived at this point nonetheless, and to speculate about what will happen next. This is because the sudden prominence of the debate over conditioning assistance to Israel is inextricably linked to annexation and thus is not going away, and anyone who takes either of these two sides of the equation seriously has to grapple with the full policy and political implications of whatever stance they espouse.
Last Thursday, Senator Chris Van Hollen introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act requiring that none of the security assistance to Israel provided by the U.S. can be used to “deploy, or support the deployment of, United States defense articles, services, or training to territories in the West Bank unilaterally annexed by Israel after July 1, 2020, or to facilitate the unilateral annexation of such territories.” Plainly stated, this means that if passed, Israel would still receive every penny of the annual $3.8 billion in security assistance, but subject to the restriction of it not being spent in the service of annexation or in any annexed areas themselves. The amendment has twelve other Senate Democrats as co-sponsors, including the other two co-authors along with Van Hollen of a letter sent to Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz in May expressing concern about potential West Bank annexation and signed by nineteen senators. That letter, which was widely reported on, made no mention of security assistance and did not imply that annexation would impact it in any way.
There are a number of myths about conditioning aid that are virulently persistent despite being easily debunked. The first is that conditioning aid is the same as cutting aid, which it obviously is not. Conditioning does not reduce the amount of aid, but rather lays out the ways in which it can be used. In fact, the current U.S.-Israel MOU already conditions aid in a number of ways; it explicitly does not allow Israel to spend the money on fuel, and restricts how much of the aid can be spent off-shore rather than on U.S. weapons systems and materiel. If further conditions are placed on U.S. security assistance to Israel, it will not be singling Israel out but will be in line with what Congress does with a host of other countries in the Middle East, including Egypt and Turkey. It will also track with what the U.S. did for decades with regard to loan guarantees it gave to Israel, which were not only conditioned on Israeli settlement activity but were actually reduced as a result of Israeli settlement activity; a policy, incidentally, that was instituted by President George H.W. Bush and kept by every subsequent president until it was ended by President Obama.
The fact that the aid already has conditions on it and the fact that it is insulting to argue that the U.S. Congress does not have the right or responsibility to place guidelines on how the money it appropriates can be spent does not, however, necessarily make the Van Hollen amendment a wise policy move, which is why I am not in favor of it. The evidence that conditioning aid is effective in creating incentives for foreign governments to change their own policies is slim. The Obama and Trump administrations both froze aid to Egypt entirely in response to human rights violations until it met a number of conditions, and both administrations eventually relented and lifted the restrictions despite the conditions not being met as it became clear that the Egyptian government had no intention of changing course even one centimeter. The U.S. has currently suspended delivery of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey and kicked Turkey out of the F-35 program entirely as a result of Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 antiaircraft defense systems, and not only has Turkey not reversed course, it has moved ahead with increasing persistence with every escalating American threat and move.
Furthermore, in the case of conditioning aid to Israel, the U.S. has its own independent national security interests separate from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that it does not want to harm. Israel’s value as a regional ally is high, and creating tension with Israel on the security front will harm U.S. intelligence and its ability to counter Iran. The language in the Van Hollen amendment will almost certainly create such tension given that it can be read as barring Israel from, for instance, deploying an Iron Dome battery in annexed territory, so even for those who argue that conditioning security assistance on annexation is symbolic and meant only to send a message to Israel, the fallout may go well beyond symbolism. As bad as annexation will be and as unwaveringly as it should be opposed, U.S. policy toward Israel should not be driven entirely by its relationship to the Palestinians, just as U.S. policy toward the Palestinians should not be driven entirely by their relationship to Israel.
But if your takeaway from this is that Van Hollen is anti-Israel or that Democrats are rabid Israel haters, you are not only very mistaken in my view but also missing what is actually going on here. Nearly every Democrat in Congress – and quite a few Republicans too, though they are far quieter about it – view annexation as a terrible mistake for Israel, and one that will have consequences for the U.S. as well. They have spoken out against it publicly, sent letters both openly and privately to Netanyahu, passed resolutions stating their opposition to annexation, begged Israel to pay attention to warnings from Arab governments and its own myriad former security officials, and literally none of it has worked.
This leaves frustrated members of Congress with two options. One is to swallow the frustration, turn a blind eye to Israeli efforts to annex West Bank territory, and proceed with business as usual. The other is to come up with some way of getting the Israeli government’s attention, and whereas a White House has numerous options on that front – from refraining from holding high-level meetings with Israeli counterparts to withholding recognition of annexed territory to shifting policy related to Israel in international institutions – Congress has little in this regard beyond the power of the purse. This is what drives the move to condition assistance, as it is the only option left to send a message that goes beyond strongly worded objections.
What is most notable here is the speed with which this debate is moving. In the span of about nine months coinciding with increasingly frequent and more specific promises from Netanyahu to annex territory and the release of the Trump plan with its annexation map, leading Democrats have gone from nebulous reticence on conditioning security assistance to advancing amendments with very specific language that has attracted more support than most people expected. It is also notable that this comes less than two months since many of the same senators signed a letter on annexation that contained moderating language purposely crafted so as not to imply that the issue would be tied to aid, and that the Israeli response to the letter was to double down, insist that annexation was actually a two-state solution, and to imply that Democratic senators should mind their own business. And finally, it is notable that the amendment comes days after a letter was circulated by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez calling not only to condition aid on annexation, but to withhold aid equal to or exceeding the amount of money that Israel spends on funding settlements. If you portray Van Hollen as a radical given this entire context, you are missing the way in which his approach is rapidly becoming the more moderate one.
This does not make the Van Hollen amendment good or implementable policy, and the basic math means that it has no chance of passing if brought to a vote. But it is a clear marker, and this is not going to be the end of the line. This all could have been avoided had Israel stepped away from annexation rather than run towards it, and if Netanyahu’s annexation plans end up getting thwarted by Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, White House infighting, or any of the other things that have temporarily gummed up the works, it will bring a temporary reprieve from Congress. But the Rubicon has been crossed with regard to Democratic anger and what policy moves Democrats are willing to support, and the volume on this is going to steadily increase. Nobody should blind themselves to the fact that West Bank annexation is the wedge that has already broken Israel policy in Congress apart.