If one could construct a perfect storm of events to create an outrage cycle, it might look something like a debate over legislation involving U.S. military assistance to Israel the same week as riots and street violence involving Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem and the resumption of rockets from Gaza, with the next week bringing a report categorizing Israel as practicing apartheid as the cherry on top of this smoldering sundae. Let’s quickly dispense with this last development, as I don’t agree that Israel is an apartheid state and am not sure that arguing about it matters. But at the risk of pleasing no one, there is a middle ground on the other events that does not lend itself to the claims and narratives of any outraged side, and it is precisely because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not lend itself to easy absolutist claims or narratives.
Before events on the ground in Jerusalem, Jaffa, and elsewhere took a downward turn, a debate in Washington on how Israel uses American security assistance was precipitated by the introduction of a bill by Representative Betty McCollum. The bill seeks to prohibit U.S. funds from being used–in the bill’s language–“to support the military detention of Palestinian children, the unlawful seizure, appropriation, and destruction of Palestinian property and forcible transfer of civilians in the West Bank, or further annexation of Palestinian land in violation of international law.” As the logical follow through to this prohibition, the bill lays out reporting and certification requirements for the secretary of state, who has to either certify that Israel is in compliance or report how much U.S. funds were expended on the prohibited activity. There are also new reporting requirements on how Israel spends the funds that it is allowed to use for purchases outside of the U.S., known as offshore procurement. The bill does not set forth any consequences should Israel be found to violate the use prohibitions that the bill would create, so there is no automatic trigger of cuts or conditions in U.S. assistance to Israel should the secretary of state be unable to certify that Israel is in compliance with the bill’s prohibition provisions.
Similar to my position on Senator Chris Van Hollen’s proposed amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act last year, I do not want to see the McCollum bill become law, but the why is as important as the what. The bill’s proponents argue that anyone who opposes cutting or conditioning aid should have no problem with supporting it, because the only enforceable action it requires is reporting. If Israel takes $3.3 billion and spends it on nothing but bulldozers for home demolitions and detention camps for minors, there are no consequences aside from shedding light on the situation. Those who argue that reporting requirements are in and of themselves too onerous or an unfair imposition or singling out Israel are far out on a shaky limb; it’s fundamentally unserious to posit that the U.S. has no right or obligation to receive an accounting of how its largest outlay of foreign military assistance is spent. This is perhaps even more critical when it comes to offshore procurement, as Israel is able to place that portion of the U.S. assistance that it receives–currently just under 25% but being phased out over the life of the current ten year Memorandum of Understanding–in an Israeli account where it is commingled with other Israeli funds, rendering accurate tracking of how that money is spent nearly impossible.
Furthermore, the Israeli behavior that the McCollum bill highlights is indeed problematic, and pretending otherwise is intellectually dishonest. Home demolitions and property seizures in the West Bank and East Jerusalem that are completely unrelated to terrorism or security and are only about Palestinians’ inability to obtain building permits are perhaps the most serious crisis emanating from the occupation and increasing by the year; Palestinian minors are indeed detained far too often to make it isolated or extraordinary action; and the Israeli government’s embrace of annexation as a viable and legitimate policy option over the past few years is openly lauded by Prime Minister Netanyahu and politicians down the line. There are unfortunately plenty of grounds on which to criticize Israeli policy, and if you think that the allegations in the McCollum bill are constructed out of whole cloth, you are not paying attention to what is actually taking place.
The problem, however, is twofold. First, as so often happens, efforts to highlight bad Israeli behavior take things a few steps too far, and this effort is no different. I often tell audiences that if there is one thing I could unilaterally change about Israeli activity in the West Bank, it would be to overhaul the permitting system for Palestinians in Area C and cancel every outstanding home demolition order related to unpermitted structures. That does not automatically mean, however, that every single seizure and demolition in the West Bank is in violation of international law, as the bill contends. There were undoubtedly Palestinian minors detained during the clashes in Jerusalem last week–clashes where neither the Israeli authorities and certainly not the fascist Lehava hooligans chanting “Death to Arabs” have clean hands–but some of them also undoubtedly deserved to be arrested, and lumping all of them together is a problem. There is zero ambiguity about my position on annexation, but the bill’s repeated references to “further annexation of Palestinian land” imply that Israel has already done so. And any proposed legislation that refers to a just and lasting peace and Palestinian self-determination but makes no mention anywhere of two states raises questions about what the ultimate end game is for the bill’s authors, particularly when support for two states has been a hallmark of recent resolutions widely affirmed by Congress.
Second, and more saliently, while the bill does not technically cut or condition security assistance to Israel, it is intended to be the first step in that process. Many of the bill’s supporters make no effort to hide that fact, and envision future findings that Israel is violating the bill’s prohibitions to lead to step two, which is a subsequent legislative effort to cut or halt U.S. assistance. There is vigorous debate over whether this is a move that should happen, and I do not think it should. Events the past few weeks, from the ballooning tensions between Israel and Iran to the rocket fire from Gaza, serve as a reminder that as strong as Israel’s security posture is, it still faces plenty of conventional and unconventional threats. However objectionable one finds Israeli behavior in general or toward the Palestinians in particular, there is no denying Israel’s importance to the U.S. as a regional security partner, and no denying the U.S. interest in shoring up Israel’s defenses.
There is a real tradeoff that impacts the U.S. directly if anything is done to erode Israeli military capabilities, and it is bizarre to have a discussion about how American assistance is used without even acknowledging the implications on a wider scale. For many, the position that security assistance to Israel should be off-limits is no different than giving the Israeli government a blank U.S. check to do anything it likes, whereas my view is that there are other ways to make American displeasure known that can influence Israel’s behavior in a direction that the U.S. views as more positive. But the bottom line is that while it is technically true that the McCollum bill does not cut or condition aid, it is hard to support it if your position is that doing so would be bad U.S. policy, since that is where it is designed by intent to lead.
In a way, the issue here is reminiscent of how some in the pro-Israel camp approached annexation, and the suggestion that Israel would annex only Ma’ale Adumim or Gush Etzion and stop there. People who supported such a potential step painted it as uncontroversial since both are so firmly within the Israeli consensus that there is a non-trivial number of Israelis who don’t even realize that they aren’t part of Israel proper already, and that they will be part of Israel in even the most minimal land swap in a final status agreement so there is no good reason not to just annex them now. All of that might be true, but taking that step would be the first down an extremely steep and slippery slope, and it is an exercise in willful blindness to think that things would go no further. The same is true with regard to usage prohibitions that carry no concrete penalties; they might be a commonsense measure on their own, but there is no chance that they remain on their own.
Ultimately, this is a debate over whether you think U.S. security assistance should remain at its current levels or not. But the debate will be a more honest and fruitful one if one side stops accusing the McCollum’s bill’s opponents of having an indefensible position that tacitly supports oppressing innocent Palestinians and acknowledges the larger goal animating this push, and the other side stops pretending that all Israeli behavior in every instance serves a legitimate security purpose and that shining light on how billions of U.S. dollars are spent is inherently and unrepentantly an effort to unfairly target the Jewish state. While the fighting around this is starkly black and white, the issues themselves are not.