Until now, Israel has been almost entirely absent from the Democratic presidential primary debates, with the only mention coming from Amy Klobuchar in the last debate in relation to President Trump’s sudden withdrawal of U.S. troops from northeastern Syria. That is almost certain to change at the next debate on Nov. 20, and the topic that will come up is cutting or conditioning American security assistance to Israel. It is a topic that most Democrats desperately want to avoid, but it has come up in recent weeks on the campaign trail and was the primary focus of questioning of candidates at J Street’s conference at the end of October, ensuring that it is going to become more rather than less prominent.
The recent focus on security assistance to Israel has a number of factors behind it. Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is a motivating issue for some grassroots Democratic activists, creating pressure on candidates to formulate a position. In some instances, candidates have voiced positions as a way of distinguishing themselves from rivals and signaling to different constituencies. That it was the first question asked of every candidate who did an interview with the “Pod Save the World” podcast at J Street suggests that the lobbying group wants this issue in the public sphere. And its emergence is unquestionably being driven by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s September announcement of his intention to annex the Jordan Valley during the next government, as every candidate who has voiced an openness to conditioning security assistance save Bernie Sanders has explicitly tied any potential conditioning to Israeli annexation of any West Bank territory.
Slashing, or even conditioning, security assistance to Israel is unlikely to happen in the near future. Doing so is not simply a matter of the whim of whomever occupies the Oval Office, but would require Congress to act as well, and the appetite for such moves in Congress is minimal at best. Once the $3.3 billion in annual military financing and the $500 million in annual anti-missile defense funding is appropriated and directly authorized, there is no ready mechanism for rolling it back. And even if there was, doing so would be broadly unpopular politically and would be bad policy to boot. Putting Israeli lives at risk or eroding a close ally’s self-defense capabilities is thankfully not something that most elected officials are eager to do. It is for these reasons that candidates who have opened the door to examining aid in the event of annexation, such as Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg, have not endorsed reducing aid and have been vague about how making sure that aid is not spent on annexation would actually work.
But that does not mean that the debate over security assistance is irrelevant theater. It has become an easy shorthand way for politicians to express their frustration with Israeli government policies, particularly as Israel moves farther away from the two-state outcome and separation from the Palestinians that Congress endorsed earlier this year in a 398-17 vote. Discomfort with Israeli government policies is not new for Democrats, but nearly all of them understand that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not one-sided. What is new, however, are signals from the Israeli government — some explicit, such as Netanyahu’s specific annexation pledges, and some implicit, such as his new insistence that not one Israeli will ever leave the West Bank — that it is looking to upend the basic premise that separation between the two sides is still the ultimate desired outcome, no matter how far off. It would be a mistake to overlook or downplay the fact that Democrats are linking conditions on aid not to existing Israeli policies, but to what would be an unprecedented step of West Bank annexation. Those who have viewed the comments on conditioning aid as evidence that Democrats are embracing an anti-Israel agenda are ignoring the critical details.
There is also a lesson here in the law of unintended consequences. During the Trump administration, Israeli government officials have cheered and encouraged the White House as it first slashed and then cut entirely all aid to the West Bank and Gaza, save a small amount designated for the Palestinian Authority security forces. As Axios reported this month, following this successful campaign to end assistance to the Palestinians, Trump then refused Israel’s request to transfer even the Palestinian security funds, saying that Netanyahu should pay the money himself. Once the question of slashing assistance to the Palestinians was broached, it became easier for people to ask why there are no standards for assistance to Israel as well, and it became harder for Israel to argue to Trump that some assistance to the Palestinians is good while other assistance is bad. While Israel certainly never intended for the conversation to move in the direction that it has, it is worth remembering that starting a brushfire is much easier than containing it.