In 1992, with the Soviet Jewish aliyah in full swing, President George H.W. Bush delayed loan guarantees Israel thought were necessary to assist the absorption of immigrants because he didn’t want them used to subsidize Jewish settlement in the West Bank. The result was a deep crisis in U.S.-Israel relations; Jewish support for the Republican president tanked.
Using economic leverage to sway a close ally is not new, although Israel and the pro-Israel community have long regarded the annual aid and defense passage as sacrosanct. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have tended to agree — until they don’t. Last week it was the Democratic presidential candidates’ turn to debate the issue.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont told the annual J Street conference that Israel must “fundamentally change [its] relationship to the people of Gaza” if it wants continued U.S. military support. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., also spoke positively, if vaguely, of conditioning the $3.8 billion in assistance Israel receives annually.
Vice President Joe Biden fired back, saying it was “absolutely outrageous” to condition aid to Israel. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota told J Street she did not support Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s promise to annex more of the West Bank, but, noting the instability in the Middle East, said she is “so wedded right now to making sure we continue the aid.”
The idea of conditioning aid grows out of a number of converging trends: The Democratic Party’s far left, quick to criticize Israel and lay blame for all of the world’s ills at its feet, is resurgent. There is little daylight between Netanyahu and a historically polarizing president, leading many Democrats to say that if Trump is for it — “it” here being the current Israeli government — they must be against it. Neither Jerusalem nor Washington is inclined to support a two-state solution that had been a bipartisan consensus among American lawmakers.
Conditioning aid, like withholding the loan guarantees, may come from the candidates’ frustration with the stalled peace process. But isolated from a comprehensive vision of U.S. policy in the Middle East and of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it feels more like virtue signaling. In addition to abandoning an ally, withholding aid raises a host of questions its supporters have yet to answer: To what end? Will it be effective? What specific policies are we talking about? What arethe Israelis expected to deliver given the rudderless, deeply divided “leadership” among the Palestinians? As Michael Koplow of the Israel Policy Forum points out, President Trump’s “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.”
It’s deeply troubling that upending the relationship between America and a staunch democratic ally has become an applause line on the campaign trail, at a time when the U.S. is facing targeted threats and disruptions from bad totalitarian actors like China, Russia, Turkey and Syria. Sanders et al. think they are advancing the cause of peace. Instead, they are pandering to a constituency that would rather see Israel punished than a plan that would guarantee all sides peace and security.