This past week, the skies over Israeli cities have been lit up by more than 1,500 rockets fired by Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups in Gaza — and rippled with the traces of small explosions as Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system missiles have blown many of the crude weapons out of the sky.
On the other side of the wall encircling the Palestinian coastal strip, the picture is very different. While eight Israelis (all but one civilians) have been killed by the rockets that have evaded the Iron Dome, Israeli Defense Forces’ retaliatory airstrikes and artillery strikes had reportedly killed 119 Palestinians in Gaza, including 10 Hamas leaders and 31 children, and injured more than 800 as of Friday. So far, Israel’s U.S.-built F-16 jets and artillery systems have struck at least 150 targets across the impoverished enclave, home to 2 million Palestinians, and leveled three high-rise buildings with links to Hamas.
For decades, billions of dollars in American military aid to Israel has been justified as necessary to help an underdog nation stave off an array of powerful foes threatening its survival. In one memorable case, when Israeli defenses were harshly tested in 1973 by a coordinated attack from Syria and Egypt, the U.S. airlifted jet fighters and tanks to Israel to make up for its equipment losses.
But as Israel now demonstrates its ability to inflict a lopsided death count on the Palestinians, it’s time to acknowledge that this depiction of Israel no longer has any basis in reality. Instead, U.S. aid merely polishes the armor of a regional Goliath in its contests with David.
Right now, the U.S. provides $3.8 billion to Israel annually — equivalent to 20 percent of Israel’s defense budget and nearly three-fifths of U.S. foreign military financing globally. Israel’s neighbors Egypt and Jordan are the next two highest, receiving $1.3 billion and $350 million respectively as part of policies intended to ensure their peaceful relationship with the Jewish state.
While Israel is required to spend most of the aid money on military equipment made by U.S. companies, in turn Washington is required not to sell weapons to other Middle Eastern countries that are more sophisticated than those possessed by Israel to guarantee its Qualitative Military Edge.
Meanwhile, Congress oftens adds more on top of the annual $3.8 billion commitment. For instance, though the Iron Dome was developed by Israel, its improvement and deployment have received $1.6 billion in U.S. funding in addition to the yearly allocation.
After years of this largesse, combined with its own improved military capabilities, Israel isn’t about to run out of weaponry without U.S. funding; in fact, Israel now exports many of the arms it produces. At this point, U.S. military aid is essentially underwriting a regional heavyweight that sells so many weapons abroad it’s ranked as the eighth-largest arms exporter on the planet.
The U.S. is actually increasingly buying technologies from Israel, like that used in the Iron Dome, missile defense radars and the Trophy system, which protects tanks from incoming projectiles. Israeli firms have also developed the IDF’s Merkava tanks, kamikaze drones, guided bombs and cruise missiles, advanced radars, anti-aircraft missiles, ballistic missiles, artillery systems and small arms.
The most notable exceptions remain manned combat aircraft, which Israel has mostly procured from the U.S., and nuclear missile-armed submarines built by Germany. But Israel has long proven it can spend what it takes to obtain such big-ticket weapon systems. In fact, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promoted the purchase of three more submarines from Germany without any U.S. financing despite the Israeli military saying it didn’t need them.
Despite the canard that Israel is surrounded by enemies — aside from the Palestinians, the only nations with which it shares a border and is actively at war are Lebanon and Syria, usually via the militant group Hezbollah — the country of 9 million is recognized as having the strongest military in the Middle East.
Serious conventional military threats against Israel have increasingly shrunk over the years as it’s used its military, technological and economic status to cultivate decent relationships with formerly hostile Arab states such as Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Israel’s military might now easily surpasses that of its neighbors, let alone an isolated nonstate entity like Hamas. And Iran, Israel’s most formidable adversary, lies hundreds of miles away from Israeli borders. While it possesses an estimated 50 medium-range ballistic missiles capable of reaching Israel with limited accuracy, Israeli warplanes, backed by tanker aircraft and cruise missiles, could sustainably hit hundreds of targets in Iran with far greater precision.
Iran still undoubtedly represents a thorn in Israel’s side due to its terrorist attacks and continuing transfers of arms to Hezbollah and rocket-making expertise to Hamas — but time and time again Israel manages to inflict more significant damage in return with the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists and repeated bombings of Iranian forces in Syria, itself wracked by a decadelong civil war that has also sucked in Hezbollah fighters.
This isn’t to say that the U.S. shouldn’t ever sell weapons to Israel or cooperate on any defense programs or never support Israel in nonmilitary ways. And to be sure, Israel has reciprocated the American aid by providing important intelligence-sharing and insight into how U.S. weapons perform when pitted against the Soviet weapons used by Arab armies. The U.S. has also leveraged aid to prevent Israel from building its own jet to replace the F-16 or, following a scandal in the 1990s, transferring sensitive technology to China. Israel served as Washington’s hedge against Moscow’s influence over the Middle East and has cooperated closely with U.S. counterterrorism operations in years since.
It’s just that giving so much aid to Israel is clearly unnecessary given its current posture. Today Israel can defend itself just fine and acquire whatever American weapons it needs without an annual check from Uncle Sam. And it’s not like the allowance from Washington necessarily secures Israeli compliance with U.S. policies and objectives.
Indeed, U.S. aid to Israel has proven ineffectual in leveraging genuine cooperation with recent peace initiatives. Rather, the opposite dynamic prevails, as the allegedly corrupt but evidently unsinkable Netanyahu himself overtly intervenes in U.S. domestic politics. He punishes American politicians critical of Israel or supportive of the nuclear deal with Iran, while backing those such as former President Donald Trump willing to write Israel a blank check.
Repeated U.S. attempts to rein in Israeli settlements in Palestinian areas have been met with defiance. Requests for Israel to make concessions to Palestinians at the bargaining table have been shrugged off. Growing criticism by American groups over Israeli human rights violations and anti-democratic policies have done little to change Israeli behavior.
Today Israel can defend itself just fine and acquire whatever American weapons it needs without an annual check from Uncle Sam.
But while members of Congress like Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., have attracted attention in recent years for their more vocal criticism of Israel, the reality remains that nearly the entire Republican Party and older and more influential Democratic politicians largely favor the Jewish state.
Biden probably sees little benefit from modifying the U.S.-Israel relationship since any peace process proposed by Washington is likely to fail, given how far apart the sides are and how unsuccessful his predecessors have been, while pressure on Israel is guaranteed to incite a sharp political backlash.
That means the president will almost surely find it politically expedient to maintain military aid to Israel even if Netanyahu’s policies contravene Biden’s ostensible commitment to human rights and a two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the government he runs can defend itself without the American tribute.