2004-07-28

Must There Be US Foreign Aid to Israel?

I recently read of a troubling statistic:  the US has awarded more foreign aid to Israel than to any other nation.  Here is how the Congressional Research Service (CRS) Issue Brief words it:
Israel is not economically self-sufficient, and relies on foreign assistance and borrowing to maintain its economy. Since 1985, the United States has provided $3 billion in grants annually to Israel. Since 1976, Israel has been the largest annual recipient of U.S. foreign assistance, and is the largest cumulative recipient since World War II. In addition to U.S. assistance, it is estimated that Israel receives about $1 billion annually through philanthropy, an equal amount through short- and long- term commercial loans, and around $1 billion in Israel Bonds proceeds.

Israel is a nation of only 6.2 million, and $6 billion is equivalent to nearly 20% of the government's annual revenues ($38.5b in 2002; source CIA World Factbook).  It is a colossal sum.  Nearly all of the aid is provided without designation for use in particular development programs.  This too is exceptional.
Israel does receive aid on more favorable terms than other nations. For example, all economic aid is given directly to the Israeli government rather than allocated under a specific program.
-- from a report posted to the Jewish Virtual Library, A Division of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise

I was trying to work out why I found this troubling.  I resent the provision of so much economic assistance to a nation with a per capita GDP that exceeds that of 190 other nations in the world, including nearly every nation in its region (even Kuwait and Saudi Arabia).  In the Middle East, only the United Arab Emirates and Qatar supersede Israel, and do so by less than $4000.  If you also consider that nearly 20% of Israel's population is Arab, the per capita GDP figure of non-Arab Israelis is even higher.

I read a comic book recently that asked "Must there be a Superman?" (DC Comics, 1972).  Bear with me.  Superman was being tried for crimes against humanity by the Guardians of the Universe, "a race of immortals whose self-appointed task is to survey and safeguard" the Milky Way and its inhabitants.  The Guardians allege that Superman's presence on Earth "directly contributes to the Terrans' cultural lag."  The idea works on Superman's mind:

For years I've been playing Big Brother to the Human Race!  Have I been wrong?  Are they depending on me too much...too often...? [...] I decide what's right or wrong--and then enforce my decision...by brute strength!
Upon his return to Earth, Superman counsels a group of migrant farm workers.  He says they don't need a superman, they need "a super-will to be guardians of your own destiny!"  He also arrests an earthquake and rescues a yacht.  The temptation to wield his awesome power to help those in need is too great for him to resist.

But what of Israel?  What is their need?  Is the US serving Israel, or does Israel serve the US?  Could the billions of dollars flowing into the tiny country actually be destabilizing?  If Israel is dependent on the US, why doesn't the US attach some strings to those payments, constrain the fashion in which the funds are spent, limit or eliminate aid in light of human rights transgressions, or disregard for World Court decisions?

Must there be US foreign aid to Israel?

It is difficult to imagine what the region would look like without US foreign aid to Israel.  Without Israel spending $9.11b (FY 2003) a year on the military.  Would the schism in the region be defused out of necessity?  Is the region irreversibly polarized?

1 comment:

scr said...

One could argue that Israel's "need" is not the fundamental need for sustenance of life. Forgive me for inferring the latter interpretation from your comment, and correct me if I'm mistaken. May I offer some thoughts? No? Well, here they are.

Israel's fundamental need is existence. The means they use to achieve their existence--the means ostensibly supported, at least in part, by American largesse--have engendered much controversy and hostility. Thus the questions about the justification for this level of US financial assistance.

Could Israel achieve its goal of existence without belligerence? As we all know, that question is a thorny one. The formidable Israeli military might which is the product of the spending you've described may need to exist for as long as external threats remain.

But how significant are these external threats? And to what extent is the US bound to offer support to Israel to combat them? I'm happy to let someone else answer the first question.

As for the second: I would be inclined to say that there is US-Israeli interdependence. The US may rely on Israel to maintain an island of otherness in the tumultous sea of Islam (paraphrasing current sentiment--not necessarily my own thoughts on the region). We can recognize, but overlook for the purpose of this discussion, the influence of the large and powerful American Jewish diaspora on US foreign policy on Israel.

Israel, in turn, looks to the US as a powerful friend, ally, and benefactor. Whether the US administration is truly comfortable with this relationship is another question whose answer lies in the dark, dense thicket of American foreign policy. But what, beyond it's uncomfortable loyalty and mere presence in the region, does Israel have to offer the US? Trade? Culture? Resources? Not really, maybe, and no.

Why doesn't the US attach conditions to the provision of monetary grants? You'll answer that question when you determine why the US is slow (or unwilling) to condemn apparent acts of Israeli aggression against Palestinians.

The Middle East is unstable. Israel's power does seem to contribute to that instability. My own view is that eliminating one possible focus of instability won't guarantee stability for the entire region. Continued internecine conflict is almost inevitable, and one wonders what would fill the void left behind by a weakened Israel.

There you have my disjointed perspective on your questions.