“U.S. Aid to Israel: Interpreting the ‘Strategic Relationship’.”
Report from a Palestine Center briefing by Stephen Zunes

 

“The U.S. aid relationship with Israel is unlike any other in the world,” said Stephen Zunes during a Jamuary 26 Palestine Center presentation. “In sheer volume, the amount is the most generous foreign aid program ever between any two countries,” added Zunes, associate professor of Politics and chair of the Peace and Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. He explored the strategic reasoning behind the aid, asserting that it parallels the “needs of American arms exporters” and the role “Israel could play in advancing U.S. strategic interests in the region.”

Although Israel is an “advanced, industrialized, technologically sophisticated country,” it “receives more U.S. aid per capita annually than the total annual [Gross Domestic Product] per capita of several Arab states.” Approximately a third of the entire U.S. foreign aid budget goes to Israel, “even though Israel comprises just … one-thousandth of the world’s total population, and already has one of the world’s higher per capita incomes.”

U.S. government officials argue that this money is necessary for “moral” reasons—some even say that Israel is a “democracy battling for its very survival.” If that were the real reason, however, aid should have been highest during Israel’s early years, and would have declined as Israel grew stronger. Yet “the pattern … has been just the opposite.” According to Zunes, “99 percent of all U.S. aid to Israel took place after the June 1967 war, when Israel found itself more powerful than any combination of Arab armies … ”

The U.S. supports Israel’s dominance so it can serve as “a surrogate for American interests in this vital strategic region.” “Israel has helped defeat radical nationalist movements” and has been a “testing ground for U.S. made weaponry.” Moreover, the intelligence agencies of both countries have “collaborated,” and “Israel has funneled U.S. arms to third countries that the U.S. [could] not send arms to directly, … like South Africa, like the Contras, Guatemala under the military junta, [and] Iran.” Zunes cited an Israeli analyst who said: “ ‘It’s like Israel has just become another federal agency when it’s convenient to use and you want something done quietly.’ ” Although the strategic relationship between the United States and the Gulf Arab states in the region has been strengthening in recent years, these states “do not have the political stability, the technological sophistication, [or] the number of higher-trained armed forces personnel” as does Israel.

Matti Peled, former Israeli major general and Knesset member, told Zunes that he and most Israeli generals believe this aid is “little more than an American subsidy to U.S. arms manufacturers,” considering that the majority of military aid to Israel is used to buy weapons from the U.S. Moreover, arms to Israel create more demand for weaponry in Arab states. According to Zunes, “the Israelis announced back in 1991 that they supported the idea of a freeze in Middle East arms transfers, yet it was the United States that rejected it.”

In the fall of 1993—when many had high hopes for peace—78 senators wrote to former President Bill Clinton insisting that aid to Israel remain “at current levels.” Their “only reason” was the “massive procurement of sophisticated arms by Arab states.” The letter neglected to mention that 80 percent of those arms to Arab countries came from the U.S.

“I’m not denying for a moment the power of AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee], the pro-Israel lobby,” and other similar groups, Zunes said. Yet the “Aerospace Industry Association which promotes these massive arms shipments … is even more influential.” This association has given two times more money to campaigns than all of the pro-Israel groups combined. Its “force on Capitol Hill, in terms of lobbying, surpasses that of even AIPAC.” Zunes asserted that the “general thrust of U.S. policy would be pretty much the same even if AIPAC didn’t exist. We didn’t need a pro-Indonesia lobby to support Indonesia in its savage repression of East Timor all these years.” This is a complex issue, and Zunes said that he did not want to be “conspiratorial,” but he asked the audience to imagine what “Palestinian industriousness, Israeli technology, and Arabian oil money … would do to transform the Middle East. … [W]hat would that mean to American arms manufacturers? Oil companies? Pentagon planners?”

“An increasing number of Israelis are pointing out” that these funds are not in Israel’s best interest. Quoting Peled, Zunes said, “this aid pushes Israel ‘toward a posture of callous intransigence’ in terms of the peace process.” Moreover, for every dollar the U.S. sends in arms aid, Israel must spend two to three dollars to train people to use the weaponry, to buy parts, and in other ways make use of the aid. Even “main-stream Israeli economists are saying [it] is very harmful to the country’s future.”

The Israeli paper Yediot Aharonot described Israel as “ ‘the godfather’s messenger’ since [Israel] undertake[s] the ‘dirty work’ of a godfather who ‘always tries to appear to be the owner of some large, respectable business.’ ” Israeli satirist B. Michael refers to U.S. aid this way: “ ‘My master gives me food to eat and I bite those whom he tells me to bite. It’s called strategic cooperation.’ ” To challenge this strategic relationship, one cannot focus solely on the Israeli lobby but must also examine these “broader forces as well.” “Until we tackle this issue head-on,” it will be “very difficult to win” in other areas relating to Palestine.

“The results” of the short-term thinking behind U.S. policy “are tragic,” not just for the “immediate victims” but “eventually [for] Israel itself” and “American interests in the region.” The U.S. is sending enormous amounts of aid to the Middle East, and yet “we are less secure than ever”—both in terms of U.S. interests abroad and for individual Americans. Zunes referred to a “growing and increasing hostility [of] the average Arab toward the United States.” In the long term, said Zunes, “peace and stability and cooperation with the vast Arab world is far more important for U.S. interests than this alliance with Israel.”

This is not only an issue for those who are working for Palestinian rights, but it also “jeopardizes the entire agenda of those of us concerned about human rights, concerned about arms control, concerned about international law.” Zunes sees significant potential in “building a broad-based movement around it.”

 

The above text is based on remarks delivered on 26 January 2001 by Stephen Zunes, Associate Professor of Politics and Chair of the Peace and Justice Studies Program at San Francisco University. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the Palestine Center or The Jerusalem Fund. This “For the Record” was written by Palestine Center Publications Manager Wendy Lehman; it may be used without permission but with proper attribution to the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine.

This information first appeared in For The Record No. 65, 1 February 2001.