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AOC and the wrong debate about American aid to Israel

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., speaks at the National Action Network convention in New York on Friday April 5, 2019. | The Christian Post/Leonardo Blair

(JNS) Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) proved again this week that while she’s gotten some competition lately from her friend Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), the Queens congresswoman is still the country’s most unavoidable political personality.

AOC’s latest headline concerns her reaction to Israel’s election. When asked on a Yahoo News podcast whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election should affect U.S. policy toward the Jewish state, she gladly took the bait. She said that these were the sorts of conversations Democrats were now having about Israel, and that she thought aid cuts should be part of a conversation she wanted to lead.

This is one more sign of an impending partisan clash between older mainstream pro-Israel Democrats and the increasingly vocal radical left intent on hijacking their party. AOC and her BDS-supporting allies like Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) aren’t yet running the Democratic caucus. But the discussion about the Middle East emanating from their party’s presidential candidates indicates that, at the very least, the 2020 presidential race will feature a divisive debate about Trump’s pro-Israel policies that will fracture, perhaps fatally, what’s left of the bipartisan consensus backing the Jewish state.

But instead of just dismissing AOC’s comments, it’s worth examining how the issue of fiscal aid works to the Jewish state’s disadvantage.

For the moment, aid to Israel isn’t in any danger. Indeed, as some Jewish Democrats pointed out in the wake of her statement, the House leadership remains firmly opposed to any effort to tie it to disagreements about Netanyahu’s policies. More importantly, the current level of military assistance was set in place by the 10-year agreement signed in 2016 by the Obama administration that guaranteed $38 billion in aid to Israel.

That was a milestone in the relationship, but it was not crafted entirely to Israel’s advantage. Though the total and the scope of the commitment was generous, President Barack Obama’s purpose seemed to be aimed at hamstringing Israel’s ability to say “no” to U.S. demands about peace-process negotiations and to impede measures of self-defense against its Palestinian terrorist or Iranian foes. Netanyahu was also forced to agree that Israel would not go to its friends in Congress for increases in assistance over and above the amounts in the agreement. Equally important, it phased out Israel’s right to use some of the aid on buying weapons made by its own arms industry rather than on American-made armaments.

What AOC and her friends don’t understand about U.S. military aid is that it is as much a jobs program for Americans as it is a boost to Israeli security. Almost all of it is spent on U.S. munitions and armaments manufactured here.

Nor do Israel’s critics—or even most Americans taxpayers—realize that the intelligence sharing and strategic cooperation that is an integral part of the alliance is a huge bargain for the United States. They don’t understand that while the aid total that goes to Israel is the largest in the budget for any form of foreign assistance, it’s actually a fraction of the amount the United States spends on defending other allies. Few consider that the many billions annually spent by Washington on NATO are no different than aid to Israel, except that the amounts are larger, and more of it is spent outside the United States. The difference is that the accounting places it as part of the U.S. defense budget, not foreign aid.

But while Israel’s critics like AOC hold onto the false notion that U.S. aid to Israel is a gift that empowers Netanyahu, there is actually a good argument to be made that it’s time for the aid to be phased out because it no longer serves Israel’s interests.

There was a time when Israel desperately needed both U.S. economic and military aid. But in 1996, Netanyahu told a joint session of Congress that it was time to end the economic portion of the assistance. With free-market reforms enabling it to break free of the shackles imposed by its socialist founders, Israel no longer needed economic subsidies. But defense requirements were different. With so many of its foes, including Gulf states, able to buy the most sophisticated U.S. weapons, Israel needed to keep up and maintain a qualitative advantage that ensured its security.

But 23 years later, the political price of accepting U.S. aid remains onerous. It limits Israel’s options and flexibility with respect to defense procurement, especially when it comes to its own industries.

It also creates the impression that Israel is a beggar that requires Washington’s assistance in order to defend itself. That encourages resentment of Israel on the part of Americans who don’t like foreign aid even when, as in Israel’s case, the United States gets a great deal in return. It also boosts Palestinian intransigence, which remains rooted in a foolish belief that sooner or later, America and the West will hand Israel to them on a silver platter. It also creates fodder for resentment of Israel’s influence in the Beltway. That feeds the bile of pro-BDS forces, including critics like AOC and her friends who hope to use it, as Obama sometimes tried to do as leverage to force Israel to make dangerous concessions on national-security issues.

While there’s no need to worry that AOC and other anti-Israel Democrats will be able to do that in the short term, it would be far better if Israel started to think about ending military aid, too.

For far too long, pro-Israel activism was solely the function of keeping aid flowing to Jerusalem. While the Israel Defense Force has benefited from such assistance, it’s time to acknowledge that the Jewish state is on a path to paying its own way, even when it comes to defense. In the long run, that will be far healthier for both Israel’s economy and for strengthening the relationship between two democracies that should relate to each other as friends and allies, not as a patron and a dependent client state.

Originally posted at JNS.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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