Last Monday, Mitt Romney and President Obama met for their final debate which focused on foreign policy. One of the issues raised during the debate was the President’s policies towards Israel. Romney attacked the President for creating daylight and damaging the relationship between the US and its closest ally in the Middle East. He also pointed out that the President insulted Israel by skipping it on his tour to the Middle East, while visiting many other countries.
The President fought back by arguing that he considers Israel a ‘true friend’ of the US and that on his watch the US has increased funding for projects such as Iron Dome and joint exercises and cooperation have also reached unprecedented levels. He pointed out that the US and Israel will be holding a major joint training exercise in the coming days. In the past the President has mentioned that he has increased the amount of military aid to Israel, even higher than his predecessor, a known supporter of Israel. The President said in a statement last March that he told the Prime Minister Netanyahu that “the United States will always have Israel’s back when it comes to Israel’s security”.
Thus we have an apparent contradiction: Romney claims that Obama hasn’t supported Israel, while the President brings hard facts to show the opposite. Who is right? The answer: Both of them. The key is understanding two important – yet very different – types of support. One is financial support and the other is political support. Additionally, it’s important to differentiate between support backed by Congress as opposed to support initiated by the administration.
President Obama has supported Israel by increasing funding for different joint research and development between the US and Israel. These projects are not only good for Israel but also benefit the US because they create jobs in the US. However, the driving force behind these projects is not the administration, but rather Congress, the real pillar of US support for Israel. President Obama has also pointed out that he increased military aid to Israel even during the US’s economic crisis. Yet, the increase in military aid was part of a ten year agreement between the Bush administration and Israel to increase military aid between 2007-2012, which the Obama administration has merely continued.
This financial support for Israel has not continued because of the support of the Obama administration, but rather has continued despite the Obama administration. In a few sentences, on a sunny afternoon in Cairo, Obama expressed exactly what he thinks of Israel: “the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied”. Thus, Obama’s perspective is that Israel is an anomaly in the Middle East with no historic roots there, a people who unfortunately were transplanted there despite the “indigenous Palestinians” – the rest is details.
Were it up to Obama financial support for Israel might also be placed into question. However, this would not be politically expedient since Congress strongly supports Israel and he would be fighting a losing battle. Moreover, he would lose many Jewish voters who would not tolerate a policy they view as endangering Israel’s security – despite their liberal tendencies. By granting financial aid and continuing joint projects, Obama paints himself as a supporter of Israel’s security whose bond with America is iron clad despite the continuous political damage – which began in Cairo and has steadily continued – that he causes to Israel.
In the 1970s and 80s financial aid to Israel – military and economic – was crucial for Israel’s survival. Simultaneously, this type of support became the defining metric of US support for Israel. However, as Israel’s economy has blossomed over the past two decades, military aid, while still helpful to Israel, plays only a supporting role in the relationship, not a critical role as it did in the 70s and 80s. Should Israel’s economy continue to grow, phasing out military aid will become a realistic possibility, though the US might object to this phase out, since the US military aid requires Israel to buy military hardware from American companies. This requirement creates jobs in the US and is a factor in increasing US military sales to other foreign countries. While the US could use the money to subsidize the US weapons industry instead of military aid to Israel, that doesn’t necessarily help create jobs – as was shown by many examples, including a federally funded 150 million dollar hybrid battery plant, which ended up putting workers on furlough before a single battery was produced.
As military aid takes a backseat, political support for Israel from the US, currently and in the foreseeable future, will become increasingly vital. The future of US-Israel relations will be based on US political support for Israel as manifested at the UN Security Council, in supporting Israel’s rights to defend itself when attacked and/or to preempt potential aggressors, and in trilateral relations with other countries attempting to kindle the flames of war and delegitimize Israel.
Thus, Mitt Romney is correct that President Obama has not supported Israel politically and has ‘thrown it under the bus.’ The Obama administration has vetoed resolutions at the UN Security Council with great reluctance and only with Congress’s urging; the apologetic language after each veto underscores this fact. The Obama administration has unnecessarily pressured Israel on the Palestinian issue and thus impeded any hope for progress, and responded weakly to the Gaza flotilla incident as Israel came under attack from the majority of the international community.
President Obama brought hard facts that show his support for Israel, but this isn’t his support and it is not the support that Israel so desperately needs. What good will all the weapons in the world do when you can’t use them against your attackers. Romney, while untested, has expressed the support which Israel will need in the coming years. Voters who look beyond rhetoric, and understand the actual policies, will realize that Obama was never a true supporter of Israel – it’s against his ethos.