Elijah Kahlenberg

A Jewish Peace Activist’s Call to Reform America’s Armament Agreements

The summer of 2022 started as the summer of peace. I devoted my entire summer to working for Roots, the only group in the West Bank dedicated to bringing together Jews and Palestinians in a joint and civil space for mutual understanding, reconciliation and promoting nonviolence. Roots undertakes most of their initiatives on a Palestinian farm called Merkaz Karama, Arabic for ‘dignity center.’ At Merkaz Karama, I worked as a volunteer and intern where I partook in various acts of joint Jewish-Palestinian solidarity in farming, youth groups, dialogue, and so much more. Sadly, by early August, my summer of peace was devolving into a summer of violence. 

Due to tension created from IDF raids in the West Bank, both Israel and Palestinian Islamic Jihad began exchanging rocket fire. IDF assaults on Palestinian villages thus multiplied following such escalation. While walking through a Palestinian village the morning after a raid, I came across a long, silver object on the ground. I quickly realized it was ammunition, specifically a used-bullet. It did not take me long to discover the bullet was either manufactured in Britain or the United States. Seeing that bullet gave me a needed perspective on the direct role American actors had in profiting off the death and destruction of Jews and Arabs, two peoples I consider to be family. 

Alongside my peace work with Roots, I am also the founder and President of Atidna International, the first and only organization on college campuses dedicated to bringing together Jews, Arabs, Israelis, and Palestinians for peace events (which solidify the familial bond between our peoples) and for dialogue sessions (on any topic pertinent to Israel/Palestine). Due to the morality instilled in me both through my Jewish upbringing and through my years in peace activism, I have come to see that my position as a peace activist would be incomplete without assessing and calling out the sources profiting from violence in Israel and Palestine. By assessing such sources, a process of needed introspection can commence to address whether America’s foreign policies, which overwhelmingly dictate the region’s security apparatus, are inducing global safety or for-profit instability. 

A key set of policies which have continually come under scrutiny for their role in profit-generation through conflict exacerbation is direct armament agreements, the same form of agreement which sent the bullet I found in the West Bank to the IDF. Due to the near monopolization of armament agreement powers by the President, many academics and policy analysts have begun to question what institutional reformations and safeguards can be enacted to counteract the whims of hawkish Commander-In-Chiefs. The answer lies with using a constitutional basis to regrant such a power to the legislative branch where a multi-perspective oversight system, rather than a singular voice, can provide a check against executive abuse.

Passed in 1976, the Arms Export Controls Act (AECA) acts as the guiding policy for global American arms deals. The act stipulates that international weapon transactions must not ‘increase the possibility of an outbreak or escalation of conflict.’ Since the inception of the AECA, American foreign policy has consistently disregarded such stipulations in order to dominate global arms markets or to achieve desired diplomatic outcomes. 

Due to the unrealistic Congressional overrides required to veto such executive foreign policy measures, various presidential administrations have been able to undertake immoral foreign policy campaigns (with profit motives for the military-industrial complex being key drivers underpinning such campaigns) which often lead to global conflict exacerbation, hence violating the AECA. According to a study conducted by the World Peace Foundation of Tufts University, in an analysis of contemporary conflicts in Libya, Nigeria, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, findings showed that American arm sale considerations were overwhelmingly not deterred on the basis of such deals causing conflict creation/promotion. 

As stated by the AECA, the only way to overturn a weapons deal made by the executive branch is for Congress to issue a resolution from both Houses declaring disapproval of the arms sale; however, such a resolution is still subject to a presidential veto. To date, Congress has never successfully blocked a proposed arms sale by the executive. The rigor required in overturning such executive policy was demonstrated in 2019 when then President Trump vetoed a bipartisan bill intended to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia due to concerns about such weapons exacerbating the Yemeni Civil War. A proposed bipartisan bill, the National Security Powers Act, has attempted to mitigate part of this issue by requiring prior Congressional approval of weapon sales to non-allied nations; however, no law currently exists to comprehensively check the executive branch’s monopolization of foreign armament policies.

The most effective way to create a needed check on excessive executive powers concerning such weapons sales is for Congress to amend the AECA to reclassify foreign weapons sales as an ‘international treaty.’ As per the U.S. Constitution, by classifying armament agreements as a form of international treaty, such a deal would thus need the prior consent of a ⅔ majority of the Senate. This would require armament agreements, deals which potentially place various innocent lives at stake, to be passed through bipartisan consensus rather than the aims of a singular political figure. 

Currently, arms agreements are classified as a form of “executive agreement” rather than a treaty, hence bypassing the need for a senatorial super majority. Usually, an executive agreement can be leveraged when the President has “exclusive constitutional authority” in an area. In the case of funding military operations, such a constitutional power falls to Congress, hence there is reasonable legal grounds to reclassify international armament agreements as treaties. The lack of Congressional/legal oversight induced by executive agreements has perturbed various legal experts, many of whom call for structural changes to curb such unchecked (and often illegal) presidential authority. By codifying weapons agreements as an international treaty, a long overdue check on presidential war powers will be enshrined into law.

There is no denying that modifying the status quo will be an uphill battle. Opponents will likely be heavily concentrated in the executive as the President and others will be abrasive to relinquishing such control. However, with the momentum generated over the past seven months from the Gaza anti-war and divestment protests, of which I am a proud participant, the masses arguably have the collective power, organization and momentum to pressure government officials to upend the unjust executive armament monopoly. 

Now is thus the time to make your voices heard. When calling your representatives demanding a ceasefire in Gaza, couple such a plea with long-lasting legislative demands, including passing the National Security Powers Act and/or generating an amendment to the AECA redefining armament agreements as an international treaty. In an election cycle where many politicians are running on so-called pro-peace/anti-war campaigns, make them put their money where their mouth is by demanding their support for reforming the armament process.

About the Author
Elijah Demetrios Kahlenberg is a student/researcher at the University of Texas at Austin and the founder and president of Atidna International, a joint Arab/Palestinian and Jewish/Israeli campus-based peace initiative. Elijah analyzes historical issues pertinent to Arab/Palestinian-Jewish/Israeli peace/reconciliation, the Israeli settler movement, Palestinian history, Jewish interfaith relations, and Jewish history in the Eastern Mediterranean.
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