Senator Bernie Sanders has said that, if elected, he would consider conditionally withholding US security aid from Israel. He is not the first Democratic politician to speak along these lines lately. And Sanders’ foreign policy advisor, Matt Duss, tweeted earlier in July, “Conditioning US aid to Israel to stop settlements and end occupation quickly becoming the mainstream Democratic position. This is good.” It is not.
And while Sanders is not alone in making these kinds of statements, the Jewish Senator is unique because of his strange dual position on Israel. Over the weekend, Sanders said on Jon Favreau’s Pod Save America podcast that he would use American security aid to Israel as “leverage.” However, on the same podcast, he said: “I believe that the people of Israel have, absolutely, the right to live in peace, independence, and security. End of discussion.” This is cognitive dissonance; Senator Sanders clearly supports Israel’s right to exist, yet is willing to jeopardize the funding that makes Israelis’ ability to live in “peace, independence, and security” possible.
The US does not provide defense aid to Israel out of some impulse to altruism or charity; it does so because Israel’s defense and safety give direct benefit to US national security, and that is not conditional.
On a broad level, US assistance helps Israel to remain a crucial point of stability in a turbulent neighborhood. Israel is a strategic ally and pivotal balancer against regional hegemon Iran and its state-sponsored terror, in particular State Department-designated terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah. It has also provided a significant check on malevolent actors in Syria, including the Assad regime, the remnants of ISIS, and IRGC and Hezbollah forces entrenched in the south. Were it not for the existence of a strong Israeli military on Syria’s borders and its advanced missile defense systems, the US would have needed to install a much greater military presence in and around Syria to prevent all-out Iranian expansion.
But the US-Israel security relationship includes a lot more than security funding, and is far from asymmetric. On the ground, the program breeds close defense cooperation that greatly improves US military effectiveness in the Middle East, ranging from joint military exercises to the development of missile defense technology, as well as the sharing of vital intelligence and counterterrorism tactics, cyber security technology, and battlefield medicine. At the end of the day, security assistance to Israel is also highly integrated with the American economy, with 75% of it ultimately going back into US jobs and businesses.
Israel’s world-renowned missile defense systems, which receive financial support from the United States, are not optional or superficial expenses; they are necessary for the daily protection of Israeli civilians from rockets fired into Israel from the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, and Syria. There is simply no other US partner that faces this level of constant threat.
But above all, beyond the tangible benefits of helping Israel’s security needs, the US is fulfilling an obligation. This is an obligation to support the values of freedom and democracy, and to uphold the vow to stand by the Jewish people and their homeland. With this, of course, we also continue to support US efforts to broker a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. We believe that security and peace go hand in hand, and security for all, including the Palestinians, will make peace more sustainable.
Senator, regardless of how you feel about the political situation in Israel, military aid to Israel should not be used to make a political statement; too many lives are at stake for the issue to be trivialized this way. I hope you and others will reconsider your positions on the issue, and come to realize that there are other, less harmful, alternative means of conducting diplomacy toward Israel.