Cantor’s foreign aid proposal: would it reopen the debate over Israel’s (big) piece of the pie?

Rep. Eric Cantor’s proposal to separate Israel’s U.S. aid from the overall foreign aid appropriations process may get support from some GOP colleagues eager to put the Democratic administration and congressional Democrats on the spot, but you can bet it’s going to make pro-Israel leaders here nervous.

The reason: the last thing those leaders want is to open up any discussion of whether Israel’s $3 billion in aid still makes sense. They like things the way they are: automatic, buried in a bigger appropriation even if Israel’s is the biggest chunk, a political given.

I’m not saying Israel’s aid doesn’t make sense – it serves U.S. strategic interests in some ways and it certainly serves the interests of the defense contractors here who get a lot of the money back in the form of arms sales.

What I am saying is that thanks to the efforts of AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups, nobody really has to justify Israel’s aid any more. Republicans who once hated the idea and voted against it are now on board; many Democrats who feel it’s unfair to give so much to Israel and so little to, say, a starving Africa keep quiet and join the Republicans in rubber stamping the aid.

The plain fact is, changing the way that aid is approved would open up that argument and undermine the whole thrust of the pro-Israel lobby, which has been successful in making Israel aid as close to sacrosanct as you get on Capitol Hill.

And making that case for that aid from scratch might be a little less comfortable now than it was twenty years ago.

Israel is now a high-tech, economically advanced country; its economy is doing better than ours in many ways. And even some who strongly support Israel aid argue that U.S. strategic interests are sometimes hurt because other critical areas of the world get so little aid.

The $3 billion certainly helps a nation that has been forced to spend a ridiculous percentage of GDP on defense – about double what we do (but less than Saudi Arabia does). But is it still critical to Israel’s security? Maybe – but nobody is looking forward to making that argument all over again.

Cantor probably believes separating Israel’s aid from the foreign appropriations process would allow congressional Republicans to cut the hated foreign aid program but not Israel’s aid, insulating them from a backlash from the only lobby that actively and effectively supports the overall foreign aid program.

But there’s no way such a move wouldn’t also re-open a debate pro-Israel leaders fervently wish would remain closed and throw an uncomfortable spotlight on the proportion of U.S. aid that goes to this single, developed nation.. 

So the answer from the pro-Israel leadership will almost certainly be: thanks but no thanks, Mr. Cantor.

Don’t believe me? Today Politico’s Ben Smith reports that Cantor’s proposal resulted in  a " rare, if gentle, rebuke from the high-powered pro-Israel group AIPAC." And J Street’s Hadar Susskind rapped Cantor for a proposal that he said could "strain the decades-long bipartisan consensus on U.S. support for Israel."

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.