If you read the Israeli press surrounding the Democratic candidates recently, you would think that they had promised to cut U.S. military assistance to Israel. Yes, that would be extremely alarming, except that it just isn’t true. In fact, of all the candidates running for President of the United States, only one has called for making Israel pay for defense aid – something that should distress all of us in the pro-Israel community.
But that candidate wasn’t Senator Elizabeth Warren or Mayor Pete Buttigieg. It was Donald Trump.
During a press conference prior to his appearance at AIPAC’s annual Policy Conference, Trump was asked if he was going to demand that Israel pay for the military assistance it gets from the United States, as he had called on Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia to do. He answered unequivocally: “I think Israel will do that also, yeah, I think Israel do—there are many countries that can pay and they can pay big league.”
It’s unclear if Trump plans on cutting or conditioning aid to Israel if, for example, the Israeli government doesn’t fully embrace the Trump plan for peace, the “Deal of the Century” as he calls it, or if a center-left government delivered even a light criticism of the man who sees himself as the “King of Israel.”
Trump isn’t the only Republican president who has considered leveraging American assistance to Israel. Even a cursory look at the recent history of the U.S.-Israel relationship reveals that over the past few decades, it was President George W. Bush and his father who used financial support for Israel as a tool to get concessions from Jerusalem over the Palestinian issue and settlements.
As Efraim Halevy, former director of the Mossad and the former national security adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, put it in summarizing Republican presidential records during the 2012 campaign: “In all of these instances, a Republican White House acted in a cold and determined manner, with no regard for Israel’s national pride, strategic interests or sensitivities.”
Further, as much as there was, at times, strong disagreements between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, the Democratic president is the one to credit for a historic decade-long agreement in the form of a Memorandum of Understanding, guaranteeing the highest level of U.S. military assistance that the Jewish state has ever received.
Even Prime Minister Netanyahu thanked President Obama for this “historic agreement” at the time, which he said would “help a great deal the fortification of Israel’s strength over the next decade.” And, in implementing President Obama’s agreement, the Trump Administration, which rarely has a positive thing to say about its predecessor, praised the largest pledge of aid in our nation’s history.
So, despite all the inaccurate reporting, when a Democrat is hopefully sworn in on January 20, 2021, there is no question that Israel’s security aid will remain safely intact. To those who wrongly fear of a Democratic cut, J Street itself, which organized the conference that hosted many of the candidates and served as a platform for their Middle East policy remarks, pushed back against these reports. Jeremy Ben-Ami, the origination’s president, was clear that they do not support the call by some on the far-left to “reduce the level of US security assistance, or to ‘condition aid.’”
Of course, we progressive Zionists want to see Israel take greater steps toward peace with the Palestinians. The lack of progress by Israel’s right-wing government has undermined the prospects of the two-state solution, which not only hurts the daily lives of the Palestinians, but is deeply damaging to the long-term security of the Jewish, democratic state of Israel. It is vital that the next Israeli government reengage on this process for the sake of both the Palestinians and the Israelis. The United States should certainly play a role in encouraging direct negotiations between the parties to a mutually agreed upon outcome.
But, undoing or violating the agreement between our two countries negotiated under President Obama is not the way to get that done.
And, especially given the Trump obsession with ripping up Obama-era agreements, it remains uncertain what kind of pressure the erratic current occupant of the White House will put on Jerusalem to get his “Deal of the Century.” There are, indeed, many reasons for supporters of the U.S.-Israel relationship to fear Trump’s second term. However, when it comes to cutting U.S. assistance to Israel, a Democratic president of the United States will leave the Memorandum of Understanding unbroken.
Aaron Keyak is a former head of the National Jewish Democratic Council and a founder of Bluelight Strategies, a Washington, DC based consulting firm.