The 88 Percent Solution

After researching and writing about U.S.-Israel relations for more than 30 years I have come to the conclusion that most people who pontificate about the subject don’t know what they’re talking about and/or substitute wishful thinking for analysis. Two of the best examples can be found in the reactions to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to Congress and his acceptance of the 10-year military aid deal.

Though a distant memory for some, I remember quite clearly how the chattering class lamented that by not following protocol and accepting the Republican Speaker of the House’s invitation to address Congress, Netanyahu had so angered Democrats that longstanding bipartisan support for Israel was irrevocably damaged. Many Democrats were angry and made their feelings public, but the notion that their momentary pique would translate into diminished support for Israel was absurd.

Just as most Jewish voters will forgive longtime friends of Israel in the Democratic party for their ill-considered votes on the Iran nuclear deal, Democrats in Congress had no intention of changing their belief in the shared values and interests of the United States and Israel because of a speech. From a purely political perspective, Jews need Democrats to vote in Israel’s favor and Democrats need Jews to support them in elections.

It took until this summer to prove to some doubters the symbiotic relationship between Democrats and Israel’s friends. Just before President Obama went to address the United Nations, 88 members of the Senate, including 39 out of 44 Democrats, sent the president a letter asking him to uphold US policy that calls for a veto of any one-sided United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The letter was initiated by Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Mike Rounds (R-SD) and followed up a similar bipartisan letter signed in April by 394 members of the House of Representatives.

Polls show that Democratic support for Israel has slipped, but it is still over 50 percent. More important, those oft-cited polls don’t reflect the near unanimity of support for Israel among congressional Democrats. Sure a few Democrats refused to sign the letter, Patrick Leahy (VT) who has become an increasingly vocal critic of Israel, Bernie Sanders (VT) who made clear his disdain for Israel during his campaign, Tom Carper (DE), Harry Reid (NV) and, more surprisingly Dick Durbin (IL).

Their fecklessness was compensated, however, by the many progressives who did sign: Elizabeth Warren, Al Franken, Amy Klobuchar, Ron Wyden, Tammy Baldwin, Chris Murphy, Barbara Mikulski, Barbara Boxer, Cory Booker, Sherrod Brown, Richard Blumenthal, Ed Markey, and Jack Reed.

Remember how throughout the Sanders campaign we were told progressives don’t support Israel? Well, that may be true on some college campuses but not in Congress.

Three Republicans — Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Ben Sasse – surprisingly did not sign the letter supporting the call for a veto, but the reason is they didn’t think the letter went far enough in support of Israel.

The other issue that has confused observers, including many Israelis, is the 10-year military aid package. Stunningly, critics see this as a defeat and are cheering what they believe is the neutering of “all-powerful” AIPAC. It is peculiar to think that a $38 billion arms package is a failure on Netanyahu’s part. Sure, it’s not as much as he wanted, the terms were not as favorable as in the past and he made major concessions by agreeing not to lobby Congress for additional aid, including missile defense in the package and giving up the longstanding provision that allowed Israel to spend about one-quarter of its aid in Israel. On the other hand, the new package continues to provide Israel with the largest share of foreign aid, to obtain the most sophisticated fighter planes in the U.S. arsenal and to enhance a variety of joint programs, such as missile defense.

If Netanyahu had a better relationship with Obama, could he have gotten a better deal, as his critics contend? Maybe, but this deal is not set in stone. Obama will be gone soon and his successors are under no obligation to adhere to the terms. Theoretically, that means they could get worse, but it is more likely that a future president will be willing to amend the agreement in Israel’s favor.

Furthermore, don’t forget the bipartisan support in Congress for aid to Israel. As Senator Lindsey Graham and others have made clear, they are not bound by the agreement. Obama, who frequently flouts the constitution — as in his end run around congressional approval of the Iran nuclear deal — cannot usurp Congress’ power of the purse. Thus, Congress may decide on its own to provide aid to Israel as its members see fit and challenge the next president to oppose them.

Keep in mind also that aid to Israel has traditionally driven the entire foreign aid budget. While some people lament Israel’s disproportionate share, the truth is if AIPAC did not lobby for aid, the unpopular program would be even more underfunded than it is today, and countries around the world would suffer. Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians would certainly not receive anywhere near the amounts of assistance they do today if it were not for AIPAC helping to push the entire aid budget through Congress.

Finally, the detractors who fantasize about destroying AIPAC’s influence are under the misimpression that the lobby is a “one-trick pony” that has lost its ride with the signing of the “immutable” aid deal. Sorry to disappoint you Walt, Mearsheimer, J Street, Beinart et al, but AIPAC will be as strong, if not stronger than ever.

First, while Israel may have agreed not to lobby for additional aid, AIPAC made no such commitment and, working with friends like Senator Graham, will continue to seek to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship with supplemental aid and arms, as well as enhanced cooperation in research and development of weapons systems, intelligence sharing and joint training and operations.

Second, it is true that AIPAC’s prime directive has been obtaining aid for Israel, but it is not the only item on the pro-Israel agenda. AIPAC will continue to work for sanctions against Iran and other sponsors of terror. It will campaign for a negotiated agreement that provides Israel with peace and security. The lobby will make sure Congress keeps the Palestinians’ feet to the fire and fulfills its repeated promises to cease incitement and terror.

The Obama years will be a painful but soon distant memory for the pro-Israel community. Already, however, we see that the essentials of the relationship remain unchanged: bipartisan support for a strong and secure Israel backed by record levels of public support. Israel has ups and downs with every administration, and the next one will be no different, but the unshakeable alliance is on the upswing again and has the prospect of growing stronger after January 20.

Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.

About the Author
Dr Mitchell Bard is the Executive Director of the nonprofit American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE) and a foreign policy analyst who lectures frequently on U.S.-Middle East policy. Dr. Bard is the director of the Jewish Virtual Library, the world's most comprehensive online encyclopedia of Jewish history and culture. He is also the author/editor of 24 books, including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.
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