The stark realities of U.S. military aid to Israel were on full display in the recent war on Gaza, which once again devastated the besieged strip. According to the Israeli military, 160 of Israel's U.S.-built F-16 fighter jets dropped 450 missiles on more than 150 targets in Gaza in a single raid alone. These strikes disproportionately targeted Palestinian civilian sites and, Amnesty International warned, "may amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity."
It's an all-too familiar story of the implications of America's unconditional military aid to Israel, which totals roughly $3.8 billion per year—more than any other country—and is often complemented with other arms deals and security benefits. But this story may finally be changing. The 11-day war between Israel and Hamas in May, which resulted in the deaths of more than 240 Palestinians in Gaza and 12 Israelis, has led to renewed calls for the cessation of that aid. The traditional bipartisan consensus in Washington on the need for it has started to unravel, with several prominent progressive Democrats scrutinizing arms transfers to Israel more than ever.
Yet despite these shifts in his own party, and his own pledge to "revitalize" America's "national commitment to advancing human rights and democracy around the world," President Joe Biden continues to stick to the typical playbook of past American presidents. He offered unwavering and unconditional support for Israel, even in the face of documented Israeli abuses last month—including bombing the Gaza bureau of an American news agency, the Associated Press. The Biden administration blocked three resolutions at the United Nations Security Council calling for an immediate cease-fire as the fighting escalated, with Israel bombing more residential buildings in densely packed Gaza City.
The White House claimed it was pursuing "quiet" diplomacy behind the scenes—all while immediately expressing the usual public support for Israel's "right to defend itself." Any mention of Palestinian civilian casualties came with heavy qualifications and after noticeable delay. The Biden administration also publicly ignored the Israeli provocations in Jerusalem—the looming expulsions of Palestinians from the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, and the storming of the al-Aqsa mosque compound by Israeli security forces, targeting Palestinian protesters there—that had precipitated the conflict in Gaza. The Biden administration even secretly approved a $735 million weapons sale of precision-guided arms to Israel before a cease-fire was reached, effectively circumventing a debate and vote on it in Congress.
Nevertheless, more progressive voices are steadily challenging the dominant narrative that has for so long served as the foundation for Washington's bipartisan consensus on writing these blank checks to Israel. It's time for the United States to fundamentally reassess this relationship, and recent events show why—morally, legally and strategically. Besides violating existing U.S. laws that are supposed to bar Washington from providing security assistance to countries that commit human rights abuses, military aid to Israel serves little to no strategic purpose for the United States.
What this unconditional aid really does, instead, is allow Israel to act with impunity, directly implicating the U.S. in Israeli conduct, making it a complicit party. The cease-fire in Gaza may be holding for now, but it merely entailed a return to the status quo: Gaza is still under Israeli blockade, and Palestinians are still facing expulsion from their homes in occupied East Jerusalem. Nearly 7 million Palestinians—in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel proper—are all still under a system of Israeli authority and control that more and more observers are calling apartheid. Human Rights Watch released a comprehensive report in late April accusing Israel of committing "the crimes of apartheid and persecution," as defined under international law, in an effort to "maintain the domination of Jewish Israelis over Palestinians across Israel and the [Occupied Palestinian Territories]." It echoed an earlier conclusion from B'Tselem, Israel's largest and leading human rights organization, that labeled the Israeli government "an apartheid regime." Yet Israel still maintains its unwavering and unconditional support from Washington.
U.S. law, however, is clear: The American government cannot provide security assistance to actors engaged in gross human rights abuses. Two laws are of particular importance here: Section 502b of the Foreign Assistance Act, and the Leahy Laws. The Foreign Assistance Act states that "no security assistance may be provided to any country the government of which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights." Moreover, it emphasizes America's duty to "promote and encourage increased respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms throughout the world without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion." That is echoed by the Leahy Laws, two statutory provisions which, in the State Department's own description, prohibit "the U.S. Government from using funds for assistance to units of foreign security forces where there is credible information implicating that unit in the commission of gross violation of human rights."
One does not have to look far to find evidence of Israel's noncompliance with these American laws. Israel has violated five major internationally recognized human rights and humanitarian laws during its more than 50-year occupation of Palestinian territory: unlawful killings, forced displacement and the building of illegal settlements, abusive detention, unjustified restriction of movement, and various institutionalized forms of racial and religious discrimination. There were more abuses in the latest escalation in Jerusalem and Gaza.
However, despite these legal obligations, Washington continually skirts around them or ignores them outright. American complicity in these human rights abuses will only end when it ceases its security assistance to Israel—as required by U.S. law.
For those who overlook—or prefer to ignore—the legal and moral obligations of ending such aid, the argument typically proffered in defense of this assistance is that it serves to advance U.S. interests. But even on strategic grounds, it is hard to justify such a high level of unconditional military support for Israel.
The U.S. has been adrift in the Middle East for too long, without a clearly defined regional strategy or objective. Longstanding military aid to Israel—and other countries in the region, like Egypt, which is the second-largest recipient of American assistance after Israel—is always predicated on the ambiguous notion that vital but vaguely defined "U.S. interests" are somehow being advanced. That conventional wisdom neglects the incoherence of America's Middle East policy, which has mainly served to subsidize dictatorial repression and a conglomerate of arms manufacturers in the U.S., in large part driven by the influence of various lobbying and special interests groups in Washington. If U.S. interests can at least be broadly interpreted as American security and prosperity, how does unconditional military aid to Israel that implicates the U.S. in human rights abuses advance either one?
The U.S. receives almost nothing from the copious amounts of annual aid delivered to Israel. As Paul Pillar has warned, "What the 'allies' in the Middle East want from the United States is greater than what the United States wants, needs, or gets from them. U.S. policymakers should keep this asymmetry in mind." This uneven relationship got even worse under the Trump administration, with its blatant overtures to Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party—moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights—that brought nothing in return for Washington.
American support certainly does not provide the U.S. with leverage over Israel and its actions, as the recent war on Gaza showed yet again. When Biden, on May 19, finally called for a "significant de-escalation today," Netanyahu essentially ignored him—and a cease-fire didn't come into effect until May 21. So much for U.S. pressure.
But this was really nothing new. Attempts by the Obama administration to rein in Israeli settlements failed, humiliating Biden in particular, as plans for new settlements in East Jerusalem were defiantly announced by the Israeli government just as he was visiting Israel as vice president in 2010. Efforts by other administrations to have Israel legitimately engage with the Palestinians and make certain concessions have also come up empty (although, in many cases, that was by default, since American officials were hardly always the honest brokers).
In fact, Israel has arguably become a strategic liability. As Rashid Khalidi noted in 2014, after an earlier war on Gaza, "continued U.S. encouragement of Israeli violations of international humanitarian law will further embolden the brazen currents of far-right ethnocentric racism permeating Israeli society, and encourage more brutal military actions like those just inflicted on Gaza. This is turn can only inflame extreme and reprehensible reactions, whether in the form of international jihadi militancy, crude anti-Semitism, or blind terrorism against civilians." In recent months, efforts by the Biden administration to revive the international agreement curbing Iran's nuclear program, known as the JCPOA, have been met with fierce and open Israeli resistance. In April, widely suspected Israeli sabotage crippled Iran's Natanz nuclear facility. And last December, a top Iranian nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was assassinated outside Tehran, reportedly by Israel. Such behavior has not only undermined U.S. diplomatic efforts, but has also resulted in Iran ramping up its enrichment capacity in response.
While it is touted as a close security partner—"the eyes and ears of America" against "radical Islam," as Sen. Lindsey Graham claimed on a recent visit—Israel in fact has often provided the U.S. with overstated and alarmist intelligence, like it did regarding Iraq and Saddam Hussein's weapons program leading up to America's 2003 invasion. It is also increasingly manipulating the return of great-power competition in the Middle East, in order to pressure the U.S. into remaining deeply engaged in the region and granting ever more concessions to Israel along the way.
What has this frozen policy, all billed to American taxpayers, actually accomplished? And what will billions more of American military aid—all unconditionally granted, no matter Israel's human rights record—accomplish in the years to come? It will only lead to more violations of America's own human rights obligations as codified under existing U.S. law, while continually undermining America's interests and position in the Middle East.
Photo credit: A fire rages at sunrise in Khan Yunis following an Israeli airstrike in the southern Gaza Strip, May 12, 2021. (Photo by Youssef Massoud/AFP via Getty Images)