Is Israel Still Key to U.S. Grand Strategy?

Joe Biden visit to Israel March 2016
Image: Flickr/U.S. Embassy Jerusalem

By Dylan Motin

That the United States can and should massively finance Israel’s defense is one of the few areas of relative bipartisan consensus in Washington. Israel received a staggering $150 billion from the United States between 1946 and 2021, the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. assistance since World War II. Under the terms of the 2016 U.S.-Israeli third 10-year Memorandum of Understanding on military aid, Israel has been receiving from the United States $3.3 billion in Foreign Military Financing and $500 million in missile defense financing annually. In total, U.S. aid amounts to almost four billion dollars of American taxpayer money transferred to Israel every year. It alone receives nearly 60 percent of the Foreign Military Financing program’s yearly budget. There is a broad political agreement that this aid must continue, and only a minority of foreign policy experts have criticized this unwavering budgetary commitment. 

Yet, this generous aid does little to address the main challenges American foreign policy faces today. It is an anachronism during an intense security competition with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russia, which are centered in the Indo-Pacific and European regions respectively. The PRC is the United States’ most formidable competitor. It possesses the latent resources and military capabilities to potentially establish hegemony over the Indo-Pacific region and eventually project power beyond. Russia is far weaker but maintains the most formidable military in Europe, an enormous nuclear arsenal, and is actively working on expanding its territory and influence. 

The United States must thus focus its resources on the Indo-Pacific and Europe, the only two regions of the globe where great power competitors exist. East Asia and Europe are two areas concentrating tremendous wealth and advanced industries. If a single state were to dominate them, it could assemble enough latent power to potentially outcompete the United States and project power toward the Western Hemisphere. The dormant power of other regions of the globe—Africa, the Middle East, and South America—is more limited, and none of these regions face a local great power plausibly capable of establishing hegemonic control. The Indo-Pacific represents an exceptionally demanding challenge due to the PRC’s growing military superiority over U.S. allies and forward-deployed American forces. Israel plays almost no role in the European and Indo-Pacific theaters and hence matters little in defending core American interests. 

Going one step further, the aid to Israel weakens U.S. efforts at containing great power rivals. The United States has been slow to refocus its defense posture toward the Indo-Pacific region while the PRC built up its military power unabated. Furthermore, Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine encouraged the Biden Administration to ramp up its presence in Europe and give large amounts of equipment and money to Kyiv, hence further undermining the American posture in the Indo-Pacific. 

Under that context, the United States should redirect the nearly four billion dollars donated annually to Israel to initiatives such as bolstering Taiwan’s defenses or expanding the Philippines’ feeble navy. Alternatively, this money could help reinvigorate the United States’ lackluster effort to grow its navy. The United States should focus its finite resources and bandwidth on the PRC challenge first and, if there are spares, on the Russian one. All other endeavors are peripheral at best. 

Many U.S. foreign policy pundits would disagree with that stance. Some argue that U.S. aid is essential to guarantee the survival of Israel. Others may warn that discontinuing the Israel aid would open the door for Iranian aggression. Many more worry about the implications of drawing down assistance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

During the Cold War, Israel was an isolated state in a precarious situation: it faced powerful Arab states like Egypt and Syria with enough offensive capabilities to attempt a blitzkrieg on the country. Today, none of Israel’s neighbors possesses the military wherewithal to destroy it. The threat posed by Egypt disappeared during the 1970s, in no small part thanks to astute American diplomacy. Syria’s once impressive military is only the shadow of its pre-civil war former self. Iran’s conventional forces mostly rely on antiquated weaponry and are poorly prepared for high-intensity offensive warfare. Also, Iran’s territory is far from Israel’s borders; it is ill-placed to attempt an offensive against Israel. Terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah represent a significant risk but lack the firepower to defeat the Israeli military. Even if a major military threat was to materialize near Israel’s borders, Jerusalem could still count on its nuclear arsenal to deter or, in last resort, defeat it. Thus, the current threat level does not justify U.S. aid, and other U.S. partners in Asia or Eastern Europe, like Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, and the Baltic states, are in far more dire situations. 

While it enjoys a safer position than many other U.S. partners bordering the PRC and Russia, Israel is also wealthy enough to defend itself without bankrupting the American taxpayer. Its nominal GDP is among the thirty largest economies in the world, ranking above Egypt and Iran. Israel’s per capita wealth places Jerusalem among the most developed countries globally. It is wealthy enough to sustain its current military effort without U.S. aid. Terrorist groups regularly murder innocent Israelis but do not threaten the survival of the Israeli state in the same way a massive foreign army stationed at the border could. 

Furthermore, numerous destitute African and Asian countries face large-scale terrorism and yet do not receive massive military aid. Financing the Israeli military made more sense during the Cold War when it faced the existential threat of a significant Arab onslaught encouraged by the Soviet Union. Such a rationale does not exist anymore. 

Similarly, the Iran threat argument does not hold up against scrutiny. Israel is not physically exposed to Iranian conventional military power, contrary to other U.S. allies in the region, such as Iraq and the Gulf states. If Iran launched a bid for regional hegemony, Israel would be peripherical to the fight, likely focusing on closer neighbors like Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. 

Israel more directly confronts Iran’s influence through pro-Iran paramilitary groups operating in Lebanon and Syria. Although these groups pose some security risks, they do not pose existential threats since they lack the wherewithal to defeat the Israeli military, which can deal with them without U.S. aid. If the United States is seriously concerned about Iranian aggression, pushing for a regional alliance to counterbalance Iran would likely be a more efficient, less tax-dollar-consuming endeavor. A determined local coalition could contain Iran without direct U.S. involvement.

In fact, the unwavering commitment to Israel’s foreign policy preferences pushes the United States toward conflict with Iran, which is not in the U.S. national security interest. Whether Iran becomes an aspiring local hegemon, or a nuclear state is almost irrelevant to the United States. The core of U.S. foreign policy since at least World War I has been to prevent the appearance of a hegemon in Asia or Europe. In that sense, the PRC and, secondarily, Russia are far more significant challenges than Iran. If anything, Washington should build friendly relations with Iran, so it does not align with the PRC and Russia and disrupt American efforts to contain Chinese and Russian power. An affable Iran could even help keep the Chinese and Russians away from the Gulf and maintain regional security as it did before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Finally, drawing down aid to Israel will unlikely worsen the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel is far stronger than the Palestinian Authority, which does not even muster a regular military. Violent armed bands roam the West Bank, but Israel employs law enforcement and counterinsurgency capabilities to deal with them, not the high-end conventional warfare platforms bought by U.S. assistance. Ending the U.S. aid thus will not weaken the Israeli position. 

The other way around, stopping the aid should sweeten relations between the United States, the Palestinians, and the Muslim world in general. The Palestinians overwhelmingly view U.S. policy as supportive of Israel and its creeping annexation of the West Bank. Military aid to Israel has long poisoned the U.S. relationship with the Muslim world and gives ammunition to extremist groups. If the United States ended its massive aid to Israel, it would reduce regional defiance against U.S. interests. It is also in the U.S. interest to play the mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian and other regional conflicts.

Ending Israel’s windfall of tax dollars does not entail abandoning good relations with Jerusalem. The United States should maintain close ties with Israel and engage in beneficial cooperation. Selling weapons to Jerusalem is profitable for American companies and ensures that Jerusalem remains capable enough to maintain the balance of power in the Middle East. At a time of intense great power competition, keeping a leader in advanced technologies like Israel out of Chinese or Russian influence is also important. Israel excels in several critical technological sectors, and the United States should prevent Russia and especially the PRC from profiting from Israeli industrial and military prowess.

The massive campaign of U.S. aid to Israel has outlived its original purpose and is now impeding Washington’s effort to outcompete great power rivals. Although the United States should strive to maintain excellent relations with Israel, offering billions of dollars yearly provides no apparent benefit. At the same time, it reduces U.S. resources available for defending the Indo-Pacific and Europe. Policymakers and experts should urgently debate whether the current aid to Israel serves the national interest and discontinue it if it does not.    

Dylan Motin is a Ph.D. candidate majoring in political science at Kangwon National University and a Marcellus Policy Fellow at the John Quincy Adams Society. He is a former visiting research fellow at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies and was named one of the Next Generation Korea Peninsula Specialists at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy. His research expertise revolves around international relations theory, and his main interests are balance-of-power theory, great power competition, and Korean affairs. Dylan’s writings have appeared in such publications as the National Interest, Irish Studies in International Affairs, the Korean Journal of International Studies, and the Seoul Journal of Korean Studies.

One thought on “Is Israel Still Key to U.S. Grand Strategy?

  1. Just playing devil’s advocate here but: is it really America’s duty to contain China and Russia, as you say? This attitude only gives fuel to Xi’s anti-American rhetoric and seems to drive us towards direct confrontation.

    Even if it is an American responsibility, who’s to say that the reason they give aid to Israel isn’t because they’re slow to recognize the Chinese threat but rather because they acknowledge diminished returns on any further Indo-Pacific investment and so give aid to Israel as a second line of defense should China expand in the Middle East. After all, Taiwan has never seen eye-to-eye with the US on weapons purchases, India is playing both sides, and Japan and Australia are both wealthy enough for either one to carry alone the pecuniary burden of strengthening regional allies that you so advocate for, so why should we give more aid to regional Indo-Pacific allies like the Philippines?

    As for Chinese expansion in the Middle East, China has been increasing it’s naval presence in the Gulf, strengthening ties with the Gulf states themselves, deploying thousands of troops in Syria etc., made massive belt road investments, and giving security aid to Afghanistan… From this perspective, Israel starts looking more like a middle-eastern Taiwan rather than a wasteful money-pit.

    Claiming that “such a rationale” for defending Israel from an onslaught of Arab armies is not relevant ignores looming Chinese influence in the Middle East. Who’s to say China isn’t interested in paying for an “onslaught” of Arab armies just like the Soviet Union was? Who’s to say that the amount of funding the US gives Israel right now isn’t the only thing stopping China from taking this approach to Israel?

    I’m not saying we should continue to give Israel aid (I’m not an expert here), but I am saying that your reasons for cutting this aid hardly seem airtight to me. But this is definitely a complicated issue, and one worth continuously revisiting!

    Overall though, well-written article and I’m very impressed with the writing style and effort! Good job 🙂

    Like

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