The last thing the Biden administration and Congress need is another challenge. But unless they can proactively start countering calls from the Democrats’ progressive wing to condition longstanding military assistance to Israel, the United States risks undermining its interests in the Middle East precisely at the time it will need to devote its primary attention at home and to other pressing foreign policy problems.
Progressives’ demands to condition this aid based on Israel’s Palestinian policies began coalescing around last year’s presidential primaries and Israel’s possible extension of sovereignty over parts of the West Bank last summer.
As a recent report from the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) lays out, any such conditionality would undermine U.S. national security and the prospects for peace. It also would contradict longstanding consensus among Democratic Party leadership — including President Biden and Vice President Harris — and many Republicans.
This consensus underscores how defense assistance to Israel, embodied in a bilateral 10-year memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed under President Obama, is critical to defend American interests in the Middle East — specifically by supporting Israel’s ability to deter or defeat potential adversaries at acceptable cost.
U.S. law requires the United States help Israel uphold this qualitative military edge, or QME, but the logic of defense assistance extends far beyond legal obligations. Indeed, as America retrenches from the region and refocuses on other priorities, increasingly it relies on Israel to meet shared threats by rolling back Iran, preventing or prevailing against Tehran and its proxies in a major conflict, deterring any Iranian nuclear breakout and countering terrorism.
As these burdens on Israel increase, the importance of military aid for upholding U.S. interests and regional stability grow as well. That assistance, known as Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and which must be spent in the United States, also supports thousands of American industrial and high-tech jobs across all 50 states.
But the MOU is more than a financial arrangement — it also tangibly expresses America’s longstanding commitment to promote Mideast peace. Defense assistance to our Israeli ally fits a definite pattern, dating to the 1979 Israel-Egypt Camp David peace treaty, of U.S. security assurances that bolsters the Jewish state’s willingness to trade the certainty of territorial control for more ephemeral assurances of peace with its Arab neighbors and the Palestinians. As President Clinton said in a 1993 press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin: “He has told me he is prepared to take risks for peace. He has told his own people the same thing. I have told him our role is to help to minimize those risks. We will do that by further reinforcing our commitment to maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge.”
U.S. defense assistance also helps protect Palestinians and Israelis alike, including by enabling Israel to acquire Iron Dome missile defenses and tunnel detection technologies that can mitigate the need for potentially escalatory responsive military incursions into Gaza — despite almost two decades of rocket, mortar, drone and subterranean attacks into southern Israel from that territory.
And finally, Israel adheres strictly to U.S. legal provisions restricting the use of FMF to external defense and internal security. Simply put, America’s defense assistance does not underwrite Israeli policies in the West Bank. As President Obama’s former ambassador to Israel stated in late 2019, “If, tomorrow, we said none of our funds could be used to support annexation, we could still provide the same amount.”
For all these reasons, restrictions on American aid actually would subvert many of the self-stated policy goals of U.S. progressives and moderates alike for the Middle East. This explains why the Obama-Biden administration, despite clear disagreements with certain Israeli policies, nevertheless maintained an inflexible firewall separating U.S. military assistance from contemporaneous tensions over the Palestinians, Iran, Syria and other issues.
Yet the growth of anti-Israel rhetoric from the progressive left, particularly across social media, suggests long-term challenges to this traditional bipartisan cordon sanitaire. Should progressives come to dominate the Democratic Party, it is hard to imagine they will not increase their demands to condition security funding for Israel.
It is crucial in the coming years to reestablish consensus across the current political divide on the importance of assistance to Israel. Moderate Democrats are best situated to engage and persuade progressives on how this aid can positively impact Israeli policy toward the Palestinians.
Congress should convene hearings on the continued importance of defense assistance for maintaining Israel’s QME and protecting U.S. interests. It should issue statements of policy, resolutions and public letters — and insert clearer justification language in future authorizing legislation for U.S. military aid and defense cooperation — explaining how this support benefits U.S. national security and the pursuit of peace.
Likewise, the executive branch should update public statements and publications laying out how Israel’s QME contributes to America’s objectives in the Middle East, especially amid U.S. retrenchment and growing burdens on Israel to uphold regional stability.
President Obama called America’s commitment to Israel’s security “unshakable” when he announced the current MOU. As this critical agreement nears its midpoint, serious work now must take place to uphold the benefits to U.S. national security of continued, and unconditioned, defense assistance to Israel.
Charles Perkins and Jonathan Ruhe are directors for U.S.-Israel security policy and director of foreign policy, respectively, at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA).
Originally published in The Hill