Picture this new world:
· Israel’s prime minister doesn’t visit Washington for a year, and no one notices.
· Israel adopts another outrageous domestic policy, and there’s no acid-dripping comment from the US.
· Israel informs the US that its latest fighter aircraft isn’t suitable for Israel’s needs, and it will either look elsewhere or build its own.
· Israel invites Chinese leaders for an official visit, and the requisite bilateral agreements are signed.
Why is all this in the realm of wild fantasy? After all, many other countries could take one or more of the above steps, and you wouldn’t hear a threat to “reassess relations,” as we heard from Washington toward Israel in recent days.
That’s because you don’t have to reassess relations when relations are already on a logical, realistic level, which the Israel-US relationship is most decidedly not.
The problem is that we’ve outgrown our classic “special relationship” with the US, yet we’re still defining our ties with that relationship as yardstick.
Worse, American Jews are caught in a never-ending spin cycle of loyalty to a candidate based either on the politician’s perceived support of Israel or on sensible domestic policies. Often those two considerations conflict.
The US-Israel “special relationship,” in its simplest form, means that the US will have Israel’s back with it comes to regional threats, and Israel will take care not to undermine US policy anywhere or, heaven forfend, undertake policies that appear wrong in the eyes of the State Department.
For the first 30 years or so of Israel’s existence, the “special relationship” made sense. Israel was struggling to build a viable economy, and it did not have the resources to maintain sufficient military strength to fend off its enemies.
The 1973 war highlighted that reality. After a surprise attack on two fronts, Israel’s ammunition and spare parts were close to running out. The US agreed to a last-minute airlift of hardware and munitions, without which Israel could well have been overrun, and I wouldn’t be writing about this today.
But here we are, half a century later, and the situation is radically different. Israel no longer needs that safety net.
Israel of 2023 features the region’s leading military and leading economy. Most of its problems are what they call “first world”—insufficient affordable housing, expensive milk products, overcrowded classrooms, and so on.
Even though things look bleak here with the standoff over judicial reform and religious extremism, there is no fear that Israel’s army cannot defend the country against enemy attack, or that the economy will collapse in a heap if someone in Washington says “boo.”
Indeed, Israel weathered the 2008 economic collapse better than the US.
The centerpiece of the outdated “special relationship” is American aid to Israel. It’s why there is a perception that Israel must do what Washington says, “or else.” It’s why Israel’s Jewish supporters in the US over the White House’s relates to Israel.
But what if the “or else,” meaning cutting American aid to Israel, would actually benefit all sides?
First, a quick look at the aid itself. It’s all military aid, and we’re halfway through a 10-year, $3.8 billion a year plan approved by then-US President Barack Obama.
Here’s the catch—almost every dollar must be spent in the US. So not only is it a backhanded subsidy to US defense industries, it actively harms Israel’s economy by moving jobs overseas.
That’s to say nothing of the sophisticated weaponry that Israel can and does produce by itself, but not for itself. It’s well known that significant parts of the flying white elephant known as the F-35 fighter plane are made in Israel.
Stopping American aid, gradually through negotiations and agreements, would cut about 10 percent out of Israel’s defense budget. That’s a significant hit, to be sure, but here’s what it would mean:
· Israel would be free to sell weapons without the threat of an American veto, like killing the 2000 sale of surveillance planes to China, while at the same time taking American policies into account as others do. New sales could make up the shortfall in a period of a few years. Yes, some of the customers would not make it onto the “World’s Nicest Guy” list, but small countries have to do business differently from large countries. For example, some take issues like human rights into account, some don’t.
· Israel could negotiate for weapons and supplies from the US and other nations, getting what it really needs, sometimes in exchange for Israeli technology.
· And most significantly—ending US aid to Israel would remove the already artificial club critics bash Israel with, and supporters fear the most.
Canceling the aid would allow Israel and the US to reconfigure their relationship along logical lines of shared interests, not emotions and outdated perceptions. Objectively, Israel and the US are natural allies for geographical, strategic and societal reasons. There’s no reason to distort that with a layer of artificial guilt and fear over aid.
And then there’s China. The US is big and strong enough to confront China any way it wants. Israel, plain and simple, isn’t. China is an up-and-coming power in the Middle East, and Israel’s interests are to get in line with that. It doesn’t mean that Israel becomes a satellite of China and paints its flag red. It means that Israel builds relations with China based on shared or intersecting interests, just as it would with the United States under the new relationship.
The region is already trending in that multilateral direction. With the Abraham Accords, Israel has forged ties with Arab nations after decades of hostility. Militant, extreme Iran is more and more an outlier, to be confronted by the region as a whole. Likewise the Palestinians.
Israel can confront them by itself, but it doesn’t have to. Instead, Israel and the US can face the shifting future together as partners, not as overseer and underling.
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