Was the temporary blocking of Iron dome funding a turning point?

Will bipartisan support of Israel continue, or will support for Israel become even more polarized?
Rockets launched toward Israel from the northern Gaza Strip and response from the Israeli missile defense system known as the Iron Dome leave streaks through the sky on May 14, 2021 in Gaza City, Gaza. (Photo by Fatima Shbair/Getty Images)

We’re curious…

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a bill to provide $1 billion in funding for Israel’s Iron Dome. The Iron Dome Supplemental Appropriations Act passed by a vote of 420-9 with two “present” (meaning they did not vote “yes” or “no”). However, this was only after the measure was removed from a separate bill due to pressure from a group of progressive lawmakers.

Representative Rashida Tlaib, who voted against the measure and is one of four members of the so-called “Squad,” said on the House floor, “I will not support an effort to enable war crimes and human rights abuses and violence. We cannot be talking only about Israelis need for safety at a time when Palestinians are living under a violent apartheid system.”

Representative Ted Deutch responded, “I cannot allow one of my colleagues to stand on the floor of the House of Representatives and label the Jewish democratic State of Israel an apartheid state. I reject it… To advocate for the dismantling of the one Jewish state in the world, when there’s no place on the map for one Jewish state, that’s antisemitism.”

Meanwhile, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was seen weeping on the House floor after she changed her vote from “no” to “present” and broke with her fellow Squad members. Later, Ocasio-Cortez explained, “I wept at the complete lack of care for the human beings that are impacted by these decisions, I wept at an institution choosing a path of maximum volatility and minimum consideration for its own political convenience.” Some analysts speculated that it was a political move due to the Congresswoman eyeing a Senate seat in 2022.

Israel’s Iron Dome is designed to intercept and destroy rockets in the air before they can kill civilians living in Israel. The legislation, which now goes to the Senate, will provide funding to replace missile interceptors that were used during the fighting with Hamas in May.

Was the temporary blocking of U.S. aid to Israel a “turning point” in the state of U.S. support for Israel, as some have argued? Will bipartisan support of Israel continue, or will support for Israel become even more polarized?

Why does the U.S. give money to Israel?

Let’s take a step back: Why does the U.S. give money to Israel in the first place, and what does it get in return? In 2020, Israel received $3.8 billion from the U.S., more than almost any other country.

The U.S. gives about $40 billion — roughly one percent of its budget — in foreign “aid” each year to nations around the world. That aid falls into three main categories: humanitarian, economic and military. Israel gets almost exclusively military aid, and it isn’t a cash handout. Instead, it is what is called “Foreign Military Finance grants” and is more like a gift certificate: Israel uses the grants to purchase military equipment from the U.S.

For example, Israel recently purchased 50 F-35 jets from the U.S., mostly paid for by these Foreign Military Finance grants. This money goes right back into the U.S. economy, translating into jobs in manufacturing, engineering and other fields.

How does Israel compare to other countries when it comes to U.S. foreign aid? In the last few years, Jordan and Egypt have each received between $1 and $5 billion annually from the U.S. Like Israel, each of these countries receive some military aid. But unlike Israel, they also get hundreds of millions of dollars for economic development and humanitarian assistance.

The West Bank and Gaza are receiving $360 million in 2021, which is entirely humanitarian and economic aid. The money goes to the Palestinian Authority and to UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees).

Foreign aid is just one piece of a complex military relationship between the U.S. and Israel. Israel looks after a stockpile of American weapons and ammunition (which they can also use themselves in an emergency), and Israel helps the U.S. with cybersecurity, anti-terrorist activities and more.

Some experts argue that because the U.S. and Israel share geopolitical interests, security concerns, and core values, U.S. aid to Israel is equivalent to American military spending, as if the U.S. were to have a “military base” in Israel. 

Consider two of the countries with the most U.S. military bases: South Korea and Japan. Between 2016 and 2019, it cost American taxpayers more than $3 billion a year to keep forces on the ground in South Korea. In Japan, it cost more than $5 billion.

America’s investment in those countries — these experts argue — is very similar to its investment in Israel: it’s keeping tabs on potentially volatile countries, whether it’s Syria and Iran in the Middle East, or North Korea and China on the Pacific coast.

Israel did not always receive billions of dollars in foreign aid from the U.S. In 1973, America earmarked $492 million in foreign aid to Israel. The next year, with the U.S. flying more than 22,000 tons of weapons and ammunition to Israel during the Yom Kippur War, that number almost quintupled to $2.6 billion.

Realizing Israel’s value during the Cold War, various White House administrations understood the need to maintain the Jewish state’s “Qualitative Military Edge” and ensure that Israel was equipped with better weapons than its hostile neighbors.

In 1981, the U.S. and Israel formalized their military relationship with a pact called the Strategic Cooperation Agreement, which aimed to deter Soviet threats in the Middle East.

In the 1990s, after the Soviet Union collapsed and Iraq invaded Kuwait, the U.S. became an active military force in the Middle East — and again required a strong local ally. The 9/11 attacks pushed Israel and the U.S. even closer together. 

But underlining this history is one important fact: none of this foreign policy would have been viable unless the American public approved of supporting Israel. In general, from 2000 to 2020, majorities of Americans have endorsed the U.S. support of Israel. 

However, some on the progressive left have recently argued that aid to Israel should at least be conditional. In April 2021, Democratic Representative Betty McCollum introduced a bill that would deny Israel aid money if it were spent on detaining children, seizing Palestinian property or annexing land in the West Bank.

It’s hard to prove any of the aid is used for that since the money is mostly given in the form of grants that are to be spent back in the U.S. Although the bill is unlikely to pass, it highlights recent divisions among Democrats over U.S. policy toward Israel. The incident related to Iron Dome is the latest example of those tensions.

Reactions from Israelis: Diversity of perspectives

Following a conversation with House Majority Leader Democrat Steny Hoyer, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid downplayed the incident, saying in a statement that the delay in approving the Israeli funding was “technical” related to disagreements in Congress about the U.S. debt ceiling.

Israeli officials also said that “the development is a result of the 12 years of Netanyahu policies, which harmed Israel’s bipartisan status in America,” according to reporting by Axios.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said that the temporary delay in funding was due to a small group of progressive Democrats, telling reporters, “There is a small anti-Israeli group that makes a lot of noise but these people failed.”

Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., interpreted the situation very differently. Oren asserted in a Tablet Magazine op-ed that “the recent blocking of $1 billion of U.S. military aid to Israel is a turning point. For the first time in memory, Congress failed to approve a large-scale defense package for the Jewish state.”

Oren further argued that for Israelis, the incident is a “wakeup call to begin rethinking the nature of American aid.” He noted that under the terms of the current U.S. aid agreement, Israel is not allowed to sell its defense technologies to certain countries, such as China.

Rather than continuing “to appear dependent” on the U.S. and bearing “the opportunity costs of many billions of dollars” by not selling its equipment to specific countries, Oren argued, Israel should pursue “a collaborative relationship” with its American ally including joint research in artificial intelligence, cyber and other fields.

Ofer Shelah, a former Knesset member in the Yesh Atid party, agreed with Oren. In a Yedioth Ahronoth op-ed, Shelah argued that those who blame the incident on an isolated group of “radical Democrats” or on past actions by Netanyahu are ignoring the reality: “The Jewish state has boasted for years about how it enjoys bipartisan support from the U.S., but the opposite has been the reality for nearly a decade now.”

“In many Democratic circles…Israel has long ago lost the image of the small and brave nation surrounded on all sides by larger enemies who want to annihilate the only democracy in the Middle East,” Shelah explained. “In their eyes, Israel is the only Western country that holds an entire nation under occupation, and does so while being fueled by nearly $4 billion of American taxpayer money.”

Meanwhile, Haaretz columnist Israel Harel saw a problem from an entirely different angle. He contested that Israel relies on the U.S. for military aid too much in the first place. Harel argued that in Israel, “time-tested security doctrines, which have served Israel well, were abandoned, to be replaced by foreign doctrines… That has brought us to a situation in which we need to stand at the doorstep of the U.S. like a beggar. The Iron Dome allocation is the clear symbol of this idol worship.”

Reactions from World Jewry

New York Times columnist Bret Stephens argued that the progressive Democrats who pressured their party’s leadership to remove Iron Dome funding from the bill were driven by more sinister motives.

“There is no conceivable argument that denying funding puts pressure on Israel to show greater military restraint (quite the opposite) or helps advance the cause of a two-state solution,” Stephens wrote. “It is not about giving peace a chance. The only coherent rationale is to give Hamas a better chance — to kill Israelis in the next war.”

Stephens called on their Democratic colleagues “to start treating their Israel-hating members not as parliamentary nuisances or social media embarrassments but as the ill-intended bigots they well and truly are.”

In a JNS op-ed, the British journalist Melanie Phillips wrote that the fact that the Israeli funding was temporarily removed from the bill was “a win for the far-left,” adding that “Support for Israel among the Democrats is eroding far beyond the party’s far-left caucus. This may be a small faction in the House, but it represents a wider constituency that’s too large for the party leadership to ignore.”

Phillips cited a recent poll that found that nearly two-thirds of Jewish college students feel unsafe on their campuses, and half feel the need to hide their Jewish identity and support for Israel.

“The enemies of the Jewish people have hijacked history and language to present Israel falsely as a colonial aggressor,” Phillips wrote. “Jewish defenders need to re-institute the truths of history and language by associating Israel in Western minds with legality, justice and human rights.”

Aaron Weinberg, government relations director at the Israel Policy Forum, had a different interpretation of this entire story. Weinberg said on the “Israel Policy Pod” that most of the reactions from the Jewish world — like “the Squad is taking over” and “the Democratic party is no longer pro-Israel” — are “overblown.”

Weinberg argued that, to the contrary, Congress’ overwhelming approval of the funding is evidence that “a consensus remains in Congress that Israel has a right to live in freedom, prosperity and security.”

Subscribe to This Week Unpacked

Each week we bring you a wrap-up of all the best stories from Unpacked. Stay in the know and feel smarter about all things Jewish.