America’s manipulation of the Jewish state is endangering Israel and American Jews

Two years ago, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez famously wept in Congress after changing her vote on funding Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system from “no” to “present.” The New York Times said that the incident showed progressive members of “the Squad” “caught between their principles and the still powerful pro-Israel voices in their party, such as influential lobbyists and rabbis.” (The line was later removed with no correction.) In People magazine, the congresswoman’s procedural maneuver to avoid voting was appreciated for its pathos: “Ocasio-Cortez Opens Up About Israel Iron Dome Vote That Left Her in Tears: ‘Yes, I Wept.’” In the end, the resolution passed the House 420-9.

Ocasio-Cortez’s bit of Kabuki theater fit neatly into the premade mythology of a domineering Israel lobby, popularized by academic John Mearsheimer, whose views are experiencing a burst of popularity in isolationist corners of the right. His central claim—that America has been pressured by an all-powerful, determined ethnoreligious lobby into acting against its own interests—is made explicit in references to “influential lobbyists and rabbis,” in Rep. Ilhan Omar’s tweets that U.S. support for Israel is “all about the Benjamins,” and in graphics like The New York Times’ infamous “Jew-tracker” that policed support for Barack Obama’s Iran deal according to the religion of members of Congress.

Belief in the mythic power of “the lobby” rests on a common article of faith that is shared by Israel’s loudest critics and most fervent supporters—namely, that U.S. military aid forms the cornerstone of the “special relationship” between the two nations, and that this aid is a gift that powerfully benefits Israel. Cutting off Israel’s D.C. cash pipeline, it’s assumed, would dramatically alter the balance of power in the Middle East: in one scenario by endangering Israel’s security, and in another by forcing its recalcitrant leaders to accept the enlightened proposals of Western policymakers.

While this fantasy version of the U.S.-Israeli relationship is useful for stirring up emotions and demonstrating partisan loyalties, it does more to flatter the self-importance of Israel-aid opponents and supporters alike than it does to describe an increasingly warped reality, in which Israel ends up sacrificing far more value in return for the nearly $4 billion it annually receives from Washington. That’s because nearly all military aid to Israel—other than loan guarantees, which cost Washington nothing, the U.S. gives Israel no other kind of aid—consists of credits that go directly from the Pentagon to U.S. weapons manufacturers.

In return, American payouts undermine Israel’s domestic defense industry, weaken its economy, and compromise the country’s autonomy—giving Washington veto power over everything from Israeli weapons sales to diplomatic and military strategy. When Washington meddles directly in Israel’s domestic affairs, as it does often these days, Israeli leaders who have lobbied for these payments—including current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—are simply reaping the rewards of their own penny-wise, pound-foolish efforts.

As the costs to Israel of U.S. aid have skyrocketed over the past decade, the benefits of the relationship to the U.S. have only grown larger. Aid is popular with key voting blocs (few of them Jewish). It functions as a lucrative backdoor subsidy to U.S. arms makers, and provides Congress and the White House with a tool to leverage influence over a key strategic ally. The Israeli military, often ranked as the fourth-most powerful in the world, has become an adjunct to American power in a crucial region in which the U.S. has lost the appetite for projecting military force. Israeli intelligence functions as America’s eyes and ears, not just in the Middle East but in other key strategic theaters like Russia and Central Asia and even parts of Latin America. Controlling access to the output of Israel’s powerful high-tech sector is a strategic advantage for the U.S. that alone is worth many multiples of the credits Israel receives. Meanwhile, the optics of bringing the snarling Israeli attack dog to heel helps credential the U.S. as a global power that plays fair—but must also be feared.

“The alternative to this unequal relationship based on dependence is a more forthrightly transactional relationship, which would allow Israel to benefit economically, diplomatically, and strategically”

It’s no wonder that one well-known regional expert we consulted, who served in high security-related positions in the U.S. government, was horrified when we proposed ending American aid to Israel. When we asked which of our arguments were overstated or mistaken, this person answered: “None of them. But my job is to represent the American interest. Aid to Israel is the biggest bargain we have on our books. Ending it would be a disaster for us. I just don’t see who it benefits.”

We do. The alternative to this unequal relationship based on dependence is a more forthrightly transactional relationship, which would allow Israel to benefit economically, diplomatically, and strategically. It might also, we believe, diminish the current American infatuation with treating the Jewish state as a moral allegory in U.S. political psychodramas, rather than as a tiny country in the Middle East with its own local challenges and considerable advantages to offer the highest bidder. The current hyperpolarized atmosphere around Israel is not good for anyone—not for an America whose political class is looking to distract people from its own failings; not for a majority of the world’s Jews who live in Israel; and not for American Jews, who have come to identify their civic role with serving as props in an expiring piece of political theater. When the curtain comes down, they’ll find themselves without a role—and cut off from the 3,000-year-long Jewish historical continuum that is, or was, their inheritance.

Ending aid would not mean the end of the U.S.-Israeli military alliance, intelligence sharing, trade, or any mutual affinity between the countries. Rather, it would allow both sides to see what each is getting in return for what. In the words of retired IDF Major General Gershon Hacohen: “Once we are not economically dependent on them, the partnership can flourish on its own merits.”

Contrary to the blather about an “eternal relationship,” the U.S.-Israel alliance is a fairly recent coinage. America was not particularly involved in the creation of the Jewish state. When Israel declared its independence and was attacked by eight Arab armies in 1948, Washington extended diplomatic recognition to the new nation but refused to sell it arms, even pressuring other countries to deny weapons to the Israelis.

In 1956, when Czechoslovakia, then a satellite of the Soviet Union, sent a shipment of weapons to Egypt, Israel’s Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion implored American President Dwight Eisenhower “not to leave Israel without an adequate capacity for its self-defense.” But Eisenhower believed that a policy of “evenhandedness” would allow his administration to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict and strengthen America’s position in the Middle East, so he refused the request. When Israel, in partnership with Britain and France, seized the Suez Canal, Eisenhower made them give it back, and aligned the U.S. with Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser—in what Eisenhower later described as one of the worst mistakes of his presidency.

Eisenhower’s approach to the Middle East would change during his later years in office, but not before the Israelis found a different superpower patron: France. In addition to gunboats and fighter planes, the French supplied the Israelis with their single greatest strategic asset to date—the country’s nuclear program, which by the mid 1960s had produced several nuclear bombs despite the best efforts of President John F. Kennedy and his State Department to stop it. France continued to be Israel’s leading military supporter until the runup to the Six-Day War, when French leader Charles de Gaulle imposed an embargo on weapons sales to the country in expectation of a Soviet-backed Arab victory. After Israel took out the Egyptian and Syrian air forces on the ground in the first six hours of the war using French Mirages, it became clear that de Gaulle had bet wrong—and a newly powerful Israel entered the market for a new great power backer.