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Aid to Israel no longer a sacred cow

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eric-cantorby MJ Rosenberg

For the first time in memory, if not ever, a highly respected mainstream columnist is calling on the United States to cut aid to Israel.

Writing in the Washington Post, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and columnist Walter Pincus, says, "it is time to examine the funding the United States provides to Israel".

Aid to Israel is virtually the only programme - domestic or foreign - that is exempt from every budget-cutting proposal pending in Congress. No matter that our own military is facing major cuts along with Medicare, cancer research and hundreds of other programmes, Israel's friends in Congress in both parties make sure that aid to Israel is protected at current levels.

Back when I was a congressional staffer, I was part of the process by which aid to Israel was secured. Members of the respective appropriations committees sent "wish lists" to the chair of their committee detailing which programmes they each wanted funded and by what amounts. Each letter reflected the particular interest of a particular congressman or senator and of his own district or state.

Exceptionalism

There was always one exception: aid to Israel, which apparently is a local issue for every legislator. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) would provide the list of Israel's aid requirements for the coming year, and with few if any exceptions, every letter would include the AIPAC language. Not a punctuation mark would be changed.

At the end of the process, the AIPAC wish list would become law of the land. (Woe to any member of Congress who dared to resist the AIPAC juggernaut.)

That is how it has been for decades and not even the current economic crisis is likely to change it. On this issue, Congress is unmovable and will remain so as long as its members rely so heavily on campaign contributions (PAC or individual) delivered by the AIPAC.

In his column, Pincus describes just how absurd the Israel exemption is and that the aid to Israel package even includes an escalator clause, enshrined in law, to ensure that it can only go up, not down.

Look for a minute at the bizarre formula that has become an element of US-Israel military aid, the so-called qualitative military edge (QME). Enshrined in congressional legislation, it requires certification that any proposed arms sale to any other country in the Middle East "will not adversely affect Israel's qualitative military edge over military threats to Israel".

In 2009 meetings with defense officials in Israel, Under Secretary of State Ellen Tauscher "reiterated the United States' strong commitment" to the formula and "expressed appreciation" for Israel's willingness to work with newly created "QME working groups", according to a cable of her meetings that was released by WikiLeaks.

Lobby as a 'night flower'

The formula has an obvious problem. Because some neighbouring countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, are US allies but also considered threats by Israel, arms provided to them automatically mean that better weapons must go to Israel. The result is a US-generated arms race.

For example, the threat to both countries from Iran led the Saudis in 2010 to begin negotiations to purchase advanced F-15 fighters. In turn, Israel - using $2.75bn in American military assistance - has been allowed to buy 20 of the new F-35 fifth-generation stealth fighters being developed by the United States and eight other nations.

Read the full article to get the benefit of Pincus' research on all the unique features of the Israel aid package - including the fact that while we are increasing aid to Israel, Israel itself is cutting its military budget.

Something is terribly wrong here, most notably the fact that members of Congress from both parties are afraid to talk about it. After all, what would their constituents (not their donors) think about increasing foreign aid to Israel while we are cutting aid to education and health programmes here?

Until Pincus wrote this column, there was no reason to think Congress would ever reconsider its priorities. Legislators didn't publicise the inconsistency in their budget priorities and no one, other than AIPAC, was paying much attention.

That may have been changed by an intrepid reporter, writing in the staunchly pro-Netanyahu Washington Post, who also happens to be Jewish - immunising him from the "anti-Semitism" charge hurled at anyone who questions the US policy toward Israel.

Maybe, just maybe, progressives (and maybe even conservatives) will now demand that their legislators tell them just why they apply the sledgehammer to programmes that affect impoverished Americans while falling all over themselves to continue giving billions to a prosperous Israel.

In 1982, Steve Rosen (an AIPAC lobbyist subsequently indicted for espionage although the case was dropped), sent me the following memo. (I was employed by AIPAC at the time.) It read:

A lobby is a night flower.
It thrives in the dark.
And withers in the daylight.

Thanks to Walter Pincus and the Washington Post for providing that daylight.

MJ Rosenberg is a senior foreign policy fellow at Media Matters Action Network. The above article first appeared in Foreign Policy Matters, a part of the Media Matters Action Network.


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