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How the US Is Bankrolling Israel

Israel has been the top recipient of American foreign aid for the last three decades, despite instability in the area.

| Mon Feb. 10, 2014 4:48 PM EST

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

We Americans have funny notions about foreign aid. Recent polls show that, on average, we believe 28 percent of the federal budget is eaten up by it, and that, in a time of austerity, this gigantic bite of the budget should be cut back to 10 percent. In actual fact, barely 1 percent of the federal budget goes to foreign aid of any kind.

In this case, however, truth is at least as strange as fiction. Consider that the top recipient of foreign aid over the past three decades isn't some impoverished land filled with starving kids, but a wealthy nation with a per-head gross domestic product on par with the European Union average, and higher than that of Italy, Spain, or South Korea.

Consider also that this top recipient of such aid—nearly all of it military since 2008—has been busily engaged in what looks like a nineteenth-century-style colonization project. In the late 1940s, our beneficiary expelled some 700,000 indigenous people from the land it was claiming. In 1967, our client seized some contiguous pieces of real estate and ever since has been colonizing these territories with nearly 650,000 of its own people. It has divided the conquered lands with myriad checkpoints and roads accessible only to the colonizers and is building a 440-mile wall around (and cutting into) the conquered territory, creating a geography of control that violates international law.

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"Ethnic cleansing" is a harsh term, but apt for a situation in which people are driven out of their homes and lands because they are not of the right tribe. Though many will balk at leveling this charge against Israel—for that country is, of course, the top recipient of American aid and especially military largesse—who would hesitate to use the term if, in a mirror-image world, all of this were being inflicted on Israeli Jews?

Military Aid to Israel

Arming and bankrolling a wealthy nation acting in this way may, on its face, seem like terrible policy. Yet American aid has been flowing to Israel in ever greater quantities. Over the past 60 years, in fact, Israel has absorbed close to a quarter-trillion dollars in such aid. Last year alone, Washington sent some $3.1 billion in military aid, supplemented by allocations for collaborative military research and joint training exercises.

Overall, the United States covers nearly one quarter of Israel's defense budget—from tear gas canisters to F-16 fighter jets. In their 2008-2009 assault on Gaza, the Israeli Defense Forces made use of M-92 and M-84 "dumb bombs," Paveway II and JDAM guided "smart bombs," AH-64 Apache attack helicopters equipped with AGM-114 Hellfire guided missiles, M141 "bunker defeat" munitions, and special weapons like M825A1 155mm white phosphorous munitions—all supplied as American foreign aid. (Uniquely among Washington's aid recipients, Israel is also permitted to spend 25 percent of the military funding from Washington on weapons made by its own weapons industry.)

Why is Washington doing this? The most common answer is the simplest: Israel is Washington's "ally." But the United States has dozens of allies around the world, none of which are subsidized in anything like this fashion by American taxpayer dollars. As there is no formal treaty alliance between the two nations and given the lopsided nature of the costs and benefits of this relationship, a far more accurate term for Israel's tie to Washington might be "client state."

And not a particularly loyal client either. If massive military aid is supposed to give Washington leverage over Israel (as it normally does in client-state relationships), it is difficult to detect. In case you hadn't noticed, rare is the American diplomatic visit to Israel that is not greeted with an in-your-face announcement of intensified colonization of Palestinian territory, euphemistically called "settlement expansion."

Washington also provides aid to Palestine totaling, on average, $875 million annually in Obama's first term (more than double what George W. Bush gave in his second term). That's a little more than a quarter of what Israel gets. Much of it goes to projects of dubious net value like the development of irrigation networks at a moment when the Israelis are destroying Palestinian cisterns and wells elsewhere in the West Bank. Another significant part of that funding goes toward training the Palestinian security forces. Known as "Dayton forces" (after the American general, Keith Dayton, who led their training from 2005 to 2010), these troops have a grim human rights record that includes acts of torture, as Dayton himself has admitted. One former Dayton deputy, an American colonel, described these security forces to al-Jazeera as an outsourced "third Israeli security arm." According to Josh Ruebner, national advocacy director for the US Campaign to End the Occupation and author of Shattered Hopes: Obama's Failure to Broker Israeli-Palestinian Peace, American aid to Palestine serves mainly to entrench the Israeli occupation.

A Dishonest Broker

Nothing is equal when it comes to Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip—and the numbers say it all. To offer just one example, the death toll from Operation Cast Lead, Israel's 2008-2009 assault on the Gaza Strip, was 1,385 Palestinians (the majority of them civilians) and 13 Israelis, three of them civilians.

And yet mainstream opinion in the US insists on seeing the two parties as essentially equal. Harold Koh, former dean of the Yale Law School and until recently the top lawyer at the State Department, has been typical in comparing Washington's role to "adult supervision" of "a playground populated by warring switchblade gangs." It was a particularly odd choice of metaphors, given that one side is equipped with small arms and rockets of varying sophistication, the other with nuclear weapons and a state-of-the-art modern military subsidized by the world's only superpower.

Washington's active role in all of this is not lost on anyone on the world stage—except Americans, who have declared themselves to be the even-handed arbiters of a conflict involving endless failed efforts at brokering a "peace process." Globally, fewer and fewer observers believe in this fiction of Washington as a benevolent bystander rather than a participant heavily implicated in a humanitarian crisis. In 2012, the widely respected International Crisis Group described the "peace process" as "a collective addiction that serves all manner of needs, reaching an agreement no longer being the main one."

The contradiction between military and diplomatic support for one party in the conflict and the pretense of neutrality cannot be explained away. "Looked at objectively, it can be argued that American diplomatic efforts in the Middle East have, if anything, made achieving peace between Palestinians and Israelis more difficult," writes Rashid Khalidi, a historian at Columbia University, and author of Brokers of Deceit: How the US Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East.

Evasive Silence

American policy elites are unable or unwilling to talk about Washington's destructive role in this situation. There is plenty of discussion about a one-state versus a two-state solution, constant disapproval of Palestinian violence, occasional mild criticism ("not helpful") of the Israeli settlements, and lately, a lively debate about the global boycott, divestment, and sanction movement (BDS) led by Palestinian civil society to pressure Israel into a "just and lasting" peace. But when it comes to what Americans are most responsible for—all that lavish military aid and diplomatic cover for one side only—what you get is either euphemism or an evasive silence.

In general, the American media tends to treat our arming of Israel as part of the natural order of the universe, as beyond question as the force of gravity. Even the "quality" media shies away from any discussion of Washington's real role in fueling the Israel-Palestine conflict. Last month, for instance, the New York Times ran an article about a prospective "post-American" Middle East without any mention of Washington's aid to Israel, or for that matter to Egypt, or the Fifth Fleet parked in Bahrain.

You might think that the progressive hosts of MSNBC's news programs would be all over the story of what American taxpayers are subsidizing, but the topic barely flickers across the chat shows of Rachel Maddow, Chris Hayes, and others. Given this across-the-board selective reticence, American coverage of Israel and Palestine, and particularly of American military aid to Israel, resembles the Agatha Christie novel in which the first-person narrator, observing and commenting on the action in calm semi-detachment, turns out to be the murderer.

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