As part of Donald Trump’s “America First” campaign, he pledged to substantially cut foreign aid. As a result of this campaign promise, during the first year of his presidency, foreign aid declined to $23 billion from $49b in 2016, and 2018 is on trend to be roughly $10b less than 2017. This has meant sudden and devastating massive cuts in health, education and other vital programs in numerous countries around the world.
But one country stands out as an exception to this trend: Israel. In the most recent fiscal budget, the U.S. Congress approved $705.8million for Israel’s missile defense program, a boost from the $600m allocated last year. This aid is on top of $3.1b in annual military aid to Israel through a ten-year Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), which will increase to $38b during the 2019-2028 period.
Israel not only regularly receives these sums of money, but also lobbies Congress for additional funding. Over the past several years, Congress has provided billions in extra aid for Israel’s missile program. Since 1948, Congress has appropriated $134.7b to Israel, making Israel the largest recipient of U.S. aid since WWII. And while other beneficiaries of U.S. aid had to spend the entire sum on American weapons, Israel has been allowed to divert 25% of aid money to subsidize its own defense industry. In other words, U.S. taxpayers have been providing money to develop the Israeli defense industry.
Beyond this perk, the U.S. Congress refuses to uphold its own legislation prohibiting the provision of aid “to any unit of the security forces of a foreign country if the Secretary of State has credible information that such unit has committed a gross violation of human rights.” The State Department’s most recent human rights report on Israel documents “Significant human rights abuses” including “unlawful killings” by Israeli security forces. However, opportunism rather than law and principle govern the politics of U.S. aid to Israel. Nonetheless, in a rare display of congressional courage, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN]) has introduced legislation to cut off U.S. aid that used by Israel to abuse Palestinian children.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian people are facing a humanitarian crisis after Trump cut more than $300m in aid for Palestinian refugees in an attempt to strong-arm the Palestinian leadership. The cut affects the United Nations Works and Relief Agency, to which the U.S. remained committed for years to support access to food, education, and health for the Palestinian refugee population. Now, Congress has refused to uphold this commitment, even though the U.S. contribution to UNRWA ($364m) is less than half of the extra aid Congress has just given to Israel.
Moreover, much of the aid provided by the U.S. (and other nations) to the Palestinians is captured by the Israeli state and Israeli companies. Israeli economist Shir Hever has coined the term “aid diversion” in describing at least 78% of aid money intended for the Palestinians that winds up in Israeli hands. All humanitarian aid to the Palestinians must pass through Israel, which can charge for transportation and storage along with “security” fees. Donor nations paying for the rebuilding of Palestinian homes after another Israeli war or house demolition must inevitably do business with Israeli cement companies such as Nesher, which reportedly provides cement for 85% of all construction in Israel and Palestine. Other supplies and resources must often be purchased from Israeli firms. This is to say nothing of Israel’s destruction of donor-funded homes, schools, farms. Furthermore, the U.S. does not provide direct aid to the Palestinian Authority but uses some of the allocated Palestinian assistance funds to pay off PA debts to Israel, including electricity and medical treatments.
While arguments for and against foreign aid abound, none can truly capture the absurdity of the level of financial support to Israel. More than simply underwriting half a century of occupation and apartheid, U.S. aid to Israel raises additional questions when we consider that Israel is today a wealth country.
In fact, U.S. AID reports Israel is the wealthiest recipient of foreign aid and notes that the nation is classified as a “High-Income Country” by the World Bank. According to the World Bank, Israel is the 22nd wealthiest nation in the world ranked by GDP per capita, falling just below Japan and higher than France. Israel’s GDP is the 34th largest in the world above Denmark, Ireland, and Singapore.
With this in mind, questioning aid to Israel is all the more pressing when considering the crumbling infrastructure across the U.S.
Airports in the U.S. need $42b to modernize. The water crisis in Flint, MI was caused by systematic underinvestment in maintaining the water infrastructure. The National Park Service has proposed increasing entrance and lodging fees to make up nearly $12b in deferred maintenance costs. Meanwhile, U.S. ports need $15b in investments, while repairing existing highways requires another $420b, all of this on top of $123b to maintain deteriorating bridges.
The $38b Israel will receive between 2019-2028 (on top of billions more for special programs) is nearly enough to upgrade all U.S. airports, more than enough to restore national parks and improve ports, and would represent a crucial investment in roads, bridges, and drinking water.
While most members of Congress aren’t as moved by concerns for Palestinian rights as they should be, the grotesque nature of aid to Israel should be obvious.