It has become a rhetorical staple for many—in the progressive left, among the libertarian and isolationist right, and among anti-Israel obsessives—that Israel benefits disproportionately from U.S. military aid and assistance. In the wake of a ten-year $36 billion deal negotiated by the Obama administration in its final months, The Atlantic tackled the subject:
Voters, however, have more mixed views on this kind of support. While more than 60 percent of Americans were more sympathetic to Israel than the Palestinians in a 2016 Gallup poll, sympathies differed along partisan lines, with around half of Democrats being more sympathetic to Israelis versus nearly 80 percent of Republicans. In a separate Brookings poll, roughly half of Democrats who responded said Israel has too much influence on the United States government. Boycott, divest, and sanction movements, which call on organizations in the United States and abroad to cut their financial ties with Israel, have long been popular on college campuses, although somewhat marginal; this year, however, they got a boost from the Black Lives Matter movement, which included statements against Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in its recently released policy platform. In general, young Americans are far less sympathetic toward Israel than their older peers: A 2014 Gallup poll found that only half of those aged 18 to 34 favored Israel in the Israel-Palestine conflict, “compared with 58 percent of 35- to 54-year-olds and 74 percent of those 55 and older.” Bernie Sanders, who was extremely popular among young people during the Democratic primary season, controversially criticized Israel, winning “applause and cheers” from the audience at one debate for saying, “If we pursue justice and peace, we are going to have to say that Netanyahu is not right all of the time.” All of this creates an odd backdrop for a historic military-spending deal….
But is it fair to say that Israel really receives more military aid than any other ally?
An important new paper by the Began-Sadat Center’s Professor Hillel Frisch questions the notion that Israel is really the top recipient of U.S. military aid when the real cost of other methods of military assistance is calculated. He explains:
There are 150,500 American troops stationed in seventy countries around the globe…. [Every] 800-1,000 American soldiers stationed abroad represent US$565-665 million of aid to the country in which they are located. Once the real costs are calculated, the largest aid recipient is revealed to be Japan, where 48,828 US military personnel are stationed. This translates into a US military aid package of over US$27 billion (calculated according to Vine’s lower estimation). Germany, with 37,704 US troops on its soil, receives aid equivalent to around US$21 billion; South Korea, with 27,553 US troops, receives over US$15 billion; and Italy receives at least US$6 billion.
That means, Frisch explains:
Japan’s US military aid package is nine times larger than that of Israel, Germany’s is seven times larger, and Italy’s is twice as large. The multipliers are even greater for Egypt. Even the Lilliputian Gulf states, Kuwait and Bahrain, whose American bases are home to over 5,000 US military personnel apiece, receive military aid almost equal to what Israel receives.
But even that does not factor in the cost of the air and sea patrols with which the United States defends NATO countries even when they do not host a U.S. base and America’s Asian allies:
US air and naval forces constantly patrol the Northern, Baltic, and China Seas to protect American allies in Europe and in the Pacific – at American expense. Glimpses of the scale of these operations are afforded by incidents like the shadowing of a Russian ship in the Baltics, near run-ins between Chinese Coast Guard ships and US Navy ships dispatched to challenge Chinese claims in the South China Sea, and near collisions between US Air Force planes and their Chinese counterparts in the same area.
The point Frisch highlights—and one that many in Congress inherently understand—is that Israel does not request nor require such assistance. “…No U.S. plane has ever flown to protect Israel’s airspace. No U.S. Navy ship patrols to protect Israel’s coast. And most importantly, no U.S. military personnel are put at risk to ensure Israel’s safety,” he wrote.
It is a useful point, and one often lost in the increasingly polemical debate about the U.S.-Israel relationship. Why it is lost to the debate is another question. Israeli diplomacy—including in the United States—is at best clumsy and often ham-fisted. Too many Israeli intellectuals let alone politicians prefer to argue with each other about the trees rather than recognize that the entire forest is in danger. And, generations of American students have no real understanding of how the U.S. military or defense actually works.
U.S. assistance should never be considered an entitlement. For those unfamiliar with security issues in the Middle East, it is easy to look at Israel’s receipt of U.S. aid and consider it money down the drain, but it is anything but: Rather, as politicians consider the cost of overseas deployments and basing and ask fundamental questions about whether allies in NATO or East Asia are pulling their own weight, the U.S. defense relationship with Israel should be seen as a model to emulate rather than one to eliminate.