Putting A Price Tag On Israel Aid

October 20, 2011 2:12 pm ET — MJ Rosenberg

In my last piece, I highlighted a Washington Post column in which Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Walter Pincus urged that the $3 billion aid package to Israel be re-examined.

Israel, with a population of seven million, receives $3 billion a year from the United States while the entire continent of Africa, with a population over a billion, receives $8 billion. Israel is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, while many countries in Africa languish in poverty and disease, especially HIV/AIDS. Obviously, these relative aid levels are ridiculous.

Nonetheless, I am now having second thoughts about the issue as a result of a call from a friend who works to increase aid levels for Africa.

She agrees that the foreign aid levels disproportionately favor Israel. But she points out that without aid to Israel, there probably would be no foreign aid at all because the Israel aid package is the locomotive that drives the aid legislation forward.

Simply put, the foreign aid bill passes due to AIPAC's pressured lobbying for it (because it contains the Israel aid package). Needy countries in Africa would probably receive little aid from the United States at all if not for Israel's inflated aid package and AIPAC's fevered determination to enact it.

Any doubt on that score would be eliminated by reviewing what the Republican candidates have said about foreign aid in their various debates and by what Republican and conservative Democratic members of Congress say about it.

Virtually all of them oppose foreign aid and would eliminate it altogether. When asked which government program they would cut to reduce the deficit, foreign aid is at the top of their list even though it represents 1 percent of the budget.

Sad to say, the American public tends to agree. According to a recent Gallup poll, 59 percent of respondents favored cutting foreign aid. The good news is that they only favor reducing aid because they believe it constitutes a far larger chunk of expenditures than it does: According to PBS, a recent survey conducted by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes asked Americans, "What percentage of the federal budget goes to foreign aid?"

The median answer was roughly 25 percent, according to the poll of 848 Americans. In reality, about 1 percent of the budget is allotted to foreign aid.

Asked what "would be an appropriate percentage of the federal budget to go to foreign aid, if any," the average response was 10 percent, at least ten times the actual percentage.

But politicians are something else. Believing that most Americans oppose foreign aid, the common response (especially by Republicans) to any question about budget cutting is to say that first they would cut foreign aid.

For instance, in Tuesday's GOP debate, Mitt Romney not only urged cutting foreign aid but specifically cited humanitarian assistance (such as feeding kids and providing pre-natal care in sub-Saharan Africa) as frills we can live without or farm out to the Chinese.

Speaking of our aid program, he said, "Part of it is humanitarian aid around the world. I happen to think it doesn't make a lot of sense for us to borrow money from the Chinese to go give it to another country for humanitarian aid. We ought to get the Chinese to take care of [those] people..."

But here's the thing. Romney cannot flatly oppose foreign aid because he is a vehement, albeit cynical, supporter of aid to Israel, as are all the Republican candidates (with the exception of Ron Paul).

So the GOP presidential contenders, like Republicans in Congress, are in a box. They can't eliminate foreign aid to the world's poor and hungry without also eliminating aid to Israel. And so foreign aid survives. Surely, no one believes that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) would bring the foreign aid bill to the floor if it did not include the Israel aid package.

AIPAC, for its part, lobbies for the entire foreign aid package not only to preserve aid to Israel but also because it understands that singling out one very prosperous country for our assistance would look very bad. Additionally, AIPAC, in principle, favors foreign aid (except, of course, in the case of Palestinians in Gaza and United Nations organizations that endorse Palestinian statehood). Also, it should be noted there are some fine humanitarian projects in the Israel aid package like Hadassah Hospital, which received the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize for its nondiscriminatory treatment of Israelis and Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza.

The bottom line is that it will be very difficult to target the Israel aid package without jeopardizing the entire foreign aid program. So what do we do?

My recommendation is that we not focus on wholesale cuts to the Israel aid package but rather link U.S. aid to Israeli behavior (as is the case with other countries).

Israel should pay a financial price for refusing to freeze settlements, evicting Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem, allowing settlers to destroy Palestinian olive groves and fields, and maintaining the illegal blockade of Gaza. In short, there should be a "price tag" for actions the Netanyahu government takes to subvert negotiations or increase the suffering of Palestinian people.

By law, aid to Egypt is contingent on maintaining peace with Israel. Similarly, aid to Israel should be contingent on its good faith efforts to end the occupation and achieve peace with the Palestinians.

To be honest, I see no value whatsoever in across-the-board cuts. However, if cuts are to be made, the president and Congress should make their decisions based on the merits — not based on the influence of lobbyists and campaign donors. Unfortunately, the likelihood of that happening is very slim, especially when it comes to Israel.