Record US Military Aid to Israel Not About Security, But Prolonging the Occupation
Phyllis Bennis and Rania Khalek say this will cement Obama’s legacy as the most pro-Israel president
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: The United States and Israel have agreed on a record $38 billion package of U.S. military aid, enshrining defense funding for Washington’s closest Middle East ally for the next decade. The deal will represent the biggest pledge of U.S. military assistance made to any country, but also involves some concessions granted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Well, now joining us to discuss this are two guests. Phyllis Bennis is a fellow and director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.
We’re also joined by Rania Khalek. She’s an independent journalist reporting on the underclass and marginalized. Her work has appeared at The Nation, Extra!, Salon, Truthout, and Al Jazeera America.
Thank you both for joining us.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Good to be with you.
RHANIA KHALEK: [Glad to be] on.
NOOR: So the deal includes Israel’s agreement not to seek additional funds from Congress, unless in case of emergency and war (this is a provision that’s been criticized by Republicans), and to phase out a special arrangement that allowed Israel to spend part of its U.S. aid on its own defense industry instead of American-made weapons.
Let’s start off by getting your response to the package, Phyllis (and then we’ll go to Rania), and these two provisions that have been criticized by Republicans.
BENNIS: The package is again a statement of absolute support for Israeli occupation, colonization, and apartheid. This is not about Israeli defenses. This is about enabling the apartheid situation that now exists that is imposed by Israel and that the Obama administration and everyone before it has said is not sustainable. It becomes sustainable when the U.S. finances that–$3.8 billion a year of our tax money over ten years, more than has been given to any other country for military assistance, including even Iraq in the ten years of the Iraq War, from 2003 until 2011. This is significantly more than that, in the midst of a U.S. war. So this notion that this somehow is about defending poor little Israel simply doesn’t hold up. This is about enabling the Israeli government to continue its policies.
In the particulars, it’s way more than we’ve seen in the past. In the past, the highest this year was–the end of this ten-year period has been $3.1 billion a year–already an outrageous amount of money for the 23rd wealthiest country in the world. And the notion that we are somehow looking at a scenario where Israel is being punished by, for example, having to do what every other country does who gets military aid–most of them, all of them much less than Israel gets–they have to spend it on the U.S. war industry rather than building their own war industry to compete with our own. All that we’re doing here is seeing that Israel is being held to the same standard of benefiting our military corporations that other countries are being held to. So this notion that somehow this is a concession by Israel simply doesn’t stand up.
And then, finally, this point about Israel agreeing not to go back to Congress and ask for more unless there’s an emergency. As we know, Israel creates the emergencies. Israel is the one who goes to war against Gaza and then demands that the U.S. send more bullets when they use them up, or more planes or more bombs. So that’s exactly what we’ve seen in the past. It’s exactly the same that we’ll be seeing in the future.
NOOR: And, Rania, I wanted you to respond to the Israeli deputy minister for diplomacy, Michael Oren, talking about the deal. Here’s that clip.
MICHAEL OREN: The memorandum of understanding to be signed between the United States and Israel is an historic achievement for both countries. U.S. aid to Israel is not only in Isreali interests; it’s in American interests. And this is the largest military aid package ever given by the United States to a foreign country in history. We are deeply appreciative of it, to President Obama, to his administration, to Congress, and to the American people generally.
NOOR: So, Rania, that was Michael Oren. Give us your response to what he just said.
KHALEK: Well, I don’t think it is in American interests as he said. I mean, if you look at what’s taking place right now, Phyllis did a great job of going over the details of the actual deal. But when we talk about what’s in American interests, we’re in a situation where our government seems to be incapable of providing basic services in parts of this country, like clean drinking water and like functioning schools. And so our Congress was recently unable to even pass legislation to fund a program to deal with the zika virus that’s hurting fetuses around the country.
So when when you think about that and then consider the fact that we’re able to always come up with this money to spend to not only enable but literally fund Israel’s ongoing destruction of Palestinian families and communities, it’s really stunning that Israel becomes something that is prioritized over people in this country and what they want, which are things like universal health care and functioning infrastructure–things, by the way, that Israel seems able to provide at least its own people with. So, I mean, that’s one thing to consider.
Another factor is, again like Phyllis said, this isn’t about defense at all of Israel or Israel’s security; this is about funding and enabling an ongoing occupation and land theft. And it’s actually a bit alarming, because right now, when you look at what’s taking place inside Israel, inside the Israeli government, you have the most racist government that’s been elected in Israel’s history. It’s staffed and occupied by people who literally are inciting to genocide, people like Culture Minister Miri Regev, who compared African migrants to cancer, and then after there was a backlash towards that, she apologized, but not to Africans; she apologized to cancer â€¦ survivors for offending them by comparing them to Africans. You’ve got someone like Avigdor Lieberman, who is the defense minister of Israel. I mean, this is somebody who’s in a position of great influence when it comes to how these weapons that we’re giving Israel are going to be used. This is a man who has literally called for beheading, chopping the heads off of disloyal Palestinian citizens of Israel who are disloyal to the state. You know, that’s like ISIS language. You’ve got Netanyahu himself who–literally, he rode to reelection as prime minister last year by inciting racism against Arabs to get his base to come out. And he recently accused people who oppose settlements–which are illegal and recognized by the international community as illegal–of advocating for ethnic cleansing of Jews, when in fact it’s Israel that’s ethnically cleansing Palestinians.
NOOR: And it has for a long time.
KHALEK: Right. And so the point is is that–I mean, we’re in a different point in history, though. This isn’t just any Israeli government that we’re supplying weapons to. This is a government that’s promising to eliminate Palestinian families. You have Ayelet Shaked, the justice minister, who called for slaughtering mothers in their beds to prevent them from birthing “little snakes”. It’s the language of genocide. I mean, we’re arming this government, and we’re giving them the weapons they need to commit absolute savagery against a totally defenseless population. And so I think this is probably one of the most frightening moments that we’re at in this conflict.
NOOR: And so, speaking about that, Netanyahu’s claims, Trump has recently backed Netanyahu’s claims that Palestinians are trying to ethnically cleanse Jews in the West Bank. Phyllis, is this deal an effort to mend ties with Israel, strained after the passage of the Iran nuclear deal? We know that big pro-Israel donors like Sheldon Adelson have reportedly given large amounts of money to Trump. Do you think this is an effort of the Obama administration to sort of placate the pro-Israel crowd to kind of win them over to the Democrats in November?
BENNIS: I think that may have something to do with it, but I think much more at stake is how President Obama is interpreting what he thinks his legacy will be. Unfortunately, I think he is seriously misreading where the American people are at, where the Democratic Party is, where the public discourse on this question has shifted. I think he’s acting as if this was 20 years ago and no politician could do wrong by being more supportive than the other guy of Israel.
Now that’s not the case anymore. We saw that during the debate over the language on Israel and Palestine in the Democratic Party platform debate. We saw that in the early stages of the primary campaigns. So we are just not in the same place where it’s all to the good if you can show yourself to be stronger in support of Israel.
There is massive opposition to Israeli actions in the United States today, particularly importantly in the Jewish community, were there’s been an enormous shift in that discourse. So you still have organizations, right-wing organizations like AIPAC that include very wealthy donors, no doubt, but they no longer can even make the claim–which was probably never true, but it certainly is no longer true–that they speak for the majority, let alone all, of the Jewish community. You now have an organization like J Street in the center. You have Jewish Voice for Peace on the left, which has over 200,000 supporters across the country. So you have a very different scenario now of where public opinion is.
And if President Obama thinks this is going to somehow sustain his legacy, I’m afraid that he’s very, very wrong. What he’s done here has been to say there is no change in U.S. policy and that the tiff that he’s had over the years with Prime Minister Netanyahu is only a personal tiff. We’ve know this for a long time. Strategic leaders in Israel, the military and the intelligence leaders, not the political leaders, have all been very clear. They have said explicitly that there has never been a pro-Israel president as strongly pro-Israel as President Obama.
And people would say, how can you say that? He’s had all these fights with Netanyahu. But those fights never went beyond words. There were never any consequences for the very harsh criticism of Israeli settlements, for instance. The criticisms were indeed harsher than in the past, but there was never an effort to say: and if you don’t stop building settlements and reverse those violations of international law, that (at the time) $3.1 billion a year that we give you in military aid, you can kiss that goodbye. No one ever said that.
So at the end of the day, the strategic leadership in Israel, the leaders of the military, the leaders of Shin Bet, the leaders of the Mossad, they all understood that it doesn’t really matter what a U.S. president says, publicly or privately. What matters is what she or he does. And if they continue to give us billions of dollars in military aid every year and continue to provide absolute impunity at the United Nations, using their veto or a threat of veto or a threat of other punishments to make sure that Israel is never held accountable for its potential war crimes, whether in the International Criminal Court or somewhere else, that’s what matters in the U.S.-Israeli relationship, and all the rest is just words.
NOOR: And, Rania, I’ll give you the final word. Do you agree with some of what Phyllis was saying? Does this cement Obama’s legacy as the most pro-Israel president we’ve had? And also talk about his legacy with the Palestinians.
KHALEK: Absolutely. Phyllis is totally correct. This does. I mean, he is the most pro-Israel, pro-Zionist president in American history. And yes, every once in a while the State Department has rhetorically rebuked Israeli practices, whether it’s settlement building or executing Palestinians, but those words do mean nothing, because at the end of the day, we continue to fund this program of apartheid and this program of ethnic cleansing with zero conditions attached whatsoever.
And when you look at what Obama in particular–I mean, we do hear he wants to cement his legacy. But for Obama, you know, I do think it’s somewhat fitting that he’s cementing his legacy this way. If you think about it, he doesn’t have to do this. He’s not running for reelection. And like Phyllis explained, the American electorate is in a different place right now, particularly the base of the Democratic Party. It’s just not the way it was before in terms of pro-Israel support. It’s much more split in their support for Palestinians and extreme outrage over what Israel’s doing to Palestinians.
And so he could have just refrained from not doing a deal and letting it go to the next administration. I mean, he didn’t even have to pressure Israel. Instead, he decided to do this deal because he wants to appease right-wing elements in the U.S. government. And that kind of describes in a lot of ways what Democrats, you know, what the corporate Democratic establishment does and is interested in doing is in placating the right wing instead of actually doing what its base wants them to do. It just shows the will of the American people is not at all reflected in the actions of our government. And so this is really disappointing.
In terms of his relationship to the Palestinians, I mean, Obama wants to cement his legacy as someone that is very supportive of Israel. And I imagine that Palestinians might look at that. And hopefully one day I suppose Obama thinks they’re just going to realize the importance of their sacrifice for his legacy. I mean, it’s just absolutely narcissistic and absurd that Palestinians should have to continue to be killed and displaced and removed from their land so that U.S. politicians can fulfill their own political ambitions.
NOOR: Well, I want to thank you both for joining us.
Rania Khalek, independent journalist.
Phyllis Bennis. Her latest book is Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror.
Thank you both for joining us.
BENNIS: Thank you.
NOOR: Thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.
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