Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Steven Strauss Goes After US Aid to Israel

Veteran Huffington Post blogger Steven Strauss has written about many things, but as far as I recall he hasn't crossed our path until this weekend when he wrote an article that made reasonable points but in a condescending and misleading way. You can see that he is shooting from the hip even right from the title: "Israel Has Reached Childhood's End -- It's Time to End U.S. Aid to Israel." The quote is from Netanyahu talking about Israel's 'economic independence' from America, but unlike Netanyahu Strauss appears to be speaking not from a position of belief that America needs it's money here more than it does elsewhere but rather from a dislike of Israel. He doesn't come right out and say that, of course:
"Let me emphasize that this isn't a call to end America's close and special relationship with Israel. Israel certainly isn't a perfect society. But its ideals of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and tolerance are closer to America's ideals than any other country's in its region."
But the thing is, Strauss, it would be perceived as an end to America's relationship with Israel even if you don't anticipate it that way. If you don't believe me look at the drooling readership commenting on your article. Now if you were to say that America should aid to all countries that fulfill the following three points that we will get to in a moment, I would agree. But because you are singling out Israel (a staple of the "my tax dollars" argument) I can't help but be a little bit suspicious. I've just heard the same argument from too many Israel haters before. That being said, let's take a look at his reasons. Surprisingly enough, none of them including whining about Israel's 'occupation' or 'settlements.'
"A) Israel has become an affluent and developed country that can afford to pay for its own defense. Israeli GDP is about $250 billion dollars/year, and its per capita income is about $33,000/year. In other words, replacing all American aid would cost Israelis about 1 percent of their income per year, hardly an outrageous sum....Also, as a general principle, people and institutions make better choices when they have to internalize costs. If the U.S. ends aid to Israel, Israelis may make better choices about their national defense and foreign policy."
I hear this a lot from all sides of the issue and it remains true. Israel is not dependent on US aid at all. Of course that only includes the Congressional aid and not the ones to cover costs of developing programs, so it's actually more than that, but that's kind of beside the point. $3 billion is $3 billion and no country wants to absorb that cost itself. Ending U.S. aid will hurt Israel's economy, Strauss is arguing that the hurt simply won't be that bad. I'm not saying that's a good enough reason not to do it, but rather that nothing can happen without consequences.

Secondly, there's that condescension I was talking about. Israel does pay for it's own defense. The budget of the IDF is about $14.5 billion a year, and is 6.9% of Israel's GDP. Therefore American aid covers less than a quarter of it's total expenditures. Strauss surely knew that but just felt like taking a shot at Israel.

Also let's talk about the section after the ellipses. Strauss says that without US influence Israel can make "better choices." But better choices for whom? Israel, obviously. This undermines Struass' own argument: America wants allies that it can influence and "push" in various directions. So if anything the US should continue the aid to ensure that Israel makes better choices for America.

Finally this paragraph doesn't touch on our main question which is why Israel must be the one country to whom the US should end aid. If Strauss is saying we should end aid to other countries than I apologize but I missed it. Anyway, Saudi Arabia is an extremely wealthy country yet we still have military bases there. NATO costs America $712 million a year, but it only exists to defeat the Soviet Union...which you may have noticed doesn't exist any more. Would Strauss claim that Europe can't pay for its own defense? Defense against whom? I could go on, but you get the picture.

Let's get to Strauss' point below the break:

"B) Other countries/programs could better use this aid money. Although somewhat related to the above point, this matter is worth highlighting separately. To the extent the U.S. is committed to helping other countries, there are many of the world's nations in far more desperate situations than Israel. More than 20 nations have life expectancies[sic] below 60 years, and many also have appallingly high infant mortality rates. All of these countries could benefit from the aid the US directs to Israel."
Another common part of the 'my tax dollars' argument, but it doesn't explain my key point which is if we are intent on saving the lives of infants why does the US aid to Israel specifically need to be the one ended. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Palestinians and Pakistan don't fall under either of those lists, nor does it matter because in the case of Egypt and Pakistan we are providing aid for their military not the people, again just like Israel.

That being aid, this is a huge strawman argument. There's no actual evidence that if the US ends aid to Israel that money would immediately go into the mouths of hungry children in Guinea. What's far more likely is that it would pay for a Palestinian minister's latest mansion or a pork barrel project in Nebraska. And I think that Strauss ought to know that.

Finally, and here is where my thought that Strauss is just speaking from a position of dislike of Israel seems to be solidified:
"C) Israel and the United States have increasingly different visions about the future of the Middle East. We shouldn't subsidize a country (even an ally) that is undermining our policy goals. The U.S. has long-term goals in the Middle East (including avoiding the humanitarian and financial catastrophe of another major war in the region). A major (bipartisan) goal of the United States has been the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel has legitimate security concerns, and a just peace will not be easy to achieve."
He then goes into the classic talking points that because Israel builds settlements they therefore must not be "serious" about peace with the Palestinians, a staple of the Huffington Post readership's logic.

So remember how earlier Strauss said that without US aid Israel would be able to "make better choices?" How does this match up with his claim that Israel has a different vision of the Middle East. If anything an unshackled Israel would work against US interests, based on Strauss' logic. To use an example: America wants a two-state solution but without US aid they have nothing with which to compel Israel to freeze settlements, therefore making negotiations even more difficult. Did Strauss stop to think this through before he wrote this article? American aid to Israel is a useful tool because it gives America leverage over Israel to keep them moving in the direction that America wants. If Strauss feels differently then he should write an article about that very question.

And finally, I don't mean to sound like a broken record but Israel is by no means the only nation that the US "subsidizes" that also undermines our policy goals. Saudi Arabia sponsors terrorists, Pakistan hid Bin Laden from us, Egypt is Egypt, and the Palestinians have no intention of making peace either. So for what feels like the hundredth time I must ask: why Israel and Israel alone? None of Strauss' points have been able to fully explain this.

I have a feeling that the answer lies in who he is writing for.

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