Washington should condition US aid to Israel – regardless of what happens in Rafah

Refusing to hold Israel to the same standard as others undermines US objectives in the region and empowers others receiving military aid to act without fear of repercussions.

Expert comment Published 15 May 2024 3 minute READ

Within six months, US President Joe Biden went from categorically refusing to condition aid to Israel to threatening to halt certain weapons deliveries should Israel decide to invade Rafah in southern Gaza without a civilian protection plan in place. Just before his public ultimatum, Biden issued an order to pause a shipment of large bombs to Israel to ‘deliver a message’ to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

This change in attitude, while no doubt politically significant, is of no practical consequence to Israel’s warfighting capacity in Gaza. Its significantly weaker foe, Hamas, has lost most of its combat power due to Israeli strikes. Nor is Biden’s reaction likely to lead to a comprehensive review of US aid policy toward Israel or address Israel’s already controversial conduct in its war in Gaza.

It is encouraging that Biden has recognized the repercussions of Israel invading Rafah. But Israel’s war was deeply problematic already. More than 35,000 Palestinians, most of whom are women and children, have already been killed by Israel’s war machine partly because Washington gave Israel carte blanche to conduct its operations essentially however it saw fit.

Rafah could be the catalyst that will start a process to holistically rethink the US’s unconditional backing of Israel. But I doubt it. For all the talk about US public opinion moving away from Israel, it has not yet reached a critical mass. 

Nor has it gained enough consistency and political significance to challenge the predominant US thinking on the provision of aid to Israel. 

A majority of Americans disapprove of Israel’s military actions in Gaza according to a Gallup Poll in March. And tens of thousands of Democrats in Michigan, a swing state, say they are uncommitted to Biden’s re-election due to his support of Israel’s war. 

Yet just recently, the Biden administration and the US Congress approved a $26 billion aid package for Israel, despite international reports suggesting Israel has violated human rights and the laws of armed conflict in Gaza. Meanwhile, a much-anticipated State Department report released on 10 May criticized Israel’s conduct in the war but avoided stating that Israel violated international or US law, which is dumbfounding. 

The strategic case for rethinking US aid to Israel

While no administration should base its policies on public opinion, dismissing the views of a growing and unprecedented number of concerned Americans is not politically astute. 

Israel would still struggle to defend itself against the multifaceted threat of Iran and its more powerful proxies without US military assistance.

Regardless of the potential political impact of US public opinion, there is also a strategic case for making meaningful adjustments in how the US approaches the issue of aid for Israel. 

This is not an argument against providing aid to Israel. Despite its significant military power and locally-produced weapons, Israel would still struggle to defend itself against the multifaceted threat of Iran and its more powerful proxies without US military assistance. Israel relies on a range of US-made weapons to ensure its security in a rapidly shifting and deteriorating security environment in the Middle East.

But the US does not have to, nor should it, provide that aid unconditionally. No ally or partner is perfect, so for Washington to commit to a policy of total support, irrespective of the partner’s conduct, is neither smart nor prudent. Such a policy becomes especially problematic when the partner – in this case, Israel – is pursuing policies that are detrimental to America’s long-term interests in the region and standing in the world.

Like any other nation, Israel has the right to defend itself against threats from its enemies, including Hamas. But what is indefensible is the US forfeiting, for no good reason, its moral, legal, and strategic responsibility to objectively evaluate its assistance to Israel.

A thorough and candid assessment of the likely costs of unconditional US military assistance to Israel – both in general and particularly with respect to the current crisis in Gaza – is a must. It is hard to believe that the US has never undertaken such an exercise, but it is true.

Failing to place any conditions on US military assistance to Israel could disincentivize other recipients to respect US laws. 

Unconditional US military assistance to Israel has undermined America’s own laws governing the use of such assistance by partner nations, despite what the State Department just concluded. 

By endorsing Israel’s military operations in Gaza and failing to exercise effective oversight of US military assistance, Washington is essentially undercutting the Foreign Assistance Act, the Arms Export Act, and the Leahy Laws, all of which obligate the recipients of US military assistance to meet human rights standards. 

Any country violating these standards is liable to be sanctioned and ineligible for US funding. 

This matters a great deal and has real consequences in US foreign relations. Failing to place any conditions on US military assistance to Israel could disincentivize other recipients to respect US laws. 

Such an American double standard does not go unnoticed in Arab capitals that acquire US weapons from Washington. 

In the future, all they will have to do is point to Israeli transgressions to excuse and continue to make their own. There is also a price for dismissing and potentially weakening (at least by default) international law. 

The US cannot use arguments based on international law to support Ukraine’s efforts to resist Russian aggression, yet simultaneously turn a blind eye to Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights. By doing so, Washington will find it increasingly difficult to solicit international cooperation and build coalitions.

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Finally, ineffective oversight of US military assistance to Israel undermines its efforts to end the war in Gaza and ultimately to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement - without which comprehensive Arab-Israeli normalization is unlikely to happen. 

The Biden administration came to power with lofty goals of restoring US leadership on the global stage, multilateralism, and the rules-based order. Yet this foreign policy readjustment will be considerably less credible if the US continues to betray its own values by placing Israel above the law.  

The path to a stronger US–Israel relationship is through conditioning US military assistance to Israel, exercising effective oversight over that assistance, and enforcing US laws, just like Washington does with any other ally or partner around the world. It is the moral and strategic thing to do.