Earlier this week in Iowa, Sen. Rand Paul denied he had ever supported eliminating foreign aid to Israel.
‘I haven’t really proposed that in the past,’ Paul told Yahoo News when asked if he still thought the U.S. should phase out aid to Israel, which has been battling Hamas in Gaza for weeks. ‘We’ve never had a legislative proposal to do that. You can mistake my position, but then I’ll answer the question. That has not been a position—a legislative position—we have introduced to phase out or get rid of Israel’s aid.’
Paul repeated the contention on Fox News. But as Yahoo News’ Chris Moody helpfully pointed out, Paul had, in fact, proposed eliminating aid to Israel as recently as 2011 in a plan that would have cut $500 billion from the federal budget by, in part, using foreign aid. Perhaps Paul meant he’d never crafted legislation explicitly calling for phasing out Israel’s aid—and the distinction matters. Either way, he isn’t being particularly honest about his earlier position.
It’s also true that since 2011, Paul has engaged the Jewish community and consistently supported Israel both rhetorically and through votes. He backed supplementary funding for the Iron Dome and introduced the Stand With Israel Act, which would cut off U.S. aid to the Palestinian government until it agreed to a ceasefire and recognized Israel. Whether it was a change of heart or a matter of political expediency (or maybe a bit of both), all this “evolving” hasn’t done much to win over national defense conservatives, who remain skeptical of the libertarian-ish senator.
That said, I’m not sure Paul’s position (the original one) is anti-Israel to begin with. Though it costs us little, foreign aid—at least the bulk of it—might be doing Israel and the United States more harm than good.
Americans already have many misconception about Israel and aid. A 2013 poll by Kaiser Family Foundation found that Americans believe 28 percent of the federal budget is designated for foreign aid—more than Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid or national defense. In reality, of course, it’s around 1 percent. The United States spends approximately $37.6 billion all told, which encompasses not only military and counterterrorism, but humanitarian and economic assistance, as well. Whether this money is dispensed in a productive way, or whether we should be dispensing it at all, is a good debate. I tend to lean towards the latter. But Paul’s intent to cut all Foreign Military Financing was a philosophical position that had no enmity towards Israel. Intent matters.
As far as Israel goes, the United States doesn’t just transfer $3 billion check into the Likud party account. Only about quarter of U.S. aid is spent on military procurement and the rest is spent buying products in American markets. Unlike most aid it isn’t being flushed through corrupt regimes, statist economies and, quite often, outright enemies. None of that changes the fact that Israel is largest recipient of American aid. And it doesn’t change the fact that Israel is beneficiary of the economic boost. The question is does Israel need it?
Israel’s gross domestic product is $291.3 billion—doubling in the last 15 years or so. Our trade with Israel amounts to somewhere around $45 billion. The per-capita GDP is $35,658. Broadening trade opportunities rather than offering and taking assistance would likely serve both nations far more than what amounts to a small stimulus. With high levels of innovation, its natural gas deposits, new trade arrangements with China, India, and Europe, Israel is in a position to gradually stop accepting relief without great economic pain.
And why not get rid of one of bludgeons used by anti-Israel propagandists? Inevitably these days, Hamas boosters like Glenn Greenwald or Andrew Sullivan—and many others—suggest that aid makes the United States complicit in the imagined nefariousness of the Israeli Defense Forces. It allows journalists to treat pro-Israel advocates as a Jewish Fifth Column actively undermining American objectives. Even newscasts feel inclined—without proper context—to perpetually point out that Israel is recipient of American aid. Viewers might be under the impression that Israel would be without planes and guns, its economy in tatters, minus this financial assistance.
Moreover, why would any nation subject itself to the vagaries of another nation’s politics in this way? “Is this what the thanks we get” is another common argument you hear when Israel declines to compromise its own security or self-determination to an administration looking to score political victories at home. The prospect of future Obamas should have Israel nervous. And as Noah Pollak points out, this small amount of money allows every politician who votes for funding to claim they are “pro-Israel.”
So why not rid yourself of it? Surely there can be strong relationship between allies—the sharing of military technology and intelligence—without all the baggage. Americans, who already have a generally high opinion of Israel, would undoubtedly think more of the nation if it voluntarily returned billions.
Update: Elliott Abrams has, apparently, been making this argument for a while now.