Why unconditional US support for Israel must stop

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.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu receives US President Joe Biden upon his arrival in Israel on October 18, 2023.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu receives US President Joe Biden upon his arrival in Israel on October 18, 2023.

Why unconditional US support for Israel must stop

On 13 December 2023, following discussions with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, US President Joe Biden rejected congressional calls to stop or condition US military assistance to the Jewish state.

“We’re not going to do a damn thing other than protect Israel in the process. Not a single thing,” he said at the time.

A month earlier, Vice President Kamala Harris said the United States “(was) not going to create any conditions on the support (it) was giving Israel to defend itself.”

Facing increasing pressure from his own Democratic party, however, Biden issued an executive memorandum on 9 February requiring any recipient of US military assistance to submit written assurances it will comply with human rights laws or lose US assistance.

But still, the White House made it clear that there would be no conditionality to US aid to Israel and “there are no new standards...”

The Biden administration is hardly the first to endorse a policy of unconditional military assistance to Israel. From Harry Truman to Biden, almost every American President has done the same thing.

US President Harry Truman (left) with Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in the Oval Office on May 8, 1951.

Read more: Examining the evolution of US-Israeli relations

Bad policy

It’s time to scrap this habit. It is bad foreign policy.

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 and standing in the world.

That Israel is the largest cumulative recipient of US military assistance since World War II and enjoys unique privileges in how it uses such assistance makes Washington’s absolute support even more irresponsible.

Like any other nation, Israel has the right to defend itself against threats from its enemies, including Hamas, which on 7 October slaughtered 1,200 Israelis and abducted 240 hostages – a terrorist attack that will go down as one of the worst in history.

Israel is pursuing policies that are detrimental to America's long-term interests and standing in the world. 

That right to self-defence is sacrosanct and recognised by international law. But what is indefensible is the United States forfeiting, for no good reason, its moral, legal, and strategic responsibility to objectively evaluate its assistance to Israel.

Hundreds of billions of US taxpayer money, vast amounts of ultra-modern US weaponry, and lawyer-like support at the United Nations should never be provided with no strings attached. US military assistance to allies and partners is an investment — emotional and/or material. 

And when the return on that investment starts to look dubious, Washington should make every effort to reassess and adjust. Federal and international laws, as sheer logic, compel the United States to do that with every other ally or partner. Why is Israel an exception?

This question has come to the fore again, given Israel's retaliation against Hamas for the group's 7 October attack. The Biden administration has shown unwavering support for Israel's military campaign despite its disturbingly high civilian death toll. 

More than 29,000 Palestinians have been killed so far, two-thirds of whom reportedly are women and children.

Protesters raise their painted hands as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin testify during a Senate hearing for a $105bn aid request to support Israel on October 31, 2023.

Read more: Western governments and Gaza's graveyard of children

The UN also has reported that 1.7 million Palestinians have been displaced, 2.2 million are at "imminent risk of famine," over 60% of housing in Gaza is damaged, and approximately 17,000 children are unaccompanied or separated from their parents. 

To say that the humanitarian situation in the besieged enclave of Gaza is catastrophic is an understatement.

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's hard to believe that the United States has never done such an exercise, but sadly, it's true.

Undercutting US law

Let me offer my own and start with what I consider to be the most tangible of costs: the undermining of America's very own laws governing the use of US military assistance by partner nations.

By virtually giving Israel carte blanche in its military operations in Gaza and failing to exercise effective oversight over US military assistance, the US 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. 

Giving Israel carte blanche in its military operations in Gaza undercuts America's own laws.

Israel is the only recipient of US military assistance in the world for which Washington does not have monitoring methods to determine which weapons go to which military unit, thus making it virtually impossible to assess possible violations of US laws.

Any country violating these standards — which Israel reportedly has done in its collective punishment of the Palestinian people — 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 disincentivise other recipients to respect US laws. 

All these countries have to do is point to Israeli transgressions to excuse and continue to make their own. This American double standard does not go unnoticed in Arab capitals that acquire US weapons from Washington.

There's also a price for dismissing and potentially weakening (at least by default) international law.

Credibility damaged

The United States cannot use arguments based on international law to support Ukraine's efforts to resist Russian aggression yet simultaneously turn a blind eye to gross Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights. 

US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield casts a veto vote during a UN Security Council meeting on a Gaza ceasefire at UN Headquarters in New York City on February 20, 2024.

Otherwise, Washington will find it increasingly difficult to solicit international cooperation and build coalitions in international fora on issues it cares about.

If Washington is to build stronger ties with the global south, for example, and to encourage it to condemn Russia's war against Ukraine, it must change its own narrative and unconditional support for Israel's operation in Gaza.  

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 seems less credible if the United States continues to betray its own values by placing Israel above the law.   

Strategically, a policy of unconditional military assistance to Israel undermines US and international efforts to end the current war and ultimately to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, without which comprehensive Arab-Israeli normalisation is unlikely to happen. 

Saudi leaders have been clear about the requirements of Saudi-Israeli normalisation – the centrepiece of Biden's transformational plan for the Middle East – and they must include a recognition of an independent Palestinian state on 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Read more: Arab normalisation with Israel loses appeal amid Gaza horrors

The US cannot restore its global leadership if it continues to betray its own values by placing Israel above the law.

Yet Netanyahu's governing coalition, made up of several extremist elements committed to illegally expanding Jewish settlements over Palestinian lands, has shown no interest in working toward a two-state solution. 

Read more: Extremist Jewish militias and their links to the Israeli state

By totally backing this government, the Biden administration is undercutting everything it is trying to do in the Middle East.

This includes lowering regional tensions and reining in Iran and its proxies — who are capitalising on the disastrous situation in Gaza — attacking and killing US troops in the region and endangering freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

Domestic political cost

Finally, there's a domestic political cost to Biden's limitless embrace of Israel.

For the first time in US history, according to opinion polls, Democrats sympathise more with Palestinians (49%) than with Israelis (38%). The younger and more progressive base of the Democratic Party – which played an instrumental role in bringing Biden to office – is becoming increasingly sceptical of Washington's unqualified support to Israel. 

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators gather in front of the White House during the "March on Washington for Gaza" in Washington, DC, on January 13, 2024.

Read more: AIPAC contends with an increasingly critical American left

It's unclear if those voters would side with another candidate in the upcoming presidential elections should Biden stay the course on Israel policy, but even a no-vote can hurt his chances.

The United States has a lot of repairing to do when it comes to its credibility and reputation as a global champion of laws, rules, and human rights.

Given the scale of destruction and death in Gaza, which Washington did little to stop, regaining that moral authority will take time.

But the path to redemption starts with two things.

The first will be to call for a ceasefire in Gaza because it is a moral, wise, humane, and strategic thing to do, and the second would be to condition US military assistance to Israel and enforce US laws, just like Washington does with any other ally or partner around the world.

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