Israel Aid Anxiety: Is It Overblown?
12/22/2010 - 17:27
James Besser

Suddenly I'm getting emails from Democratic lawmakers warning of possible cuts to Israel's big foreign aid allotment when the new Congress takes over in January – but I'm not sure I buy it.

Now the Jerusalem Post is reporting that “Democrats are blasting the prospect that a GOP-led House of Representatives might trim aid to Israel or consider it separately from the rest of the foreign aid budget,” citing as evidence comments by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen – the incoming Foreign Affairs chair – that it's not inconceivable the House GOP leadership could impose across-the-board aid cuts that would not exempt Israel.

Well, maybe. But I'm not sure it's going to happen, at least not right away.

To be sure, every government program will face tough scrutiny by the new congressional budget mavens. And it's hardly a secret that Republicans hate foreign aid in general, and many wouldn't hesitate a millisecond before voting to cut aid to other nations.

But cutting Israel aid? That gets sticky.

With President Obama weakened among pro-Israel activist voters and everybody gearing up for the 2012 elections, I have a hard time imagining the GOP leadership wants to pick a fight with AIPAC, which holds Israel aid as sacrosanct, or risk turning off the pro-Israel voters they hope will flock to their side of the isle in the next election. Nor do they want to irritate pro-Israel campaign givers in the early days of a campaign season that once again will set new records for cost.

Also, don't forget that a huge proportion of Israel's military aid comes back here in the form of military sales to the very defense contractors that provide jobs in countless congressional districts, which, after all, is why Congress is loathe to cut even projects the Pentagon says it doesn't need.

Cutting Israel aid won't look so attractive to lawmakers when they start hearing from their friends in the defense industry about how that  will mean lost jobs for their constituents.

No doubt there will be attempts to impose across-the-board foreign aid cuts; the question is whether the Republican leadership will support those efforts or quash them. At this stage, I'm thinking the latter is likelier.

Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has proposed separating Israel's aid from the rest of the aid budget, which would make it easier to eviscerate other aid programs while leaving Israel's money alone.

But you can bet AIPAC, while determined to protect Israel's aid, will oppose efforts like Cantor's; the last thing they want is to make Israel's aid, the biggest single allotment, stand out any more than it already does.

Here things could get dicey for the pro-Israel lobby. How do you explain why a thriving Israel can't take even a modest cut even as aid to starving African nations gets pounded? How do you make the argument that Israel, the high-tech wonder of the Middle East, must get its full allotment even as school lunch programs, senior housing and environmental programs take big hits?

That leads to the question of whether Israel really needs $3 billion in U.S. military aid every year. After all, its economy is booming and its recovery from the worldwide financial crisis has been much more robust than ours.

I've asked the question of a handful of folks who know about these things, but the answers are generally murky.

The aid certainly helps a nation that has to devote a high proportion of its economy to defense, which faces terrorist and military threats on multiple fronts, which is trying to deal with the  possibility of a nuclear Iran and which spends an awful lot of money protecting settlers in remote West Bank locales.

But I haven't found anybody who says it represents the critical margin of survival for the Jewish state.

More important is its symbolic value, some say; the fact Israel's aid is the biggest part of the U.S. aid budget sends a signal that the U.S.-Israel relationship is, indeed, special. Any cut would be interpreted by some as a sign of erosion no matter how loudly the ax wielders protests that it's just about the deficit, which is why AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups will fight any proposed cuts with all their considerable might.

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