Some 18,000 people descended on the Walter E. Washington Convention Center this week in the nation’s capital for the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. One of the country’s most influential lobbies, AIPAC has long been the subject of avid (and conspiratorial) condemnation by those who dislike the role it plays in sustaining bipartisan support for the Jewish state. In recent weeks, the famously press-shy organization unwittingly became the subject of a fierce national debate over anti-Semitism after Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar suggested that American elected officials support the Jewish state because they are paid to do so.
Contrary to popular belief (an impression abetted by its confusing acronym), AIPAC does not donate money directly to candidates; it is not a political-action committee. What AIPAC does do, like any interest group, is encourage its politically active membership to back candidates who pledge support for its agenda. Foremost among the group’s policy priorities is upholding the annual U.S. military-aid package to Israel, which—at $3.8 billion a year—constitutes the largest direct American military subvention to any single country. And it is this subvention that critics most frequently cite to justify singling out Israel for opprobrium.
Contrasting the per capita amount received by Israel with that of “other allies who are as wealthy as Israel,” the New York writer Andrew Sullivan calls the disparity “absurd.” In a piece titled “Time to Break the Silence on Palestine,” the New York Times columnist Michelle Alexander decries “the $38 billion the U.S. government has pledged in military support to Israel” over the next decade. (Is there a cause whose advocates are less silent—in the media, on college campuses, in international fora—than those of the Palestinians?) Also in The New York Times, Nathan Thrall of the International Crisis Group states that Israel receives from Washington “more military financing than the United States provides to the rest of the world combined.” An organization ominously named If Americans Knew complains that “the U.S. provides Israel $10.5 million in military aid each day, while it gives the Palestinians $0 in military aid.”
These seemingly objective attacks tend to cast Israel as a greedy, undeserving ward of American largesse, one that the United States should rein in. “It’s time to act like the big brother or the parent and to say, ‘Enough is enough, and we’re going to take the car keys if you don’t stop driving drunk’” is how Jeremy Ben-Ami, the executive director of the dovish J Street, described the U.S.-Israel relationship in 2008. Those with more sinister intentions, not content with likening Israel to an inebriated teenager, cite U.S. military assistance to Israel as evidence that American Jews want “wars for Israel.” In the early 2000s, a lucrative intellectual cottage industry sprung up peddling the idea that a nefarious “Israel lobby” had goaded the United States into war against Iraq. “What these neoconservatives seek is to conscript American blood to make the world safe for Israel,” wrote Pat Buchanan in 2003.
The size and advisability of U.S. military aid to Israel, like any appropriation of taxpayer dollars, are fair game. But U.S. assistance to Israel demands far less—in both blood and treasure—than many other American defense relationships around the world.
According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the United States spends roughly $36 billion annually on military capabilities in Europe, almost 10 times its annual assistance package to Israel. Of course, that spending accounts for operations in more than two dozen countries. But those are countries that, unlike Israel, Washington is treaty-bound to defend. Article 5 of the NATO charter stipulates that “an armed attack against one or more of [its members] in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all,” and that, should such an attack occur, each member undertake “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force” to defend the embattled ally. At the height of the Cold War, some 400,000 American soldiers were deployed in Europe, ready to risk their lives in case of a Russian invasion, and American soldiers remain stationed (albeit in far fewer numbers) across the continent.
In Asia, the United States has some 30,000 troops based in South Korea, where they lie in easy range of a bellicose, nuclear-armed dictatorship to the north. Roughly 50,000 U.S. soldiers are positioned in Japan. Across the entire Pacific theater, the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force have about 400,000 American soldiers and civilians deployed to contain a rising China, respond to natural disasters, and deter a nuclear-armed Pyongyang.
America’s military commitment to its Asian allies, like its commitment to its European allies, requires more risk and sacrifice than its arrangement with Israel. Because the post–World War II Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security Between the United States and Japan prohibits the latter from having offensive military capabilities, the U.S. is pledged to protect the nation from attack. The United States made a similar pledge to South Korea following a war in which 30,000 Americans died defending it from an invasion by the Communist North Korea. (No “American blood” was expended to save Israel when a coalition of Arab armies attacked it in 1948. Indeed, not a single American soldier has ever died defending Israel, something that cannot be said about many of our allies). The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act compels Washington to “maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.” That stops just short of an outright commitment to defend the island from an attack by mainland China, but ensures enough strategic ambiguity to keep Beijing at bay.
Finally, Israel is hardly the only American ally in the Middle East to receive military aid. Egypt is the second-largest non-NATO recipient after Israel, and Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are beneficiaries as well.
Unlike U.S. aid to Israel, most of which is funneled back to the American defense sector, U.S. defense spending toward its forward-operating presence in Europe and Asia is composed of hundreds of thousands of “boots on the ground,” soldiers whose lives would be at stake in any scenario involving an attack on treaty allies. And these allies lie under our nuclear umbrella, meaning that conflicts on either continent could theoretically ensnare the United States in nuclear war.
Viewed in this light, U.S. military aid to Israel looks less like the special dispensation of a powerful ethnic lobby and more like the logical extension of America’s postwar power projection. It is not all that spectacular compared with U.S. defense arrangements with the dozens of countries it is obliged to defend, up to and including with weapons of mass destruction. Of course, U.S. support for Israel has an emotional dimension, as the passionate speeches at AIPAC invoking the Holocaust attest. But much the same can be said for the United States’ military arrangements with Estonia, South Korea, and Taiwan: All are small, vulnerable democracies facing authoritarian, rapacious adversaries, and this underdog quality animates American public support. Yet for some reason, none of these alliances engenders anywhere near the same sort of antipathy as does the one between the United States and the world’s only Jewish state.
Americans might not know the precise details of U.S. international-assistance packages, but they are familiar with the fundamentals of the Middle East conflict, which is why polls have consistently shown, over decades, overwhelming public support for Israel over its many adversaries. It’s not dollars—or “Benjamins,” as the honorable lady from Minnesota put it—that garner widespread (and generous) American backing for Israel, but common democratic values, religious affinity, and a shared strategic outlook.