In the course of diavlogging with Reza Aslan, Eli Lake takes on the $3 billion question: What is the United States getting in exchange for its money? Eli's initial answer is to try to argue that Israel is performing valuable services for the United States by serving as a part of the broader military-industrial complex, working on the development of new armaments. This doesn't really make sense, since defense contractors -- American, Israeli, French, whatever -- get paid for their work as is, so it's not clear why the Israeli government would need extra payment. And, indeed, in the course of talking about this, Eli seems to turn around and come to a position that I think is more accurate, namely that the integration of Israeli firms and IDF priorities into American military R&D and procurement strategies is further assistance to Israel on top of the money we give them.
Eli later floats another idea, namely that Israel is providing us with valuable counterterrorism training. It's certainly my understanding that there are a number of Israeli firms with expertise in things like bomb-proofing buildings that now have an expanding North American client base. Here, though, it's again unclear why it would be necessary to give the Israeli government money in order to do this. Foreign companies sell things in the United States all the time. Things like AIPAC's December 5, 2006 memo "United States Looks to Israel for Homeland Security Expertise" (PDF) don't make a particularly compelling case:
A year after establishing the partnership, both sides agreed to further commit to developing new technologies by creating the first of its kind Maryland-Israel Development Fund, a $1 million fund to support joint product development projects between high-tech companies in Maryland and Israel. The fund is managed by the Maryland-Israel Development Center, a non-profit organization established in 1992, along with Maryland's Department of Business and Economic Development and Israel's Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor. [...]
The agreement was signed at the beginning of a week-long Illinois trade mission to Israel during which representatives from Illinois-based homeland security companies met with Israeli security industry leaders to explore future business opportunities. During the mission, the two governments also announced a business oriented exchange program to bring entrepreneurs from Illinois and Israel together to commercialize research and develop new technologies. These initiatives were launched by the Illinois Homeland Security Market Development Bureau, a government organization charged with attracting homeland security companies to the state, and the Israeli Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor.
These sound like fairly banal state-level business initiatives that, insofar as they're a good idea, can get by on their own terms. Israel's Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor is, presumably, interested in exploring commercial opportunities wherever they can be found. It's hard to see Israel cutting these programs off if aid were reduced.
Meanwhile, Eli also concedes that he "can't make the argument that Israel really needs that aid." But there's the core part of the Walt-Mearsheimer argument that I agree with (some of their other ideas, particularly about Iraq and Syria, seem wrong to me and their brief, deliberately one-sided account of Israeli history seemed like overkill). You have all this money going to a country that doesn't really need it, and that country doesn't do anything of particular value for us in exchange for that. Why? The existence of an unusually powerful domestic lobby on its behalf. Meanwhile, because the aid's existence is tied to a lobby that's very influential, particularly on the Hill, it's very hard for American presidents to use the aid as leverage, the way one normally would with a proxy.