For decades, US military aid to Israel has been a sacred cow, with Republicans and Democrats in the United States shielding it from criticism, scrutiny and especially, any calls for restraint.
But after years of campaigning, Palestinian rights advocates and progressive lawmakers say the discourse is shifting – and what was once a solid, bipartisan wall of support for unconditional US support for Israel is slowly cracking.
“In the grand scheme of American politics, we are still sort of situated on the fringe… but a few years ago, there wasn’t even space to be on the fringe,” said Brad Parker of Defense for Children International-Palestine (DCI-P), which supports efforts in Congress to condition US funds for Israel.
In April, US Congresswoman Betty McCollum introduced a bill that aims to ensure the $3.8bn that the US gives to Israel every year is not used in rights abuses against Palestinian children, the destruction of Palestinian property, the removal of Palestinians from the occupied West Bank, or Israel’s attempts to further annex Palestinian land.
The proposed legislation has the support of more than a dozen members of Congress, including Palestinian-American Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, and dozens of Palestinian, human rights and liberal Jewish organisations, including J Street. It is not the first time McCollum has spearheaded such an effort, as the Minnesota legislator introduced similar bills before.
“My bill prohibits U.S. funds from supporting or enabling human rights abuses,” McCollum told Al Jazeera in an email. “Not $1 of U.S. taxpayer funds should be used to violate the human rights of the Palestinian people living under Israel’s military occupation.”
Parker at DCI-P, which has supported the creation and introduction of the bills, told Al Jazeera he has no illusions that the latest one will pass in Congress; the legislation does not have the votes. Nevertheless, the reaction it has garnered shows the discourse is shifting, Parker said, while the bill also opens up a long-overdue debate about how Israel uses US funding.
“It’s a massive success because these are conversations that just were not happening. It was either 100 percent unconditional support for the $3.8bn, or you’re completely anti-Semitic and you want Israel to disappear. That was the conversation just weeks ago.”
History of US support
In 2016, only months before the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, the US and Israel reached a landmark agreement under which Washington agreed to provide the Israeli government with $38bn over 10 years, an increase of $700m annually from a previous bilateral deal.
The two countries had been allies for decades, going back to US support for the 1948 creation of the Israeli state itself, and the relationship has transcended all forms of government in Washington and Jerusalem. But observers pointed out that the pledge of support from Obama, who had a chilly relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, showed just how unequivocal US support for Israel really was.
The early years of the US-Israel relationship involved modest development aid, explained Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School.
But the 1960s saw an increase in sales of military equipment and some forms of assistance, with an aid “ramp-up” following the Six-Day War of 1967 and into the 1970s, as Washington pledged “that if Israel would withdraw from the Sinai and sign the peace treaty with Egypt, that [it] would basically guarantee a certain level of military aid every year”, Walt told Al Jazeera.
That aid has remained at roughly $3bn a year since, but it was not until the early 1980s that aid to Israel became pretty much “unconditional”, Walt explained, a phenomenon he attributed to the “political influence of AIPAC and other organisations in the Israel lobby”.
“For almost all senators and almost all congressmen, it’s been just easier to go ahead and vote [for] this aid package than to question it, because they would face criticism from AIPAC and others,” Walt said. “They might suddenly discover that they had a primary challenger going after them and getting campaign contributions from pro-Israel individuals, et cetera. So, it was just politically convenient.”
But in recent years, the cracks have grown as more Americans, and notably Democrats, have come to believe Israel is not genuinely interested in a two-state solution, Walt said, and as Netanyahu has increasingly aligned with the Republican Party.
A recent Gallup poll found that while Americans still overwhelmingly favour Israel, a quarter of respondents said they are more sympathetic to Palestinians than Israelis, up six percent since 2018. The survey also reported that a majority of Democrats (53 percent) supported the US putting more pressure on Israel to resolve the conflict, a 10 percent increase from 2018.
The shift has been aided notably by Senator Bernie Sanders, a two-time leader of the Democratic presidential primary field, who brought the issue to the campaign trail in 2016 and 2020. “That suggests that there isn’t the same kind of orthodoxy imposed on or constraining the debate – and once you can have open discussions, there’s no telling exactly where things go over time,” Walt added.
Still, the wall of bipartisan support for unconditional US aid to Israel remains formidable.
On April 22, more than 300 US legislators signed a letter urging continued unconditional support for Israel. The funding, they said, is “a vital and cost-effective expenditure which advances important U.S. national security interests” and stressing that both Republican and Democratic presidents “have understood the strategic importance of providing Israel with security assistance”.
AIPAC came out against McCollum’s proposal, tweeting: “No cuts. No new conditions. No political restrictions on aid to Israel.” Democratic Majority for Israel, a group that bills itself as “the voice of pro-Israel Democrats”, also slammed McCollum’s proposal as “another in a series of one-sided, demagogic anti-Israel bills” and “a contrived effort to stir up hostility toward Israel”.
Zaha Hassan, a human rights lawyer and non-resident fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said those reactions to McCollum’s proposal demonstrate that the US-Israel relationship has been “so exceptionalised … that we can’t have a normal, healthy conversation about US assistance”.
“When you’re sending $3.8bn per year, how can you say you don’t want to have any knowledge of how that money’s being spent? It becomes sort of a really ridiculous discussion because it becomes clear that any questioning of US assistance to Israel – any kind of tracking, tracing, monitoring or accountability – is going to be fought tooth and nail,” Hassan told Al Jazeera.
She added that it will be interesting to see how President Joe Biden’s administration squares its pledge to take a rights-based approach to US foreign policy, with unequivocal support for Israel, which Human Rights Watch recently said is using apartheid to subjugate Palestinians.
On the campaign trail as a Democratic presidential nominee in 2019, Biden said the idea of withholding US aid to Israel over its rights record was “bizarre” and he has since reiterated his continued commitment to Israel.
“We’re still seeing a reluctance to take on the Israel-Palestine issue in a way that also centres values,” said Hassan, who has urged the Biden administration to take a rights-based approach to the conflict. “It’s going to be very interesting to see how the current administration navigates its reset of US policy abroad, its reimagining of US global leadership and of multilateralism at the same time as it maintains this policy of no daylight between it and Israel.”