Israel's interim Defence Minister Ehud Barak was back in Washington this week for consultations with senior American officials. His monthly pilgrimages to Capitol Hill now seem more frequent than the visits of even the most dedicated Congressmen and women. On the whole, they confirm the primacy of the Israeli military in shaping US foreign policy as well as its total reliance on Washington's support.
Although every visit is accompanied by a surge of media speculation about what to do with Iran, the regional changes created by the 2011 uprisings are no less important. Reactions by serving and former Israeli military figures offer some explanation. Ehud Barak described the Arab Spring as a "political tsunami"; former Minister of Defence Shaul Mofaz said it was a "strategic warning to Israel"; and former Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon said it was an "historic earthquake".
Traditionally, both Israel and the US have preferred hard power to deal with regional challenges. In his latest book, Fortress Israel: The Inside Story of the Military Elite Who Run the Country – and Why They Can't Make Peace American author Patrick Tyler attributes this to "a common faith in military action as more likely to yield results than diplomacy or negotiation, which they held in low regard."
This view is borne out in a report by the Congressional Research Service, which estimated the cumulative US aid to Israel (not adjusted for inflation) from 1949 through to 2013 to be $115 billion. In spite of this, Israel's National Insurance Institute reported in 2010 that 20 per cent of Israelis were living below the poverty line.
With regards to military assistance specifically, Israel agreed with the Bush administration on a 10-year, $30 billion aid package that gradually raised Israel's annual Foreign Military Financing (FMF) grant from a baseline of nearly $2.55 billion in the financial year 2009 to approximately $3.1 billion for 2013. Not surprisingly, the Obama administration has already asked Congress for this year's $3.1 billion for Israel. On top of this, the US Department of Defence budget for 2013 includes $99.8 million for the joint US-Israeli missile development programme.
With access to this degree of US largesse, Israel, according to its Central Bureau of Statistics, spent 6.7 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on "security" in 2009. That was equivalent to 18.7 per cent of the national budget, surpassing what many industrially developed countries, including America, spend. While the US spent 5 per cent of its GDP on defence in 2009, Britain spent 2.8 per cent and Germany 1.2 per cent. Significantly, supposedly highly dangerous and threatening Iran spent just 2.3 per cent of its GDP on defence.
Given the fact that Ehud Barak announced his retirement from politics in November 2012, after his humiliating offensive against Gaza, his frequent visits to Washington are rather odd. While the political motives remain obscure, there is no doubt that these forays are intended to boost Israel's security capability. All of this effort is for armed forces which have, says former Israeli deputy national security advisor, Charles Freilich, "not unequivocally won a major military confrontation since 1967 and have failed to achieve their objectives in most of the major diplomatic efforts they have taken as well".
Today, Israel remains distinctly at odds with the world community, and increasingly so with Europe, over its occupation and settlement of Palestinian land. As such, wouldn't it be better for America to invest a fraction of those funds on a political solution instead of sinking ever more money into the bottomless pit that is Israel's military? Since the fifties and sixties they have tried to end the conflict through military means and failed. Moreover, after the recent encounters in Gaza, any hope of imposing such a solution on the Palestinians is misplaced.
America's strategy to preserve Israel's military superiority in the region has damaged the cause for peace substantially. It has made Israeli leaders less inclined to pursue the path of honest diplomacy. On Barak's latest visit, newly-installed US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel assured him that despite America's cuts to its own defence budget, Washington's military assistance to Israel, especially the missile defence system, would not be affected. Israeli leaders hope that by 2015 they will have the largest missile defence system of its kind in the world, protecting all of the country's air space from attack. The estimated cost for this is $2.3 billion. While this was an obvious attempt by Hagel to ingratiate himself with the pro-Israel lobby in Washington which had actually opposed his appointment to the Pentagon, it was, nonetheless, consistent with long-standing US policy.
American officials are renowned for their candid lectures on the need to keep the military out of politics. This, however, does not apply to Israel. In fact, few, if any, in Washington would be able to discern where Israeli militarism ends and its politics begin. As a result, successive US administrations have been kept virtual hostages by the Israeli military elite, which have guarded their own interests by preserving the climate of war and instability in the Middle East. Unfortunately for American citizens facing severe public spending cuts, their predominance in Israeli politics and society is not likely to end any time soon. While money for US domestic expenditure is being curtailed, tax dollars continue to flow to Israel, where it's business as usual for the Israeli military elite.