Weapons belonging to soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces near Sderot on May 19, 2021. Credit - Ilia Yefimovich—picture alliance/Getty Images
When I served as a combat soldier in the Israeli military, I carried an American-made M-16. I drove American jeeps and fired American missiles.
As a dual American-Israeli citizen who has spent years in both countries, my commitment to Israel did not end with my army service. From my home in the U.S. the past 20 years, I’ve been in the trenches of the Israeli-Palestinian peace movement for nearly all of my life. It is from this vantage point of caring deeply for both Israel and the U.S., and in my capacity as President and CEO of Americans for Peace Now, that I am calling on the U.S. government to condition its annual 3.8 billion dollars of military aid to Israel. We are the first progressive Zionist organization to endorse conditioning aid, and we do not take this step lightly. But what has become abundantly clear, underscored by the horrifying images coming out of Gaza, East Jerusalem and inside Israel last month, is that continuing to give Israel military aid without conditions neither serves U.S. policy interests—nor, I would argue, does it serve Israel.
My military service gives me first-hand experience regarding Israel’s security concerns. And my values lead me to support human rights, dignity, equality and statehood for Palestinians. This is in perfect alignment with U.S. government policy—which was reaffirmed by President Biden’s administration. These two principles were the guiding consideration for granting military aid to Israel: supporting its legitimate self-defense and encouraging it to take risks for peace, including territorial concessions, to bring about a viable Palestinian state.
Last month’s terrifying escalation of violence laid bare what has been abundantly clear for many years: the Israeli government has no intention of moving towards two states. It’s been seven years since there’s been even a pretense of a peace process. A cabinet led by Naftali Bennett in the newly sworn-in Bennett-Lapid unity government offers no more promising indication that ending the occupation would be on the agenda, and just yesterday responded to the release of incendiary balloons with another round of missile strikes in Gaza.
We can’t control what the Israeli government does, but we can ensure that U.S. taxpayer money is used to uphold U.S. values and to achieve U.S. policy goals. Our 3.8 billion dollars of yearly aid supports Israel’s defensive military capabilities, as do I. But it also manifests as American bombs killing hundreds of Palestinians in Gaza, including 67 children, and soldiers wielding American M-16s as they displace families in the East Jerusalem neighborhoods of Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan. If the U.S. wants to nurture peace and support international law, we must explicitly ensure that our tax-payer dollars serve our foreign policy objectives, that they do not go towards human rights violations, and that there are specific consequences if they do. This puts Israel on equal footing with every other country who receives U.S. aid, all of whom receive it conditionally.
Conditioning aid goes further than restricting aid, which does not address fungibility and carries no meaningful consequences for violations of human rights. Conditioning aid can go further than simply investigating the use of U.S. military equipment, which in theory is already illegal under the Leahy law. If Israel continues its policy of expelling Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, for example, the U.S. could cut some percentage of the aid. If new settlements are legalized or existing ones expanded—these international law violations would come with specific U.S. aid reductions.
It might confuse some that a pro-Israel organization is taking this position. For far too long, we have allowed right wing politicians both in Israel and the U.S. to define what it means to be pro-Israel. Elected leaders either gave lip service to a two-state solution (while supporting government actions that made that more difficult to achieve) or have been part of a growing chorus of voices who openly call for a one-state Greater Israel. An occupation without end, or an apartheid one-state is not good for Israel. Arguing for positions that will bring a lasting, sustainable peace is pro-Israel.
There is finally a shift in American politics around Israel, one that I would describe as seismic. Ten, five, even one year ago, it would have been inconceivable for sitting members of Congress to speak about conditioning aid to Israel. Aid to Israel was the third rail; it wasn’t even in the frame of discussion. Yet on May 14, eleven members of Congress made previously unimaginable speeches on the house floor; calling on Israel to halt atrocities in Gaza and affirming the humanity of Palestinians. Now is the time for congressional representatives to go beyond words and to coalesce these statements into policy. Lawmakers finally have the political space to stand up and proudly say, “I’m pro-Israel and I support conditioning aid, because it’s in the U.S’s interest, it’s in Israel’s interest, and it’s the right thing to do.”
I support aid to Israel, and I want to see it continue. But most importantly, I want a chance at a life of dignity for everyone who calls that region home. And for that to become reality, we must ensure that U.S. efforts—and U.S. funding—are used towards realizing a more hopeful future for both Israeli and Palestinian children.