Jan 15, 2009
In answering questions before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton acknowledged what she called the "tragic humanitarian costs of conflict
in the Middle East, and the pain and suffering of Palestinian and
Israeli civilians." She continued by saying that "we cannot give up on
As the bombardment of Gaza enters its third week and the civilian
death toll continues to rise, Clinton's remarks offer a thin ray of
hope that the next president will deviate from the long-set pattern of
The Bush administration has been unwilling to use the considerable
U.S. influence - as Israel's major military and political backer - to
dissuade the government in Tel Aviv from its pattern of claiming
self-defense while perpetrating collective punishment, human rights
violations, and massively disproportionate attacks that harm and kill
If the next administration is making a genuine commitment to "a just
and lasting peace that brings real security to Israel, normal and
positive relations with its neighbors; independence, economic progress
and security to the Palestinians in their own state" - as Hillary
Clinton described the vision for the future - they will have their work
cut out for them.
That work begins with a reevaluation of the financial and military
commitment the United States made to Israel. During the Bush
administration, Israel received over $21 billion in U.S. security
assistance, including $19 billion in direct military aid under the
Pentagon's Foreign Military Financing (FMF) program. Through the FMF
program, Israel remains the single largest recipient of U.S. military
aid each year, which they use to purchase U.S. weapons.
The bulk of Israel's current arsenal is composed of equipment
supplied under U.S. assistance programs. For example, Israel has 226
U.S.-supplied F-16 fighter and attack jets, over 700 M-60 tanks, 6,000
armored personnel carriers, and scores of transport planes, attack
helicopters, utility and training aircraft, bombs, and tactical
missiles of all kinds.
Hardware continues to flow in, despite the fact the Arms Export
Control Act (AECA) requires nations receiving U.S. arms to certify the
weapons are used for internal security and legitimate self-defense, and
that their use doesn't lead to an escalation of conflict. During 2008
alone, the United States made over $22 billion in new arms sales offers
to Israel, including a proposed deal for as many as 75 F-35 Joint
Strike Fighters, worth up to $15.2 billion; nine heavy transport
aircraft, worth up to $1.9 billion; four Littoral Combat Ships and
related equipment, worth as much as $1.9 billion; and up to $1.3
billion in gasoline and jet aviation fuel.
One lone congressman - Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) - raised concerns
about Israel's possible violations of the AECA. He hasn't had a
response from the State Department. What use are our laws if they are
The last time the United States cut off military aid and weapons
transfers to Israel was in 1981. During Israel's incursion into
Lebanon, the Reagan administration cut off U.S. military aid and arms
deliveries for 10 weeks while it investigated whether Israel was using
weapons for "defensive purposes," as required under U.S. law.
The United States lifted the ban after Secretary of State Alexander
Haig suggested that one could "argue until eternity" about whether a
given use of force was offensive or defensive.
Since then, the United States has investigated Israel's use of
U.S.-origin weapons in relationship to the AECA a few times, most
notably in 2006, when Israel let loose on southern Lebanon with
millions of cluster bomblets. The State Department Office of Defense
Trade Controls investigated the situation, and informed Congress with
preliminary findings indicating Israel may have violated agreements by
using cluster bombs against civilian-populated areas. According to a
January 2008 Congressional Research Service report, Israel denied violating agreements, saying that it had acted in self-defense, and a final determination wasn't made.
The issue was dropped and weapons transfers continued.
An Obama Alternative?
Those who seek peace in the Middle East, who refuse to "give up" on
it, must insist that the United States stop funding and fueling the war.
What can Obama do differently? Enforce the AECA in a uniform and
dispassionate way. Given the close political and military ties between
the United States and Israel, Haig's observation is a cover for
inaction, and worse. While the finer points of offense and defense are
being argued "until eternity," U.S.-origin weapons are killing women
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