Obama and Israel's Military: Still Arm-in-Arm

In the
wake of Israel's massive assault on heavily populated civilian areas of
the Gaza Strip earlier this year, Amnesty International called for the
United States to suspend military aid to Israel on human rights
grounds. Amnesty has also called for the United Nations to impose a
mandatory arms embargo on both Hamas and the Israeli government.
Unfortunately, it appears that President Barack Obama won't be heeding
Amnesty's call.

During the fighting in January, Amnesty documented Israeli forces
engaging in "direct attacks on civilians and civilian objects in Gaza,
and attacks which were disproportionate or indiscriminate." The leader
of Amnesty International's fact-finding mission to the Gaza Strip and
southern Israel noted
how "Israeli forces used white phosphorus and other weapons supplied by
the USA to carry out serious violations of international humanitarian
law, including war crimes." Amnesty also reported finding fragments of
U.S.-made munitions "littering school playgrounds, in hospitals and in
people's homes."

Malcolm Smart, who serves as Amnesty International's director for the Middle East, observed
in a press release that "to a large extent, Israel's military offensive
in Gaza was carried out with weapons, munitions and military equipment
supplied by the USA and paid for with U.S. taxpayers' money." The
release also noted how before the conflict, which raged for three weeks
from late December into January, the United States had "been aware of
the pattern of repeated misuse of [its] weapons."

Amnesty has similarly condemned Hamas rocket attacks into
civilian-populated areas of southern Israel as war crimes. And while
acknowledging that aid to Hamas was substantially smaller, far less
sophisticated, and far less lethal - and appeared to have been procured
through clandestine sources - Amnesty called on Iran and other
countries to take concrete steps to insure that weapons and weapon
components not get into the hands of Palestinian militias.

During the fighting in early January, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning
organization initially called for a suspension of U.S. military aid
until there was no longer a substantial risk of additional human rights
violations. The Bush administration summarily rejected this proposal.
Amnesty subsequently appealed to the Obama administration. "As the
major supplier of weapons to Israel, the USA has a particular
obligation to stop any supply that contributes to gross violations of
the laws of war and of human rights," said Malcolm Smart. "The Obama
administration should immediately suspend U.S. military aid to Israel."

Obama's refusal to accept Amnesty's call for the suspension of
military assistance was a blow to human rights activists. The most
Obama might do to express his displeasure toward controversial Israeli
policies like the expansion of illegal settlements in the occupied
territories would be to reject a planned increase in military aid for
the next fiscal year and slightly reduce economic aid and/or loan
guarantees. However, in a notable departure from previous
administrations, Obama made no mention of any military aid to Israel in
his outline of the
FY 2010 budget, announced last week. This notable absence may indicate
that pressure from human rights activists and others concerned about
massive U.S. military aid to Israel is now strong enough that the White
House feels a need to downplay the assistance rather than emphasize it.

Obama Tilts Right

Currently, Obama is on record supporting sending up to $30 billion
in unconditional military aid to Israel over the next 10 years. Such a
total would represent a 25% increase in the already large-scale arms
shipments to Israeli forces under the Bush administration.

Obama has thus far failed to realize that the problem in the Middle
East is that there are too many deadly weapons in the region, not too
few. Instead of simply wanting Israel to have an adequate deterrent
against potential military threats, Obama insists the United States
should guarantee that Israel maintain a qualitative military advantage.
Thanks to this overwhelming advantage over its neighbors, Israeli
forces were able to launch devastating wars against Israel's
Palestinian and Lebanese neighbors in recent years.

If Israel were in a strategically vulnerable situation, Obama's
hard-line position might be understandable. But Israel already has
vastly superior conventional military capabilities relative to any
combination of armed forces in the region, not to mention a nuclear

However, Obama has failed to even acknowledge Israel's nuclear
arsenal of at least 200-300 weapons, which has been documented for
decades. When Hearst reporter Helen Thomas asked at his first press
conference if he could name any Middle Eastern countries that possess
nuclear weapons, he didn't even try to answer the question. Presumably,
Obama knows Israel has these weapons and is located in the Middle East.
However, acknowledging Israel's arsenal could complicate his planned
arms transfers since it would place Israel in violation of the 1976 Symington Amendment, which restricts U.S. military support for governments which develop nuclear weapons.

Another major obstacle to Amnesty's calls for suspending military
assistance is Congress. Republican leaders like Representatives John
Boehner (OH) and Eric Cantor (VA) have long rejected calls by human
rights groups to link U.S. military aid to adherence to internationally
recognized human rights standards. But so have such Democratic leaders,
such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who
are outspoken supporters of unconditional military aid to Israel. Even
progressive Democratic Representative Barney Frank (MA), at a press
conference on February 24 pushing his proposal to reduce military
spending by 25%, dismissed a question regarding conditioning Israel's military aid package to human rights concerns.

Indeed, in an apparent effort to support their militaristic agenda
and to discredit reputable human rights groups that documented
systematic Israeli attacks against non-military targets, these
congressional leaders and an overwhelming bipartisan majority of their
colleagues have gone on record praising
"Israel's longstanding commitment to minimizing civilian loss
and...efforts to prevent civilian casualties." Although Obama remained
silent while Israel was engaged in war crimes against the civilian
population of Gaza, Pelosi and other congressional leaders rushed to Israel's defense in the face of international condemnation.

Obama's Defense of Israeli Attacks on Civilians

Following the 2006 conflict between Israeli armed forces and the
Hezbollah militia, in which both sides committed war crimes by engaging
in attacks against populated civilian areas, then-Senator Obama
defended Israel's actions and criticized Hezbollah, even though Israel
was actually responsible for far more civilian deaths. In an apparent
attempt to justify Israeli bombing of civilian population centers,
Obama claimed Hezbollah had used "innocent people as shields."

This charge directly challenged a series of reports from Amnesty
International and Human Rights Watch. These reports found that while
Hezbollah did have some military equipment close to some civilian
areas, the Lebanese Islamist militia had not forced civilians to remain
in or around military targets in order to deter Israel from attacking
those targets. I sent Obama spokesperson Ben LaBolt a copy of an
exhaustive 249-page Human Rights Watch report
that didn't find a single case - out of 600 civilian deaths
investigated - of Hezbollah using human shields. I asked him if Obama
had any empirical evidence that countered these findings.

In response, LaBolt provided me with a copy of a short report from a
right-wing Israeli think tank with close ties to the Israeli government
headed by the former head of the Israeli intelligence service. The
report appeared to use exclusively Israeli government sources, in
contrast to the Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports,
which were based upon forensic evidence as well as multiple verified
eyewitness accounts by both Lebanese living in the areas under attack
as well as experienced monitors (unaffiliated with any government or
political organization) on the ground. Despite several follow-up emails
asking for more credible sources, LaBolt never got back to me.

Not Good for Israel

The militaristic stance by Congress and the Obama administration is
hardly doing Israel a favor. Indeed, U.S. military assistance to Israel
has nothing to do with Israel's legitimate security needs. Rather than
commencing during the country's first 20 years of existence, when
Israel was most vulnerable strategically, major U.S. military and
economic aid didn't even begin until after the 1967 War, when Israel
proved itself to be far stronger than any combination of Arab armies
and after Israeli occupation forces became the rulers of a large
Palestinian population.

If all U.S. aid to Israel were immediately halted, Israel wouldn't
be under a significantly greater military threat than it is today for
many years. Israel has both a major domestic arms industry and an
existing military force far more capable and powerful than any
conceivable combination of opposing forces.

Under Obama, U.S. military aid to Israel will likely continue be
higher than it was back in the 1970s, when Egypt's massive and
well-equipped armed forces threatened war, Syria's military rapidly
expanded with advanced Soviet weaponry, armed factions of the PLO
launched terrorist attacks into Israel, Jordan still claimed the West
Bank and stationed large numbers of troops along its border and
demarcation line with Israel, and Iraq embarked on a vast program of
militarization. Why does the Obama administration believe that Israel
needs more military aid today than it did back then? Since that time,
Israel has maintained a longstanding peace treaty with Egypt and a
large demilitarized and internationally monitored buffer zone. Syria's
armed forces were weakened by the collapse of their former Soviet
patron and its government has been calling for a resumption of peace
talks. The PLO is cooperating closely with Israeli security. Jordan
signed a peace treaty with Israel with full normalized relations. And
two major wars and a decade of strict international sanctions have
devastated Iraq's armed forces, which is in any case now under close
U.S. supervision.

Obama has pledged continued military aid to Israel a full decade
into the future not in terms of how that country's strategic situation
may evolve, but in terms of a fixed-dollar amount. If his real interest
were to provide adequate support for Israeli defense, he wouldn't
promise $30 billion in additional military aid. He would simply pledge
to maintain adequate military assistance to maintain Israel's security
needs, which would presumably decline if the peace process moves
forward. However, Israel's actual defense needs don't appear to be the

According to late Israeli major general and Knesset member Matti
Peled, - who once served as the IDF's chief procurement officer, such
fixed amounts are arrived at "out of thin air." In addition, every
major arms transfer to Israel creates a new demand by Arab states -
most of which can pay hard currency through petrodollars - for
additional U.S. weapons to challenge Israel. Indeed, Israel announced
its acceptance of a proposed Middle Eastern arms freeze in 1991, but
the U.S. government, eager to defend the profits of U.S. arms
merchants, effectively blocked it. Prior to the breakdown in the peace
process in 2001, 78 senators wrote President Bill Clinton insisting
that the United States send additional military aid to Israel on the
grounds of massive arms procurement by Arab states, neglecting to note
that 80% of those arms transfers were of U.S. origin. Were they really
concerned about Israeli security, they would have voted to block these
arms transfers to the Gulf monarchies and other Arab dictatorships.

The resulting arms race has been a bonanza for U.S. arms
manufacturers. The right-wing "pro-Israel" political action committees
certainly wield substantial clout with their contributions to
congressional candidates supportive of large-scale military and
economic aid to Israel. But the Aerospace Industry Association and
other influential military interests that promote massive arms
transfers to the Middle East and elsewhere are even more influential,
contributing several times what the "pro-Israel" PACs contribute.

The huge amount of U.S. aid to the Israeli government hasn't been as
beneficial to Israel as many would suspect. U.S. military aid to Israel
is, in fact, simply a credit line to American arms manufacturers, and
actually ends up costing Israel two to three times that amount in
operator training, staffing, maintenance, and other related costs. The
overall impact is to increase Israeli military dependency on the United
States - and amass record profits for U.S. arms merchants.

The U.S. Arms Export Control Act requires a cutoff of military aid
to recipient countries if they're found to be using American weapons
for purposes other than internal security or legitimate self-defense
and/or their use could "increase the possibility of an outbreak or
escalation of conflict." This might explain Obama's refusal to
acknowledge Israel's disproportionate use of force and high number of
civilian casualties.

Betraying His Constituency

The $30 billion in taxpayer funds to support Israeli militarism
isn't a huge amount of money compared with what has already been wasted
in the Iraq War, bailouts for big banks, and various Pentagon
boondoggles. Still, this money could more profitably go toward needs at
home, such as health care, education, housing, and public

It's therefore profoundly disappointing that there has been so
little public opposition to Obama's dismissal of Amnesty
International's calls to suspend aid to Israel. Some activists I
contacted appear to have fallen into a fatalistic view that the
"Zionist lobby" is too powerful to challenge and that Obama is nothing
but a helpless pawn of powerful Jewish interests. Not only does this
simplistic perspective border on anti-Semitism, it becomes a
self-fulfilling prophecy. Any right-wing militaristic lobby will appear
all-powerful if there isn't a concerted effort from the left to
challenge it.

Obama's supporters must demand that he live up to his promise to
change the mindset in Washington that has contributed to such death and
destruction in the Middle East. The new administration must heed calls
by Amnesty International and other human rights groups to condition
military aid to Israel and all other countries that don't adhere to
basic principles of international humanitarian law.

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