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After failed peace talks, US aid to Israel questioned

Despite giving Israel $3 billion in military aid a year, US lacks leverage.

Israel Palestine
An Israeli soldier prays on his tank during a military exercise near the Israeli town of Katzrin, in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, on Nov. 10, 2009. (Menaham Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

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JERUSALEM, Israel — The role of the United States as the largest single donor to both Israel and the Palestinians was thrown into sharp relief last November when the Israeli government rejected 20 U.S. F35 Joint Strike Fighter jets worth $2.75 billion in return for extending a West Bank settlement freeze by 90 days.

The offer — some called it a “bribe” — of military material equal in value to nearly an entire year’s worth of U.S. aid to Israel, renewed questions about the purpose of U.S. aid in the region and whether it might be more effectively deployed to better serve American strategic interests.

Israel receives more U.S. foreign aid than any other country, now around $3 billion every year. It is used only for military purposes — Israel voluntarily gave up U.S. civil aid more than a decade ago. Seventy percent of the aid is earmarked for purchases from U.S. companies.

According to the State Department’s latest budget justification for foreign operations, “U.S. assistance will help ensure that Israel maintains its qualitative military edge over potential threats, and prevent a shift in the security balance of the region. U.S. assistance is also aimed at ensuring for Israel the security it requires to make concessions necessary for comprehensive regional peace.”

This alliance is expressed in regular joint military training exercises, intelligence-sharing, a free trade agreement between the two countries, regular White House visits by Israeli leaders and frequent top-level consultations at all levels of government and the military.

In a secret cable setting the scene for a visit to Israel by Deputy Secretary of State James B. Steinberg in November 2009, published by WikiLeaks, James B. Cunningham, the U.S. Ambassador in Tel Aviv, reported that “Israelis from the prime minister on down to the average citizen are deeply appreciative of the strong security and mil-mil cooperation with the U.S. The U.S.-Israeli security relationship remains strong … The United States remains committed to Israel's Qualitative Military Edge.”

The United States, meanwhile, is also the single largest donor to the Palestinian Authority — a point underlined by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she pointed out recently that wealthy Arab states had failed to honor millions of dollars in pledges to the Palestinians made at donor conferences. In 2010 the United States earmarked $500 million in direct assistance and a further $228 million for Palestinian refugees through the United Nations.

“U.S. aid is important in terms of size and also in political importance,” a Palestinian Authority official told GlobalPost, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The money that we receive from the U.S. is almost 30 percent of the donor aid that comes to Palestine.”

The official welcomed U.S. President Barack Obama’s tougher policy on settlement building and his efforts to push Israel to conclude a peace deal, but said it seemed hampered by the “domestic complications” of being firm with Israel.

“The American administration is pushing with all of its strength to try to reach a settlement and basically achieve some progress at the political level. Unfortunately all of these efforts have been unsuccessful so far, but we continue to be hopeful,” the official said.

After the F35 debacle in November, Andrew Sullivan suggested in the Huffington Post that it was time to end the aid “because a) Israel doesn't need it and b) we need the money and c) it doesn't seem sensible to me to keep rewarding an ally that refuses to offer minimal cooperation.”

“It's time for the U.S. to assert its own interests and goals,” Sullivan argued.