For some answers, we turned to Brigadier General (retired) Amir Avivi
Would the US-Israel relationship be healthier if Israel reduced its dependence on US military aid? Would Israel then be freer to act in its own interests, and would American administrations be less patronizing? There is a recent precedent: Binyamin Netanyahu and Bill Clinton agreed to a ten-year phase-out of American economic aid from 1997 to 2007. Israel’s economy has only flourished since then; however, portions of the sums cut from economic aid were transferred to Israel’s annual military aid package, which now runs at $3.8 billion a year through 2027. At current exchange rates, that $3.8 billion equals NIS 12 billion, some 20% of Israel’s annual NIS 58 billion defense budget.
While new governments in the US and Israel try to paper over policy differences, the two allies are oceans apart on how to approach Iran’s nuclear program and the most effective ways of fostering Arab-Israeli peace. Concern has grown in Israel, especially after the Afghanistan debacle, that the US is no longer the reliable ally it used to be.
With all that in mind, is it time for Israel to reduce its dependence on US military aid? What are the pros and cons?
For some answers, we turned to Brigadier General (retired) Amir Avivi, who served 30 years in the IDF, including stints as commander of forces in Gaza and as aide-de-camp to former IDF chief of staff Moshe “Boogie” Yaalon. After concluding his active service, Avivi headed the IDF’s auditing and consulting department, where he was at the heart of the policymaking process. Since his retirement in 2017, he founded a nonpartisan defense and security forum — Habithonistim — whose goal is to educate and advocate for Israel’s national security needs and Middle East policies.
Can Israel possibly phase out or cut entirely the $3.8 billion a year it receives from the US and still maintain the type of military force it requires?
“First of all, the strategic relationship with the US is very important for Israel. We want to maintain it. Having said that, considering the stage at which Israel is at today, with its very strong economy, I think the time has come for us not to be dependent on any country, not even the US. I believe we need to change the formula and build a different type of relationship based on common interests, projects, and developments, one in which the US contributes funding and Israel contributes know-how.
“What we’re doing now creates a lot of problems. First of all, we cannot buy from anyone else. Apart from the submarines that the Navy is buying mainly from Germany, Israel cannot procure anything from anybody else. We are completely dependent on the US. The arrangement affects our defense industries, because the money we get from the US needs to be invested back in America. It creates political consequences, in that when the US wants to influence what’s going on in Israel, they use their military aid as leverage.”
How does Israel wiggle out of this?
“We need to be more diversified. The US will always be Israel’s leading partner, and there is a lot we can do together. But if we decide to invest more in our own defense industries, and if we can procure from more than one country, we can improve our overall relationships with the many growing powers all over the world, such as China, Russia, India, and Japan, and also the Gulf states. Today, China, Russia, and India are moving fast forward with their technological edge. One of the ways the US can compete is by joining hands with Israel in start-ups that can help keep the US competitive in core technologies, such as artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, or supersonic advanced missile development. There is a lot to do together, and I think we should do it as partners.”
How would the current US-Israel relationship be affected if all of a sudden Israel starts buying and selling weapons to and from Russia and China, who are both major rivals?
“Before we even talk about China, let’s be clear — we’re not even buying from Britain. We’re not buying from anybody else. We need to be free to decide about whom we buy from and when. I’m not saying we won’t continue to buy mostly from the US, but we need to rely on our own industries. And we cannot live with a situation like we had in 2014, when we were fighting in Gaza, and we lacked several munitions. We asked the Obama administration for them, and they didn’t give it to us, in the middle of a battle. This is not something we can live with. Israel’s basic strategic capabilities need to be based in Israel.”
Even if Israel were independent of the US militarily, what would stop the US from deciding not to sell us weapons in the middle of a war out of concern that it might harm American interests?
“But then we could buy from somebody else. Today it’s not even an option. When I look back at our history, people forget that between 1948 to 1967, we were under an American embargo. I cannot say what the relationship will be in 20 years. Who knows? No one can say who will be president, or what will be in Congress. But just look at the amount of anti-Semitism you see now in the leading American universities. That’s the environment in which the future leaders of the US are being educated. How it will project out in 20 or 30 years, I have no idea.
“The Jewish People cannot put all their eggs in one basket. It’s about us, it’s about our survival. So while, again, it’s a very important relationship, and even if it remains our leading strategic relationship, Israel must open up and have other good relationships, as we have today with India. In the past we had a good military relationship with Turkey. Maybe after Erdogan, it will come back. We have good relations with Russia, although we are not procuring weapons from them. We have good relations with many countries in Europe, which are very important centers today, especially the Eastern bloc, Italy, and Greece, and so on. It’s important to stay friendly with as many countries as possible.”
Are there any countries who buy weapons from the US, with few or no strings attached, that can serve as a model for Israel to follow?
“Any country that doesn’t rely on US assistance is free to procure from anybody. The Gulf states — mainly the UAE, for example — buy top-of-the-line American weapons, but they also procure from other places, because they are not dependent.”
So how did Israel get habituated like this?
“This started with the Camp David agreement with the Egyptians [in 1978]. The Egyptians were promised a lot of money before signing the peace agreement with Israel to build Egyptian civic institutions, but also to build their military.
[Part of the Camp David deal called for Israel to receive a larger allotment of military aid than Egypt, to maintain a qualitative edge over Arab nations —Ed.]
“At that time, in Israel there was a feeling after the 1973 Yom Kippur War that we were almost destroyed, and that we really needed to build a huge army, really fast. This required a lot of money. The US provided it, and since then, we fell in love with this money we get every year. But think about Israel’s economy in 1973 and the economy we have today. It’s something completely different.”
Can Israel afford to go it alone today, or would it be too great of a sacrifice?
“Nothing is easy, but it would be a good investment. When you invest in your own industry, you create jobs and you create a lot of new technologies that you can sell and profit from. So we need to look at the overall picture of what it would mean to invest NIS 10 billion more every year in our own industries. It will pay off big time, in sales and in employment of some very able people.
“It won’t be easy in the beginning. I’m not saying to cut it off at once, but we can build a plan over ten years. We are doing amazing projects, for example, with Singapore, who is investing huge amounts of money in Israel to develop different capabilities. Why not do it together with the US to develop some very interesting capabilities and core technologies?”
Can Israel afford to finance major purchases such as the F-35 out of its own budget?
“It is not an amount of money that we cannot afford. It’s spread out over five years. [The new government] wants to give the Arab party in the Knesset 50 billion shekels? If they can give them 50 billion, they can probably spend it also on our military industries. It’s not something beyond Israel’s capacity to pay for. Especially if we have revenues from investing in our own industries, as I’ve said. So if you look at it only as spending, you might say this is problematic. But I’m not looking at it as an expenditure, I’m looking at it as an investment that will create money.”
Has anyone crunched the numbers and done a serious study on the financial and economic benefits of Israel investing an additional NIS 10 billion a year in our own defense industries and see how much we will end up earning, including from exports?
“I don’t know of any serious study, and I think it should be done. Common sense says it’s going to be profitable, considering the new agreements we could sign, and how much money the Americans would invest in mutual projects, like we are doing with Singapore, on projects that will be beneficial for both sides.”
I’ve heard that many former IDF officers don’t want Israel to cut its military umbilical cord with the US, because when they retire from the army, they get high-paying jobs representing US military companies in Israel. For them, it would be a significant loss of income. Is that a factor Israel needs to take into account, and would there be a strong domestic lobby against Israel extricating itself from US aid?
“For sure there will be a very strong lobby against a move like that. But Israel has to do what’s best for Israel. It’s something that we really need to discuss in depth and decide.”
What could Israel possibly develop that it hasn’t already developed? Should we bring the Lavi fighter jet back? Can we develop a new type of tank, or other weapons that are more lethal than what we have now?
“I’m not sure we need to produce our own plane. I’m not sure it makes sense. When you produce something, you need to make sure it’s something you can export. That’s how our defense industry works now. We try to be experts in areas where we can sell all over the world. The local market is usually not more than 20 to 30 percent, and at least 70 percent goes for export.
“As far as tanks are concerned, maybe in the 1970s and 1980s the tank was the main platform. Now we have cyber and air defenses that have become dominant. I’m also very worried about procuring the munitions themselves. This is a big deal. How many air defense missiles do we have to cope with all these rockets that are being shot at us? How many bombs does the Air Force have? How fast can we produce them? If we are talking about core military capabilities, then we need to be able to produce them here.”
Do you feel the political will exists to cut military dependency from the US? It seems as if mainly the political left — but not exclusively so — try to prey on Israel’s feelings of vulnerability. They claim that America is Israel’s only friend, and therefore, Israel must bow to American dictates. Can Israel afford to abandon a system that’s worked for over 40 years?
“When you look at history in the long term, the world is constantly changing, and relationships are shifting all the time. My basic notion is that we need to be ready for any scenario, and to do that, we need to make and keep as many good relationships as possible.
“I don’t agree with the idea that Israel doesn’t have a lot of good relationships in the world. We do, and today, the world is mainly interested in innovation and technology. This is what Israel has to offer, and everybody wants it. Every economy needs technology and energy supplies. Israel is also becoming an energy supplier, surprisingly enough. So there are many reasons why we can have very good relations with many countries and still always make sure that the strongest country on the planet remains a friend of ours.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 879)
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