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Increasing Israel Aid, Cutting Everything Else

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It's no longer news that the one item exempt from cuts in every budget slashing proposal (including Rep. Paul Ryan's "gut Medicare" offering) is aid to Israel.

Actually it is hard to use the word aid about an annual multi-billion dollar gift that goes directly to the Israeli military. That word suggests that the recipient is needy, which the Israeli military most certainly isn't. (Virtually all our aid to Israel is military).

U.S. "aid to Israel is, by far, the largest chunk of our foreign aid budget. That portion of the budget is increased (an extra billion in this year's budget) while real aid programs to the sick, hungry and impoverished in Africa, Asia, and Latin America is always on the budget cutters' chopping block. (Mitt Romney says China should provide non-military foreign aid, not us -- the wealthiest nation on earth).

It's no secret why Israel's gifts from the U.S. are immune. The Israel lobby uses its power to direct campaign contributions to ensure that no Member of Congress, or president for that matter, ever dares suggests that Israel take a hit as Americans do.

You have to wonder why Israel, at least for propaganda purposes, does not offer to accept a cut given that so many Americans are hurting so badly. I suppose the Netanyahu government does not want to establish any precedent by which Israel aid goes any direction but up, regardless of how badly the U.S. economy is doing.

The behavior of the Israeli government and its lobby toward this question reminds me of the scene in Fiddler On The Roof in which a beggar complains to a passerby who just dropped a coin in his cup:

Beggar: One kopeck? Last week you gave me two kopecks.
Donor: I had a bad week.
Beggar: So you had a bad week. Why should I suffer?

That beggar needed a lobby.

Anyone who doubts that the lobby keeps the money flowing to Israel through the selective use of campaign contributions should read this transcript. It is from 1992 and it comes from a tape in which the president of AIPAC boasts to a potential donor (who is secretly recording the conversation) about how AIPAC operates.

The good news is that, at last, the Israel "aid" program is coming under scrutiny, from journalists if not from Congress.

In Thursday's Washington Post, Walter Pincus asks why "the United States put[s] Israel's budget problems aheads of its own."

He takes specific aim at a U.S-Israel deal in which:

the United States will provide an additional $680 million to Israel over three years. The money is meant to help pay for procuring three or four new batteries and interceptors for Israel's Iron Dome short-range rocket defense program. The funds may also be used for the systems after their deployment, according to the report of the House Armed Services Committee on the fiscal 2013 Defense Authorization bill

He also notes that:

(1) The Iron Dome funds, already in legislation before Congress, will be on top of the $3.1 billion in military aid grants being provided to Israel in 2013 and every year thereafter through 2017."

(2) The House committee version of the defense authorization bill... includes another $168 million "requested by [the] Government of Israel to meet its security requirements... This money is to be added to three other missile defense systems that have been under joint development by the United States and Israel. The $168 million is in addition to another $99.9 million requested by the Obama administration for those programs.

I have no problem with the U.S. helping to fund the Iron Dome project, a missile defense system that has proven effective in defending Israeli civilians from missile attacks. I have a weakness for systems that defend civilians anywhere against missile attacks, including Palestinians who are defenseless against Israeli attacks.

But I have to wonder if the overall U.S. aid program for Israel should not be cut in view of the horrific economic conditions here at home. After all, the House has voted to cut $36 billion from nutrition assistance programs, which would kick 2 million people off of food aid, cut benefits for 44 million more, and drop 280,000 low-income children from the free school lunch program.

I am no fan of budget cuts in general but with everything else under the sledgehammer, it is nuts to exempt Israel (nor would it be exempted but for the power of the lobby).

Then there is Pincus' final point.

Although the U.S. is putting $900 million into Israel's missile defense program "the United States has no rights to the technology involved."

Pincus concludes:

So here is the United States, having added to its own deficit by spending funds that it must borrow, helping to procure a missile defense system for Israel, which faces the threat but supposedly can't pay for it alone.

To add insult to injury, Pentagon officials must ask the Israeli government-owned company that is profiting from the weapons sales -- including Iron Dome -- if the United States can have a piece of the action.

Are we the biggest suckers on earth or is it just the irresistible clout of the lobby. Read this transcript and you'll have your answer. Would you want to be the legislator who objects to this arrangement?

Editor's Note: This post has been updated since its original publication.