The weeks of intense turmoil in Israel over its future provides an opportunity for the United States to reassess its own policy toward that country. Former U.S. ambassadors and mainstream American columnists are broaching what was previously unthinkable: ending aid to Israel. The heavily indebted United States (federal debt owned by the public has reached nearly 100 percent of U.S. GDP) provides almost $4 billion in annual military aid to a rich country that has long been able to afford to pay for its own defense. Ending that largesse is long overdue.
Both sides in the current maelstrom of protest over weakening the Israeli Supreme Court, the only remaining check on the country’s parliament, are arguing that they are promoting democracy. That is not really true. Only the ultranationalist/religious Right-controlled parliament is strengthening democracy by trying to weaken the court by mandating that it no longer can strike down parliament-passed laws by ruling them “unreasonable.” The secular/pluralist side of the debate, despite their rhetoric, is really fighting for more democracy by trying to keep the one republican feature of Israel’s parliamentary system: a strong Supreme Court.
As the U.S. founders realized, unconstrained democracy is to be feared. It is no surprise that the Biden administration and many American Jews and supporters of Israel—used to the American written constitution (Israel has none) providing republican checks and balances to constrain raw majority power, that is, pure democracy—are uncomfortable with the Israeli ultranationalist/religious Right’s attempt to weaken the court and institute what could become a tyranny of the majority. Unlike Israel, the United States has many built-in safeguards to check majority power: a bicameral legislature, an independent executive with a veto over legislation, federalism that allows state governments to govern on many issues, a Bill of Rights that majorities at the federal and state level are not supposed to trample on, and a Supreme Court that is supposed to uphold those rights. Israel, however, has only a Supreme Court to sometimes temper parliamentary excesses and stick up for at least some rights.
The secular pluralist republicans in Israel fear that, with a weakened court, the rights of certain groups not favored by the ultranationalist/religious faction will be crushed by the unchecked parliamentary majority. Among the groups likely to be harmed are Israeli Arabs (about 20 percent of the population) and Palestinians in the West Bank. Although Israel is a democracy of sorts, it is not for those groups, who are treated as second-class citizens. The Israeli parliament, constrained less by a weakened court, would likely further erode the rights of Israeli Arabs, allow more Israeli settlers to take more of Palestinian land, or even attempt to annex the West Bank.
Most of these Israeli policies, which many Americans are uncomfortable with, are ongoing. But they could be accelerated with the demise of a court that occasionally stops or attenuates especially egregious Israeli government policies toward these disadvantaged groups. One would think that $4 billion in annual military aid give the United States leverage to moderate Israeli behavior toward both groups of Arabs. It hasn’t. In fact, continued U.S. aid—even when Israel has essentially locked up Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza for years and controlled their movement and trade, while it has stalled the creation of a promised Palestinian state and allowed Israeli settlers to grab ever more Palestinian land in the West Bank—implicitly condones Israel’s bad behavior and even funds military forces that can be used to sustain this human rights travesty.
Washington should end the almost $4 billion a year in military aid not just for all these reasons, but also because Israel has grown rich and can fund its own armed forces. The country now ranks 24th in the world in income per capita, right up there with other rich developed countries in Europe, East Asia, and the Persian Gulf. The country no longer needs the aid—it even should be embarrassing to the wealthy Israelis—and implies U.S. agreement with objectionable policies toward Palestinians and Israeli Arabs.
Ivan Eland is a senior fellow with the Independent Institute and author of War and the Rogue Presidency.