By Emily Manna
A new Amnesty International report released on February 27th calls on the United States and the European Union to suspend military aid to Israel, following what it calls a “harrowing pattern of unlawful killing” committed by Israeli security forces in the West Bank. The report details the killings of 22 Palestinian civilians in 2013, and reveals that more than 8,000 Palestinian civilians in the West Bank – 1,500 of them children – were severely wounded by rubber-coated metal bullets and improper use of tear gas over the past three years. Conditioning US military aid to Israel on the end of such violations of Palestinian human rights would serve American security interests in the Middle East.
The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) criticized the report for “ignor[ing] the substantial increase in Palestinian violence over the past year,” but charges like those made in the report, of excessive force and human rights abuses committed by the IDF, are not new. Both international human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and domestic Israeli ones, such as B’Tselem, have consistently criticized Israeli security forces for violations of human rights over the decades. In a report summarizing Palestinian terrorism in 2013, the Israeli security service Shin Bet asserted that attacks from the West Bank nearly doubled last year, and it attributed the increase to a weakening of the Palestinian Authority and its ability to control violence. According to Amnesty, however, none of the civilians killed appeared to pose a direct threat to life. At least 14 of those killed were protestors, and several were shot in the back.
US Military Aid to Israel
The US has long maintained that its unconditional military support for Israel is in the interest of both Israeli and American security. The US has provided a total of $118 billion (non-inflation-adjusted) in aid to Israel since its creation – most of which is military – making it the largest cumulative recipient of US aid.
The allegations made in the Amnesty report and by other human rights organizations in the past could make US military assistance illegal under Section 620M of the Foreign Assistance Act, which forbids the US government from providing military assistance to “any country which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.” These violations include torture, detention without trial, forced disappearances, and other “flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, and the security of person” (see this B’Tselem report and this UNICEF report for examples of other allegations of Israeli violations of the law).
Questions of legality aside, the US has a strategic interest in placing conditions on its military aid to Israel. Although conventional wisdom suggests that Israel’s strategic importance and shared values make its relationship with the US untouchable, conditioning military aid on increased IDF accountability and a more serious attempt at peace talks with Palestinians would serve American security interests in the Middle East and around the world.
No Security Without Conditions
Assuming that the goals for US strategy in the Middle East include stabilizing the region, strengthening key alliances with Arab states, and reducing the threat of terrorism – all for the purpose of American peace and security – then holding Israel accountable for its human rights violation is a necessary precursor to success. Although the US would take a gamble by challenging its strongest ally in the Middle East, Israel is facing some of the greatest security threats and global isolation in its history, and is unlikely to risk losing the support of its most powerful friend by defying conditions on aid.
If the US hopes to improve its image and support among the region’s populations, and by extension any future democratic leaderships, it must first gain credibility in its handling of regional alliances. Even less democratic governments are not immune from public pressures, as evidenced by the Arab Spring uprisings, and can more overtly support the United States if US policy was viewed more favorably in the region. As Arab world expert James Zogby stated in a 2011 CNN interview: “We’re not unpopular in Egypt because we supported Mubarak. He was unpopular because he supported us on Iraq. He supported us on the Gaza situation…And that created problems of legitimacy for his government, as it has for other governments in the region. So I think we have to start listening to Arab voices and understand they’re paying attention to what we do and how we treat them.”
The status quo, in which Egypt is (appropriately) pressured to respect human rights and democratic values through suspension of US military aid but Israel’s aid is never questioned, breeds an image of the United States as an unfair peace broker and hypocritical actor in the region. Furthermore, effective US support for Israeli violations of Palestinian rights makes resolving the conflict more difficult, thereby contributing to regional instability. In poll after poll, in the Middle East and around the world, America’s handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to be one of the chief criticisms of US foreign policy.
Perhaps most importantly to both the US and Israel, holding Israel accountable would deal a blow to terrorist groups who use popular discontent with America’s de facto backing of Israel’s violations as a recruiting tool. American security leaders such as former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and retired US Army General David Petraeus have for years warned that the continued failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process fuels anti-American extremism and makes achieving US objectives in the Middle East significantly more difficult. They’ve also noted that America’s primary regional foe, Iran, has been able to grow its influence in the region because of the perpetuation of the conflict.
In the current round of peace talks, Secretary of State John Kerry has made little progress in establishing a viable framework for negotiations, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to halt settlement construction despite the declaration of settlements as “illegal” by the United Nations and “illegitimate” by the United States. Of course, the Palestinian Authority shares the burden of ensuring that any talks are productive, but Israel’s continued settlement expansion prevents the process from even beginning in a serious manner. As Jeffrey Goldberg wrote of his in-depth interview on the subject with President Obama last Thursday, “Obama made it clear that he views Abbas as the most politically moderate leader the Palestinians may ever have. It seemed obvious to me that the president believes that the next move is Netanyahu’s.”
Frustrated with the stagnation of the process and the seeming lack of urgency on the Israeli side of the talks, Kerry remarked in November that “there will be an increasing feeling that if we cannot get peace with a leadership that is committed to non-violence, you may wind up with leadership that is committed to violence.” The Shin Bet report referenced above, which blames a weakened Palestinian Authority for increased terrorist attacks out of the West Bank, supports Kerry’s warning. In his interview with Goldberg, President Obama made a similar point: “If you see no peace deal and continued aggressive settlement construction — and we have seen more aggressive settlement construction over the last couple years than we’ve seen in a very long time – if Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited.”
As the Center for Strategic and International Studies stated in its report, Crossroads: The Future of the US-Israel Strategic Partnership, Israeli and American security interests have grown increasingly divergent in recent years. The places where they continue to intersect, however, are finding a permanent solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and reducing the threat of extremism in the Middle East. The United States also has an interest in seeing its relationships and image in the region stabilize and improve. As President Obama prepares to make a personal attempt at resuming the peace process, he should consider using military aid to Israel as leverage to bring the parties together for serious talks. In doing so, he would strengthen our strategic positioning in the region and start down the path of restoring US standing as a global leader in human rights and democratic values.