Why U.S. Security Assistance to Israel Hasn’t Led to Security

On Oct. 18, I resigned from the State Department because I could not support the provision of U.S. weapons into the conflict in Gaza, where I knew that they would be used to kill thousands of civilians. I saw no willingness to re-evaluate a long-term policy that has not led to peace and has actually undermined both regional stability and Israeli security.

How can military assistance to Israel undermine Israeli security? This is a question I grappled with for many years in the State Department’s political-military affairs bureau and in a previous role as an adviser for the U.S. security coordinator, in which I worked across the West Bank. In that role, I commuted frequently between Ramallah and Jerusalem to advance the road map for peace that the George W. Bush administration truly believed would finally lead to a two-state solution.

The United States currently provides Israel with at least $3.8 billion in annual military assistance, the most to any country per year, with the recent exception of Ukraine. High levels of assistance date back roughly to the 1970s and reflect a longstanding American bargain with Israel of security for peace — the notion that the more secure Israel feels, the more concessions it will be able to make to the Palestinians. Since the mid-1990s, the United States has also been a major sponsor of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority Security Forces, providing training and equipment on the theory that as the Palestinians stand up, the Israelis can stand down.

In both cases, the rationale for U.S. security assistance is fatally flawed.

On the Israeli side, blind U.S. security guarantees have not provided a path to peace. Instead, they have provided Israel with the reassurance that it can engage in increasingly destructive efforts, such as the expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank, without any real consequences. At the same time, Israel has become a global leader in weapons exports and boasts one of the most technologically sophisticated militaries in the world. All of these factors have created a sense among Israeli policymakers that they can indefinitely contain — physically and politically — the Palestinian question.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the recent efforts, driven by the United States, first under the Trump administration and continuing under President Biden, to pursue normalization between Israel and the Arab world. While in many ways this normalization is long overdue, it has been premised on the notion that economic incentives — and a shared regional security interest in deterring malign Iranian influence — can integrate Israel, indefinite occupation and all, into the Arab world.

This premise has been shattered — likely intentionally on Hamas’s part — by the Gaza conflict and its rapid recentering of the Palestinian cause on a global stage. As much as the United States, Israel and Arab leaders such as Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, would like to frame security in pragmatic, nation-to-nation terms, Arab populations still care deeply about the fate of the Palestinians. As civilian deaths in Gaza and the West Bank continue to mount, it is clear any sort of Saudi normalization agreement with Israel that does not also include substantive progress on a political solution for the Palestinian cause will be difficult to advance.

U.S. military assistance to Israel in recent years has not only disregarded the regional policy context but also the framework the United States relies on to consider human rights concerns everywhere else it provides such assistance. Under the Leahy laws, the United States is prohibited from providing security assistance to any unit that is credibly accused of having committed a gross violation of human rights. Unlike almost all other recipients, which are vetted along these lines before they receive assistance, for Israel the process is reversed: The assistance is provided, and the United States then waits to receive reports of violations, assessing their credibility through a process known as the Israel Leahy vetting forum, which includes consultation with the government of Israel.

To date, the forum has never come to consensus that any Israeli security force unit or soldier has committed a gross violation of human rights — despite the findings of international human rights organizations that indicate otherwise. This runs contrary to U.S. values (and arguably laws); additionally, the U.S. failure to impose accountability on Israel for such violations may provide Israel with a sense of impunity, increasing the likelihood of gross violations of human rights (including those committed by settlers against Palestinian civilians) and further breaking the trust between Israel and Palestinians that would be needed for any sort of lasting peace.

Meanwhile, U.S.-led efforts to bolster the Palestinian Authority through its security forces have likewise led nowhere, despite the best of intent. This project, an outgrowth of the 1998 Wye River memorandum and the 2003 road map for peace, was intended to allow Israel a security partner that it could have confidence in. In more recent years, the effort has focused solely on the Palestinian Authority.

Working on the ground with the authority, I saw how the major focus of U.S. efforts was to prove to the Israel Defense Forces that their Palestinian counterparts could be trusted to take on the mission of securing Israel. Palestinian intelligence officials would be provided with target information by Israel, and Palestinian forces would be expected to take on missions previously conducted by the Israel Defense Forces to detain those targets. This effort not only undermined Palestinian support for the authority but also failed to convince the Israelis, who saw any Palestinian courts’ (correct) refusal to hold Palestinian detainees without due process as proof of a revolving door in the system.

Even worse, in 2008 and ’09, when Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, which resulted in over 1,300 Palestinian deaths in Gaza, sparked protests in the West Bank, it was the Palestinian Authority Security Forces that physically stood between demonstrators and the Israel Defense Forces. From my balcony in Ramallah, I saw this as a proof of success and reported as much to Washington at the time. In hindsight, it was perhaps the death knell for the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority in the eyes of its people. Regardless, it still does not seem that the authority has earned Israel’s trust; last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unequivocally ruled out the idea of allowing the authority to control Gaza after the war.

If the United States is to continue to employ military and security assistance as a tool of its engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and there are good arguments why it should not), it must change its approach significantly. One way to do this would be simply by applying the laws and policies that it applies to every other country in the world: There is no point in having leverage that could pressure Israel to cease actions that undermine peace if we refuse to even consider using it. The United States could also start conditioning its military assistance to Israel (as it does for many other recipients) on certain verifiable political conditions being met. In Israel’s case, these may include a halt to or dismantling of settlement infrastructure in the West Bank.

Another thing the U.S. might do is consider reframing its security assistance on the Palestinian side to reinforce, rather than undermine, the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority — a task even more vital and even more difficult in the current context, in which the authority is seen as complicit with the occupation, and Hamas is increasingly seen as the standard-bearer of Palestinian resistance. Doing so would require structuring assistance in a way that enables Palestinian society control over its own security forces. It would also require the recognition of Palestinian statehood. But all this could be fully achieved only with the agreement of the Israelis or at least a willingness on their part to decenter their security demands, which would be unlikely without the United States leveraging its military assistance to Israel.

I resigned from my job because I do not believe that U.S. arms should be provided in a situation if we know they are more likely than not — in the words of the Biden administration’s own guiding policy — to lead to or to aggravate the risk of human rights violations, including widespread civilian harm and death.

That is most acutely the case in terms of the munitions — many of them American — currently raining down on the Gaza Strip.

But it is also the case more broadly and will remain so for as long as the U.S. pursues an approach to Israel that is blind to the consequences of that assistance, which enables continuing violations of Palestinian rights across Gaza and the West Bank and in the long term does nothing to provide Israel with the lasting security and peace that all civilians deserve.

Josh Paul is a former director in the State Department’s political-military affairs bureau, which oversees U.S. arms transfers.

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