In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama pledged to "go through the budget line by line to eliminate programs that we can't afford and don't work." One week later, he sent his FY2011 budget request to Congress, which included a record-breaking $3 billion in military aid to Israel.
This requested increase in U.S. weapons to Israel -- part of a ten-year $30 billion agreement signed between the two countries in 2007 -- qualifies on both counts as a program that the United States can't afford and that doesn't work in establishing a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Data published recently by the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation shows that U.S. military aid to Israel comes at a financial and moral price that this country cannot afford to pay. Its website reveals that this same $3 billion earmark for Israel could be used instead to provide more than 364,000 low-income households with affordable housing vouchers, or to retrain 498,000 workers for green jobs, or to provide early reading programs to 887,000 at-risk students, or to provide access to primary health care services for more than 24 million uninsured Americans.
If U.S. weapons were going to Israel for a good purpose, then perhaps a coherent guns versus butter debate would be appropriate. However, Israel repeatedly misuses U.S. weapons to commit grave human rights abuses against Palestinians who are forced to live under its illegal 42-year military occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip.
During the Bush Administration, Israel killed at least 3,107 innocent Palestinian civilians, according to the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem. Israel also injured thousands more innocent Palestinians and destroyed billions of dollars of Palestinian civilian infrastructure including homes, schools, factories, government buildings, and even Palestine's only airport. The severity and scale of this killing and destruction were made possible by hi-tech U.S. weapons provided to Israel at taxpayer expense.
And during Obama's first year in office, Israel continued to misuse its stock of U.S. weapons to entrench its apartheid policies toward Palestinians by maintaining its illegal blockade of the Gaza Strip -- collectively punishing its 1.5 million Palestinian residents by severely restricting the flow of humanitarian relief -- and building illegal Israeli-only colonies on stolen Palestinian land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
It was exactly to prevent this kind of misuse of U.S. weapons that Congress passed the Arms Export Control Act, which strictly limits foreign countries from employing U.S. weapons for any purpose other than "internal security" or "legitimate self-defense." Building apartheid walls and colonies to maintain a foreign military occupation, enforcing a medieval blockade, and killing and injuring innocent civilians by the thousands certainly cannot be considered legitimate and is self-evidently not for domestic security.
Yet despite this clear misuse of U.S. weapons by Israel -- most evident recently during its December 2008-January 2009 attack on the Gaza Strip which killed more than 1,300 Palestinians in just three weeks -- both Congress and the Obama Administration have failed miserably to hold Israel accountable for its violations of the Arms Export Control Act and cut off weapons flows to it as required by the law.
A few lonely voices on Capitol Hill -- such as Rep. Brian Baird, Rep. Keith Ellison, and Rep. Dennis Kucinich -- have spoken up bravely and truthfully about the consequences of U.S. weapons transferred to Israel, which a 2009 Amnesty International report cited as literally "fuelling" the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Unfortunately, President Obama has paid no heed to these Members of Congress. When questioned at a recent town hall meeting in Tampa about the impact of U.S. military aid to Israel on Palestinian civilians, the normally articulate Obama appeared visibly flummoxed before sputtering, "Look, look, look, the Middle East is obviously an issue that has plagued the region for centuries." He then proceeded to duck the question with platitudes about peace.
The President's non-response to the question demonstrates that politicians prefer to turn a blind eye to the obvious incompatibility of trying to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace while giving Israel the weapons it needs to maintain its illegal occupation of Palestinian lands.
Before Congress gets to work on the President's budget request and considers transferring an additional $3 billion in weapons to Israel, it is long past overdue for the United States to reconsider whether we can afford this policy any longer.