Just how much aid does the US give Israel?

In this election year, United States financial help for Israel ''was almost totally a noncontroversial affair,'' says Michael Granoff, a congressional aide.

David Sadd wants to change that. He hopes to stir up a national debate over the level of US aid to Israel. As executive director of the National Association of Arab Americans, Mr. Sadd is hardly neutral on this subject. He holds that most Americans are unaware of the amount and scale of US financial assistance for Israel.

Israel has hinted it will ask Congress next year for a major increase in its aid level to help it deal with an economic crisis, and Sadd says he plans a national advertising campaign to bring this to the public's attention.

When Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres met with President Reagan earlier this month, the two agreed to set up a ''joint economic development group'' of officials from both countries. The group, which holds a preliminary meeting this week, will discuss the level of US aid and ways to remedy Israel's economic woes.

Sadd charges that the level of aid to Israel is ''skyrocketing'' and asks whether this is fair to US taxpayers. Backers of Israel say the aid is only catching up with inflation.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a lobbying group supporting Israel, contends that ''aid to Israel is vital to United States foreign policy objectives in the Middle East and important to Israel's survival as a free and independent ally.''

''The political, military, and economic interests of the United States,'' the committee says, ''are served by a strong alignment with Israel, the only politically stable democratic ally in the region. Foreign assistance is essential for sustaining and continuing the Middle East peace process. It represents America's ongoing investment in peace.''

AIPAC also contends that Israel is the only country in the region willing and able to oppose Soviet expansionism in the Middle East and that Israel repeatedly provides the US with ''unique and valuable information on the performance of Soviet equipment in battle.''

Is America's relationship with Israel worth a high level of aid? That question is deeply felt by Arabs and Israelis and may continue to elude a final answer. But here, for the record, are the numbers on aid to Israel:

The US will give Israel $2.6 billion this fiscal year (which started Oct. 1) - $1.2 billion of grants in foreign aid and $1.4 billion in military assistance. This is $11 for every American, or an average of $21.66 per taxpayer. That also comes to $672 for each of Israel's 3,870,000 people - far more per capita than any other nation gets in US aid.

This year Congress made the entire amount a grant. Last year $850,000 of the military assistance was a loan, although the total aid was also $2.6 billion. Over the years, a gradually increasing proportion of aid to Israel has been given as grants rather than loans.

Since 1980, the US has given $29 billion to Israel, of which $11 billion was in loans and the rest in grants. Israel still owes the US about $9 billion. A legislative provision earlier this month said it is ''the policy and intention'' of the US that annual foreign aid to Israel not fall below the payments of interest and principal owed by Israel in a given year. Sadd argues this is the same as forgiveness; Israel backers deny that.

Also, Congress required that the Reagan administration make all of the $1.2 billion in foreign aid available to Israel in the current quarter of the fiscal year. For most countries, aid is spread out over a fiscal year. Giving it this way right away saves Israel interest charges and helps its cash-flow problem.

Mr. Sadd, formerly an investment banker on Wall Street, maintains that the real cost of grants is three times that of the loans the US has made to Israel in the past. Sadd's calculation assumes an annual interest rate of 10 percent for such loans. In fact, Israel has paid on its mostly 30-year loans whatever interest the US Treasury pays when it borrows, plus a small service charge.

''I fail to see the logic of (Sadd's argument),'' says a lobbyist for Israel, speaking anonymously. Nonetheless, grants are more valuable than loans, he concedes, and argues that ''the whole theory of aid is to help friends in trouble.''

If Sadd is right, the $2.6 billion in grants this year really costs American taxpayers $7.8 billion. For fiscal 1986, Prime Minister Peres has hinted Israel might seek $4 billion in aid.

Here's another complication: Because of the Camp David treaty, whenever the US steps up aid to Israel, it feels obliged to increase assistance to Egypt, too. This fiscal year Congress gave Egypt $1.99 billion in foreign aid and military assistance, both for the first time as grants.

Then there is ''consequential aid,'' says Thomas R. Stauffer, a visiting economics professor at the Diplomatic Academy in Vienna in an article written for the Middle East Institute. This includes about $125 million per year for the multinational force along the Israel-Egypt border and part of the $67 million the US sends the UN refugee program, which aids Palestinian refugees, among others.

Another American support for Israel is the flow of private, largely tax-deductible funds. Mr. Stauffer puts this flow of charitable money at around is the United Jewish Appeal, but there are a number of smaller ones. Charities recognized under Israeli law are given tax-free status in the US, a privilege not granted charities registered in other nations.

Taking into consideration other nongovernmental flows of US money into Israel , Stauffer estimates the cost in lost tax revenues to the US Treasury at about $ 500 million a year.

And there are other benefits the US gives Israel. Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger recently set a flat rate of $100 million, for three months starting Oct. 31, in ''offsets'' of military assistance (permitting Israel to require US defense contractors to place that amount of business in Israel). If carried at the same rate for a full year, these would amount to 28.5 percent of US arms aid to Israel. The US government, as a result, may receive less in personal income taxes and corporate taxes, depending on the impact of offsets on defense companies' profits.

Other forms of aid to Israel: joint research-and-development funds; low-interest Export-Import Bank loans; access to US military technology (Mr. Weinberger just approved release of technology for Israel's new Lavi fighter aircraft, which will compete with the American-made Northrop F-20); monetary support for emigration of Soviet Jews to Israel; and support for Israel's military sales to third countries.

Depending on what an analyst includes, US aid is far more than the nominal $2 .6 billion for this fiscal year.

From the standpoint of the Israelis, the $2.6 billion of US aid is about 10 percent of total national output and offsets imports of defense equipment that run about 7 or 8 percent of gross national product.

Without US aid, Israel's per capita income of about $6,600 (about half of that of the average American) would be drastically cut.

Next:The U S Israel free-trade area.

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