WASHINGTON — Giving aid to Israel has suddenly become an unexpectedly hot topic in Washington: ``A taboo is being tackled,'' in the words of the Defense and Foreign Policy Journal. The question, first raised by Senator Robert Dole (R) of Kansas in January, is especially dangerous for Israel, because he asks not ``whether'' but, instead, ``how much?'' This issue is dangerous because Israel is conspicuously and uniquely blessed with United States aid - the total figure of US funds for Israel is well over $4 billion per year, from all US sources, plus at least another $2.5 billion in trade privileges.
Actual totals may be higher still because much aid is negotiated outside of annual foreign aid appropriations. No recent overview is available.
Aid to Israel is doubly ``high-profile.'' Israel is by far the wealthiest recipient of US aid and it gets by far the most. This imbalance was described as ``unfair, inequitable, and indefensible'' in a circular letter from Rep. George Crockett Jr., a member of the Black caucus in the House, and nine House colleagues.
They noted that every Israeli gets $700 per head, ``while every African would receive just a little more than $1.'' Seven hundred times more for Israeli Jews than for African blacks. They called for a ``major reassessment of our foreign aid programs.''
Among the large beneficiaries of US aid, Egypt comes in a far distant second with barely $40 per head. Even the proposed aid to Poland would still be less than $25 per head - one twenty-fifth of what Israel now gets just from US official sources. Ironically, the poorest countries get the least.
The new challenge to Israel's special benefits comes from diverse sources. Senators Dole and Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia are concerned with budget constraints. Liberals focus on Israel's growing record of human rights abuses, especially since the intifadah, the Palestinian uprising that began in December 1987. Conservatives boggle at supporting the Israeli welfare state. ``The US taxpayer is subsidizing the government of Israel, which in turn uses the money to subsidize its own socialistic economy,'' wrote an Israeli economist, Alvin Rabushka, in a report from the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank.
Even Polish-Americans have joined the fray. Edward Moskal, president of the Polish-American Congress, described the billions for Israel as ``incomprehensible'' in a letter to Senator Dole urging aid for the ``new democracies'' of Eastern Europe.
Adding to Israel's woes, the traditional rationale for US aid - the need to counter the Soviets in the Middle East - is less credible with the winding down of the Cold War.
However, congressional support is still formidable. Seventy-three senators opposed any cut for Israel, in spite of the noted imbalance. Indeed, there still is momentum for an increase in US aid. In a telephone interview, an official of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Israel's lobby in Washington, said an increase is justified even if programs for Americans themselves must be cut back.
Sen. Dan Inouye (D) of Hawaii has suggested adding another billion dollars to Israel's benefits, while the Israeli government has submitted a demand for $400 million more in the form of ``loan guarantees,'' the financial equivalent of grants since Israel cannot now service its debt.
Official aid to Israel is already $3.0 billion, to which AIPAC reckons another $600-plus million in off-budget items, including the requirement that the US buy 30 cents-worth of goods from Israeli weapons manufacturers for every $1 that we give them in military aid.
Unofficial aid is also important. Jewish organizations here raise almost another $1 billion each year in sales of low-interest Israel bonds or tax-deductible contributions to the United Jewish Appeal, etc. Israel's vulnerability on the aid issue is acute. It is ``hooked'' on US welfare, because even after 40 years of unremitting aid, its economy remains uncompetitive and requires ever more US money.
Senator Dole opened a veritable Pandora's box. Budget watchers challenge the billions for Israel, given the deficit. Military strategists challenge the need to subsidize Israel to combat the fading Soviet specter. The right wing challenges financing Israel's welfare state. The left questions its human rights position. And competing ethnic groups in the US - Poles, Greeks, and blacks - challenge the ``inequitable'' distribution of aid benefits as such.
Today ``more for Israel'' means ``less for everyone else.'' AIPAC justifies that argument because it points out that Israel's needs are great. However, today, more and more ``needs'' are emerging, competing for scarce US funds. Israel for the first time runs the risk of losing its lion's share of US aid money.