Why the presidential candidates won't talk about Israel

Analysts say politicians hold their tongues on giving additional US aid to Israel for fear of being labeled as anti-Semitic.

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Israel, celebrating its 60th birthday last week, has proved to be an expensive ally for the United States.

Since its birth, Israel has received at least $114 billion from the US in direct foreign economic and military aid, says Shirl McArthur, a retired US diplomat who periodically updates his Israel cost estimates for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs (WREMA), a magazine often critical of US policy toward Israel.

That estimate, Mr. McArthur notes, is conservative. For instance, he has not factored inflation into that $114 billion cumulative sum. The late Washington economist Thomas Stauffer did that calculation several years ago. He found total official aid to Israel, up to 2002, came to $247 billion. He added other costs of US support of Israel (interest on debt, higher oil prices, etc.) to reach a highly controversial total of $1.6 trillion.

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For comparison, the cost to the US of the Iraq war is running about $144 billion a year.

In March, a Memorandum of Understanding from the White House to Congress urged an additional $30 billion in military aid to Israel, a sum spread at about $3 billion a year through fiscal year 2018. Currently, Israel ranks as the top recipient of American foreign aid ($2.4 billion in 2007 by an official calculation) if reconstruction money for Iraq is excluded. Next are Egypt ($1.8 billion) and Afghanistan ($1 billion).

Up to now, the presidential candidates have largely ducked the question of what they would do to further peace between Israelis and the Palestinians.

"It's quite remarkable it has not been raised," says Stephen Walt, coauthor of "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," a controversial book published last year. "They have gotten a free pass on details for a peace process."

The Harvard University political science professor further criticizes the press for not questioning the candidates about what they would do to push forward a two-state solution to the decades-old struggle with its sizable cost to American taxpayers. Presumably a lever the US has in the dispute is to withhold the aid it gives to Israel and the far smaller amount ($73.5 million requested for fiscal 2008) given to the Palestinians.

"The presidential candidates make it a point never to talk about Middle East foreign aid," says McArthur.

Why the silence?

"Fear," says Paul Findley, a frequent critic of US foreign policy to Israel. He blames the Israeli lobby for contributing to his defeat in 1982 when running for reelection as a Republican congressional representative from Illinois.

None of the three remaining presidential candidates have uttered "even a syllable" of complaint about US policy toward Israel, rather a "paean of praise," Mr. Findley says. "This is a phenomenon without precedent in American history."

To Findley, the "most powerful instrument of intimidation" used by pro-Israel groups is the charge of "anti-Semitism." The meaning of that term has been expanded. It used to be applied to those hostile to a race or faith, that is, against Jews or Judaism. Now it's often applied to critics of Israel or US-Israel policy, says Findley.

Considering the horrific history of the holocaust, politicians "run like rabbits" to avoid the charge of anti-Semitism, Findley adds.

Another fear of politicians involves the campaign contributions of pro-Israel political action committees (PACs). Last week WREMA reported that more than 20 of these PACs have contributed $1.1 million to Washington politicians in the 2007-08 election cycle. That amount is dwarfed by what the three presidential candidates have raised for their campaigns.

Since Israel now has a relatively prosperous per capita national income comparable to Cyprus or Slovenia, direct US economic aid to Israel has been replaced gradually by military aid. Since money is fungible, that would make little real economic difference to Israel as its government pays its high military bills. In fact, Congress allows Israel to use 26 percent of the aid it receives to buy arms outside the US, thereby helping build up its own weapons industry. "We are thus shooting ourselves [the US weapons industry] in the foot," charges Janet McMahon, managing editor of WREMA.

Professor Walt maintains he's pro-Israel. The US refusal to put pressure on Israel to settle with the Palestinians on a two-state solution, he argues, is not helpful.

"Giving any country unconditional backing encourages irresponsible behavior," he says. It could lead to an apartheid state, or as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert put it, Israel facing "a South African-style struggle."

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