We Asked a Military Expert What Would Happen if the US Stopped Giving Money to Israel

Despite growing tensions with Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Obama administration requested more than $3.1 billion in military aid for Israel this year. But what would happen if that were all gone?

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06 March 2015, 5:00am

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

On Tuesday Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed a joint session of Congress, and what he said was more or less what you'd expect: Basically, Iran is untrustworthy and dangerous, and allowing it to continue even a limited version of its nuclear program is going to lead to an "arms race" in the Middle East. The audience was dominated by Republicans, and they clapped like crazy as they listened to the speech.

The fact that the speech even happened was bananas. Netanyahu was invited by House Speaker John Boehner, who declined to ask the White House whether it would be OK for a foreign head of state to come preach to Congress about the dangers of the administration's impending nuclear deal with Iran. Obama didn't meet with Netanyahu during his visit, and Democrats—including usually staunch defenders of Israel—didn't hide how upset they were over the Israeli prime minister's heavy-handed slight.

But it was also a powerful reminder that no matter how tense things get between the US and Israel, it is virtually impossible to untangle the the two countries, or roll back US support for Israel. According to the Congressional Research Service, for the 2015 fiscal year the Obama administration requested $3.1 billion in aid for Israel from the United States Foreign Military Funding program, plus another $282.7 million from other funds the US pays out. And thanks to America's long history of turning loans into free money, funds originating in the US constitute a thick slice of Israel's total defense budget.

So what would happen if that were all gone?

It's not as though the US is actually itching to cut off money. Obama is sure to keep aid flowing for the rest of his time in office, and it's hard to imagine any future president taking a harder line with Israel than he has. But what if some irrevocable schism forced the US government's hand, and the funds vanished tomorrow and never came back?

I ran the question by Rob Pinfold, former researcher at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and a freelance explainer of Israeli politics. And his answer scared the shit out of me.

VICE: Hi, Rob! What would happen if the US stopped sending money to Israel?
Rob Pinfold: I think it would be a mess for Israel basically.

Would it be good for the US?
The US would have a lot less traction over Israel. It would be a downside for the US, and it would also be a downside for the [Middle East]. For a long time the US has been trying to use its aid politically to change Israel's behavior.

What behaviors wouldn't the US be able to control?
I think any end to this aid would mean that Israel would be much more likely to take radical moves that would not necessarily have the support of the international community. I think it would be dangerous.

What are the likely events in the short term?
I think that the big difference you'd see straightaway is an escalation in settlement building because the Israeli right would really be able to unleash it.

You see a lot, the Israeli government in particular, they've announced some big settlement-building initiatives of several thousand homes in East Jerusalem over the green line. And then the Americans say, "Na-uh, sorry, this is not happening," and then the idea is quieted for another five years, and then it happens again, ad nauseam.

But without any American influence over Israel, especially with this aid, I think you would see a drastic exploration in settlement building.

Would they attack Hamas targets in Gaza?
I think they would need to be provoked. Very, very rarely does Israel just willy-nilly launch itself into a conflict, not just because of influence from the US but also at the end of the day, Israel is a democracy—so actually instigating conflict has to have that legitimacy, otherwise it becomes a big issue.

But what if they were provoked?
Israel in the future would be much more unpredictable and any war would be likely to go on for a lot longer, because there wouldn't be one big power to really exert the pressure and squeeze both sides into a ceasefire.

And how would the US react if they couldn't influence them with money?
Military action is somewhat unfeasible, in my eyes, against Israel. It just wouldn't happen. You might have some sort of short-term sanctions against the regime by the US on Israel, and maybe on other belligerents as well.

And what would the outcome be?
Israel wouldn't lose the conflict, that's for sure. They get a lot of money from the States in terms of support in terms of the Iron Dome anti-missile program, but at the end of the day they have enough hardware already in the sheds to be able to thoroughly defeat any belligerents—for example, non-state-level actors like Hamas or Hezbollah, but also state-level actors like Iran.

I don't think it would be a question of turning the tide of battle it would just be a question of how long the war would go on, how bloody it would be, and who would get dragged in.

Who would get dragged in?
I think the US, even if they really fell out with and really strongly dislike[d] Israel, would probably still work toward a cessation of hostility as a superpower. I think that no matter what happens, we would go back to some sort of paradigm representing what we have at the moment. But the fighting would probably be longer and bloodier, and the US would have less of an ability to stop it straight away.

Would Israel make moves on Iran?
I think the Saudis would be ready to turn a blind eye to an Israeli attack [on Iran], which has been suggested before. So I think again the probability of mass-casualty warfare and violence would be much higher if the US, tomorrow, said, "Screw you, guys. I'm going home. This is too much effort."

What kind of warfare would we see?
In terms of Iranian retaliation, Iran has a lot of medium- to long-range missiles. They're not very accurate, but they stopped firing them at the end of the Iran-Iraq war, so they do have a very hefty stockpile that they could then fire at Israel. Israel would inevitably retaliate with their stock. So it'd be quite hard for them to launch a bombing campaign against Iran because they'd have to go through unfriendly territory on the way.

What might the targets of Israel's military action be?
I think you'd see one Israeli strike, one very pinpointed, strategic attack on Iranian nuclear assets. Then afterwards Israel would basically try to hold its own, because Iran would unleash its proxies on the region, which are primarily Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

I think we'd see fighting very close to Israel's doorstep and I think you'd see a lot of devastation of both Gaza and Lebanon. But on the flip side you'd also see a lot more damage to Israel's home front than you've seen in a very long time.

Would Iran have any luck?
The missiles that Iran has have overwhelmed the Iron Dome system. The Iron Dome system can shoot down the missiles that you saw [from] Hamas [during the war this past summer]. The Iron Dome can deal with that, but it wouldn't be able to do with the stockpiles of rockets that Iran has.

Would things escalate beyond exchanging missile attacks?
If there is more damage to the Israeli home front, the Israeli domestic scene would be more willing for the Israeli military to go all out on flattening large parts of Lebanon and Gaza. There would be much less resistance to a ground invasion, and much less resistance to moving troops in. Israel historically has very quick campaigns and very decisive victories. So I think the leashes would be off, so to speak. I think the Israeli army would be going en masse into Lebanon and into Gaza and wherever else they'd be getting attacked from. But the fighting would be mainly restricted to the area around Israel, unless they do some sort of massive campaign into Iran.

Does Israel have the fire power to successfully cripple the Iranian nuclear program?
That's a tough one because it's anyone's guess, really. I don't know exactly where and how the Iranians are hiding all their material.

They probably know.
It would still be very hard for Israel. Their planes would have to refuel in midair, in enemy territory. Their equipment is very limited. It's not known if they actually have any bunker-busting missiles, like the Americans have, that can penetrate deep underground. I think we'd probably have to see Israeli forces in Iran—special forces teams, demolition teams, that kind of thing.

It would have to involve some sort of covert support from the Saudis to have a very good chance of success. It would be very, very difficult and it would end in a lot of casualties on both the Israeli and the Iranian side. If the Israelis want to do it, there is nothing stopping them from doing it. If they see them as a potential threat, they will go in and they will go in hard.

Would the fighting be limited to just Iran, Lebanon, and Gaza?
I think it would definitely trigger a whole powder keg in the entire region. You look at the Middle East today, and it's the most unstable it's been in absolutely years. You have the Islamic State operating out of both Iraq and Syria. They're making headway in Lebanon as well. Egypt has its own problems with iihadists in the Sinai. It's very unstable... in Libya. [And] any conflict with Iran would not just be limited to Gaza, it would also spread to the West Bank where there are a lot of Iranian agents.

But in the long-term, if a terrible war weren't immediately sparked, how would a halt in funding from the US affect Israel's military budget?
In Israel, the military budget is very much sacrosanct. Any cut to the military budget, and you're putting the state in existential danger. Personally I think you'd see cuts to many other social, welfare, or educational programs within Israel before you'd see massive, damaging cuts to the army. They'd try to keep the military budget as steady as possible. So you'd see a damaging of Israeli society.

Could Netanyahu stay in power?
I personally don't think so. If any Israeli leader were willing to seriously jeopardize their ties [with the US], [causing] a complete cut off of all military and financial aid, I personally—and I could be proven wrong—I don't think the government would be able to withstand the pressure within Israel that would result from that.

What political change do you think the country would see internally?
If it happened today, I think you would see the rise of the Labor Party in the Israeli election.

What kind of economic impact would this have on the US and other countries?
I think the US would survive. The European Union is Israel's biggest trading partner, not the US. In Europe, they would cut off all money because they have been more critical of Israel than the US has been, traditionally. I think the crisis would be more on Israel's side than on Europe or the US.

Is there a possibility that any of Israel's enemies would look more favorably on the US's presence in the region?
I don't think that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria would be welcoming the US, and developing ties with Uncle Sam...

Well, not them...
It might make a difference. It might make some sort of short-term blip, but I think the countries in the Arab world have enough reasons to be mad at the US the next day for whatever reason.

But speaking of the Islamic State, would they make a move?
I doubt that. They talk a lot about Jews in the world, and Jewish money, and Jewish power, and how much they hate Israel. But generally they have very little to actually do with Israel, in terms of fighting or invading Israel. They go for Jewish targets but they're not so much in the movement against Israel itself. In any one-on-one confrontation between the Islamic State and Israel, Israel would completely wipe the floor with them.

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