Premature worrying about aid cuts? (UPDATED)


Remember that old joke about the Jewish telegram? Start worrying. Details to follow. That’s what I first thought when I saw this press release from the Simon Wiesenthal Center. It responds to an exchange earlier this week at a State Department press briefing, at which in response to a question about whether the U.S. would "exert some financial presssures" on Israel to stop settlements, spokesman Gordon Wood responded," It’s premature to talk about that." The Wiesenthal Center says it’s not premature to worry about it, though. Here’s their release:

The Simon Wiesenthal Center urged the U.S. Secretary of State Clinton to make it clear that the United States would never consider economic sanctions against its longtime ally.

At a briefing yesterday, State Department spokesman Robert Wood was asked about decreasing aid as way to move Israel to halt settlement expansion, a point of contention between the two states. Wood answered, “It’s premature to talk about that.”

“Such a statement could lead Palestinians to think that there’s a strategic shift away from the historic alliance between the U.S. and Israel,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier and Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Founder and Dean and Associate Dean of the Wiesenthal Center, respectively.

Center official further stated  that even the hint that sanctions against the Jewish state could be contemplated, “will achieve nothing but embolden extremists and harden the Palestinians’ demands before they even sit down to negotiate with the Israelis.”

Top Israeli military officials are worrying about it somewhat, too, according to this Jerusalem Post article:

Amid growing tension between Jerusalem and Washington, the IDF and Defense Ministry have held brainstorming sessions to discuss the possibility that the United States would cut military aid to Israel, The Jerusalem Post has learned.

On Tuesday night, senior Defense Ministry and IDF officers gathered in Tel Aviv for a discussion on US-Israeli relations, during which they discussed new Pentagon regulations regarding the way Israel can use the almost $3 billion in military aid it receives from the US.

According to defense officials, the Pentagon informed the Defense Ministry that the foreign military financing (FMF) needed to be used strictly for weaponry and defense-related projects. In past years the Pentagon had made exceptions and allowed the IDF to purchase nonessential items such as covers for trucks, uniforms and even food for soldiers.

During the discussion, the officials also discussed the possibility that the US would cut the FMF due to the political tension between the countries or because of the global financial crisis.

Interestingly, the article does point out that this discussion took place Tuesday evening, hours before the State Department spokesman made the "premature" remark. (And part of the job of military officials is to always contemplate worst-case scenarios.) The Post asked a diplomatic source whether the cutting of aid should be a worry and got a pretty emphatic "No":

Israeli diplomatic officials, on the other hand, completely discounted the likelihood that the current disagreements with the US would lead to punitive sanctions against Israel.

"This is nonsense,"one official said, responding to the State Department spokesman’s answer to a query on the matter.

"This US Administration believes in dialogue until the bitter end" the official said. "There is no way that at the same time it wants to engage with the Iranians, it is going to take sanctions against Israel. It just doesn’t make sense."

UPDATE: The State Department on Thursday said the U.S. was not contemplating economic action on Israel. Here’s Ron’s brief:

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The United States is not contemplating economic action against Israel, a State Department spokesman said.

In his opening remarks at the State Department briefing, Philip Crowley made a point of addressing news generated after a colleague, prompted by a reporter, said talk of economic leverage against Israel was "premature."

"There had been some reporting after yesterday’s briefing that I think represents some misinterpretation," Crowley said. "There’s been some reporting that the United States is contemplating financial or economic pressure against Israel. We are not contemplating such action."

Instead, he said, George Mitchell, the Obama administrtation’s Middle East envoy, was in the region endeavoring to bring the sides together through diplomacy.


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