U.S. Suspension of Military Aid to Israel: A New or Old Precedent?

Middle East and North Africa

Last week, the White House took the unusual step of suspending the delivery of Hellfire missiles requested by Israel amid growing concern over the number of Palestinians civilians being killed in the Gaza Strip.  In addition, the Obama Administration is now requiring all U.S. weapons deliveries to Israel be reviewed by the White House and the State Department after they were reportedly “caught off guard” that Israel was securing ammunition from the Pentagon without their approval.Hellfire Missile

The administration’s recent maneuvers may seem like a dramatic step considering the very close security relationship between the two countries. However, they fit an historical pattern of the Unites States occasionally conditioning military aid to Israel. These past actions have aimed at encouraging Israelis to act more responsibly in their military engagements and partnerships as well as to support peace efforts. 

In 1981, for instance, President Reagan temporarily suspended the delivery of F-16 aircraft to Israel after it bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor Osirak. The following year, President Reagan prohibited the export of cluster bombs to Israel for six years after it used such U.S.-supplied bombs in civilian areas during the war in Lebanon. More recently, in 2005, President George W. Bush’s administration suspended Israel from participating in the Joint Strike Fighter, an aircraft development and acquisition program, to deter Israel from supporting China’s Harpry Killer drone, which Israel ultimately cancelled.

In addition to suspending U.S. military aid to Israel, the United States has also threatened to cancel or withhold such aid. Following Israel’s capture of the Sinai in 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower threatened to cut off aid unless the Israelis returned the peninsula to Egypt, which the Israeli government did a year later. In 1991, the George H.W. Bush administration also threatened to withhold the requested $10 billion loan guarantee—to be used to settle Soviet Jewish immigrants—and the $3 billion Israel was receiving in military aid unless Israel halted settlement expansion and returned to peace talks.

Although the United States and Israel maintain a strong security relationship, at times the United States has successfully challenged Israeli policy and actions to more closely align with U.S interests, which appears to be what President Obama is trying to do now.  Given Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent statement that he is unworried by the White House’s recent moves, it is unclear what effect the administration’s action will have on Israel.