Jerusalem - Sen. Rand Paul’s call to end U.S. foreign aid, including to Israel, set off a debate not only within Mr. Paul’s Republican Party in America, but also among Israelis, for whom decades of U.S. financial backing have become an accepted norm.
Mr. Paul, who is contemplating a 2016 presidential bid, traveled to Israel earlier this year to make his argument for curtailing foreign assistance, challenging Republican orthodoxy that America’s relationship with its closest Middle East ally is sacrosanct.
But the Kentucky Republican’s remarks hit home here in Israel, where the assistance is viewed as not only a financial boon but also a critical demonstration of America’s commitment.
“It would be harmful,” said Dore Gold, the former Israel ambassador to the United Nations. “I explained the importance of it.”
Now the head of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Mr. Gold said that he delivered the same message to Mr. Paul when they dined together during the Republican’s eight-day trip to the region in January, which included meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Mr. Paul, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, appears to be laying the groundwork for a White House bid and is in the process of trying to beef up his foreign policy credentials.
His January trip to Israel was viewed as the libertarian-leaning senator trying to test some of his positions, including curtailing foreign aid, while not being cast as anti-Israel — a charge his father, former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, faced during his own 2012 presidential campaign.
The younger Mr. Paul made the case while in Israel that the U.S. can’t keep borrowing money and then dishing it out to other countries.
“It will be harder to be a friend of Israel if we are out of money. It will be harder to defend Israel if we destroy our country in the process,” Mr. Paul said, noting that the U.S. was running annual deficits in excess of $1 trillion.
He said the U.S. should first target unfriendly countries for cuts, and only after that should Israel be subject to cuts. And he pointed out that Mr. Netanyahu told Congress in 1996 that “ultimately he would like to see Israel independent of foreign aid as well.”
“I would start a little more quickly with those who are enemies of Israel and enemies of the United States, and I’d like to see their aid ended much quicker,” Mr. Paul said. “With regard to Israel, it could be gradual phenomenon. It doesn’t mean we disengage from Israel.”
Mr. Paul’s message won immediate praise from Naftali Bennett, a rising conservative star in Israeli politics who followed Mr. Paul’s comments by saying that “we need to free ourselves” from U.S. aid and that Israel should show more independence from American wishes.
Soon though, Mr. Bennett dialed back, saying that Israel should only wean itself from American support once its security situation improves.
The about-face by Mr. Bennett, who leads the Jewish Home party that holds 12 of 120 seats in Israel’s parliament and is a key part of Mr. Netanyahu’s government coalition, confused the debate even further.
“We were all jumping up and down,” said Corrine Sauer, co-founder of the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies, the libertarian group that hosted Mr. Paul’s address. “It didn’t last, I have to perfectly honest. Two or three days later, [Bennett] said, ‘Well … I did not exactly mean it.’”
Israel receives about $3 billion each year in military assistance from the U.S. and about three-quarters of it must be spent in the U.S.
The institute produced a 2011 report that says Israel has received more than $110 billion from the U.S. since it became a state in 1948 and that the assistance comprises nearly one-quarter of the nation’s security budget.
The report found that the aid limits Israel’s diplomatic freedom, fosters the impression that Israel is dependent upon the U.S. and curbs the nation’s sovereignty.
“The extensive economic and strategic damage wrought by America’s financial assistance to Israel cannot be assessed with full accuracy until Israel disconnects itself from it entirely,” the report says.
“Based on economic and geopolitical projections, this aid is bound to undergo changes, while its damaging effect will only worsen.”
Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, said the symbolism of cutting off aid would be bigger than the financial implications.
“It would send the message that Israel is left alone, and I think it makes Israel very nervous,” Mr. Rabi said.
“In my point of view this is not the right way to approach the region, because these messages create growing anxiety among U.S. allies, and it doesn’t contribute to the stability in the region because it gives them the idea that one should deal with the problems by itself,” he said.