CNN Senior National Editor
The new administration in Washington has dipped its pita into the hummus early.
In his interview with the Arabic-language television channel Al-Arabiya, President Barack Obama said he told U.S. envoy George Mitchell to ". . . start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating – in the past on some of these issues – and we don't always know all the factors that are involved."
Mitchell likely is getting an earful from Arab leaders about U.S. military aid to Israel, particularly how Israel uses the weaponry it buys with that money.
That money also pays for something else – tens of thousands of jobs in the United States, all the more noteworthy when the U.S. unemployment rate is 7.2 percent.
You might say it's the bang the U.S. economy gets for those bucks.
U.S. military aid to Israel totaled $2.4 billion for fiscal year 2008, increased to $2.55 billion for fiscal year 2009 and is expected to reach $3.1 billion by fiscal year 2018.*
The asterisk is at the end of that sentence because those numbers are from the "foreign military financing" portion of U.S. aid and do not include the value of other programs providing material or financial support that benefits Israel's military and research-and-development program.
A unique provision in their aid agreement allows Israel to spend a significant portion of U.S. aid in Israel; roughly 26 percent of the money (making up an estimated 20 percent of Israel's defense budget).
The other 74 percent – about $2 billion a year – stays in the United States to finance Israeli purchases of U.S.-made products, ranging from fighter jets and helicopters to bullets and missiles, spare tank parts and fuel to bulldozers and more.
Israel spends those taxpayer dollars on contracts with companies that have facilities and employees in a lot of states that elect a lot of members of Congress.
How many jobs?
Spokesmen for two defense industry trade groups could not site an equation that "x" number of dollars in defense spending supports "x" number of jobs.
But a 2007 report by economists at the University of Massachusetts equated 8,555 jobs for each $1 billion invested in the military – with average wages and benefits of nearly $66,000.
By this formula, U.S. military aid to Israel supports roughly 20,000 jobs directly (in line with an estimate by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the leading pro-Israel lobby) and untold thousands more at suppliers and businesses in related fields.
Opponents of defense spending point out that the report said fewer jobs are created by investing in the military as compared with other sectors, such as health care, education and mass transit.
Military aid is a long-standing tool of U.S. foreign policy. Israel has been the largest recipient (more than $53 billion since 1949, the annual amount increasing significantly after the 1973 Yom Kippur war), reflective of its position as a democratic American ally in an often unfriendly region and the strength of domestic American political support.
"U.S. military aid for Israel has been designed to maintain Israel's qualitative edge over neighboring militaries, since Israel must rely on better equipment and training to compensate for a manpower deficit in any potential regional conflict. U.S. military aid . . . also has helped Israel to build a domestic defense industry, which ranks as one of the top ten suppliers of arms worldwide," said a 2008 report by the Congressional Research Service.
Israel's supporters lobby Congress to make sure that Israel maintains that qualitative edge. "Strengthening America's ally through foreign aid also serves as one of the driving forces in shaping a region – dominated by unstable, non-democratic regimes – that remains of vital strategic importance to the United States. American assistance enables Israel to confront serious threats to its security such as terrorism, weapons proliferation and economic and political instability. Israel, in turn, shares with the United States its expertise and technology, contributing to our efforts to combat common enemies and protect our troops and homeland. Israel also helps counter the proliferation of dangerous weapons that threaten both nations," reads a statement by AIPAC.
The debate over how weapons bought from the U.S. are used centers on the Arms Control Export Act, which stipulates that they be used for "internal security," including anti-terrorism; "legitimate self defense" and "regional or collective arrangements or measures consistent with the Charter of the United Nations." Aid can be halted if the provisions are violated.
From the Israeli perspective using those weapons to prevent terrorism within its borders and to combat attacks launched from outside borders (such as the thousands of rockets launched from Gaza by Hamas) meet the tests of internal security and legitimate self-defense.
Palestinians contend that Israel's use of U.S.-made weapons violates the arms control act and makes the U.S. complicit in atrocities.
A week ago, a coalition of 19 groups (mostly, but not all Muslim) purchased an ad in The New York Times calling on President Obama to "reevaluate" aid to Israel. "As American citizens we are deeply concerned that our nation's one-sided approach to the Middle East crisis compromises America's ability to act as a fair negotiator. Our foreign policy has upheld the interests of Israel, but has failed to do the same for the Palestinian people. Israel-the fourth largest military power in the world-has devastated a population of 1.5 million people, one without an army, navy, or air force. As the attacks in Gaza demonstrated, the outgoing administration chose to defend Israeli aggression even though the violence resulted in the disproportionate deaths of more than 1,300 Palestinians, including 300 children, as compared to 13 Israelis. Indeed, the loss of all of these lives cannot be justified," the ad read.
If he follows the President's admonition to listen, envoy Mitchell will return home with severely bent ears.