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US spending bill: Five gifts to Israel

An enormous US spending bill that accompanied the Covid-19 relief package contains many financial and political perks for Israeli government
Israel did not receive coronavirus relief funds, but the aid to its military at a time when Americans are struggling drew criticism (AFP/File photo)
By Ali Harb in Washington

The US Congress has passed an enormous $2.3 trillion spending bill containing a Covid-19 relief package to individuals and businesses as well as funds allocated for other areas of government spending in 2021, including foreign aid in the billions to Israel.

Late on Monday, social media posts stating that Israel was receiving coronavirus stimulus money sparked outrage, especially since average Americans will only be getting a modest sum of $600.

In reality, while assistance to Israel is included in the legislation, it's part of the so-called omnibus spending bill, which covers Pentagon funds; it is not Covid-19 related.

Still, the bill bestows a slew of political and financial gifts on Israel at a time of increased domestic and international scrutiny over Israel's human rights record.

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Moreover, Israel's critics highlighted the juxtaposition of military aid to Israel in the same legislation as the Covid-19 stimulus, which has been slammed as "woefully inadequate" by some progressives.

"The $500,000,000 to Israel is not technically part of the COVID bill, but a separate bill passed with foreign aid - still at the same time Congress said they can't afford more than $600 in a one-time payment to Americans," journalist Glenn Greenwald said in a tweet.

Senator Bernie Sanders also pointed to the overall Pentagon budget at a time when his push for $1,200 stimulus checks had failed.

"Republicans & some conservative Democrats thought that a $1,200 survival check for the working class was too costly. But they had no problem giving the bloated Pentagon $740 billion for weapons & war," Sanders wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.

"Maybe, just maybe, it's time to fundamentally rethink our national priorities."

While some of the pro-Israel provisions in the 2021 spending legislation have appeared in previous bills, the fact that they passed again unamended signals the uncompromising support the Israeli government still enjoys in Congress ahead of the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden next month.

Below are five rewards for Israel in the spending bill.

Military aid

Authorising the usual annual aid with no strings attached, the bill allocates $3.3bn in military assistance to Israel, to be dispensed in the next 30 days. The law specifies that funds must be spent to purchase weapons and defence systems sold by the US government.

An additional $500m is allocated to Israeli cooperative programmes, a Pentagon-funded initiative to bolster Israel's missile defence systems' capabilities, including the Iron Dome. 

The approval of the assistance comes despite more than a dozen US lawmakers threatening to impose conditions on aid to Israel over its plans to annex large parts of the West Bank and its ongoing occupation and settlement expansion in the Palestinian territories.

"Members of Congress should not be expected to support an undemocratic system in which Israel would permanently rule over a Palestinian people denied self-determination or equal rights," the letter, led by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, read at the time.

Defunding UN Human Rights Council

The legislation calls for withholding US funds from the UN Human Rights Council "unless the Secretary of State determines... that participation in the Council is important to the national interest of the United States and that such Council is taking significant steps to remove Israel as a permanent agenda item".

This particular provision has consistently appeared in omnibus spending bills. But President Donald Trump already pulled Washington out of the UN Human Rights Council in 2018, citing what his administration called "bias against Israel".

President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to re-engage in multilateral agreements and international bodies that Trump abandoned; at the same time, his designated Secretary of State Tony Blinken said earlier this year that the administration would oppose "singling out" Israel at the UN.

Encouraging normalisation

The legislation instructs the president and secretary of state to work to ensure normalisation between Israel and Arab countries. 

"All Arab League states should normalize relations with their neighbor Israel," it says.

It also condemns the Arab League's boycott of Israel, calling on the administration to take "concrete steps" to demonstrate its rejection of the boycott. 

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"The President and the Secretary of State should continue to vigorously oppose the Arab League boycott of Israel and find concrete steps to demonstrate that opposition by, for example, taking into consideration the participation of any recipient country in the boycott when determining to sell weapons to said country," the legislation says. 

The bill comes at a time when the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan have agreed to establish diplomatic ties with Israel. 

Abu Dhabi was rewarded for normalisation with a mammoth weapons deal, including killer drones and F-35 fighter jets, despite growing concerns over its human rights record and military involvement in Yemen and Libya.

Legislators also take a page out of Trump's "peace to prosperity" framework that focuses on the economic benefits of normalisation between Israelis and Palestinians.

"Congress encourages cooperation between Palestinian, American, and Israeli business sectors in order to benefit the Palestinian, American, and Israeli peoples and economies."

Conditions on Palestinians

The same legislation that hands Israel billions of dollars without any mention of Israeli policy imposes stern conditions on assistance to the Palestinian Authority.

The bill prohibits aid to Palestinians if they unilaterally seek member-state status in UN agencies unilaterally or pursue International Criminal Court charges against Israeli war crimes.

Moreover, the bill instructs the administration to work to prevent so-called Palestinian "incitement" against Israel. 

"Not later than 90 days after enactment of this Act, the Secretary of State shall submit a report to the appropriate congressional committees detailing steps taken by the Palestinian Authority to counter incitement of violence against Israelis and to promote peace and coexistence with Israel," it said.

Conditions on UNRWA funding

Although Trump halted US funding for UNRWA more than two years ago, the 2021 spending bill included a recurring passage from previous years calling for imposing conditions on funding to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.

The bill calls for a report from the secretary of state ensuring that the agency and its employees, most of whom are Palestinians, adhere to "policies on neutrality and impartiality".

The report must also certify that the agency is "taking steps to ensure the content of all educational materials currently taught in UNRWA administered schools and summer camps is consistent with the values of human rights, dignity, and tolerance and does not induce incitement."

Biden has vowed to restore US assistance to Palestinians, including the aid to UNRWA. 

The incoming president can issue waivers to bypass the provisions of the spending bill, which had appeared in previous legislation when the assistance was ongoing. But the language in the law highlights the political challenges that Biden may face in undoing some of Trump's policies towards Israel.

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