President Trump, Prime Minister Netanyahu at the Israel Museum.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On Wednesday, October 8, 1975, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger held a staff meeting in which Assistant Secretary of State, Philip Habib, announced: “It looks like the Indonesians have begun the attack on Timor.” That was true in only a preliminary sense. The full invasion of East Timor wouldn’t come until December 7. When it did come, the Indonesians slaughtered everyone in sight, including women, children, foreign journalists, and every Chinese merchant they could find. The fact that the State Department was discussing the invasion two months before its commencement shows that they had time to react and formulate a policy.

At the time, the United States was reeling from the collapse of the South Vietnamese government, in no mood to see a leftist-driven independence movement take hold somewhere else in Southeast Asia. For the same reason, they were also not inclined to get actively involved, or to commit U.S. troops. The Indonesian army was equipped with our weapons, but they were prohibited by law from using them in anything other than a defensive manner, which meant that we had some leverage over their political leaders if we chose to use it. We chose not to.

The immediate cause of the conflict was the 1974 Carnation Revolution in Portugal that led to a near-abandonment of its Asian colonial interests. East Timor unilaterally declared independence on November 29, 1975, and the invasion began in earnest a week later. U.S. policy was more focused on maintaining good relations and contractual obligations with the fervently anti-Communist Indonesia government. At the meeting, there was some back and forth, but Kissinger summed up the American position when he turned to Assistant Secretary Habib and said, “I’m assuming you’re really going to keep your mouth shut on this subject.”

Habib, who was simultaneously discussing a South Vietnam passport question, asked for clarification: “On what?” he said. Kissinger responded, “On this subject. On Indonesia.”

Two months later, when Indonesia moved into East Timor in force, they acted with the tacit acceptance of the U.S. government. The next step was to convince Congress not to react by enforcing the ban on the use of American weapons in offensive operations.

When I saw the furor over Rep. Ilhan Omar’s remarks about Israel, I thought about this history with East Timor. During a panel conversation, Rep. Omar stated, “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”

A lot of the debate has been over the meaning of the word “allegiance.” In the case of Indonesia, it was more of an alliance than an allegiance. Yet, when an alliance comes under pressure and people are told not to speak out, that can seem more coercive than voluntarily. When military or humanitarian aid is not a choice but a compulsion, it takes on more of the character of an oath or pledge than a policy.

On the subject of aid, Andrew Sullivan made the following observations last Friday for New York magazine:

Take foreign aid. The U.S. provides the Jewish state with $3.8 billion a year in aid, and has committed to doing so for each of the next ten years. Compare that with what the U.S. gives other allies who are as wealthy as Israel: The U.K. got $150,000 in 2017; South Korea got $775,000. The average aid for high-income countries like Israel, according to USAID, is $79 million a year. Israel gets 48 times more.

Per capita, the disparity is close to absurd. Israel gets $436 in U.S. aid a year; dirt-poor Afghanistan $154; post-war Iraq $91; Egypt $14. By any measure, this is extreme exceptionalism. Yes, Israel faces military threats. But so does South Korea.

We have a political and military alliance with Israel just as we had a political and military alliance with Indonesia. In both cases, this gives (or gave) us theoretical leverage over their political leaders. Perhaps it reflects a bit of a colonial mindset on my part, but I believe a major motivation for giving aid to other countries is to create or enhance our leverage. But if we refuse to use that leverage because we believe the alliance—and the contracts that comes from it—is the primary advantage, then much of the point is lost.

Based strictly on the size of our aid package with Israel, we should have more leverage with them than any other nation on Earth, but we’ve been asking them to curtail or cease settlement construction in the occupied territories for decades now to no avail. To get an idea of why this is possible, it’s not necessary to blame the influence of Israeli or Jewish-American lobbying efforts. Criticism of Israel is policed by politicians of both parties and people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds. Look, for example, at the latter half of this reaction to Rep. Omar’s “allegiance” quote by Democratic and Latino Congressman Juan Vargas of California:

Vargas criticized Omar for perpetuating “hurtful anti-Semitic stereotypes that misrepresent our Jewish community.” Given the freighted history of the word “allegiance,” this was a defensible (if ultimately unfair) characterization of her remarks. But by saying, “Additionally, questioning support for the U.S.-Israel relationship is unacceptable,” Vargas came very close to arguing that nothing Israel does—or could do—could possibly call into legitimate question the terms of our bilateral relationship. That sounds like asking for a pledge of allegiance to me. It seems like he’s saying: this is our alliance, no matter whether it’s right or wrong.

When Russia, North Korea, or Iran do things we don’t like, we have no problem imposing sanctions. Our military alliance with Saudi Arabia didn’t prevent Congress from recently attempting “to remove United States Armed Forces from hostilities in or affecting the Republic of Yemen.”

What’s going on in Israel today should be unacceptable to U.S. foreign policy-makers, and it should call into question our ongoing commitment to a $3.8 billion annual aid package. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing legitimate corruption charges and is seeking to survive politically by aligning himself with a political movement that even many Israelis have compared to the Nazi Party. The alliance is disturbing enough that both AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee have condemned it. The AJC issued a statement, declaring that the “views of Otzma Yehudit are reprehensible. They do not reflect the core values that are the very foundation of the State of Israel.”

The president of Israel apparently agrees. He made the following statement on Monday in response to Netanyahu declaring that Israel “is the national state, not of all its citizens, but only of the Jewish people.”

Slamming a “completely unacceptable conversation regarding Israeli Arabs” taking place during the “dizzying” election campaign, President Reuven Rivlin said Monday there are neither second-class citizens or second-class voters in Israel.

Speaking at a conference at Hebrew University’s Truman Institute marking 40 years since the signing of the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement, Rivlin said,  “I refuse to believe that there that there are parties that have given up on the idea that Israel is a Jewish Democratic state, a democratic and Jewish state in the same phrase.”

Yet, the party that has given up on that idea is Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party. Most observers believe that Netanyahu’s coalition will prevail in the coming elections and that he will use his victory to beat back the corruption charges and remain in power.

What that would mean for the Arab citizens of Israel is anyone’s guess, but I think it’s safe to say that things will not go well for them. This is a frontal assault on Israel’s democracy, and there is plenty of criticism about it both in Israel and among American Jewish leaders and organizations.

But Congress is more interested in figuring out how to silence Congresswoman Omar than it is using our leverage and influence to persuade Israel to go in a better direction. The administration seems to have nothing negative to say about Netanyahu at all.

Now, the reasons we have this strange and unhealthy relationship with Israel right now are complicated, and they certainly cannot be reduced to the power of American Jewish lobbyists. It’s not “all about the Benjamins,” and it’s not explained by dual loyalties of Jewish-Americans. Omar seems to have an unfortunate proclivity for stepping on rakes. She’d do herself and her party and everyone else a big favor if she’d be more mindful of how she speaks about these matters.

Having said that, we do not seem to have the capacity as a nation to exercise our leverage over Israel. I believe the result is harmful to everyone involved. Looking back and putting everything in context, I understand why our government was silent about Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor and the atrocities that predictably ensued. But I can understand something without approving of it.

Maybe we could not have prevented what happened in East Timor, but we didn’t have to continue to provide the weapons that were used to massacre people. We may not be able to convince Israel to get off the path they’re now marching down, but we don’t have to unquestioningly fund them with no conditions.

I cannot agree that “questioning support for the U.S.-Israel relationship is unacceptable.” That support is bound up in our $3.8 billion aid package. If we’re not allowed to question it, then this relationship seems to me like less of an alliance based on shared interests and values than an allegiance based on sworn loyalty.

When people who question Israel’s actions are bullied into submission, that doesn’t strengthen the relationship.

When we fail to defend human rights or protect the vulnerable, as in when Israel continues to build settlements in the West Bank, we become complicit.

What Benjamin Netanyahu is doing right now is not okay. We should not be assuming that people are “really going to keep [their] mouth shut” on this one.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at