Sen. Bob Dole's proposal for taking a 5 percent reduction in assistance to Israel and four other countries is one of those grandstand plays that capture headlines but fail to hold up under close scrutiny. The senator is absolutely correct in suggesting that foreign aid is less an expression of altruism than it is an investment in protecting America's global interests, and that these interests now include strengthening the emerging free economies of eastern Europe.
Measured by the same yardstick, maintaining current levels of assistance to Israel and Egypt is of paramount importance to the United States.
Most of Israel's $3-billion foreign aid package goes directly or indirectly for military needs. At least two-thirds of it is spent in the United States to purchase American-made material. The package thus strengthens the American economy while helping a beleaguered sister democracy meet the staggering costs of defending itself amidst a sea of hostile neighbors who, with the notable exception of Egypt, have never accepted its very existance.
But this is only a small part of a larger picture.
A strong Israel gives the United States a politically stable and militarily sophisticated ally, which establishes a strong and reliable American presence in a particularly volatile and sensitive part of the world.
Were Israel not in a position to ward off foreign intrusion, the United States would have to do the job itself by stationing troops and equipment as we do in Europe and the Far East.
In dollar terms alone, $3-billion is an incredible bargain.
Estimates are that we spend nearly 60 times as much on the security of Western Europe ($170-billion), and 23 times as much on Japan and Korea ($68-billion.) Even more important, the current arrangement spares us the burden of having to put American citizens in places where they could fall victim to terrorism.
Taking 5 percent from the package might not seem a threat to Israel's security or America's stake in that security. But 5 percent of $3-billion is $150-million, not exactly a trifle, particularly when the bite comes annually.
This shortfall could impair Israel's ability to research and develop new weapons for delivery later in the decade to counter weapons currently being developed in hostile quarters for delivery to hostile states at that time - which is the way nations stay alive in this era of rapid technological advancement.
A lapse now could create a window of vulnerability that the United States, acting to protect its own interests, would have to close by emergency infusions of money and troops. The greater danger is that these measures would not arrive in time.
Regarding Egypt, it would seem foolhardy to reduce its aid package at a time when the Mubarak government is proclaiming the virtues of American patronage to its newly reconciled friends in the Arab League.
By establishing an informal linkage between assistance to both Egypt and Israel, the Camp David Accords forged a solid pro-American sphere of influence in the region's western tier.
This has produced a Pax Americana inland from the Mediterranean that has more-or-less held during a decade when the gulf states have been following the traditional Middle Eastern pattern of beating one another's brains out (at an annual cost of $40-billion to the American taxpayer in the heyday of the Carter Persian Gulf Doctrine).
It seems woefully ill-advised to tamper with what is really one of
Washington's true diplomatic triumphs in recent years.
With foreign aid amounting to only $15-billion of total federal spending of $1-trillion plus, it does not seem unreasonable that sufficient funds for Eastern Europe be taken from domestic budgets that would not compromise America's vital security interests.
Rabbi Ira S. Youdovin is the rabbi of Temple Beth-El, St. Petersburg.