A message on an electronic billboard in Gwinnett County caught our eye one evening.
"$8 million a day to Israel just doesn’t make sense!" it read.
Underneath those words, it read: "STOP The Blank Check.org."
Does the United States give Israel $8 million a day? Is there a "blank check" for Israel?
Since we’ve seen the same message on other billboards in the Atlanta region, PolitiFact Georgia thought it’d be worthwhile to figure out whether the claim is accurate or are the thousands of motorists who’ve seen this billboard being told misleading information.
The Council for the National Interest paid for the billboard. The nonprofit organization’s goal, according to its website, is support of a just resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. It has claimed, for example, that the news media devotes more coverage to Israeli deaths rather than Palestinian deaths in Middle East violence.
Some groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League, say the council is anti-Israel and claims some leaders of its educational arm have met in recent years with terrorist leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah.
The council’s executive director, Phil Giraldi, said the group, based in northern Virginia, has about 12,000 members. The group is paying for 10 billboards in the Atlanta area and six others nationwide, he said. Giraldi said he got a good deal on billboards in Atlanta.
"We wanted to make the public aware at a time that budgets are being cut, aid to Israel is not," said Giraldi, who added that Israel has a "booming" economy. "Whenever Israel needs more money, Congress appropriates it," he said.
The council’s website describes Giraldi as a former CIA counterterrorism specialist. Giraldi recently wrote a column called "Why I Dislike Israel" that criticized the U.S.-Israel relationship as too cozy and said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was meddling in the 2012 U.S. presidential race.
The nonpartisan, federal Congressional Research Service released a report in 2012 on U.S. foreign aid to Israel. Most of what the United States gives Israel is military aid. The report found the U.S. gave more aid to Israel than any other nation between 1976 and 2004. Afghanistan is currently at the top of the list, the report said.
Israel uses almost 75 percent of those funds to buy U.S. defense equipment. By law, Congress must be notified of most new purchase agreements. Over the years, the two nations have had occasional disputes over which weapons that contain U.S. materials can be sold to other nations.
In the mid-1990s, the CRS noted, following efforts in Congress to reduce foreign aid funding, Israel proposed (and Congress agreed) to phase out U.S. economic aid to Israel entirely. As Congress phased out economic aid to Israel from fiscal year 1999 to fiscal year 2008, military aid gradually increased, according to the CRS.
President Barack Obama proposed spending $3.1 billion in military financing for Israel and an additional $15 million on refugee resettlement for fiscal year 2013, a 12-month period that will end Sept. 30. That’s nearly $8.5 million a day. It’s unclear what impact the sequester may have on aid to Israel.
End of story? Not yet. We were still curious about whether the United States has written a blank check to Israel, since "STOP The Blank Check.org" is mentioned so prominently on the billboard.
Israel is considered one of America’s closest allies, and politicians who do not strongly support that relationship do so at their own peril. A Pew Research Center poll in December found about 50 percent of Americans sympathized with Israel over the Palestinians, while just 10 percent side with the Palestinians.
For much of Obama’s first term, Republicans accused the president of damaging ties with Israel because of disagreements between his administration and the Israeli government over issues such as Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Obama’s critics also complained he hadn’t visited Israel since he took office. The president may visit Israel as soon as this month, according to some Israeli news accounts.
Some say there is no willingness in Washington to question Israel or America’s funding for it.
"There is no debate," said M.J. Rosenberg, director of the Washington office of the Israel Policy Forum, a left-wing organization that pushes for peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Then, according to the Jerusalem Post, he corrected himself, saying, "The debate is like this: ‘I like Israel.’ ‘Well, I like Israel more.’ "
Philip Wilcox, president of the Washington-based Foundation for Middle East Peace, said he has seen the $8 million a day claim and agreed "it’s in the ballpark." As for whether there is a "blank check" for Israel, Wilcox told us that the U.S. generally accepts Israeli military actions in the region. Wilcox spent years working in the federal government on Middle East affairs. He noted, though, that the U.S. has conducted inquiries into Israeli use of weapons.
"This is really a matter of interpretation," Wilcox said of whether there is a blank check.
Giraldi cited Obama’s decision to fund Israel’s "Iron Dome" missile defense program as part of the blank check to Israel claim. In fiscal year 2011, the White House approved $205 million for the program. In July, the president provided an additional $70 million for the program.
"The United States being one-sided to Israel is not beneficial to the United States," Giraldi said.
The council’s billboard says the U.S. gives $8 million a day to Israel. In essence, that’s an accurate estimate. The billboard may leave the impression that there is a blank check to Israel. That’s a matter of interpretation.
Our rating: Mostly True.
Staff Writer Karishma Mehrotra contributed to this article.
AntiWar.com, "Why I Dislike Israel," by Phil Giraldi, Oct. 4, 2012.
Congressional Research Service, "U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel," March 12, 2012.
Congressional Research Service, "Israel: Background and U.S. Relations," Nov. 7, 2012.
Council for the National Interest website.
Jerusalem Post, "So, is real debate over Israel possible on the Hill?" Aug. 24, 2007.
Pew Research Center poll on the Middle East, Dec. 14, 2012.
Telephone interview with Philip Wilcox, president, Foundation for Middle East Peace, March 1, 2013.
Telephone interview with Phil Giraldi, March 5, 2013.
White House fact sheet on Israel security agreement, July 27, 2012.
YouTube video of interview with Council for the National Interest chairman emeritus Edward Peck explaining meeting with Hezbollah leader Sayyed Nasrallah, April 20, 2007.
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