The US Should Reassess its Massive Aid Programs to the Middle East

By Danielle Pletka

The Hill

In the trove of classified documents leaked on various social media outlets, there are major revelations about intelligence assessments on the course of the Russian war on Ukraine. But there are also important footnotes regarding Egyptian plans to manufacture and ship 40,000 rockets to Russia. Egypt’s perfidy — if indeed, denials notwithstanding, Cairo is planning to help arm Russia — is an important wake-up call for Washington. It’s time to reassess the United States’s massive foreign and military assistance sinecure to the Middle East.

Three successive administrations have plotted a “pivot” away from the Middle East in favor of increased attention to great power threats. And after decades of American commitment to solving regional problems — peace between Israel and the Palestinians; peace between Israel and the Arabs; Iran’s nuclear program; Islamist extremism and terrorism — the Biden administration has officially stepped away, cementing the sunset of American influence in both the Levant and the Persian Gulf. Weirdly, however, U.S. assistance programs haven’t faltered, with billions of dollars still flowing, mostly to Israel, Egypt and Jordan.

Since 1946, the United States has disbursed more than $350 billion (in 2021 dollars) in assistance to the Middle East. Of that, the lion’s share has gone to Israel and Egypt, but the region as a whole represents the single largest geographical chunk of the U.S. foreign assistance budget. Per a 10-year memorandum of understanding with the Obama administration in 2016, Israel receives $3.8 billion per annum, with additional hundreds of millions for joint defense programs with the United States. $1.3 billion in foreign military financing was appropriated for Egypt in fiscal year 2023, with almost $150 million in non-military foreign assistance. Jordan receives $1.65 billion in military and economic assistance and the Palestinians receive nearly $500 million, the vast majority via the controversial United Nations Relief Works Agency.

The rationale for this enormous spend is ancient history, at least in foreign policy terms. Israel’s aid has ramped up dramatically since the early 1970s, when the Jewish state was under constant siege from its Arab neighbors and the broader Arab League. Egypt’s aid program is rooted in the 1979 Camp David Accords that ended the state of war between Israel and Egypt, marking the first Arab-Israeli peace accord. Jordan now ranks above Egypt in bilateral U.S. assistance, because of another aid program that increased with the 1994 Jordanian peace with Israel. And U.S. financial support for the Palestinians goes back to the 1993 Oslo Accords that resulted in the creation of the Palestinian Authority.

So, what exactly have these countries done for us lately? The U.S. relationship with Israel remains solid despite disagreements over governance and conflict with the Palestinians. Nonetheless, it’s not crazy to ask whether Israel still requires American aid to face down its Arab enemies. It’s true that the Jewish state remains under attack — 23 Israelis have been murdered by terrorists since the start of 2023 alone — but according to some measures, Israel now has the 13th highest per capita income in the world. The reality is that America’s money is no longer essential to Israel’s defense.

Then there’s Egypt, late of the Ukraine leaks. The truth is that, for decades, intelligence officials have been aware of troubling military relations between Cairo and various U.S. adversaries, Russia, China and North Korea among them. Egypt is an increasingly repressive dictatorship, with tens of thousands of political prisoners, vanishing press freedom, an inhospitable environment for Christians and lousy taste in foreign policy. Its autocratic leader, General Abdel Fattah El Sisi is at this moment facilitating the rehabilitation of Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad — an Iranian proxy, responsible for the death of half a million Syrians — into the Arab community of nations.

In Jordan, beleaguered King Abdullah needs the United States more than Israel or Egypt do. Disliked at home, burdened by refugees from Syria and a weak economy, Abdullah is triangulating his foreign policy. He has distanced himself from the landmark Abraham Accords, and adopted — directly and through government censored press — an increasingly vitriolic tone towards Israel. Analysts explain that he fears growing tension between Israel and various Palestinian groups might spill over to Jordan’s majority Palestinian population (with which the king has never been popular). But if part of Jordan’s value to the United States is as a peacemaker between Israel and the Palestinians, Abdullah appears to no longer favor playing that role with enthusiasm.

There’s no doubt that many U.S. partners in the Middle East — Israel included — feel the need to hedge their bets, calculating that they can no longer count on a Washington that has pivoted away to Ukraine and China. Whether that is a wise choice for them is a different question. But from the U.S. perspective, it cannot proceed with billions in taxpayer-funded aid to countries that do not support American foreign policy, do not need American money, and don’t share — particularly in the case of Egypt — American values. It’s time to reassess.

Danielle Pletka is a distinguished senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. She previously served as a senior professional staff member for the Middle East and South Asia at the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.


  1. It is magical thinking to believe that a less militarized foreign policy—one that relied more heavily on diplomacy, aid and democracy-building programs rather than the use of military force—could have secured better endings. Sectarian, ethnic, regional and tribal rivalries; the dearth of leadership, rule of law, and basic freedoms; poor governance and weak institutions; the lack of transparency and respect for human rights and gender equality; and rampant corruption have created a broken and dysfunctional region beyond the capacity of America to ameliorate, let alone repair. These are challenges that need to be owned and resolved primarily by those who live in the neighborhood.
    The Middle East will remain a mess for years to come. It is, of course, an unpredictable region that could offer up crises when America least expects it. But we don’t need to set ourselves up for failure by chasing unrealistic ambitions, acting imprudently, and looking at the region the way we want it to be rather than the way it really is.
    Indeed, the U.S. is no longer the top dog in the Middle East neighborhood. And it doesn’t need to be.

  2. Apparently, in a White House diplomatic victory, Egypt has agreed not to arm mafia land, and, instead, would sell artillery ammo to Ukraine. If this is a fact, then we should continue with our current Egyptian diplomacy. Israel, on the other hand, should start feeling the harsh reality of its pro-mafia land stance.

  3. I fully agree, although I do still think Israel needs support because it has a large GDP, but nothing compared to the combined GDP of all nations that want to wipe Israel of the face of the earth.

    However, it should be conditional: Israel refused to help Ukraine and basically violates all human rights towards the Palestinians and they build on Palestinian territory.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am still mostly pro-Israel, but I feel the Israeli government is getting too comfortable and is biting the hand that feeds it.

    I don’t think Ukraine would be getting away with striking civilian targets in Russia if it would do that in retaliation.

    I do think the West should support countries with freedom loving populations and protects them, but there is no reason why Egypt should be an ally.

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