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Competing Idaho billboards criticize, defend U.S –Israel foreign policy

Contrasting views on America’s relationship with Israel have unfurled along an 8-mile section of Interstate 90 in North Idaho.

A billboard in Coeur d’Alene criticizing U.S. military aid to Israel prompted a second billboard to go up Tuesday in Post Falls celebrating the alliance.

Foreign policy feels out of place on this stretch of freeway, where advertisements normally highlight pickup trucks, lottery jackpots and tribal casinos.

The first billboard, which suggests the money would be better spent at home, also is upsetting to some in the area’s Jewish community, in part because it went up right before the Jewish holidays Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

That billboard west of the Northwest Boulevard exit in Coeur d’Alene is sponsored by Spokane Veterans for Peace with a matching grant from the Coalition to Stop $30 Billion to Israel, which opposes Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The sign states, “Keep our tax $$$ at home. Stop $30 billion to Israel,” and depicts the section of the Interstate 5 Skagit River bridge that collapsed in May. “More infrastructure collapse ahead?” the billboard asks.

Critics say that message is misleading and absurd.

“Why out of all the countries we give foreign aid to has this group picked Israel and tried to say because we give foreign aid to Israel … it’s Israel that somehow caused the bridge on I-5 to collapse?” said Mike Barenti, co-executive director of the Spokane Coalition for Israel.

The billboard is meant to spur discussion of how much the United States gives Israel to build up its armed forces and whether the aid fuels further violence in the Middle East, said Rusty Nelson, president of Spokane Veterans for Peace.

“We’re told over and over again that the money that our government can spend is very limited, but we continue to shell out the big bucks to Israel,” Nelson said. The money “would be better used to prepare for peace at home instead of prepare another country for waging war, especially in the Middle East,” he said.

Spokane Coalition for Israel and an international Israel education organization, StandWithUs, together purchased billboard space just east of Pleasant View Road in Post Falls. That sign states, “America & Israel. Shared Values – Defending Freedom,” and it depicts the U.S. and Israeli flags as well as an American soldier and an Israeli soldier embracing their children.

StandWithUs has paid for similar billboards across the country in response to advertising funded by Stop $30 Billion to Israel, which refers to a pledge the Bush administration made to provide $30 billion in payments to Israel over 10 years starting in 2008. Israel is required to spend almost three-quarters of the money on U.S.-made military equipment.

“They’ve made this sound as if this is breaking the U.S. budget, when it’s a small part of the overall military and financial aid foreign budget,” said Rob Jacobs, the Pacific Northwest director of StandWithUs.

Dueling billboards is not the best medium for deliberating foreign policy, Jacobs added.

“We would prefer not to be in a debate using billboards and bus ads,” he said. “We don’t think it’s a proper forum for any serious debate, and the use of slogans and hyperbole only results in people disliking, hating, vilifying the target of these ads without a real understanding of the context or the full situation.”

He and Barenti also question why Veterans for Peace singles out aid to Israel when other countries, including Egypt and Jordan, also receive billions of dollars in U.S. aid.

It’s a “dog whistle” strategy, intending a deeper meaning that touches on anti-Jewish sentiments, Barenti said. “It runs on these very old anti-Semitic tropes of Jews working behind the scenes controlling things to get their way to other people’s detriment,” he said.

Nelson responded to the criticism.

“We get called anti-Semitic or worse, and our complaint is not against the Israeli people or the Jewish people, but simply the Israeli government and the unlimited leash that they have to run on with our money and our military supplies, which we are so generous with,” he said.

They target Israel, he added, because the U.S. has a tradition of forgiving Israel’s debts on top of the foreign aid.

“Israel is the country that we lend and give the most aid to, and it is all military aid,” Nelson said. “We would not complain about giving material aid to help small business people and that sort of thing in Israel.”

As for where they put up their billboard, Nelson said that simply was the spot that was available and which fit their budget.

Both billboards were purchased for monthlong runs but could be extended.

This article was revised to correct where Israeli settlements are located. Israel withdrew its settlements from the Gaza Strip in 2005.