One of the more disconcerting questions I heard on a recent trip to the United States was not put to me directly, but relayed to me by a Jewish acquaintance in California.
Not too long ago, he told me, he was asked by a bitter non-Jewish critic of Israel, a fellow Californian who believes that the United States' alliance with the Jewish state is fueling Muslim hatred for his country and thus terrorism against it, what precise benefits Israel offers - which specific, tangible gains America derives from the special relationship.
Pro-Israel public diplomacy activists have in recent years been trying to answer that question by highlighting, as well as the post-Holocaust moral obligation to the Jewish state, our shared values - our parallel commitment to freedom and equality and human rights and democracy.
But this skeptic wasn't looking for that kind of answer. He wanted a list of concrete, material benefits. What does the United States get from Israel that it needs so desperately to stand strategically by us, even as our critics pretty much everywhere else worldwide assail us for purportedly provoking terrorism by ill-treating the Palestinians, as week by week new Jewish Diaspora groups take shape to declare that they want no connection to Israel's policies, and as our critics in the US itself, most effectively and prominently led now by former president Jimmy Carter, echo the themes?
My Jewish friend told me he'd done his best to answer. He'd stressed the significance of Israel's geographic location as a stable platform for the US military in this most unstable of regions. He'd asserted that Israel's own military strength constituted a deterrent to regimes such as Egypt from flexing their muscles, and in so doing helped keep things at least slightly calmer than they might otherwise be in so volatile a neighborhood. (Others extend this argument to say that Israel's military preeminence has helped ensure no major Arab-Israel war since 1973 and drawn Jordan and Egypt closer to the US orbit, and that Israel had better not repeat the failures of last summer's war if it wants to retain American confidence in its ability to keep order in these parts.) He also noted that Israel's unfortunate reliance on constant military development and improvisation enabled battle-testing for jointly produced Israeli-American weapons projects, with Israel essentially trying out weaponry on which the US would also come to rely.
What he didn't mention, and might have, was the steadily intensifying technological interdependence - something that might be called the Taiwan effect.
INITIALLY, THROUGH the 1950s and into the 60s, the US government viewed Taiwan as a crucial brake against the spread of Communism, and was accordingly ready to go to great lengths to guarantee protection for the island against the ambitions of mainland China.
That defense commitment is still maintained. Just a few weeks ago, it was restated in a meeting of the US-Taiwan Business Council at a conference in Colorado, by Clifford A. Hart, Jr., the director of the US State Department's Office of Taiwan Coordination.
"Washington in this decade has substantially boosted its defense cooperation with Taipei," Hart noted, "and taken steps to maintain its own capabilities should the president choose to respond militarily to any use of force or coercion against Taiwan."
With time, however, the alliance has become far more than a single-faceted partnership against Communism, because Taiwan transformed itself into a multi-party democracy, and moved from an economy overwhelmingly focused on agriculture to one of pioneering hi-tech, exploiting brain-power and entrepreneurial flair among a population three times that of Israel's.
Short - Israel-style - of lucrative natural resources, Taiwanese governments, demonstrating a commitment to education and economic dynamism, have gradually achieved a position of global dominance in the semiconductor manufacturing industry. Western-based companies, indeed, have all but given up independent R&D in this field, because the Taiwanese are so plainly competent, reliable and forward-looking. The San Francisco-based, Israeli-educated venture capitalist Jacques Benkoski, who steered me to some of this information, noted that the United States' imports from Taiwan last year totaled a staggering $40 billion, and that the American electronics industry would simply be lost these days without the Taiwanese.
And Israel is already a good way down the road to establishing a similar kind of partnership.
When Bill Gates visited 15 months ago and said he saw our country as an extension of Silicon Valley, he was not engaged in baseless hyperbole designed to please his hosts. He was, rather, referring to the deepening partnerships that so many leading American hi-tech firms have established here.
When proud Israeli entrepreneurs stress that Israel has more companies traded on NASDAQ than any other nation outside the US, this is not a mere headline-making boast that benefits only a select few.
Israel's proven reputation for innovation and obstacle-clearing in the hi-tech field means that Intel, for instance, now carries out the overwhelming proportion of its microprocessor design in this country. The best and brightest Israeli university students were, just a few years ago, being determinedly wooed by the Israel-based offshoots of top US hi-tech giants as they neared the final stages of their undergraduate degrees. Nowadays, they have barely registered for their first year of undergraduate courses before the hi-tech recruiters come calling.
At the height of the second intifada suicide-bombing campaign against the Israeli heartland, those American firms which had planted substantial parts of their operations in Israel faced a dilemma: to forgo the unparalleled intellectual resources of the Jewish state because, however unfortunately, doing business here meant dodging bombers, or to stand firm, weather the terror storm and maintain the working relationships.
It was touch and go in many cases, as an April 2002 article in the San Francisco Chronicle underlines. "For many Silicon Valley companies, the rising violence in Israel strikes painfully close to home," the piece began. "The tiny, embattled country is a major hub of the world's high-tech industry. Some of the Bay Area's biggest companies - including Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems - have offices, labs or factories there, employing thousands of Israelis. Chipmaker Intel runs a chip design and development center at Haifa, the site of one of the grisliest suicide bombings in recent weeks. No one is talking of pulling out. But as attacks increase against Israeli citizens and tanks rumble through the West Bank, some fear the bloodshed could make American companies and investors hesitate to sink more money into the region."
The piece went on to quote a San Francisco hi-tech analyst, Risto Puhakka, summing up the sentiment then prevailing: "I'm sure there are some people staying awake at night worrying about this," said Puhakka. "My gut feeling is that they'll just hold tight. However, you wouldn't make any decisions (to build new plants) in Israel right now. That would be foolish."
In the event, there was a fall-off in venture capital investment in Israel at the time, after years of steady growth, and the US-based firms substantively reduced the number of officials they sent out to meet with their partners here. But ultimately the partnerships and the interdependence were redoubled rather than torn asunder. Today, they are flourishing as never before. Microsoft, IBM and hundreds upon hundreds of US companies have subsidiaries thriving here. Month after month, American firms announce new deals, new R&D facilities opening, new hirings.
The challenge is to widen and deepen this cooperation still further. For what might seem like an alliance of mainly business and financial relevance has an acute security dimension as well.
IN STARK contrast to a Europe where President Chirac nonchalantly waves away concern over an Iranian bomb and Britain readies to ditch a prime minister who does take the Islamist threat seriously, America's political leadership is not, unlike the critic in California above, widely questioning the benefits the US derives from its partnership with Israel.
In contrast, again, to Europe, Jewish-Muslim demographics are not marginalizing the American Jewish community and its concerns, nor forcing American politicians to reconsider support for Israel for fear of losing their seats.
But no such alliance of nations, no matter how unshakeable it may seem, nor how soundly rooted, can be taken for granted even in tranquil, unquestioning times. And these are not tranquil, unquestioning times in the United States.
While Israel's prime and escalating concern in the region is Iran's nuclear drive, Americans are looking at the Middle East through the unhappy prism of the war in Iraq. There is enormous mistrust, and worse, of their president's Iraq policy, an understandable obsessive dismay at the mounting death toll, and a widening desire to just get the hell out.
The notion that Israel pushed the US into this conflict is not the preserve solely of small pockets of radical criticism.
Potential presidential candidate Gen. Wesley Clark sparked a minor firestorm last month when he remarked that Israel was now edging the US into military conflict with Iran, as well - a comment he subsequently laid to rest. And the combined efforts of Carter's literary assault, of the John Mearsheimer-Stephen Walt depiction of an Israel lobby wielding superhero powers in the circles of influence, and of both non-Jewish and Jewish critiques of the very fact of Israel's existence, are taking a toll. Many Jewish activists of both American political orientations express concern at a rising sense of Israel's being a partisan issue - robustly supported by Bush, his loyalists and the evangelical community, but less automatically, less profoundly, by the Democrat camp.
The "shared values" argument at the root of the US-Israel partnership is indeed the most important foundation. And the chief shared value is the most basic one of all - the desire to keep on living. It is not a value common to the Islamic extremists of Iran's regime, to the terror groups in south Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank, to al-Qaida.
But economic and technological interdependency is a powerful aspect of the strategic partnership too. Since those American hi-tech companies chose not to abandon Israel, their own self-interest now lies in ensuring that any and every US administration stands firm with the Jewish state. And the more that partnership can be expanded, the better - ideally far beyond hi-tech and certainly into the vital sphere of alternative energy innovation, reducing dependence on oil (and, incidentally, providing further clear evidence of the benefits of the US-Israel relationship to counter the likes of our critic in California).
Taiwan achieved its hi-tech R&D preeminence in good part because of its consistent investment in one of its few precious resources, the intellectual capacity of its people. And as a consequence of its nurturing of hi-tech engineers, it helped cement a deepening, mutually dependent partnership with the United States that continues to offer military protection too.
It is a lesson critically worth learning by our government, a lesson to bear in mind every time our budgetary strategists agonize about how to stretch insufficient funding to cover defense needs, and education needs, and every other demand. We need to produce cultivated young minds to turn into the hi-tech engineers and other innovators that bolster our technological partnership with our vital ally, and thus bolster our most basic security.
Our recent history of education cuts not only mocks the enviable Jewish tradition of commitment to learning. It also deeply harms our security interests. For as the Taiwan effect demonstrates, and as Israel's hi-tech successes should have long since made evident, proper funding for education does not stand in competition with security priorities. It is a security priority.