What makes US-Israel defense ties so 'rock solid'?

“The ties between our armies are very deep and very strong, even under Obama.”

From Left to Right: IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, US Defense Secretary General James Mattis and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (photo credit: ARIEL HERMONI / DEFENSE MINISTRY)
From Left to Right: IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, US Defense Secretary General James Mattis and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman
Three years into his tenure as chief of staff of the Israeli military, Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot has a “rock solid” relationship with his American counterpart, Gen. Joseph Dunford, sources around the general say.
The two men have maintained a consistent and professional relationship throughout a period of diplomatic turbulence under the Obama administration and at the outset of a delicate, uncertain start to the Trump presidency.
Israel was Dunford’s first stop when he took over from Gen. Martin Dempsey in October 2015 as chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff – an intentional message to the Israeli public, and to Eisenkot, on the importance of the defense relationship.
Eisenkot, who was appointed IDF chief of staff in November 2014, rose through the ranks of the Golani Brigade and was appointed its commander in 1997. He became the military secretary of then-prime minister Ehud Barak in 1999 and head of the operations branch of the IDF’s General Staff in 2005, serving in that position during the Second Lebanon War.
“Eisenkot knows what he is doing and where he is taking the IDF,” Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.
Ben-Dahan, who was in Washington in April to meet Veterans Affairs Secretary Dr. David Shulkin, said he feels “warm and friendly ties” between Jerusalem and Washington have grown since Trump entered the White House. According to Ben-Dahan, even Shulkin – who served as under secretary of veterans affairs for health under Barack Obama – “feels a different atmosphere under Trump.”
“The ties between our armies are very deep and very strong, even under Obama,” he said, adding that “our ties were built over many years and we will continue to work together and share intelligence and projects such as the Iron Dome.”
The two top military officials have met four times since Dunford assumed his position – three times in Israel. Nicknamed “Fighting Joe,” Dunford served as commander of the 5th Marine Regiment in the 2003 invasion of Iraq under now-Defense Secretary James Mattis, who visited Israel as recently as April.
In early May, he met with Eisenkot, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and several other high ranking IDF officials.
James Mattis and Avigdor Liberman (Dana Shraga/ Defense Ministry)
Mattis and Liberman form another critical nexus in the defense relationship.
The two men have gotten off to a strong start, as well, according to their associates.
“Mattis-Liberman seems to be a key axis – they’ve already met a few times,” says David Makovsky, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy Project on the Middle East peace process and a former senior State Department official.
“I think it was important that Liberman was one of the first ministers of defense to come to Washington, and I think there’s a clear sense of commonality between the two, especially on the Iran challenge.
That set the tone,” Makovsky said. Liberman visited the US capital in March. “I think that what we’ve seen about Liberman so far is that, however he acts when he’s in the opposition, when he’s in government he likes to show he’s the responsible adult in the room.”
During his visit in May as a guest of Eisenkot, Dunford was presented with a Medal of Appreciation by the Israeli chief of staff at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv for his outstanding service, special contribution to the IDF and for the personal leadership he has demonstrated by strengthening ties between the militaries of the two allies.
Last August, Eisenkot met with Dunford in Washington, where the top US general “surprised” Eisenkot with the United States Armed Forces’ Legion of Merit military decoration for “exceptionally meritorious service.”
Former IDF chiefs of staff Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi also received the Legion of Merit while they served as the heads of the IDF.
According to Chagai Tzuriel, the director-general of the Intelligence Ministry, several important things have changed since US President Donald Trump took office in January.
Speaking to the Post, Tzuriel said Tuesday that it is very important from Israel’s point of view that this administration sees Iran as part of the problem and not part of the solution.
Indeed, senior Trump administration appointees in intelligence and defense seem to be on the same page with their Israeli counterparts on Iran – for the first time in years.
“On Iran, there is very little difference of opinion, if any, with regard to the perception of a shared strategic threat,” said Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“There had been some concern about the Syria policy of the new administration, because the focus [seemed] to be squarely on ISIS alone and that left open a strategic vulnerability. But since the Trump administration’s strikes on Assad bases, the Israelis are relieved and pleased with that.”
One former Pentagon official described to the Post an established bureaucratic structure behind the US-Israel defense and intelligence relationships – deeply ingrained and nearly impossible to disrupt based on the whims of one leader or another. But it always helps to have principals who get along, and who view the world similarly.
“Folks in the military space are always pretty tight-lipped about these personal relationships,” said Schanzer. “If there are problems, we’re not going to hear about it.”
Defense and intelligence officials are also keeping a close eye on the diplomatic front, where the Trump administration is offering strong support for Israel in the UN Security Council. “They have our back,” Tzuriel said. “The safety net that the Americans provide us in the security council is very important for us.”
Asked about the relationship between the militaries and between the intelligence communities, Tzuriel said he is not involved in the relationship between the militaries but that he has always been impressed by the camaraderie from his perspective on the sidelines.
As for the intelligence, he said cooperation with the United States was very good under the previous administration and he expects it to only improve.
In January, Liberman announced that he would extend Eisenkot’s tenure as IDF chief of staff for a fourth year. Eisenkot took the position in February 2015 when Gantz retired from the military after 38 years.