The drastically changing Mideast and the Israeli constant

The warfare conducted against the West and its allies is a war often conducted in secret.

New York Congressman Gary Ackerman and I shared the same podium about 12 years ago when we spoke for the American- Indian lobby (Indian, as in Calcutta). Gary was honored because of his close relationship with the country and its American sons and daughters. I was speaking as a representative of one of the world’s smallest democracies.
That episode describes several factors in Congress’ role in foreign policy. While it is traditionally the bailiwick of the executive branch, Congress and its members often support, encourage, and sometimes seek to shape American policy.
Prior to serving as deputy ambassador in Washington, I worked at AIPAC for 25 years, including 15 years as director of its office in Jerusalem. In that period I witnessed major changes in how Congress involved itself in Middle East policy and how, with congressional encouragement, Israeli-US relations deepened.
Consider the changes in American policy that these items reflect:
• When Israel destroyed Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor in 1981, the US government imposed an embargo of F-16 jets to Israel. In 2007, when a Syrian reactor was destroyed – allegedly by IAF planes – not a word of disapproval was voiced in the US.
• In 1982, a huge American sale of AWACS aircraft and F-15 add-ons to Saudi Arabia led to a bruising political battle on Capitol Hill. The House voted overwhelmingly to oppose the sale; in the Senate, the sale passed 52-48. Currently, a $60 billion sale of new aircraft to Saudi Arabia is being considered, but there are few words of objection. In the interim, the US and Israeli defense establishments set up an intimate relationship of consultations, cooperation, intelligence sharing and joint exercises.
• In the 1970s, NSC advisers objected to members of Congress calling Israel an American ally or a strategic asset. Today, only a handful of Israel’s most strident detractors would echo those sentiments.
• With Israel considered a strategic ally, the US helps develop and fund some of its cutting-edge military technology, such as the Arrow missile and the Iron Dome system to shoot down rockets and missiles in the arsenals of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. US foreign aid permits “offshore procurement” of equipment.
• US legislation has allowed the development of joint research projects in agriculture, hi-tech, science and industrial R&D. Just last year, joint projects in the binational agricultural R&D programs twinned Israeli research institutions with scientists at the University of Maryland, Cornell, Penn State, Hawaii, Auburn, Arizona, UC Davis, Northern Texas, Washington, Oregon, Kentucky, Michigan, Purdue, Nevada, Washington State, UC Berkeley, Michigan State, U Mass, Southern Florida and UC Riverside.
• With Congress preparing such groundwork over the years, the governor of Massachusetts was recently in Israel with a team of officials and industrialists to examine joint projects. Over 100 companies in Massachusetts have Israeli connections.
These employ 6,000 workers and generate $2.4 billion.
MANY YEARS ago I heard AIPAC’s founder Si Kenen warn that in Washington the “even-numbered years belonged to the Israelis; the oddnumbered years to the Arabs.”
By that he suggested that domestic political and electoral considerations were factors in determining US policy. But that’s not true today, in part because of Congress’ constant involvement in foreign policy:
• Last month, many observers credited congressional concerns with helping the administration decide to veto a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel.
• In 2009, Congress effectively pressed for strong sanctions against the Iranian government. These measures led to serious disruptions of Iranian banking and shipping. Some countries, but not enough, seeing America’s determination on this issue, joined in.
• And Congress will play a cardinal role in approval of foreign aid, and the nature of that aid, to Middle East countries undergoing historic transitions – countries like Lebanon and Egypt.
Aaron David Miller, one of the US’s veteran Middle East negotiators, asked in Foreign Policy online last month, “Will [the administration] race to coddle and court the new Arab democrats, doing so at Israel’s expense?... In short, will spring for the Arabs turn into winter for the Israelis?” Miller concludes that it will not, and I suggest that spring may well lead to a calm summer.
While the Middle East is indeed undergoing drastic change, several constants will not change.
The US and Israel remain strategic partners facing unprecedented challenges. The warfare conducted against the West and its allies is a war often conducted in secret. It is a war of drones and cyber warfare; of unusual measures against nonconventional combatants, such as President Barack Obama’s recent decision to maintain the Guantanamo detention center.
In these areas the US and Israel presumably work closely together. The nature of such cooperation must remain secret, despite WikiLeaks best – or worst – efforts. But perhaps most importantly, both countries realize that to maintain their democratic identities and commitment to justice they must adapt these measures to fit their laws and not their laws to fit these measures.
The shared constant depends on publics in the US and Israel who uphold these ideals. It is no wonder then that support for Israel among the American public, and by extension among its elected representatives, remains at near-record highs.
The writer served as deputy chief of mission in Israel’s embassy in Washington. Today he is a consultant on public affairs and blogs at This article was excerpted from a paper prepared for the Capitol Hill seminar of the Jerusalem Conference for International Policy.