Time to upgrade the US-Israel strategic relationship

As a senior US military commander recently put it: “among all our military allies, I admire the Israelis most of all.”

Ehud Barak and US SecDef Leon Panetta 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ehud Barak and US SecDef Leon Panetta 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Afew days ago, the Haaretz newspaper ran an article under the headline “US think tank: Obama should rethink military aid to Israel.” The headline, together with the subheadline, give the erroneous impression that a report published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington entertains doubts about the benefits of the US-Israel strategic relationship in general, and about the case for continued military aid to Israel in particular. However, this isn’t quite what the report says.(Full disclosure here: I am a member of the International Advisory Board of CSIS).
In fact, one of the report’s fundamental conclusions is that the US-Israeli strategic partnership serves the interests of both countries. That is to say, “as uncertainty dominates the Middle East, Israel is a stable state and important ally.” Actually, the report argues – not very convincingly – that it would be in Israel’s interest to reduce its dependence on US military aid.
On the whole, the report tries, with success, to be balanced, but one cannot escape the feeling that some of the theses expounded in it were overly influenced by the view prevalent in parts of the Washingtonian foreign policy establishment, namely that the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the failure to solve it are the key elements influencing the strategic relationship.
They aren’t, and they never were. For as important as solving the conflict is on its own merits, it wouldn’t make the challenges and threats facing America and Israel in today’s Middle East any less grave. In fact, most of the wars and upheavals in the region since World War II were only marginally, if at all, related to this issue.
True, there are a variety of opinions both in America and in Israel about certain aspects of the strategic relationship (though in Israel the number of naysayers is infinitesimal), nor is there much evidence, as the Haaretz article seems to maintain, that “more Americans now challenge both Israel’s political values and its strategic value.”
In fact most surveys demonstrate that there are more indications to the contrary – while the appreciation of Israel’s enhanced value for America’s strategic calculations is also supported by major parts of the US military, let alone Congress. This view became even more pronounced when it transpired that the end of the “Cold War” did not bring about the much touted “end of history” but rather the rise of a new and not lesser threat: Jihadism and Islamist terrorism.
One of the central premises of the report is that “popular revolts” in the Middle East signal an era of heightened instability; true, but it is precisely this reality which underscores the importance of America’s strategic relationship with its only remaining and fully committed ally in the region, Israel. America still has vital interests in the wider Middle East, and only time will tell whether the above events will ultimately create a more democratic, liberal and peaceful Middle East or, conversely, a more xenophobic and fundamentalist one. The omens are not very good, and, in any case, there is scant doubt that both America and Israel will face new threats and uncertainties.
THE PRESENT goings-on at the UN with regard to unilateral statehood for the Palestinians can be seen as an attempt not only to delegitimize Israel but also to diminish and undermine America’s role as a dominant player in the Middle East. US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta recently visited Israel for important consultations, including talks on the growing danger from a rapidly nuclear-going Iran. Judging by his statements, Mr. Panetta correctly recognizes the dangerous reality of Israel’s growing isolation in the Middle East, but not the reason for it – that major parts of the Arab and Muslim worlds still refuse to come to terms with its very existence or even its right to exist. Thus the Palestinians’ refusal to acknowledge Israel as the state of the Jewish people.
The debate on whether the core of the American-Israeli special relationship is shared values or strategic interests has been going on for many years. During Israel’s first years of existence there were those in Washington, including in the Pentagon, the CIA and the defense establishment in general who held that American support for the Jewish State contravened American strategic, geopolitical and economic interests (oil!) in the Middle East. Furthermore, little Israel was anyway too weak to cope with the supposed military superiority of the Arabs.
In those years Israel received no American military aid, nor was it even allowed to buy the weapons it needed in the United States. All that profoundly changed with the Six Day War, which demonstrated that Israel was in fact a major regional military force, including in the context of the Cold War. From being a strategic liability in the eyes of Washington, Israel had, in the span of six days, become perhaps not quite the “land-based aircraft carrier,” but definitely an important strategic asset.
In the present situation, America looks around and what does it see? Egypt, one of its former major allies in the Arab world, is still in the frame, but the relative weakness of the reigning military leadership and the almost certain rise of Islamic fundamentalism there raises serious questions about the future of that relationship. Iran long ago turned from friend to foe and Iraq, despite America’s efforts and sacrifices, may go the same way. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States do share America’s and Israel’s concerns, but their diminished confidence in the former’s political and strategic decisions in the region may negatively impact their willingness to get out on a limb.
Turkey? Ankara is still an important strategic ally as far as Washington is concerned, although its government’s behavior in international affairs, and its neo-Ottoman designs, have made this relationship problematic, to say the least.
Actually US-Israel defense-related cooperation is doing very well, but the present (and future) Middle East political roller-coaster gives ample reason for an additional upgrading of the relationship, including on such matters as enlarging the pre-positioning of US military arms and equipment in Israel, joint strategic and tactical exercises, etc. This in addition to the already existing important cooperation, benefitting both partners, in the fields of technology, intelligence, etc. The importance for Israel and for stability and peace in the Middle East in all this cannot be overstated, this being an aspect which Israeli policy makers must bear in mind, but nor should the strategic value of the relationship for the US be disregarded.
The writer is a former Israeli ambassador to the United States.