U.S.-Israel Strategic Cooperation is Changing

Washington’s Focus on Defensive Posture Limits Israeli Flexibility

Paper delivered by Shoshana Bryen, Senior Director for Security Policy, at the Jewish Federation General Assembly in New Orleans, Louisiana, November 8, 2010

Washington’s Focus on Defensive Posture Limits Israeli Flexibility

Paper delivered by Shoshana Bryen, Senior Director for Security Policy, at the Jewish Federation General Assembly in New Orleans, Louisiana, November 8, 2010

Rep. Eric Cantor, slated to be Majority Leader in the next Congress, said before the 2010 mid-term election, “If we regain the majority, we will use our larger platform to make the case that a strong Israel is firmly in the strategic and moral interests of the United States.” He echoed the view from the Hill of both Democrats and Republicans.

Although I personally love to think of the U.S.-Israel security relationship as a function of shared democratic values and commitment to individual civil liberties and the rule of law (and have been writing about it at JINSA since 1979), that is not where it resides in American security planning. The nature and depth of the relationship depends on how the principals define the threats facing their respective nations.

Shared values and democratic systems count for a lot in the political world – and they make friends for the military people involved – but national security interests can evolve without them. Look at Saudi Arabia. No one would mistake the Saudis for people who share our values – even after their helpful intelligence on al Qaeda package bombs.

When there is a common threat or a common interest, the relationship has more of the characteristic of an alliance. When the definition of either country’s essential interest changes, the relationship becomes something else, generally something less than an alliance.

The History

In the early days of the relationship, the United States agreed to provide a certain level of help to Israel in its efforts to defend itself. With that came a certain level of understanding that Israel was a small player, vulnerable to threats from the reasonably unified Arab states. The United States expected nothing in return and wasn’t particularly involved, except to the extent that Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson did not want Israel to turn to Russia as a patron (which they thought would be natural). The United States was decidedly irritated by the Anglo /French /Israeli Sinai Campaign.

President Nixon put Israel in the Cold War context, as did President Reagan.

Nixon stood with Israel against the Soviet Union in 1973 as a defensive measure. Reagan opened “strategic cooperation” as a forward step in a plan. In 1979, partly as a reaction to President Carter and partly in anticipation of a more robust American defense policy for the 1980s, JINSA published its first “quick reference guide” to “Israel as a Security Asset for the United States.” It focused on ways Israel could enhance American reach and capabilities in the region:

  • Location

  • Modern military facilities

  • An air force larger than many in Europe

  • Language capability

  • Familiarity with Soviet arms as well as with Western and NATO weapon systems, etc.

  • Shared democratic values

The list was updated in the 1990s to account for increased intelligence sharing.

Israeli experiences and technological fixes for military problems were welcomed. President Reagan’s introduction of the idea of ballistic missile defenses was matched by Israeli innovation in the field and the result has been tremendous advancement and in-depth cooperation.

The end of the Cold War was followed by President Clinton’s decision to focus on “capabilities based” defense. Rather than focusing on a specific enemy (since no one was handy) the United States would create capabilities that would cover many contingencies. Israel was well placed to continue to work with the United States and provide technological capabilities and test beds. Also, after the Cold War, Israel established warm relations with some of the newest NATO members, Poland and the Czech Republic, as well as with Bulgaria and Romania.

After 9-11, President Bush used the formulation, “the war against terrorists and the states that harbor and support them” to describe the war the United States had then begun to fight.

The concept resonated fully with Israel.

Americans were talking about the symbiosis between the attributes that states could provide to terrorists (money, weapons, territory for training, passports, etc.) and the single, crucial attribute that terrorists could provide to states (the ability to commit deniable mayhem). Yasser Arafat was the master of that symbiosis, being both terrorist and state sponsor of terrorism. He blew up buses in Israel and then denounced the “terrorists” for making him look bad. The Israelis “opened their closets” – as they said – to the United States, providing training and skills in counter-terrorism, urban warfare and counter-insurgency, as well as an understanding of the motivations of terrorists.

But congruity of interests is never total.

America gave Israel a long political leash, but when United States and Israeli positions on Iran diverged (about they year 2007), President Bush refused Israel weapons that could be used against Iranian assets.

The Present

The Obama Administration has redefined the wars in which the United States is engaged. There is no “war against terrorists and the states…” Nor is it now correct to talk about the role of Islam, Islamists, Muslims or even terrorists. The threat has been redefined as undifferentiated “radicals” who produce “man caused contingencies,” sometimes with large numbers of casualties. The President has sought to establish “mutual respect” between the West and “the Muslim world.”

President Obama has said he believes policies of the West are responsible for many of the difficulties and is willing to make overtures to lessen the tension, including overtures to Iran and Syria. All of which may, in fact, be a good idea – although “the Muslim world” is a bit of a misnomer. Muslims, in fact, encompass many worlds – modern, secular, religious, Western, Eastern, Arab, non-Arab, democratic, anti-democratic and so on. Some of them not only already respect us, they are us. There are others with no interest in respect for the West and its particular systems.

The problem is that in the President’s formulation, there is no room for Israel as a partner to the United States on a mission. Israel is, by definition, one of the things the West did that created the “tension” with the “Muslim world.” At least that’s the narrative.

There is an underlying belief that terrorists are created as a reaction to Western provocation. And Western support for Israel is precisely such a provocation. Again, at least that’s the narrative.

And finally, there is the belief that Israel is actually the stronger power and as such should be making concessions to the Palestinians – the weaker power – even before Israel’s issues are addressed.

President Obama appears inclined to accept large parts, if not all, of that narrative.

As an aside, most people in the belt of the earth encompassing most of the world’s Muslims do not have access to free information; their views of both the United States and Israel are shaped by non-democratic forces. Polls in Pakistan, for example, show that even after the United States provided hundreds of millions of dollars in flood relief, most Pakistanis think the United States is stealing Pakistani assets. I don’t know what those assets are, but Pakistani people think we’re stealing them. They like us less than they like almost any other group of people.

And most have little objective interest in the political machinations of Israelis or Palestinians, or Americans, for that matter, but are subject to the forces of their own governments. Pakistani, Afghan and Saudi “jihadi schools” have little to do with Palestine.

So the narrative is created in part by people who are also manipulating the education and understanding of millions of other people.

The Changes

None of this means the Obama administration is cutting off U.S.-Israel security cooperation, but it will change.

There has been an increase in Ballistic Missile Defense cooperation, which is good for Israel because its enemies have missiles, but it represents a completely defensive option. I think the administration is comfortable with the idea of defending Israel but putting Israel in the position of “defense client,” where it was until 1980, rather than enhancing its current status as a “partner” in mutual defense is not a step forward.

Furthermore, defense is irrelevant until after someone attacks you. At which point, you need a response capability. The contracted for delivery of Apache attack helicopters, which Israel used in Gaza and Lebanon in part because their firepower is much more precise and much better controlled than bombs from airplanes, was held up for months while Egypt received a large shipment. (I’m still not sure Israel has taken possession of the Apaches that were contracted for in the last administration.)

The F-35 next-generation fighter plane was forced on Israel for American reasons without meeting Israel’s request for access to the main computer to install Israeli radars and avionics. [This was not an anti-Israel move – Britain didn’t get access to the computer either – but it has been crucial for Israel to be able to add its own capabilities to weapon systems it purchases. In this case, it cannot; Israel has to take the plane the way we want to sell it.]

On top of which, it now appears that the production of the F-35 will be slowed down and stretched out, meaning delivery to Israel may be delayed even beyond the current date of 2015 – and it will cost more.

Meanwhile, the $60 billion sale to Saudi Arabia, including 84 new F-15s, proceeds along with $35 to $40 billion in contracts signed by the UAE, Oman’s expected $12 billion purchase and $7 billion in planned purchases by Kuwait.

Syria appears to be acquiring Russian P-800 Yakhont cruise missiles.

At precisely the moment we are re-calibrating our partnership with Israel, there is an increasingly hostile tone coming from precisely the people with whom the President wants to increase mutual respect.

  • Iran continues to move toward nuclear capability, regardless of the slowdown produced by the Stuxnet computer worm.

  • Syria, Iran’s ally, has armed itself – with Russian assistance – to the point that Israel’s outgoing director of Military Intelligence, Amos Yadlin, told a Knesset Committee that Israel and Syria have returned to the military balance of the 1970s. This does not favor Israel.

  • Turkey, a NATO member, has become increasingly and overtly close to Hamas.

  • The U.S. armed and trained Lebanese Armed Forces are increasingly sharing equipment and intelligence with Hezbollah forces in the south, and are taking money from China.

  • Saudi Prince Turki came to Washington and said things that should have made his hosts cringe – including that our election produced a victory for “neoconservative warmongers and Zionist extremists.” He said he had believed the 2008 election “killed the movement,” but they are again “crawling from their graves.” Recognizing that Israel has strong bipartisan support in Congress, he said, “Regardless of what happens in Israel, they stand by Israel and regardless of what Israel does, Israel is always right.”

  • Palestinian Security Forces on the West Bank, which are trained by an American general, are considering Islamic religious training to improve morale and discipline. Fatah Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said, “Hamas troops have better morale and discipline, so we should try training our troops in Islamic principles.”
    While it is still perfectly true that American military people very much like working with the IDF, and Israeli defense companies are sharing enormous amounts of technology and capability with American companies, in the end, all of them have to be responsive to the national security posture articulated by the President and his administration.

I don’t see a particularly rosy future.