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As the U.S. Steps Out of the Middle East, It Must Help Israel Step Up

When Israel’s new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett meets with President Joe Biden this week, Afghanistan’s collapse and U.S. efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal that Israel opposes will dominate the agenda. But the two leaders should also discuss the U.S.-Israel strategic partnership’s future — recognizing Israel’s emergence as one of the world’s most powerful nations and the pivotal role it can play in helping defend America’s interests in the Middle East, especially as Washington shifts to countering a rising China.

Biden is the third consecutive president elected that promised to end Middle Eastern “forever wars.” His withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan starkly demonstrates his determination to do just that — regardless of the resulting chaos. He’s also removed hundreds of troops, aircraft and air defense systems from the region in a major realignment of the U.S. military’s footprint.

The risks associated with such retrenchment are substantial. In 2011, the removal of U.S. troops from Iraq left a vacuum that the Islamic State’s caliphate filled. Biden’s retreat from Afghanistan is proving no less dangerous, as the forces of global jihad are supercharged by their “victory” over the world’s most powerful country.

While changing realities — such as America’s growing self-sufficiency in oil and natural gas — have clearly reduced the Middle East’s importance to U.S. security, Washington continues to have significant interests there. The United States still seeks to avoid major disruptions to Persian Gulf energy supplies that could threaten key allies in Asia and Europe, upset the global economy and burden American consumers with gasoline price spikes. Washington also wants to prevent a nuclear Iran and contain its aggression, prevent Islamist terrorism, ensure Israel’s security and limit the expansion of Chinese and Russian influence.

How does the United States secure those objectives while stepping back from the Middle East? Local partners will need to step up — ones with the capability not just to defend themselves, but to project power regionally in support of U.S. interests. Only one state fits that bill: Israel.

Israel has the Middle East’s most powerful military. Its intelligence service is arguably the world’s best. It’s a scientific superpower and global leader in cutting-edge technologies central to the future of U.S. national security, including missile defense, cybersecurity and artificial intelligence. And Israel’s assessment of the region’s greatest threats mirrors Washington’s.

Israel, its government and people, are viscerally pro-American. It has become, as political Zionist leader Theodor Herzl predicted in 1896, a Western “outpost,” and one of its strategic pillars, countering American adversaries and bolstering American friends.

Israel is the only country undertaking sustained operations to thwart Iran’s regional expansionism, conducting thousands of strikes against Iranian-linked targets in Syria. Its operatives have repeatedly penetrated Iran’s nuclear program, stealing its most guarded secrets, blowing up key facilities, and eliminating the mastermind of its weapons program.

Elsewhere, Israel helps Egypt contain the Islamic State in the Sinai. Its military and intelligence cooperation are essential to Jordan’s stability. It protects vital energy infrastructure in the Eastern Mediterranean and helps ensure freedom of navigation in the Red Sea. And, increasingly, Israeli security cooperation has quietly extended to vulnerable U.S. allies in the Gulf, bolstering their ability to manage common threats from Iran and Islamist terror groups.

This is not the Israel of yesteryear — a small, isolated state under siege and preoccupied with narrowly defending its own borders. Today’s Israel is a regional superpower, projecting power broadly to protect itself and the U.S.-led order from common adversaries — exactly the local ally the United States needs if it’s to focus on China without leaving behind a disastrous vacuum in the Middle East.

It’s time that American strategy caught up to this new reality.

Biden and Bennett should launch a systematic dialogue on reconceiving the U.S.-Israel strategic partnership for the 21st century — with Israel increasingly assuming the front-line burdens for regional security as Washington shifts to a more over-the-horizon role.

Such an effort will require even greater U.S. support for Israel, beyond the $3.8 billion it currently receives annually. To bolster its ability to prevent a nuclear Iran — a redline America shares but is unlikely to enforce — and to defend itself against Iranian retaliation, Israel urgently needs KC-46 aerial refueling tankers, thousands more precision-guided munitions and bunker-busting bombs, and more F-35s. Anti-Israel progressives in Biden’s Democratic Party will no doubt howl in protest. But after spending trillions fighting unsuccessful Middle Eastern wars, increasing aid to Israel — even doubling it — to enable it countering serious threats to U.S. interests in a still-critical region is a downright bargain.

Our colleague and recent Israeli ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, correctly predicted that Israel would become America’s most important ally in the 21st century. As the dangers of retrenchment play out in Afghanistan, it’s time for both countries to reimagine and reshape the security element of that relationship accordingly, to the immense benefit of both countries.

John Hannah is a senior fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) and a former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney. Michael Makovsky, a former Pentagon official, is president and CEO of JINSA.

Originally published in The Hill