On December 27, 1962, when President John F. Kennedy hosted the Foreign Minister of Israel, Golda Meir, in Palm Beach, Florida, for a heart-to-heart review of U.S.-Israel relations, Kennedy's language was unprecedented. According to a secret memorandum drafted by the attending representative of the State Department, Kennedy told his Israeli guest: "The United States has a special relationship with Israel in the Middle East really comparable only to what it has with Britain over a wide range of world affairs."1
According to an article prepared by two leading American political scientists, Professor John Mearsheimer from the University of Chicago and Professor Stephen Walt from the Kennedy School at Harvard University, which appeared in the March 2006 edition of the London Review of Books, "neither strategic nor moral arguments can account for America's support for Israel." 2 The primary explanation for U.S. backing of Israel, according to these academics, is the "unmatched power of the Israel lobby." 3 Their report is not grounded in any careful investigation of declassified U.S. documents from the Departments of State or Defense, or other military or intelligence sources. Nevertheless, their thesis has now been expanded into a book entitled The Israeli Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (Farar, Straus, and Giroux), to be released in September 2007.
What led Kennedy to declare in 1962 that the U.S.-Israel relationship was even comparable to America's alliance with the British?
What led Kennedy to declare in 1962 that the U.S.-Israel relationship was even comparable to America's alliance with the British? Since the early 1950s, the U.S. defense establishment has understood Israel's potential importance to the Western Alliance. Thus, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Omar Bradley, assessed in 1952 that only Britain, Turkey, and Israel could help the U.S. with their air forces in the event of a Soviet attack in the Middle East. 4
Back in the early 1950s, the U.S. had a hands-off relationship with Israel as Washington focused primarily on building new Cold War alliances with the Arab states, as with the Baghdad Pact. Against whatever Israel could tangibly offer the U.S., there was always a need to politically juggle America's ties with Israel and its efforts to create strategic relations with the Arab states.
The first limited U.S. arms supply to Israel actually preceded Kennedy. During the Eisenhower years, when Secretary of State John Foster Dulles' plans for a Baghdad Pact collapsed with the 1958 overthrow of the Hashemite monarchy in Iraq, the U.S. began to upgrade its defense ties with Israel. The first direct U.S. arms sale to Israel involved 100 recoilless rifles in 1958.
Kennedy started his presidency by trying to build a new relationship with Egypt's president, Gamal Abdul Nasser. But by 1962, Nasser had intervened with large forces in Yemen, bombed Saudi border towns, and threatened to expand into the oil-producing areas of the Persian Gulf. To balance large Soviet arms sales to Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, the U.S. consented to selling Hawk anti-aircraft missiles to Israel in 1962. When the Israel Defense Forces completely defeated the Egyptian Army in the 1967 Six-Day War, Nasser was forced to withdraw his expeditionary army from Yemen, which removed the Egyptian threat to Saudi Arabia and to the rest of the Arab oil-producers.
It was in the period of the Six-Day War that the Mediterranean Sea became a special focal point for U.S. interests in a much wider global context. Beginning in 1964, the Soviet Union started to maintain a constant naval presence with the arrival of the Soviet Mediterranean Squadron; Moscow sought airbases in the Arab states to expand its influence. President Lyndon Johnson would note: "The expanded Soviet presence in this strategic region threatened our position in Europe." 5 Soviet expansion in this area was thwarted by a combination of Israel's strength and skillful U.S. diplomacy in the years that followed.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the U.S.-Israel strategic relationship expanded greatly. It was President Ronald Reagan who first described Israel as a "strategic asset." In 1981, the U.S. and Israel signed their first Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), which was later suspended due to political differences between the two countries; strategic cooperation was then fully resumed in 1983 after the Lebanon War. Reagan initially imposed U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation on a reluctant Pentagon led by Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger, who actually opposed the new relationship. But over time, its greatest advocates became middle level U.S. officers, like Admiral Jack Darby who would later become the head of U.S. submarine forces in the Pacific. They saw the practical advantages of enhanced strategic cooperation for the U.S. military.
Defense ties between the two countries mushroomed with the first visit of a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John W. Vessey, Jr., in early 1984. 6 Joint air and naval exercises between the two countries became increasingly frequent. The U.S. Marine Corps engaged in live-fire exercises and practiced beach assaults in Israel as well. 7 By 1989, Israel's Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin would reveal that the U.S. and Israel had conducted 27 or 28 combined exercises, and that U.S. Marine Corps exercises were being held at the battalion level. 8
Israeli Actions That Served U.S. Interests
During the Cold War, the U.S. and Israel had a joint strategic interest in defeating aggressors in the Middle East seeking to invade their neighbors and disrupt the status quo, especially if they had Moscow's backing. This became the essence of the U.S.-Israel alliance in the Middle East. As already noted, this issue first came to the forefront with the Egyptian intervention in the Arabian Peninsula in 1962. It would repeat itself in 1970 when Syria invaded Jordan. Given the huge U.S. military commitment in Southeast Asia at the time, it was only the mobilization of Israeli strength that provided the external backing needed to support the embattled regime of King Hussein. 9
In 1981, Israel destroyed the nuclear reactor of Iraq's Saddam Hussein, severely reducing Iraqi military strength. Ten years later, after a U.S.-led coalition had to liberate Kuwait following Iraq's occupation of that oil-producing mini-state, Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney thanked Israel for its "bold and dramatic action" a decade earlier. Indeed, Cheney would add in an October 1991 address: "strategic cooperation with Israel remains a cornerstone of U.S. defense policy."
Israel had become one of the main forces obstructing the spread of Soviet military power in the Eastern Mediterranean. In 1970 Israeli Phantoms downed Soviet-piloted MiG fighters over the Suez Canal, proving the ineffectiveness of the military umbrella Moscow provided its Middle Eastern clients in exchange for Soviet basing arrangements. When in the 1980s the Soviet Mediterranean Squadron made the Syrian port of Tartus its main submarine base, Israel offered Haifa to the U.S. Sixth Fleet, which had begun to provide port services for U.S. ships in 1977.
U.S.-Soviet arms control agreements in the 1980s over arms deployments in Central Europe increased the importance of NATO's flanks - including its southern flank - in the overall balance of power between the superpowers. The Eastern Mediterranean proved to be a particularly vulnerable point for NATO forces in those years because of its relative proximity to Soviet naval aviation bases in the southern USSR and in several Arab states. The Soviets had a specialized naval air arm that operated from land bases against adversarial navies, like the U.S. Sixth Fleet. This provided the wider strategic context for U.S.-Israeli cooperation.
By 1992, the number of U.S. Navy ship visits to Haifa had reached 50 per year. Admiral Carl Trost, the former Chief of Naval Operations, commented that with the end of the Cold War and the shifting American interest in power projection to the Middle East, the Sixth Fleet's need for facilities in the Eastern Mediterranean had actually increased. There were emerging threats that cemented U.S.-Israel ties. Six years later in 1998, the U.S. and Israel specifically added the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and intermediate-range missiles to their security agenda in a new U.S.-Israel Memorandum of Understanding.
In 1985, the Reagan administration invited its NATO allies, along with South Korea, Japan, and Australia, to take part in the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), in order to develop an effective defensive shield against ballistic missiles. Israel was invited as well. Eventually, Britain, Germany, and Israel emerged as the largest foreign participants in the program. 10 But only Israel developed the first land-based missile defense system in the world, utilizing the Arrow anti-missile system, whose development came out of this joint program. Today the Arrow is fully operational. Along the way, Israeli technological breakthroughs in missile defense were fully shared with the U.S., which was developing its own missile defense programs.
During the Cold War years, U.S. aid to West Germany was 17 times the assistance to Israel.
Still, critics nonetheless argue that U.S. support for Israel was disproportional, exceeding its actual strategic value. But as Professor A.F.K. Organski of the University of Michigan has demonstrated, during the Cold War years, U.S. aid to Israel was proportionally lower than aid to key allies in other regions: U.S. aid to West Germany was 17 times the assistance to Israel, while South Vietnam received about 10 times the aid Israel obtained. 11
Limitations on the U.S.-Israel Relationship
Do U.S. and Israeli interests sometimes diverge? During the Cold War, Israel needed U.S. security ties in order to increase its own capabilities to deal with hostile Arab states, but it did not seek to become a target of the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, Israel signed an MOU with the U.S. in 1981 which singled out the USSR as a joint adversary of both countries. The MOU underscored that "the parties recognize the need to enhance strategic cooperation to deter all threats from the Soviet Union to the region." 12
At the time of the 2003 Iraq War, most Israeli military leaders identified Iran as the greater threat to the Middle East, which is perhaps one of the reasons Israel stood outside the political battle in Washington over whether to invade Iraq, claims to the contrary notwithstanding. Nonetheless, Israel certainly did not oppose the efforts of the U.S.-led coalition to topple Saddam Hussein, although it was recognized that a U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 could result in Iraqi retaliation against Israel, as occurred in 1991. 13
Israel itself has insisted on certain constraints in the U.S.-Israel defense relationship as a result of its firm commitment to the doctrine of self-reliance. Carl Ford, the Principal Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs in the Bush (41) administration, confided to a Senate caucus in October 1991: "Another limitation, of course, is the longstanding view on the part of Israel, one which I think most of us share the viewpoint on...that not one ounce of American blood should be spilled in the defense of Israel." He suggested that changes needed to be introduced to make "our operations and interactions with Israel the same as they are with Great Britain and Germany."
Detractors of the U.S.-Israel relationship like to insinuate that Israel seeks to get America to fight its wars for it. The truth is completely the opposite: while U.S. forces have been stationed on the soil of Germany, South Korea, and Japan to provide for the defense of those countries in the event of an attack, Israel has always insisted on defending itself by itself. If Israel today seeks "defensible borders," this is because it wants to deploy the Israel Defense Forces and not the U.S. Army in the strategically sensitive Jordan Valley.
During the Cold War years, one of the limitations on the U.S.-Israel strategic relationship was the possible reaction of the Arab states. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the U.S. Department of Defense sought facilities' access arrangements in and near the Arab states of the Persian Gulf for the newly-created Rapid Deployment Force. Overt cooperation with Israel, it was judged, would have made obtaining those agreements more difficult. (Walt and Mearsheimer incorrectly assert that the Rapid Deployment Force was established in response to the Iranian Revolution, rather than the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and their greater proximity to the Straits of Hormuz.)
Thus, when the U.S. converted the Rapid Deployment Force in 1983 into a new, unified command for the Middle East, called the U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM), Israel was retained as the charge of the older U.S. European Command (USEUCOM) - along with Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon - and was thus separated, from the standpoint of U.S. planning, from the rest of the Middle East region. In other words, the U.S. found a way to separate its military ties with Israel from its Arab partners by managing them through completely different command structures.
Walt and Mearsheimer argue that since the U.S. did not rely on Israeli bases during the 1991 Gulf War, but rather sidelined the Jewish state from the anti-Saddam coalition, it was clear that Israel was actually a "strategic burden" to the U.S. But, as just demonstrated, U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation was not directed to Persian Gulf scenarios, which were the responsibility of USCENTCOM. U.S.-Israel defense ties were focused on the Eastern Mediterranean instead. Major General (res.) Avraham "Abrasha" Tamir, who served as the National Security Advisor to Israel's Minister of Defense in the early 1980s, has revealed that both countries were focused on Soviet military moves into Syria and Libya and an Israeli "air umbrella" to protect U.S. troop movements that would seek to counter this scenario. 14
Moreover, Israel's exclusion from the Gulf War coalition did not detract from its role as a key ally of last resort - or insurance policy - in the event that the U.S. military effort in Iraq faced unexpected opposition from Saddam Hussein's forces or from its regional supporters: Israel could have contributed emergency medical services or even air support if necessary. And there was nothing prohibiting the use of U.S. weapons stockpiles that had been pre-positioned in Israel during the 1990s for Gulf contingencies if the need arose. The fact that an asset of last resort is not used, in a particular scenario, does not detract from its value. (Indeed, the U.S. successfully relied on nuclear weapons for deterrence against the Soviet Union during the Cold War and, luckily, did not have to use them, which did not detract from their value.)
In any case, the Arab state reaction to the establishment of formal U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation in 1983 was characterized by one observer as "muted." 15 The Arab states appeared to accept U.S.-Israel defense ties as "a fact of life." 16 As a result, the U.S. eventually proved it could have strong military ties with Israel and with Arab states, like Saudi Arabia, at the same time. Still, Washington kept many aspects of U.S.-Israel military ties secret in order not to place unnecessary strains on its Arab allies.
After the Cold War
In the last few years, the U.S. has been far more ready to publicize joint military exercises, such as when the U.S. Air Force joined the Israeli Air Force in 2001 and held their first-ever joint maneuvers in the Negev involving mid-air refueling, dog fighting, and air-to-ground attacks. 17
The political context of U.S.-Israel cooperation has also evolved due to the readiness of NATO to expand ties with Israel; joint naval exercises were held in 2005 that included German, Greek, Spanish, and Turkish vessels as well. 18 Seeking to expand these multilateral defense relations, NATO Deputy Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs, Dr. Patrick Hardouin, stated in 2006: "The ups and downs of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must not limit Israel-NATO cooperation." 19
Moreover, as Iran emerges as a mutual threat to both Israel and the Sunni Arab states, it becomes difficult for Arab leaders to argue against U.S.-Israel cooperation that might also serve their security interests as well. For example, Lebanese Hizbullah has been active in Iraq training Shiite militias that attack both coalition forces and Iraqi Sunnis. Thus, an Israeli blow to Hizbullah is in the interests of the U.S., Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.
Walt and Mearsheimer do not seem aware of the evolution of attitudes in the Middle East. They are fixated on the canard that "the U.S. has a terrorism problem in good part because it is so closely allied with Israel." 20
Walt and Mearsheimer ignore the fact that al-Qaeda was not born in 1948, 1967, 1973, or in 1982 - in response to an Arab-Israeli war - but rather in 1989, following the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan. Bernard Lewis and other Middle Eastern scholars have established that the Palestinian issue was, at best, a tertiary concern for Osama bin Laden, whose jihadi efforts were more focused on Chechnya, the Balkans, Kashmir, and Saudi Arabia. 21
Despite their assertions, Israel's ongoing strategic value to the U.S. today was recently underlined by the commander of USEUCOM, General Bantz J. Craddock, who told the House Armed Services Committee on March 15, 2007: "In the Middle East, Israel is the U.S.'s closest ally that consistently and directly supports our interests through security cooperation and understanding of U.S. policy in the region." He added: "Israel is a critical military partner in the difficult seam of the Middle East." 22 U.S. Ambassador to Israel Richard H. Jones told a conference on U.S.-Israel relations on May 21, 2007, that Israeli technologies were being used by the U.S. armed forces in Iraq to protect American troops from improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which have been responsible for most of the U.S. casualties in the Iraq War. 23
Much of the Relationship Is Classified
Much of the U.S.-Israel strategic relationship is classified, particularly in the area of intelligence sharing. There are two direct consequences from this situation. First, most aspects of U.S.-Israel defense ties are decided on the basis of the professional security considerations of those involved. Lobbying efforts in Congress cannot force a U.S. security agency to work with Israel.
And the intelligence cooperation between the two countries has been considerable; much of it preceded the solidification of the U.S.-Israel defense relationship in the 1980s. It was Israeli intelligence which obtained the exact text of the secret February 1956 speech by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party, in which he denounced the past policies of his predecessor, Joseph Stalin. The Israelis passed Khrushchev's address on to the CIA. 24
"The ability of the U.S. Air Force... to defend whatever position it has in NATO owes more to the Israeli intelligence input than it does to any single source of intelligence." -- General George F. Keegan
In August 1966, the Mossad succeeded in recruiting an Iraqi pilot who defected and flew a Soviet MiG 21 to Israel, which shared its intelligence on the new Soviet aircraft, about which little was previously known, with the U.S. The information obtained about the MiG 21 not only helped the Israeli Air Force less than a year later in the 1967 Six-Day War, but would be extremely valuable to the U.S., as well, since the MiG 21 became the workhorse of the North Vietnamese Air Force in the years ahead. Indeed, it became common practice for Israel to furnish whole Soviet weapons systems - like 122 and 130-mm artillery and a T-72 tank - to the U.S. for evaluation and testing, influencing the development of U.S. weapons systems and battlefield tactics during the Cold War. 25
The value of this intelligence for the U.S has been enormous. General George F. Keegan, a retired U.S. Air Force intelligence chief, told Wolf Blitzer in 1986 that he could not have obtained the same intelligence "with five CIAs." 26 He went further: "The ability of the U.S. Air Force in particular, and the Army in general, to defend whatever position it has in NATO owes more to the Israeli intelligence input than it does to any single source of intelligence, be it satellite reconnaissance, be it technology intercept, or what have you." 27
Because many elements of the U.S.-Israel security relationship are normally kept secret, it is difficult for academics, commentators, and pundits to provide a thorough net assessment of the true value of U.S.-Israel ties. Thus, Israel is left working shoulder-to-shoulder with the U.S., even while finding itself caricatured by outside commentators as a worthless ally whose status is only sustained by a domestic lobby.
Israel cannot refute these claims by leaking sensitive aspects of intelligence cooperation with the U.S. to the New York Times; it might score points by doing so in American public opinion, but it would undermine the trust that the defense establishments of both countries have developed over the years.
Ask About the Saudi Lobby and U.S. Dependence on Middle East Oil
Does Israel have supporters in the U.S. that back a strong relationship between the two countries? Clearly, networks of such support exist, as they do for U.S. ties with Britain, Greece, Turkey, and India. There are also states like Saudi Arabia that have tried to tilt U.S. policy using a vast array of powerful PR firms, former diplomats, and well-connected officials. The results of those efforts have America still overly dependent on Middle Eastern oil with few energy alternatives. Given the ultimate destination of those petrodollars in recent years (the global propagation of Islamic extremism and terrorism), a serious investigation of those lobbying efforts appears to be far more appropriate than focusing on relations between the U.S. and Israel.
Indeed, Saudi Arabia is really in conflict with vital U.S. interests. Bush administration officials admit privately that of an estimated 60 to 80 foreign fighters who enter Iraq each month to fight U.S. and coalition forces, roughly half come from Saudi Arabia. 28 In August 2003, Undersecretary of State Richard Armitage admitted that funds from private Saudi charities were funding insurgents in Iraq. 29 Senior officials hint that such connections continue to this day. There is a striking irony in the way that Walt and Mearsheimer complain about the influence of pro-Israel groups in Washington, and yet both academics were prepared to appear at the National Press Club in August 2006, at the invitation of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), an organization that has received financial support from Saudi and other foreign benefactors abroad and lobbies on behalf of various Middle Eastern causes throughout the United States. 30
Some Saudi benefactors still have very problematic connections. One of the largest Saudi charities, the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), had two branches in Indonesia and the Philippines which were designated by the U.S. Treasury Department on August 3, 2006, as entities that were "bankrolling [the] Al Qaida network." 31 IIRO was not a private charity nor an NGO, but was part of the Muslim World League, that had official Saudi governmental involvement. Today, massive U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia are being proposed in Washington while the U.S. Treasury Department is complaining that the Saudis are "not holding people responsible for sending money abroad for jihad." 32 Walt and Mearsheimer did not probe Saudi influence in Washington the way they went after pro-Israel lobbying.
Those who question the U.S.-Israel relationship at this time seem to overlook changes in the global threat environment that have radically altered U.S. national security interests. During the last century, the main threats to the continental U.S. came from the European continent (World War I, World War II, and the Cold War). After 1945, Americans came to accept the long-term deployment of U.S. forces in Germany and the rest of Europe as necessary for assuring the future stability of the continent and serving the American interest in containing the spread of Soviet power.
Blaming Israel for the Iraq War does not stand up to any rigorous standards of evidence that would be expected in the academic world.
Yet in the last two decades, Americans are finding that the strategic focal point of their military activism is increasingly in the Middle East, particularly with the pacification of Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union (the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, notwithstanding). This shift from Europe to the Middle East is understandable given the fact that the main global threats to American security - al-Qaeda terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as well as missile delivery systems - now emanate from the Middle East region.
Still, many analysts are perplexed by the rising military importance of the Middle East for the U.S., and hence try to find alternative explanations. The 2003 Iraq War has made this confusion all the more acute, driving some pundits to conclude, falsely, that the only plausible explanation for the U.S. decision to remove Saddam Hussein was because of Israel. Indeed, The Economist suggested on March 17, 2007, that "The Iraq debacle has produced a fierce backlash" affecting the standing of groups supportive of Israel in Washington. This leads to the assertion that the Bush administration launched the Iraq War in response to insidious behind-the-scenes lobbying efforts made by pro-Israel organizations in Washington. No such efforts were in fact undertaken.
Walt and Mearsheimer have joined the chorus of those blaming Israel and its supporters for the decision to launch the Iraq War: "Pressure from Israel and the lobby was not the only factor behind the decision to attack Iraq in March 2003, but it was critical. Some Americans believe that this was a war for oil, but there is hardly any direct evidence to support this claim. Instead, the war was motivated in good part by a desire to make Israel more secure [emphasis added]." 33
Bob Woodward of the Washington Post has written one of the most thorough journalistic accounts of the Iraq War. He describes a "top secret" Bush administration memo entitled "Iraq: Goals, Objectives and Strategy," which specifically states that one "key goal" was "to minimize disruption in international oil markets." Woodward details a conversation between Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, and President Bush in which Bandar seeks to get Bush to finish off the historic step begun by his father in 1991, by getting rid of Saddam. A letter from Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah was delivered at the same meeting with the same request. 34
Moreover, Richard A. Clarke, a subsequent Bush administration critic who was exposed to internal White House thinking about the Iraq War until March 2003, has concluded that most of the rationales for the decision to go to war reflected "a concern with the long-term stability of the House of Saud." 35 This Saudi angle has not been probed at all in public discourse. Blaming Israel for the Iraq War is easy and perhaps satisfies a need by some to explain away one of the most difficult military engagements that the U.S. has ever undertaken in its history, but it does not stand up to any rigorous standards of evidence that would be expected in the academic world.