Friday, July 9, 2010

How the United States has benefited from its alliance with Israel Part III


by Gil Ehrenkranz


3rd part of 4



Which American allies would honor a request to refrain from retaliation as its cities were bombed repeatedly or agree to give the United States veto power over its armament sales or stop short of decisively defeating its enemy during wartime at U.S. insistence?  Israel is the only country that fits this description.  In fact, Israel may be the sole U.S. ally that has repeatedly put the interests of the United States above its own national interests.

During the First Gulf War, President Bush went to great lengths to convince Israel not to retaliate for missile attacks against its cities.  Bush feared that the fragile (and temporary) coalition he had assembled would disintegrate if Israel (a non-combatant in the First Gulf War), retaliated.  While it is difficult to understand why anyone feared Saudi Arabia would leave a coalition designed to safeguard its existence simply because Israel bombed Baghdad, that was the thinking in the Bush administration at the time.  The First Gulf War was a prime example of how Israel bent its own national interest to accommodate the United States. In fact, the decision not to retaliate in any way has cost Israel a great deal.  Between 1949-1991, it was axiomatic that any attacks on Israeli cities would invite a massive retaliatory response from the IAF.  Even during the period of the 1973 war when Egypt and Syria were winning, they each refrained from launching their arsenal of ballistic missiles against Israeli cities.  When the war turned against them, with one or two exceptions, they still did not launch their missiles.  The threat of massive retaliation by the IAF in response to attacks on Israeli cities was a well-known "redline" that the combatants wouldn't cross even during wartime. Saddam Hussein crossed that redline in a desperate hope that the coalition would disintegrate once Israel retaliated.  For him, it was a win-win scenario.  Either his gambit broke the coalition or Israel refrained from retaliating and he became the hero to the entire Arab world. After much hand-wringing, Israel did not retaliate, the coalition remained intact, and Kuwait was liberated but Saddam Hussein's regime remained in power and became a major irritant to the United States for the better part of the next 11 years.  For Israel, the consequences of honoring the request of the Bush administration reverberate to the present.  Later administrations would request Israeli forbearance relating to other redlines.  For example, both the Bush and Obama administrations have pressured Israel to refrain from attacking Iranian nuclear installations and have even refused overflight permission by the IAF over Iraq.

In Israel's case, by not attacking Iraq forcefully in retaliation for the 39 Scud missiles launched against Israeli cities, groups such as Hizballah and Hamas stocked their armories with thousands of rockets, mortar rounds, and missiles, and eventually launched them against Israeli towns and cities.  Moreover, looming ominously is the growing ballistic missile arsenal Iran is building.  When Israel acceded to America's request to refrain from retaliating, it sacrificed its own important national security interests for the sake of an ally.  There are not many U.S. allies that would have done this for the United States 

Even today, the United States cannot even convince France (with a population of 64,000,000) to take in more than a single Guantanamo Bay prisoner off its hands, even though France has been agitating for the United States to close the Guantanamo Bay prison for six years.[i][21]  On occasion, the United States' own NATO allies have refused overflight permission for U.S. transport aircraft.  For its part, New Zealand won't permit any U.S. warships to dock in their ports unless the ships announce that they are not carrying any nuclear warheads.

It is hard to imagine any other allies permitting their cities to be attacked over several weeks by ballistic missiles simply to accommodate the United States. Since 2002, the NATO members committed to spend a minimum of two percent of their gross national product on defense expenditures to support the alliance.  As of 2009, only Turkey and the United States are satisfying that commitment.  And presumably, a stronger NATO would directly benefit its European members and even under those circumstances, they continue to arrange matters so that the United States bears the lion's burden of European defense.  The United States is having trouble convincing the NATO members to spend enough to defend themselves on their own continent.  In other words, U.S. allies can't even be counted on to defend themselves.  Other than Britain, Poland, and perhaps a handful of other nations, how can the United States count on any of its allies to expend blood or treasure on its behalf as the United States pursues its own national interests?

During the Iraq War, other than Britain and Italy, precious few of America's traditional allies have aided the United States. Israel, however, has provided significant support to the United States. U.S. units have undergone anti-insurgency warfare training within Israel.  Israeli intelligence operatives have also assisted U.S. intelligence services within Iraq (especially in the areas controlled by the Kurds).  In addition, at one point, the United States requested that shipments of armor plated Humvees that had been ordered, paid for, and were ready for shipment to Israel, be diverted to U.S. forces in Iraq.[ii][22]  Israel acquiesced to this request notwithstanding that this decision put their own troops in harm's way in operations in the Gaza Strip.  Unmanned aerial vehicles manufactured by Israel have also been sold to the United States and have been used in Iraq by U.S. ground forces.

As with most international relations, the U.S. relationship with Israel has had some low points.  What is interesting to note is that these low points never resulted in a complete rupture and in some cases, the relationship has been strengthened.  For example, the Reagan administration was upset enough with Israel's raid on Iraq's nuclear reactor that it suspended delivery of F-16 jets schedule for delivery to Israel.  Ultimately, the embargo was lifted and the jets were delivered.  Just ten years later, after the First Gulf War, Dick Cheney remarked that Israel had done a great favor to the United States in destroying the reactor.  In the mid-1980s, Israel announced that is was developing its own jet fighter, the Lavi.  Israel produced a prototype but under pressure from the United States, Israel refrained from entering the Lavi into production.  In exchange, the United States agreed to sell Israel additional F-16 aircraft.  In 2000, Israel entered into a sale agreement with China for sophisticated unmanned aerial vehicles, drones, and reconnaissance aircraft (the "Phalcon").  After strenuous objections from the United States, Israel breached its sales agreement with China, at least with respect to the Phalcon sale and with regard to technical upgrades for equipment already delivered.  Yet as in the past, in 2005, Israel accommodated U.S. concerns by entering into an understanding which gave the United States a virtual veto power over Israeli sales of advanced military hardware.[iii][23]  No other U.S. ally has consented to a restriction of this type.

While the Pentagon views sales of advanced military equipment to China as posting a direct threat to U.S. interests, as noted below, the United States routinely sells advanced military hardware to countries in a state of war with Israel.  While many have accused Israel of being "tone-deaf" in its attempt to sell arms to a country with which the United States may someday find itself in a state of war, the fact is that the United States has not fought the Chinese army for more than two-thirds of a century.  Given the U.S. willingness to sell arms to countries with which Israel is currently in a state of war, Israelis logically assumed that its own arms sales to China would not raise the outcry it did.  However, when faced with these objections, Israel accommodated the United States in a manner in which no other U.S. ally has.

In addition, arms sales constitute a significant source of revenue to Israel.  Israel accounts for ten percent of the world's defense exports and in 2004--such sales amounted to $3.5 billion.[iv][24]  Contrast Israeli flexibility on this issue to the activities of the United States.  Israel has objected repeatedly to U.S. arms sales to countries with which Israel is in a state of war.  Yet there isn't a single instance in which the United States has cancelled a sale to Saudi Arabia or any other Gulf State, and the weapons systems have included advanced F-16 aircraft, M-1 Abrams tanks, and sophisticated AWACS aircraft.


Critics of the U.S. alliance with Israel cite the damage this has caused in U.S. relations with the Arab world.  While there can be no doubt that the Arab world would prefer American-Israeli relations to be more distant, in writing about this "irritant" in U.S.-Arab relations, Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution observed:


Overall, American support for Israel has been something more than an irritant in U.S. relations with the Arab world but something considerably less than a strategic dilemma.  It has not precluded strong relationships with key Arab states.  It has not prevented the United States from becoming the dominant power in the region.  It has zero impact on America's oil imports.  It has had a very modest impact on the profits of American oil companies.  It has created a number of complications for issues like basing, but it is only one of several complicating factors there and the problems have typically been tactical, not strategic, in their nature and impact. The price that the United States pays in diplomatic frustration and even the occasional lost opportunity, thought sometimes considerable to the individuals who have to endure it, is negligible from the perspective of our nation's economic and strategic interests.[v][25]


It is fair to say that the value the United States has received from its close relationship with Israel far outweighs the negligible negative effect on U.S. economic and strategic interests in the region.

As a superpower, the United States has an interest in maintaining a reasonable balance of power in regions in which it has important interests.  Israel, on its own and without U.S. assistance, has done much to preserve the balance of power in the region.  Two prime examples were the 1981 Israeli raid on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor and the 2007 raid on Syria's nuclear reactor.  Although the former action was initially opposed by the Reagan administration, in time, its value was appreciated and many U.S. officials doubt that the United States would have reversed Iraq's invasion of Kuwait had Iraq been a nuclear power.  With regard to the raid on the Syrian reactor, not only did the United States refrain from criticizing the raid but no Arab country criticized it either.  The next major challenge to the balance of power relates to Iran's quest for nuclear weapons.  It has become clear that the United States will take no military action whatsoever to prevent Iran from going nuclear.  It remains to be seen whether Israel will, once again, take dramatic action to preserve the current balance of power. The stakes are far higher for the region this time because if Shi'i Iran becomes a nuclear power, the regional Sunni Arab countries will seek nuclear weapons and a nuclear arms race in that part of the world will likely not end well.



Gil Ehrenkranz

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.



[i][21] "Europe Seen Willing to Taking Detainees; Holder 'Pleasantly Surprised' by Allies'," The Washington Post, April 30, 2009, p. A12.

[ii][22] "Armored Hummers Shipment to Iraq Instead of Israel," The Jerusalem Post, April 14, 2004.

[iii][23] Congressional Research Service, Israel: Background and Relations with the United States, May 18, 2006.

[iv][24] Ibid, p. 12.

[v][25] Kenneth M. Pollack, A Path Out of the Desert, (New York: Random House, 2008), p. 48.

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