Friday, July 9, 2010

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


by Gil Ehrenkranz


2nd part of 4



Israel began playing an important role for its allies (i.e., France and Britain) soon after the War of Independence. In 1956, Israel, France, and Britain undertook a joint invasion of Egypt.  During an incipient revolution against Jordan's King Hussein in 1958, Israel permitted Britain to airlift its troops from Cyprus over Israeli airspace in order to quell the disturbances in Jordan even though Jordan was then in a state of war with Israel.[i][13]  This was not the last time that Israel would support the request of its ally with respect to aiding Jordan.  Yet within 11 years, both Britain and France would abandon any semblance of an alliance with Israel.  In the case of France, there were almost no lengths to which it would not go to distance itself from Israel.  Not only did France refuse to deliver Mirage aircraft and missile boats already paid for by Israel, but it agreed to arm a significant number of Israel's enemies including Egypt, Iraq, and Libya.  In fact, the Osirak nuclear reactor Israel destroyed in Baghdad in 1981 was built primarily with French expertise.

Yet what of the record of Israel as a U.S. ally? During the 1940s and 1950s, the Truman and Eisenhower administrations did not regard Israel as a worthwhile ally.  It wasn't that Israel was deemed to be unreliable or even at cross-purposes with American foreign policy goals.  Rather, it was that Israel was not deemed powerful enough to advance American interests in the region.  Yet given the steady rapid growth of the Israeli population, economy, and armed forces, as well as Israeli diplomatic successes in the third world (particularly sub-Saharan Africa), Israel's potential value to the United States grew.  Any hope that the Cold War would subside with the death of Joseph Stalin faded with Nikita Khruschev's increasingly bellicose pronouncements.

As many of the Arab states became client states of the Soviet Union, it was only natural that Israel and the United States would draw closer as their respective national interests began to coincide.  For the United States, the budding alliance among Egypt, Syria, and the Soviet Union was troubling.  Of particular concern was that the Soviet navy would finally be able to establish a base in a warm water port, long a goal of the Soviet Union.  Furthermore, if the Soviet Union could establish a naval base in the Mediterranean Sea, NATO could no longer count on bottling-up the Black Sea fleet in the Dardanelles.  While the atheist nature of Soviet Communism was anathema to the Arab world, it was clear that the Soviets were making steady progress with many Arab states.  For Israel, the Soviet Union's willingness to provide substantial quantities of tanks, aircraft, artillery, anti-aircraft guns, anti-tank guns, and ships, caused Israel to cast about for as many of its own allies as possible.  However, until the Kennedy administration, no arms sales of any substance were ever authorized by the United States.  Further, even the Kennedy administration authorized only the sale of HAWK anti-aircraft missiles to Israel, not any tanks, jet aircraft, or other equipment that could be used for military offensives.  This reticence lasted well into the Johnson administration.  For example, during the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel had no jets of American manufacture and only 200 American-made M-48 Patton tanks.   Israeli Air Force (IAF) combat jets were comprised solely of French aircraft, and more than half of the tanks in Israel's arsenal were supplied by Britain and France.[ii][14]

After the Six-Day War, both Britain and France decided that an alliance with Israel, even an informal one, would not be in their best interests.  They could afford to jettison Israel as an ally because they were resigned to let the sun set on their international influence and evolved from major powers into regional ones.  Their waning power as major international actors continued through the 1990s until the present day.[iii][15]  Israel and the United States found themselves drawing ever closer to each other as each recognized the increasing value of a more intimate relationship.  For Israel, a steady supplier of key weapons systems was of paramount concern and U.S. support in the UN had some value; for the United States, Israel represented a client state that could provide victories against client states of the U.S. nemesis, the Soviet Union.  That was a commodity, which had been in short supply in the 1950s and 1960s with the Iron Curtain being drawn down on Europe, the Korean police action fought to a stalemate, the abortive uprising in Hungary (1956), Cuban Revolution (1959), Prague Spring (1968), and the long Vietnam conflict heading toward failure.  Israel's continuing economic and military growth--and especially the decisive Israeli victories over the armies of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria in the Six-Day War[iv][16]--transformed the view that Israel was teetering on the edge of being obliterated to that of a forceful regional power capable of defeating regional allies of the Soviet Union.

With no end of the Cold War in view, President Johnson authorized the first American sale of attack aircraft to Israel in 1966, the Skyhawk.  The Skyhawk was a subsonic light bomber used primarily by the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.  Following the Six-Day War, in 1968, President Johnson approved the sale of the much more versatile supersonic F-4 Phantom.  By 1973, the combat jet inventory of the IAF had changed from 100 percent reliance on French aircraft to a mere 18 percent.  The remainder of IAF combat aircraft was now American, with 150 Skyhawks and 140 Phantoms.[v][17]  The rearming of the IAF was to pay dividends to the United States much faster than anyone had imagined when the aircraft sales were first authorized.

In September 1970, the Syrian army invaded Jordan for the purpose of supporting the Palestinian insurrection, which began earlier that month.  At first, the United States was unsure about the extent of the invasion.  Was it merely a border raid or something more?  Yet after a phone call to the U.S. Ambassador from King Hussein confirming that the city of Irbid had fallen to the Syrians and his observation that, "air strikes were imperative to save his country," the United States decided to act to preserve Jordanian independence.  The United States did not want to stand by idly while yet another pro-Western nation fell into the orbit of the Soviet Union.   National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger asked Israel to fly reconnaissance over the battle area and report back the extent of the incursion.  Reconnaissance confirmed that the Syrians had invaded in force.  At that point, President Nixon made the decision that if conditions deteriorated further, he would request that Israel intervene with air strikes against Syrian forces in Jordan and be prepared to attack Syrian forces with ground troops.

Israel responded by immediately sending two brigades onto the Golan Heights threatening Syria's flank in Jordan.  Israel also began a limited mobilization of its reserve units in preparation for action in Jordan.  The combination of the threat of Israeli intervention and successful Jordanian airstrikes against Syrian forces near Irbid helped convince Syria that it was advisable to withdraw its invasion forces.

This episode is striking for several reasons.  First, at American request, Israel was prepared to expend its blood and treasure to support a country with which it had been at war just three years prior.  Second, unlike the threat to Jordan 12 years earlier, the United States did not turn to Britain for help in saving the Jordanian regime but instead reached out to Israel.  Last, the approach of some of America's other "allies" during this crisis is instructive.  French President Pompidou sent a message to President Nixon expressing his "great concern" about possible American intervention and urged Nixon to weigh his decisions with care.  Henry Kissinger noted that, "The message was not especially helpful, nor did we fail to notice France's attempt to dissociate from us in the midst of a crisis."[vi][18]  Israeli willingness to intervene had preserved the balance of power in the region.  Future and more dramatic Israeli actions would have the same effect.

Nine months prior to the Jordanian crisis, the Soviet Union had provided Egypt with an advanced radar station.  Such an advanced radar had never been deployed outside of the Warsaw Pact.  Egypt immediately installed the radar near the Suez Canal.  The extent of this radar's capabilities was unknown to the West and to Israel.  In late 1969, Israel decided that it was imperative to learn the full capabilities of this radar.  Therefore, Israel decided to embark on a mission never before attempted.  It planned to land commandos near the unit and airlift the entire radar back to Israel for study rather than merely destroy it.  The raid was successful and within two weeks after being brought to Israel, the radar unit was shipped to the United States for further evaluation.[vii][19]  At the time, this was an enormous intelligence coup for the United States as its aircraft had proven vulnerable to Soviet supplied radars over Vietnam.  In addition, it is likely that possession and testing of this intact advanced radar aided the United States in developing stealth technology used in designing the first U.S. stealth aircraft in the 1970s.

Toward the end of the 1973 war, Israel was able to capture intact SAM 6 missile batteries and associated radar from the Egyptians.  Israel shipped these items to the United States.  As United States Air Force (USAF) losses to SAMS during the Vietnam Conflict were heavy, the United States welcomed its first opportunity to examine a fully operational SAM 6 battery.  It is likely that data gleaned from testing the SAM 6 further aided U.S. development of stealth technology.  It also permitted the United States to discover weaknesses in the SAM 6 that would enable the USAF to exploit the weaknesses by combat jets then in the U.S. arsenal well before stealth aircraft could be deployed.  The IDF also captured other Russian-supplied equipment such as the T-55 and T-62 main battle tanks.  Sharing these tanks with the United States permitted the United States to discover weaknesses that would be kept in mind as the United States was developing a new main battle tank of its own, the M-1 Abrams.  Israel gave these captured weapons systems to the United States even though it was the United States that had coerced Israel into stopping short of achieving a clear-cut victory in its war with Egypt.[viii][20]

In 1979, with the fall of pro-Western Iran to Islamist radicals, the United States found itself even more reliant on its remaining allies in the region.  Beginning with Ronald Reagan and continuing through the George Bush Republican administrations, Israel and the United States entered into important formal agreements.  In 1981, the two countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) establishing a framework for consultation and cooperation on issues of national security.  This was followed in 1983 with the formation of a Joint Political Military Group, which meets twice a year to implement the provisions of the MOU.  The United States and Israel began joint military exercises in 1984 and the U.S. navy has paid periodic visits to the port of Haifa since 1978. In 1988, Israel was designated as a major non-NATO ally of the United States.  The United States stockpiled $200 million of weapons in Israeli depots for American use in a crisis; and all of this occurred during 12 consecutive years of Republican presidents.  Ronald Reagan and George Bush were keenly aware that Jewish-American voters voted overwhelmingly for their Democratic opponents in each election and if they were inclined to forget that fact, none other than James Baker was present to provide a not-so-gentle reminder.  Yet they acted to cement Israel as a key ally though they knew that they would reap no personal benefit at the polls.



Gil Ehrenkranz

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




[i][13] Douglas Little, American Orientalism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), p. 93.

[ii][14] A.J. Barker, Six Day War (New York: Random House, 1974), p. 37.

[iii][15] In the 1990s, Britain and France would not even undertake joint military action on their own continent against Slobodan Milosevic over Kosovo without relying on the United States to do most of the heavy lifting.  Both countries have also refused President Obama's requests for troop increases in Afghanistan.  Worthy of note is that neither Britain nor France has significant troop commitments outside of their borders at the moment.

[iv][16] Besides losing the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula to Israel, the ratio of Arab soldiers to Israeli soldiers killed in action was 5:1, the ratio of combat aircraft lost was 11:1, and the ratio of tanks lost was 2.5:1 according to T.N. Dupuy, Elusive Victory (New York: Hero Books, 1984), p. 333.

[v][17] Ibid, p. 606.

[vi][18] Henry Kissinger, The White House Years (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1979), p. 627.

[vii][19] Author's 2007 conversation with the helicopter pilot who airlifted the radar unit across the Suez Canal.

[viii][20] Although U.S. pressure was the main reason the IDF failed to achieve another decisive victory, Israel likely provided important weapons systems to the United States in recognition of the value of the U.S. airlift during the war.

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