Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Israel: Strategic Asset or Dangerous Liability - By Guest Writer Zack Swan

In a two-part essay begun as an academic paper, guest writer Zack Swan dissects the anatomy of the arguments for and against the close U.S. alliance with Israel. Though one of the most politically and emotionally charged issues for Americans today, the following piece (Part One) manages to present the pros of our relationship with Israel and why those outweigh the possible drawbacks to supporting another country nearly unconditionally.

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What makes a nation an ally of the United States?  Moreover, what makes a nation a good ally of the U.S.? From an ideological perspective, a nation that shares America’s values and whose beliefs resonate with the American people has the foundations to be a “good” ally. However, given that the United States has historically allied itself with dictators, tyrants, mass murderers, and authoritarian regimes, it is safe to say America’s decision to ally with a nation has no pre-requisite of ideological similarity. A likelier candidate for what makes a “good” U.S. ally is a nation whose strategic importance outweighs the political, ideological, and even moral costs of the relationship.

There is no better example of these characteristics, both ideologically and strategically, than the state of Israel. Based on the unconditional diplomatic support and large amounts of U.S. aid received by Israel, there is strong evidence that most American policymakers believe that Israel is indeed a strategic asset and quite possibly America’s most important ally. There also plenty of critics of the alliance that argue the costs of the United States’ “special relationship” with Israel are no longer being balanced by its benefits, and that in fact the affiliation has had grave consequences for U.S. foreign policy, security, and global influence.

Critics, such as John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, allege that being so closely allied with Israel is undermining relationships with other U.S. allies, casting doubt on America’s wisdom and moral vision, helping inspire a generation of anti-American extremists, and complicating U.S. efforts to deal with a volatile but vital region[1].  Some argue that Israel is worth keeping as an ally, but that it is no longer in American’s best interest to support Israel unconditionally and unanimously. Others claim that there was a time when Israel was an important strategic ally but that that is no longer the case today.

Conversely, supporters of the relationship, such as Foreign Policy author Michael Oren, believe that Israel is America’s ultimate ally, assisting in protecting American citizens on and off the battlefield, stimulating the U.S economy, enhancing American intelligence, and that as a consequence America needs Israel more than ever[2]. While there is an abundant amount of historical evidence supporting the Israel’s strategic importance, there are those who believe a change in policy may be in order. Despite these differences in opinions, nearly all critics and supporters can agree that it is important to continually reevaluate America’s relationships and foreign policy.

With that in mind, the aim of this two-part article will be to assess the pros and cons of the United States being strategically aligned with Israel, and to assess what extent the U. S. should or should not align its foreign policy with Israel. My aim in writing this article is not to sway readers to one side or the other but rather to objectively present two sides of an important debate. In Part One, I will present the arguments of those who support the current “special relationship” Israel and the United States share. In Part Two I will assess the arguments of the alliance’s critics. Given that this is such an emotionally charged issue for so many people, I could never hope to instill objectivity in the opinions of all readers. I do, however, hope to present information that is at once enlightening, informative, and perhaps even a bit disturbing. Enjoy.

Part One: Israel, Our Greatest Friend

A Yarmulka with both Israeli and American flags. Photo by Idobi.

Despite what many might believe, the United States and Israel have not always been the closest of allies. Throughout the 1950s, the U.S. took actions that in fact were detrimental to the fledgling Jewish state, such as the countermeasures taken by the U.S. against Israel in the Suez Crisis of 1956. The relationship with Israel changed in 1962 under the administration of John F. Kennedy when he decided to sell the Hawk ground-to-air missile to Israel. In a statement made by Kennedy to Prime Minister Golda Meir on December 27, 1962, Kennedy gave insight to his thinking behind this reversal in policy: “The United States has a special relationship with the Israel in the Middle East really only comparable to that which it has with Britain over a wide range of affairs…I think it is quite clear that in the case of invasion, the U.S. would come to the support of Israel. We have that capacity and it is growing”[3].

Support for Israel grew under the Johnson administration and under the Nixon administration, during the 1969-70 War of Attrition aid to Israel steadily increased during the conflict. This sharp increase reflected both Kissinger and Nixon’s belief that steadfast support for Israel would reveal the limited value of Soviet aid and eventually convince Moscow’s Arab clients to realign with the United States[4]. This Cold War rationale would become the straightforward case for Israel’s strategic value until the collapse of the Soviet Union; by serving as America’s proxy in the Middle East, Israel was able to help contain Soviet expansion in the vital region as well as occasionally help the United States handle other regional conflicts.

Today, one of the leading arguments for the U.S. to continue its strategic relationship with Israel is that they share nearly identical views on major issues in the international system.  According to Michael Oren, author and the current Israeli Ambassador to the United States, “Israel has always sided with the United States on major global issues. At the United Nations and in other international institutions, the two countries' voting patterns are virtually identical, as are their policies on human rights and international law”[5]. Compared to its other allies, there are few, if any, that can compete with Israel in their steadfast support and shared interests. America's European allies including Britain, France, Germany, and Italy are restricting the conditions under which their forces fight alongside those of the U.S. and drastically slashing defense budgets, which will leave the U.S. unable to call on them for support in the event of the crisis. The Israeli Defense Force is believed to be twice the size of the French and British armies combined and able to be deployed in a number of hours, giving it clear military advantages over other U.S. allies.[6]

Members of the IDF Nahal brigade receive their green berets. Photo by Dor Pozner.

This ability to assist militarily in the event of a crisis is one part of a broader argument for Israel’s strategic security value to the United States. According to Robert Satloff, Executive Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the U.S. and Israeli militaries have conducted contingency planning since 1983 and the U.S. has stocked war reserves worth over a billion dollars in Israel. Israel has also proven to be a prime source of effective counterterrorism/counterinsurgency tactics, which have played a significant role in U.S. success in Iraq.

Israel has been an outstanding innovator in the technology, tactics, techniques, and procedures of unmanned aerial vehicles, which the United States now relies upon extensively in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen in dismantling terror networks[7]. Along with its assistance to the U.S. in the War on Terror, Israel’s destruction of nuclear reactors in Iraq and Syria has lowered global risk of a nuclear attack. Supporters of the alliance also note that Israel serves as the best deterrent against a nuclear Iran. Aluf Benn, editor-in-chief of Haaretz Newspaper, noted that the “IDF [is] the only serious force able to standup against Iran and its proxies in the Middle East”[8].

The concept of being “partner[s] against terrorism” emerged as a new rationale for the U.S.-Israel alliance following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and has become exponentially more important following the attacks of 9/11. In an address to congress in 2006, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared, “Our countries do not just share the experience and pain of terrorism. We share the commitment and resolve to confront the brutal terrorists that took these innocent people from us”[9]. Olmert’s successor, Benjamin Netanyahu, echoed this idea in an op-ed in the Chicago Sun Times declaring, “No grievance, real or imagined, can ever justify terror…American power topples the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and the al-Qaeda network there crumbles on its own. The U.S. must now act similarly against other terror regimes-Iran, Iraq, Yasser Arafat’s dictatorship, Syria, and a few others”[10].

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George Bush and Ehud Olmert. White House photo.

Several U.S. policymakers have echoed these ideas. Senator Charles Shumer declared in December 2001that “the PLO is the same as the Taliban, which aids, abets and provides safe haven for terrorists. And Israel is like America, simply trying to protect its home front”[11]. This year, President Barak Obama gave a speech to a conference held by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee where he said “the enemies of Israel should have no doubt that regardless of Party, Americans stand shoulder to shoulder in our commitment to Israel’s security”. The support seen in the executive branch can also been seen in Congress, where in April and May 2002 an overwhelming majority passed two nearly identical resolutions declaring that “the United States and Israel are now engaged in a common struggle against terrorism”[12].

Israel’s strategic importance to the United States is not only military but also geopolitical. With its strong control of the East Mediterranean littoral and the cross roads of North Africa and Southwest Asia, Israel has enabled the U.S. to minimize its military deployments in the area. This stands in stark contrast to the situation in the Persian Gulf where the U.S. lacks such a steadfast ally with strategic depth, and has consequently been forced to commit thousands of troops and hundreds of millions of dollars. A quote from former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig's made 30 years ago resonates today: "Israel is the largest American aircraft carrier in the world that cannot be sunk, does not carry even one American soldier, and is located in a critical region for American national security."[13]

There are those who believe that a strong Israel, with a strong U.S.-Israel relationship at its core has been instrumental to the peace processes in the Middle East since the U.S. dramatically strengthened its alliance with Israel after 1973. Since then, according to Robert Satloff, the Arab-Israeli arena has changed dramatically in favor of U.S. interest, citing the peace agreements between Israel, Egypt, and Jordan as well as thirty-seven years of peace on the Syrian border and seventeen years of diplomacy with the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Additionally, he notes one of the greatest achievements of this strategic alliance has been reducing the Arab-Israeli conflict into a Palestinian-Israeli conflict[14].

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Bill Clinton, Yasser Arafat, and Yitzak Rabin at the signing of the Oslo Accords. 
White House photo.

From an economic perspective, proponents of the relationship argue that the U.S. also reaps a number of fiscal benefits from its alignment with Israel. Satloff explains this argument: “It is to America’s advantage to have in Israel an economy that is so closely associated with ours and that is such an innovator in the information and technology field, in high-tech medicine, and in green technologies like the electric car”[15]. Despite having a population of just 7.7 million people, Israel is America’s 20th-largest customer in the world, which puts it before both Russia and Spain. Between 2000 and 2009, direct U.S. investment in Israel totaled $77.2 billion while Israelis, with their vastly smaller population, invested $54.2 billion during that same period. Furthermore but long forgotten is that the United States first free trade agreement was signed with Israel over 25 years ago.

Whether for military, geopolitical, or economic reasons, advocates of the close U.S.-Israeli alliance certainly have plenty of ammunition to support their claims. Yet as I will demonstrate in Part Two, the relationships detractors have just as many arguments against the alliance as do those who favor its continuation for it.

[1] Mearsheimer, John. Walt, Stephen. The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy. New York, Penguin Books. 2007
[2] Oren, Michael. “The Ultimate Ally”. Foreign Policy. May/June (2011): 1-6
[3] Public papers of the Presidents of the USA, John F. Kennedy, 7 January 1963-22 November 1963 (Washington, DC 1964), 307.  
[4] Mearsheimer, John. Walt, Stephen. The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy
[5] Oren, Michael. “The Ultimate Ally”
[6] Oren, Michael. “The Ultimate Ally”
[7] A Debate on the Vale of the US-Israel Relationship, Robert Satloff and Chas Freeman
[8] Aluf Been, “Our Kind of Realism”, Foreign Policy, April 25, 2011
[9] “Entire Text of Olmert Speech to Congress,” Jerusalem Post, May 24, 2006
[10] Benjamin Netanyahu, “Three Principles Key to Defeat of Terrorism”, Chicago-Sun Times, January 7, 2002.
[11] Press release, Office of Charles Schumer, U.S. Senate, December 3, 2001
[12] HR Res. 392 May 2, 2002 and S Res. 247 April 22, 2002
[13] Oren, Michael. “The Ultimate Ally”
[14] A Debate on the Vale of the US-Israel Relationship, Robert Satloff and Chas Freeman.
[15] A Debate on the Vale of the US-Israel Relationship, Robert Satloff and Chas Freeman. 

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