National Security & Defense

Rebuilding the U.S.–Israel Alliance

On Obama’s watch, political relations have deteriorated sharply, but strategic cooperation is still going strong.

Even before it was formally published late last month, Michael Oren’s memoir of his time as Israel’s envoy to the United States had ignited a firestorm of controversy, and for very good reason. His book, Ally: My Journey across the American–Israeli Divide, provides the most damning account to date of a “special relationship” that, on President Obama’s watch, has deteriorated to an almost unthinkable degree, with the White House coming to view Israel and its often-pugnacious premier, Benjamin Netanyahu, as more of a problem than Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Palestinian corruption, or the Syrian civil war. 

White House officials were quick to condemn the book and to demand that Netanyahu formally distance himself from Oren’s account. (He has refused to do so.) But there can be little doubt that Oren’s anecdotes are so striking precisely because they confirm what many people have long sensed: that all is not well between Washington and Jerusalem, and might not be for some time to come. 

This is a particularly pertinent subject today. In the Middle East, multiple challenges threaten to ignite a conflagration — one that Israel, because of its geographical location, cannot ignore or evade. Meanwhile, in the U.S., the presidential race is beginning to heat up. The candidates will need to articulate some new thinking about how to fix the current sorry state of the U.S.–Israel alliance.

As they do, here are a few things to keep in mind:

The reasons for the “special relationship”: It’s useful to remember that Israel wasn’t always viewed as an asset by the United States. In fact, during its early decades, the Jewish state was seen in Washington as something of a strategic liability. That perception didn’t begin to change until Israel’s military successes in 1967 and 1973, which demonstrated that the young nation could hold its own among its more numerous Arab neighbors. But bilateral ties did not truly come into their own until the early 1980s, when the concept of “strategic cooperation” was formally codified by the Reagan administration.

Israel’s military acumen, its status as a world-class hub for technological innovation, and its experience fighting terrorists make it a useful ally for America.

What drove this evolution was the perception that — owing to its democratic polity, its military prowess, and its Western values — Israel could be a reliable force multiplier for America in the Middle East. Overwhelmingly, those same factors still apply today. Israel’s military acumen, its status as a world-class hub for technological innovation, and its experience fighting terrorists make it a useful ally for an America that is increasingly being forced to contend with qualitatively different adversaries and a new way of war.

Tactical divergence, strategic convergence: In late May, President Obama used the occasion of a television interview with Israel’s Channel 2 to reassure Israelis that he truly understands their security concerns. Oren’s book makes all too clear that this hasn’t been the case at all, and on no issue more than what to do about Iran. Israeli officials have watched with mounting alarm over the past year and a half as the Obama administration has systematically courted the Islamic Republic in a bid to halt — or at least delay — Tehran’s nuclearization. The positions of the two sides couldn’t be more different. As Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon has succinctly put it, while Israel sees Iran as the “main problem” in the region, the United States “views it as part of [the] solution.”

This state of affairs isn’t likely to change until the next American president takes office in January 2017. But even before then, there are plenty of other issues — such as security in the Sinai Peninsula, governance of the Palestinian Authority, and the stability of neighboring Jordan — that can and should be the basis of continued dialogue between Washington and Jerusalem. And once a new president, unencumbered by Barack Obama’s exceedingly rosy view of the Islamic Republic, moves in at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, security cooperation is likely to expand further still.

A cooperative enterprise: Amid all the negative press regarding the current, frayed state of bilateral ties, it’s easy to miss what’s going right in the U.S.–Israel relationship. Yet today’s strategic cooperation has plenty of bright spots.

The most prominent of these is missile defense. Last summer’s two-month-long Gaza War showcased the spectacular success of the jointly developed Iron Dome system, which intercepted nearly 90 percent of the thousands of rockets shot at Israeli cities by the Hamas terrorist group. In the wake of that conflict, cooperative missile defense has surged forward; in recent budgetary deliberations, Congress more than doubled the funding requested by the administration for cooperative anti-missile programs undertaken by Washington and Jerusalem, to nearly $350 million.

Nor is missile defense the only area of fruitful cooperation. For example, consultations between counterterrorism specialists from the two countries continue, animated by the threat of the Islamic State and by a pressing need to move ahead on things like anti-tunneling technology, to help deal with the threat of terrorist infiltration. Technical discussions regarding the ongoing need to maintain Israel’s “qualitative military edge” (QME) — its qualitative military superiority over its more numerous potential adversaries — have likewise been robust (and productive) on the Obama administration’s watch. The bilateral strategic relationship, in other words, is still going strong — even if the political one is not.

Which brings us back to Oren’s opus. As policymakers in Washington look ahead, it’s certainly useful to understand how and why the two countries grew apart over the last several years. But it’s even more helpful to grasp the principles, ideas, and values that brought Washington and Jerusalem together in the first place — and then to refocus on them.

— Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.

 

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