When the Washington Post reported that President Trump had revealed to the Russians classified intelligence obtained from an ally in the Middle East, speculation immediately began about the source of the information. It wasn’t long before the answer was revealed: Israel, exactly what most people in the security establishment assumed all long.
Whatever else ensues from this latest bizarre Trumpian controversy, it highlights the fact that the relationship between the U.S. and the Jewish state shouldn’t be seen — as Israel’s critics and foes often seek to portray it — as a case of the latter exploiting or manipulating the former against its best interests. Israel isn’t just America’s only democratic ally in the Middle East, with ties rooted primarily in shared values. It is also an inestimable strategic asset to its superpower ally.
We may never know the security consequences of Trump’s decision for Israel or the United States. Perhaps, as National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster insisted, there was no harm in passing along what we are told was data about an ISIS plot to blow up airliners with bombs concealed in laptop computers. That said, the reports that Trump’s spur-of-the-moment decision to share the intelligence may have endangered an Israeli agent in the ISIS capital of Raaqa were alarming. Suffice it to say that the president’s act was, in one way or another, a breach of protocol even if it was legal.
The controversy set off arguments in both countries as to whether the Israelis ought to trust the Trump administration with intelligence. That’s especially pertinent given rumors earlier in the year that U.S. intelligence operatives had warned their Israeli counterparts that their secrets weren’t safe with Trump. That may or may not have happened, but either way, it’s highly doubtful that Israel will retaliate against the U.S. by shutting off the spigot of information that has flowed to Washington for decades. With a president who, for all of his obvious faults, is still seen by Israelis as far friendlier to their nation than his predecessor was, it’s likely that Prime Minister Netanyahu will give Trump a pass and use the incident to remind him just how valuable a friend the Jewish state is to the U.S.
The notion that Israel is a beggar client state totally dependent for its existence on American largesse is an idea that was often unwittingly encouraged by its supporters, who wished to capitalize on the sympathy of the American public for the Zionist project. At other times it was Israel’s enemies — such as academics Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, who achieved some temporary celebrity with their 2007 book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy — who sought to portray U.S. backing for the Jewish state as the result of a vast conspiracy.
But while some Americans still think of Israel as a charity case, it is nothing of the kind. Moreover, the history of U.S. aid to Israel makes it clear that American support has always been a function of the Jewish state’s strategic value more than anything else.
Israel began life 70 years ago with no help from the United States. At the moment of its greatest peril, when five Arab armies invaded on the day Israel declared its independence in 1948, America imposed an arms embargo. Approximately 1 percent of Israel’s population was killed during the 1948–49 War of Independence, but all the United States contributed was moral support. The U.S. continued the embargo until the 1960s, as Israel’s victories in the wars of 1956 and 1967 were won with French arms.
It was only after 1967’s Six-Day War — when Israel’s victory expanded its territory beyond the narrow, indefensible 1949 armistice lines — that the United States began to think of Israel as an asset and started supplying it with substantial economic and military aid. Israel’s victories over Soviet-equipped Egyptian and Syrian armies placed it in the middle of a Cold War conflict, and the substantial aid packages it began to receive in those years were an investment in an ally as well as a reward for its acceptance of American-brokered ceasefires. That aid was increased after the peace with Egypt in order to further compensate Israel for what it gave up in order to facilitate a peace that also secured Cairo as a U.S. ally.
Intelligence-sharing between Israel’s Mossad and the CIA predated this period, but the conversion of an arms-length relationship into a strategic alliance grew in the 1970s and then especially the 1980s during the Reagan administration. Throughout this period, Israel benefited from military aid that allowed it to maintain a qualitative edge over its potential enemies, whose arsenals were largely supplied by the Soviets, as well as by the U.S. to some extent. But in return, the Americans were able to draw upon Israel’s extensive intelligence network throughout the region, as well as take advantage of Israel’s expertise in designing and perfecting weapon systems.
In the 1990s, U.S. economic aid was eliminated as the Israeli economy boomed thanks to its decision to discard the socialist model its Labor Zionist founders had built. But Israel still faced dangerous enemies, including an Iranian regime that was strengthened by the toppling of Saddam Hussein. That meant the $3 billion in military aid that it continued to receive from the U.S. was still vital for its security.
But few here understand that the vast majority of that aid was actually spent in the U.S. on American armaments. Indeed, in the aid package President Obama negotiated with Israel in 2016, the U.S. insisted that even the minimal amounts that Israel had previously been allowed to spend at home be eliminated.
Though the Cold War ended, the U.S. continued to draw upon the assets of its Israeli ally as different threats emerged. As unlikely as it may be, the mere notion that Israel might start holding back important information because of fears that it will be heedlessly revealed to rivals or foes is something that ought to scare Americans.
With Iran seeking regional hegemony, and with radical Islamists taking up the vacuum left by the collapse of Syria and the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, it is hardly a secret that the U.S. finds itself increasingly in need of Israeli intelligence, just as some of Israel’s former Arab foes, such as Saudi Arabia, now look to it as a tacit ally because they fear Iran far more than they hate the Jewish state.
Even though Israel punches far above its weight, the U.S. is the senior partner in the alliance. But what Trump’s predecessors often forgot was that actions that weakened Israel — such as Obama’s feckless pursuit of détente with Iran, which was greatly strengthened by the nuclear deal he cut with Tehran — ultimately hurt the U.S. too. The same can be said for efforts to force Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians, who are split between Islamist terrorists and a corrupt Fatah regime that is unwilling and unable to make peace.
Trump’s breach of protocol with Russia may not do as much damage as is feared, but it does serve to remind us that the information superhighway between the U.S. and Israel is a two-way street. Those who continue to cling to the fallacy that Israel is a burden on U.S. interests need to realize that without its help, America is often flying blind in the Middle East.
— Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a contributing writer to National Review. Follow him on Twitter: @jonathans_tobin.