It’s time for Israel to reconsider its allies.
America’s monopoly on Israeli defense is endangering the Jewish state and Jews across the world.
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When you think of the America-Israel relationship, what comes to mind?
Two peas in a pod? Best friends forever? An “unshakeable commitment” that is “bone deep” as U.S. President Joe Biden described it?1
His predecessors also sung the alliance’s praise. Barack Obama declared it would be “a moral failing for America, and a moral failing for the world, if we did not protect Israel and stand up for its right to exist.” George W. Bush called the two countries’ bond “unbreakable, yet the source of our friendship runs deeper than any treaty.”
Jimmy Carter said the partnership is “compatible with our deepest religious convictions” — adding that “the survival of Israel is not just a political issue, it is a moral imperative.” And John F. Kennedy emphatically clarified that the United States “will never turn our backs on our steadfast friends in Israel.”
While these fantasy versions of the American-Israeli relationship is bound to tug at the heart strings and over-inflate political loyalties, they do more to embolden American self-importance than accurately representing reality.
Unmistakably, the United States is a critical ally for Israel — financially, militarily, diplomatically, and otherwise — so the question is certainly not if America and Israel should be allies, but to what extent, and for which sacrifices.
As it stands, the relationship is completely lopsided. Even Mark Regev, a senior adviser to Israel’s prime minister, publicly admitted on Tuesday that “95 percent” of Israeli officials’ media interviews “have been directed to the U.S. market” because “the Americans are our most important ally.”2 But it’s so obvious that, cooperatively, America does not fit this bill.
Americans love to point to the fact that U.S. President Harry Truman’s administration was among the first to recognize the State of Israel after it declared independence in 1948. Yet it’s also true that the next 20 years of the relationship started out negligible and then became quite turbulent.
In the 1950s, rapidly changing geopolitical circumstances across the Middle East meant American policies were generally geared toward supporting Arab states’ independence; aiding the development of oil-producing countries; halting Soviet influence from gaining a foothold in Greece, Turkey, and Iran; and preventing an arms race in the region.
As such, America maintained a neutral stance in the Arab-Israeli conflict, so much so that the U.S. put the fledgling Jewish state under an arms embargo. It was only after Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War that the U.S. started seriously selling arms to Israel, which essentially proved its value as an ally by virtue of this victory.
“Israel did not grow strong because it had an American alliance. It acquired an American alliance because it had grown strong,” said Walter Russell Mead, a Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College.3
But prior to Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, American and Israeli leaders unexpectedly became engaged in a high-stakes battle of wills over the Jewish state’s nuclear program. An Israel Air Force commander even feared that the Americans might send airborne troops to Dimona, the home of Israel’s nuclear complex.
France continued to be Israel’s leading military supporter until the run-up to the Six-Day War, when French President Charles de Gaulle imposed an embargo on weapons sales to the country in expectation of a Soviet-backed Arab victory. After Israel took out the Egyptian and Syrian air forces on the ground in the first six hours of the war, it became clear that France’s premier miscalculated — and a suddenly powerful Israel entered the market for new friends.4
Sensing an opportunity to further bolster its presence in the Middle East, the U.S. commenced substantial arms sales to Israel, a strategy rooted in repelling the Soviet Union, which dominated the region by backing Arab states.
From the beginning, U.S. military support for Israel came with political stipulations. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel’s fate hung in the balance until the Nixon administration agreed to resupply Israel with ammunition for U.S.-made weapons systems, which America was withholding. In 1975, the Ford administration suspended arms sales as a tactic to pressure Israel into signing a new “Sinai accord” with Egypt.
Formal U.S. military aid to Israel, as opposed to loans and cash-on-delivery arms sales, started in 1979, when the Carter administration offered it as a carrot to get Israel to agree to withdraw from all of Sinai as part of a peace deal with Egypt. The same deal provided a comparable sum of U.S. military aid and arms to Egypt, for many years the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign military financing after Israel.
On Wednesday, more than a dozen Democratic Senators started working to enact conditions on military assistance to Israel as part of President Biden’s nearly $111 billion national security supplemental request.
Senator Elizabeth Warren said that, when it comes to U.S. military aid to Israel, “American support cannot be a blank check.” Warren is either irresponsibly mistaken or being deliberately manipulative in her claim that U.S. aid is offered as a “blank check.” And, if anything, Israel ends up sacrificing far more value in return for the nearly $4 billion it receives annually from Washington.
Nearly all military aid to Israel consists of credits that go directly from the Pentagon to U.S. weapons manufacturers. In return, American payouts undermine Israel’s domestic defense industry, weaken its economy, and compromise the country’s autonomy — giving Washington veto power over everything from Israeli weapons sales, to diplomatic and military strategy.
As the costs to Israel of U.S. aid have skyrocketed over the past decade, the benefits of the relationship to the U.S. have only grown greater. Aid functions as a lucrative backdoor subsidy to U.S. arms makers, and provides Congress and the White House with a tool to leverage influence over a key strategic ally.
The Israeli military, ranked as the fourth-most powerful in the world, has become an adjunct to American power in a crucial region in which the U.S. has lost the appetite for and leverage in projecting military force. Israeli intelligence functions as America’s eyes and ears, not just in the Middle East, but also in other key strategic theaters like Russia and Central Asia — and even parts of Latin America.
Shortly before he left office, President Obama signed the largest aid package in history, committing the U.S. to send Israel $38 billion over a decade starting in 2018. The Memorandum of Understanding capped the efforts of an administration that had spent the previous eight years downgrading the U.S.-Israeli alliance to the point of spying on pro-Israel members of Congress.
After all the resentment over Obama’s horrendous nuclear deal with Iran, the landmark aid agreement silenced Obama’s critics by “proving” that he was in fact a staunch supporter of Israel, even as he was gifting Iran with a future nuclear bomb — which the Iranians would presumably use to fulfill their threats to “wipe the Zionist entity off the map.”
In reality, the Memorandum of Understanding advanced Obama’s goal of appeasing Israeli fears, while limiting future Israeli actions to correspond with a new American strategic architecture in which the interests of traditional allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia would be “balanced” with those of their mortal enemy, Iran.
The Memorandum of Understanding also purchased the acquiescence of American Jews who were expected, in the face of such public generosity, to go along with the White House policy of strengthening Iran, while upholding the narrative that Obama was Israel’s “best friend.”
Why is it important to present Israel as America’s best friend? Because it’s easier than telling the truth: that many American foreign aid arrangements are rooted in enriching a recklessly extravagant arms industry which is financially headquartered in the U.S. but operating across the world.
The Israeli political class has known about the lopsided reality of the U.S.-Israel arrangement for some time, but for the past eight or nine years they seemingly have decided the farce had some value. For them, U.S. aid is valuable not because the appearance of close strategic alignment with the U.S. serves as a public, tangible pledge, renewed annually in a world that is largely hostile to the Jewish state’s existence.
Even now, it’s clear from Washington’s courtship of Iran that U.S. security pledges no longer mean what they once did. Just ask the Afghans, and before them the Vietnamese, Cambodians, and a long list of other former recipients of U.S. military aid.
As the price of this dependency, Israel is now being forced to downgrade its own defense industries. Whereas the previous Memorandum of Understanding contained a special provision for Off-Shore Procurement that allowed Israel to spend around a quarter of the aid it received on domestic products, the new terms require that all aid received from Washington be spent within the U.S.
In 2018, Israel’s Defense Ministry estimated that the new Memorandum of Understanding would cost the country $1.3 billion annually in lost revenue and cause the loss of some 22,000 jobs. Moshe Gafni, a former chairman of the Israeli legislature’s financial committee, warned of the deal’s “severe ramifications for the delicate fabric of the State of Israel, harming its security.”
What’s more, Israel has now become dangerously reliant on U.S. military technology. The result of this enforced dependency, according to the retired IDF Major General Gershon Hacohen, is stunting the Israeli military.
“Israel is so addicted to advanced U.S. platforms, and the U.S. weaponry they deliver, that we’ve stopped thinking creatively in terms of operational concepts,” Hacohen told the U.S. publication Defense News in 2016 — two years before the new Memorandum of Understanding went into effect.
This is especially dangerous because the U.S. is now having trouble arming itself — let alone anyone else. A recent report from the Government Accountability Office identified systemic problems in the U.S. procurement system, leading to widespread delays.
Still, U.S. financing for the Israeli military more than pays for itself, and has never been an act of charity or a payment extorted by “the lobby” — just a tool to advance American interests. While these interests seem to persistently flip-flop, what doesn’t change is American foreign policy rooted in the calculations of American politicians and elites.
This is all good and well when American foreign policy and Israeli national security conveniently align, but I’m not sure this has been the case since Obama was in the White House. The nuclear deal with Iran might have been the first real sign of cracks in America’s absolute power.
The Obama administration could have continued with the sanctions that were debilitating Iran’s economy, but this might have paved the path for Iran to start a war, a common tactic for nations in financially dire straits.
In the lead-up to the 2008 U.S. presidential election, Obama ran an explicitly anti-war campaign against the backdrop of his predecessor George W. Bush and the Republicans dragging America into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Had the U.S. not started these two wars, the West could have weathered Iranian aggressions and toppled their genocidal regime, thus suffocating Iranian proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah, and pushing toward much-needed stability for America’s two top allies in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia and Israel).
But that’s neither here nor there because, as I once heard someone say, the Americans have a habit of fighting unnecessary wars, which prohibits them from fighting necessary ones. All the more reason why Israel shouldn’t over-index on its relationship with the U.S.
It could also be that the Americans don’t fully understand the Middle East and North Africa. For example, Middle East scholar Jonathan Schanzer explained in his book “State of Failure” that the American approach to the Palestinian Authority has failed because it revolves around “getting to yes” in the peace process, without transforming the Authority into a responsible and trustworthy government. The right approach, according to Schanzer, would involve fiscal reform and institution-building, while simultaneously negotiating the thorny issues with Israel.
“It’s not just that the Palestinian Authority can’t come in on the back of Israeli tanks,” said Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The fact is, they can’t manage themselves right now.”5
But the U.S. not fully understanding the Middle East and North Africa is fine. It’s when you think you fully understand the very thing you are actually quite incompetent in, that problems arise.
For example, the more Biden’s administration continues to myopically focus on “getting to yes” in the peace process, the more this ensures the Palestinian Authority will remain cataclysmically corrupt and therefore illegitimate in the eyes of the Palestinian people.
The more Americans push for a two-state solution that might have been an admirable option in the 1990s, the more it becomes an unworkable reality nearly three decades later.
And the more Biden’s administration insists on the Palestinian Authority’s flimsy return to Gaza, where it was forcibly ousted in a 2007 coup by Hamas, and where it is very unpopular among many Palestinians, the more Hamas remains more desired.
One has to wonder if Biden is merely looking for a quick-and-easy fix to dense, exhausted problems as he and the Democrats gear up for a reelection campaign in the 2024 presidential race.
For now, the hyper-polarization of Israel is not beneficial for an America whose political class is looking to distract people from its own failings. It’s not advantageous for a majority of the world’s Jews who live in Israel. And it sure as heck ain’t favorable for Jews in the Diaspora who are already living with side-effects of the Israel-Hamas war.
An alternative to the current U.S.-Israel relationship, marked by asymmetrical dependence and even exploitation, is a more transactional one. This might worry some folks, but rest assured that a more transactional relationship would not mean the end of an American-Israeli military alliance, intelligence sharing, trade, or any mutual affinity between the countries. Rather, it would allow both sides to better evaluate the bang for their buck.
“Once we are not economically dependent on them,” said IDF Major General Gershon Hacohen, “the partnership can flourish on its own merits.”
Ultimately, a more mutually beneficial relationship would enable the Jewish state to shop on the open market and make military deals with others, including the Europeans, who at least seem to understand the Islamic jihad threat far better than do the Americans. Plus, Israel is more geographically aligned with the Europeans and, in some ways, is the line of first defense against Islamic jihad increasingly spilling over into Europe.
There’s also the prospect of the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor, a fancy name for the potential cross-border transport of chemicals, goods, and energy pipelines, which would go through Israel and make Europe less dependent on Russia and China.
Above all, a more balanced allyship between the Israelis, Americans, and Europeans could urgently create a true, formidable Western front against nefarious actors like Putin, the Iranian regime, North Korea, and China. If the Russia-Ukraine war has proved anything, it’s that Western deterrence is barely hanging by a thread.
Unfortunately, much of the West seems too ignorant or arrogant to accept this sober reality. I have no doubt that the Chinese are well aware of this Western naivety, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they are waiting in the wings to pick up whatever the West purposely or incidentally puts down, including but not limited to Israel.
Zionism began as a Western movement, but it has evolved into an eclectic mixture of East-meets-West. If the East does a better, more stringent job of protecting Israel’s vital interests, the Jewish state would be wise to interchange its allies.
“U.S. Presidents & Israel: Quotes About Jewish Homeland & Israel.” Jewish Virtual Library. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/u-s-presidential-quotes-about-jewish-homeland-and-israel-jewish-virtual-library.
“Israel-Hamas War: Piers Morgan Questions Israeli Official Over West Bank Attacks On Palestinians.” Piers Morgan Uncensored. YouTube.
Mead, Walter Russell. “The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jewish People.” Knopf. July 5, 2022.
“End U.S. Aid to Israel.” Tablet. https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/news/articles/end-american-aid-israel.
“Who will run Gaza after the war? U.S. searches for best of bad options.” The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/2023/12/03/palestinian-authority-gaza.