There has been a lot of handwringing lately about the strength of the US-Israel relationship, whether it has been irreparably damaged by the apparently toxic relationship between Obama and Netanyahu, and how it is impacted by Obama’s creeping abdication of the Middle East to Iranian influence and his administration’s relative cold shoulder to Egypt. In past columns I have sounded fairly pessimistic about the near term. Many observers fully expect Obama’s unsympathetic feelings towards Israel, coupled with a desire to “solve” the plight of the Palestinians, to result in a pretty rough next two years for the US-Israeli relationship, no matter who is the Israeli prime minister.
Fortunately, the US-Israel relationship possesses a natural level of buoyancy and equilibrium, in spite of the current state of things. Everything isn’t THAT bad in the long term US –Israel relationship, due to shared values that go deeper than one president, shared geopolitical interests, the terrible precedent a US-Israeli break would set for other allies, and Israel’s ability to play global spoiler and disrupter, if forced to fend for its own defense. Accordingly, while one could expect disagreements over the Palestinians and the Iranian nuclear problem, I would not expect any resulting crisis to precipitate a fundamental change in the US-Israeli relationship, whether manifested by the US backing away from international support of Israel, allowing Israel’s “South Africa-ization”, or cutoff of US arms aid for any length of time.
The “shared values” argument has been made in an infinite number of ways by those more eloquent than I. Basically, a democracy is simply a tyranny by the majority in the absence of protection of personal liberties and legal protections for minorities. Israel, while not perfect with regard to minority protection, is miles ahead of anyone else in the Middle East. Israel reflects US values with levels of freedom of speech and property ownership, women’s, gay and religious minority rights that are comparable to Western standards, even as Israel’s very existence is threatened by enemies who would give it good reason to suspend many of these rights. The American people understand this community of values, rewarding Israel over the decades in Gallup polls with high levels of political support, typically at three times or more of the level of support garnered by Palestinians when Americans are asked to choose sides (are these levels of support lower among the left wing of the Democratic Party and younger voters? Yes, though younger voters have statistically moderated on Israel as they have aged). These pro-Israel views have been relatively consistent, through good times and bad, regardless of unfair press coverage towards Israel that is more interested in “portraying a narrative” than conveying the facts. All of this, of course, provides the more logical explanation for the high level of support Israel receives in Congress, when compared to the conspiracy theories of the Walt/Mearsheimer crowd.
This political support for Israel has played out in a variety of manners, in international forums, sponsored peace talks (even amidst policy disagreements), investment, and in military aid, to name several. This is where shared geopolitical interests by the US and Israel come into play. As a status quo, non-revolutionary power, the United States would prefer to maintain the peace in the Middle East – disruption only creates unpredictability and conflict that can impact the world economy, which is bad for business (I don’t mean to sound heartless, but for foreign policy “realists”, loss of life alone is not a significant factor –200,000 deaths in Syria do not seem to have affected Obama). Balances of power tend to maintain the peace better than imbalances. A stable balance of power is best maintained in the Middle East through US support for a militarily strong Israel, as well as for a coterie of “moderate” monarchies and dictatorships like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia that provide a barrier against trans-national or anti-national aggression (by the Iranians, ISIS, Turkey, etc.). In addition, Israel’s physical position, at the heart of the Levant, sitting on the land route from the Middle East to Africa, gives it particular geographic value as a bulwark, for instance, against a contiguous Islamic State from northern Africa to the borders of Iran (for a similar reason, you will rarely hear a knowledgeable Egyptian or Jordanian advocating for an unmonitored land bridge for the Palestinians between Gaza and the West Bank).
Admittedly, none of this analysis squares with Barack Obama’s attitude towards Israel and Egypt, his seeming acquiescence to Iran’s running the table in the Middle East, or his disregard of Turkey’s tacit support of ISIS and active support of Muslim Brotherhood-linked terrorist groups working to undo Middle East stability and its nation-states. However, foreign policy deviations tend to swing back into equilibrium over time, with much to lose otherwise.
Supporters of Israel worry that American fatigue with Israel and the Middle East, as well as with “objectionable” Israeli policies and inter-governmental friction, may lead to a reduction or elimination in Israel’s annual and supplemental military aid from the US, as Egypt has experienced (though Secretary Kerry implied last week that such aid may be restored soon). Israel receives approximately $3 billion a year of military aid from the US. This figure does not include hundreds of millions of dollars of ad hoc aid (such as grants to replenish Iron Dome missile batteries depleted during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza last summer), prepositioning of US arms stockpiles in Israel in case of emergency, joint research and development programs for other Israeli anti-missile programs (which also allows the US to access Israeli technological innovation), etc. Israel is the largest recipient of American foreign military financing (“FMF”), receiving over 50% of the program’s FY 2015 grants, and such aid represents between 20-25% of Israel’s annual military budget, excepting out war contingency spending, civil defense and dark items. Exceptional among recipients of FMF, Israel is also able to spend approximately 26% of these grants on Israeli-made weapons, enabling Israel to build and maintain a strong domestic (and export-driven) arms industry (of course, this also means that US defense contractors obtain orders for 76% of these dollars of aid, year after year – thereby strengthening its political support for such aid). In summary, FMF aid is critical to Israel and represents a genuine leverage point over Jerusalem.
Other than politics, why do we provide this aid? As US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns stated in 2007, “We consider this $30 billion in assistance to Israel [over a ten year period ending in FY 2018] to be an investment in peace – in long-term peace. Peace will not be made without strength. Peace will not be made without Israel being strong in the future.”
These words say a lot, but not the whole story. The stronger Israel’s ability to defend itself and maintain its military qualitative edge over its adversaries, the greater the chance that the balance of power – and relative peace — will be maintained (see US priorities, above), and Israel will be able to avoid more drastic steps to defend itself. For example, it is a common view that if Israel did not possess the Iron Dome to protect civilians during Operation Protective Edge, Israel would have had to massively invade Gaza to stop the rocket fire, resulting in many, many more casualties on both sides (of course there are also those who maintain that, Hamas, faced with such a possibility and resulting political extinction, would not have fired so many rockets at Israel in the first place). Likewise, medium and long range Israeli anti-ballistic missile defenses being developed with US funds and assistance, together with access to sophisticated US radar, are seen as providing Israel the protection necessary to allow Israel a more gradual scale-up of conflict with Iran (for instance) and less of a “hair trigger”, allowing diplomats more time to stop a conflict. Without such defenses, Israel may find itself under more pressure to deploy massive pre-emptive or immediate retaliatory capabilities, up to and including use of Israel’s first and second strike missile, aircraft and submarine-based nuclear forces (Israel is estimated by Jane’s Defense Weekly to possess 100-300 nuclear warheads).
Of course, the ultimate cost of US abandonment of Israel as an ally would be a serious debasement in US political power and influence over almost all allied or swing nations, for at least a generation. If the US could abandon Israel, its inseparable ally in the view of most nations, could they not abandon us? For nations like Poland, Saudi Arabia or South Korea, any promised defense or political umbrella (including NATO) would become an even more hollow promise than it is today, debasing US deterrence of adversaries, leading those friendly nations to seek their own nuclear solutions, and making the world exponentially more dangerous. Alternatively, these (and other) client states could be forced to seek new alliances or accommodate their adversaries, reducing the balance of power and US influence, and leading to more profound threats to US interests.
One can therefore quickly imagine why US military and political aid to Israel serve the interests of global stability, and why a total or substantial rupture is unlikely.
As Victor Davis Hanson has commented, “Barack Obama is not and has never been fond of Israel, both the reasoning for its existence and the vigilance necessary for its continuance.” In spite of these feelings, US-Israeli security cooperation has, in certain respects, strengthened during the Obama administration for the reasons explained above. The political relationship may become increasingly rocky during the next two years, as Obama continues to try to remake the world and his legacy. However, once Obama leaves the White House, logic would dictate that some level of equilibrium in the Israel-US relationship will be reestablished.
Now let’s pray that the Israeli leadership, whoever they may be, will possess enough wisdom to navigate through the next two years…