Tonight, I would like to talk to you about the alliance between Israel and America – an alliance that is without question the single most important relationship Israel has in the world.
It is the most important relationship but certainly not the only one. Today, Israel has relations with over 160 countries. Despite the effort by some to paint Israel as facing unprecedented international isolation, it is perhaps more accurate to say that by most metrics Israel is less isolated today than at any time in its history.
The Prime Minister is wrapping up an historic five-day visit to Africa. His visit is part of the broader effort he has led over the past seven years to expand Israel’s relations with countries across the world. That effort, which has gone largely unnoticed, has resulted in significant improvements in ties with powerful countries like China, India, Japan and Russia, as well as dozens of smaller countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe who see Israel as a great partner for developing their own countries.
Israel has also dramatically upgraded its relations with our Mediterranean neighbors — Greece and Cyprus — and after many years of negotiations, we have now completed the agreement to normalize our relations with Turkey. I should note that even as diplomatic, military, and intelligence ties with Turkey were largely severed over the last six years, trade between Israel and Turkey actually doubled over that same period. In the Middle East, our relations with Egypt and Jordan are better than ever, as are our ties with many countries in the region with which we do not have formal diplomatic relations.
The fact that you don’t read or hear about that every day is not because things aren’t happening. It’s because Israel wants things to continue to happen.
And despite the differences of opinion that we have with some Western European countries — particularly on the Palestinian issue — we have also worked over the past few years to strengthen our relationships with these same countries by increasing intelligence sharing, expanding trade and economic ties, enhancing scientific and academic cooperation and in many other ways.
The two-way street of Israel-US ties
Yet notwithstanding all these developments, there is still only one indispensable relationship for Israel – our alliance with the United States. That the United States is Israel’s most important ally should be obvious to everyone.
For decades, the United States has helped Israel shoulder our enormous defense burden with generous military assistance – something that we hope will continue under a new 10-year Memorandum of Understanding that we are working to finalize with the Obama Administration. In recent years, America has also enabled Israel to fund and develop one of the world’s finest missile defense systems – which includes the Iron Dome, David’s Sling and Arrow missile systems. Israel hopes to include this funding in the new Memorandum Of Understanding for the first time. And crucially, as a matter of both law and policy, the United States is committed to maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge so that Israel can defend itself by itself against any threat.
Alongside strengthening Israel’s security, the United States has also extended critical diplomatic and economic support to Israel — by vetoing anti-Israel resolutions in the UN Security Council, by signing America’s first-ever free trade agreement with Israel over 30 years ago, and by providing essential loan guarantees to Israel during times of economic crisis.
In fact, if I were to list everything that America has done for Israel, I would be here all night.
But what is often forgotten about the US-Israel alliance is that it is not a one-way street. To understand what Israel means to America, I could talk about the Israeli technology and know-how that improves American lives, the Israeli science and medicine that prolongs American lives, or the Israeli intelligence and security cooperation that saves American lives. But a better way to appreciate what Israel means to America is to simply imagine a Middle East without Israel.
Imagine if the United States did not have in this region an anchor of democracy, an island of unabashed pro-American sentiment, an ally with soldiers willing and capable of defending the interests and values that both countries share. Now imagine a Middle East with three Israels. Imagine two more countries that shared American interests and values in the unstable swathe of territory that stretches from Morocco to Pakistan. What a profound difference that would mean for America! What a profound difference that would mean for the peace and security of the region and the world!
So while there is absolutely no question that Israel benefits immensely from having such a broad and deep alliance with the most powerful country on earth, there is also no question that America also benefits a great deal from its alliance with Israel. American leaders have understood as much for many decades. Thirty-five years ago, former American Secretary of State Alexander Haig said that “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.” Vice President Biden expresses a similar sentiment when he often says that if Israel didn’t exist, America would have to invent it.
The long history of US-Israel contention
Ladies and Gentlemen, in addition to not appreciating the strategic benefits Israel provides to America, what is also often rarely appreciated is that Israel and the United States did not always have the strategic alliance we have today.
Most people know that after David Ben Gurion declared our independence, it took President Truman all of 11 minutes to make the United States the first country to formally recognize Israel. But while some think this recognition was the beginning of the strategic alliance between our two countries, it wasn’t. Truman’s decision was an historic act of moral clarity. But it came at a time when an American arms embargo was being imposed on a fledgling Jewish state fighting for its life against five invading Arab armies.
Remember, in 1948, Israel fought its War of Independence with Czech rifles. Two decades later, Israel flew French fighter planes during the Six Day War.
The truth is that the strategic alliance between our two countries began to be forged only after Israel proved its prowess and resiliency on the battlefield. Only then did American policymakers begin to appreciate that Israel was not merely a moral cause but also a strategic asset. What had started out as a moral imperative of some to help the Jewish people overcome the horrors of the past soon turned into an effort by many to strengthen a reliable ally that could help America address both present and future challenges in the Middle East. That was true for the last two decades of the Cold War and that has been true since the rise of militant Islam as a force in the region and the world, particularly since 9/11.
Now, some of you may be saying to yourselves that that is all well and good but that this sentiment is a product of the past. Today, some will argue, Israel and the United States have serious disagreements on important issues that will ultimately fray our strategic alliance. History suggests otherwise. The truth is that the alliance between America and Israel grew from a moral commitment to a strategic partnership despite having to weather many serious disagreements along the way, even on vital issues.
In 1948, then Secretary of State George Marshall warned the soon to be Israeli government not to declare its independence.
In 1967, as Nasser was tightening the noose around Israel’s neck, President Johnson made clear to Israel that if it acted alone, it would be alone.
In 1981, after Israel bombed the Osirak nuclear reactor, the Reagan administration joined in condemning Israel at the UN Security Council and held up arms transfers to Israel for three months.
In 2002, after Israel responded to the worst terror campaign in its history by launching Operation Defensive Shield, the Bush administration insisted that Israel withdraw its forces immediately from all Palestinian areas.
These are only a few of the many instances when there was serious turbulence in the US-Israel relationship. But despite these bumps, the alliance between America and Israel grew stronger and our friendship grew deeper, decade after decade. And I believe our alliance will continue to grow stronger and deeper in the years ahead despite the serious disagreement Israel has with the Obama administration over the best way to prevent a nuclear armed Iran.
Diverging on Iran
I don’t want to spend too much time rehashing the debate over the nuclear deal with Iran. But the differences remain clear. The Obama administration sincerely believes the nuclear deal with Iran makes America and Israel safer. Israel disagrees. The Obama administration believes that this deal blocks Iran’s path to the bomb. Israel believes that the deal ultimately paves Iran’s path to the bomb.
The best that can honestly be said about this deal is that it may temporarily block that path. Yet the price for that temporary delay is not only removing the tough sanctions that were crippling the economy of the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism. The even heavier price is that in 10 to 15 years, Iran will have a fully legitimate industrial-sized nuclear enrichment program, as the restrictions placed on Iran’s nuclear program are automatically removed. Those two words – “automatically removed” – are at the heart of Israel’s opposition to the deal.
All the restrictions the deal puts in place will be automatically removed even if Iran’s regime continues its aggression against its neighbors, continues its support for terror across the world and continues its commitment in both word and deed to annihilate Israel. No amount of spin can change the fact that in 15 years, Iran will be able to spin as much uranium as it wants without consequence. And as the Prime Minister said last year in his speech to Congress, 15 years may seem like a long time in politics, but it is a blink of an eye in the life of a nation.
Partners in security and tech innovation
Still, despite the profound disagreement between Israel and the Obama administration on such a vital issue — as well as ongoing disagreements on the best way to advance peace with the Palestinians — I am confident that the alliance between America and Israel will continue to grow stronger in the years ahead. First, because the most dangerous security challenges facing the United States will continue to emanate from the Middle East for a long time to come. Some in the United States hope that America can pivot away from the Middle East. But for the foreseeable future, I don’t think the Middle East is going to pivot away from America. In the coming years, Israel’s importance to America as a reliable ally and a formidable military power in a very dangerous region is likely to become more critical not less critical for protecting America’s security interests. In fact, the fewer troops America has on the ground in the Middle East, the more important having a reliable Israeli ally becomes.
Second, the 21st century is a century of knowledge, in which prosperity in the developed world will be driven primarily by a country’s ability to innovate. There are two great centers of innovation in the world today. One is in Silicon Valley. The second is here in Israel. In the coming years and decades, Israel’s value as a leader in technology — in medicine, science, agriculture, water and cyber — will continue to cement our relations with countries around the world, including America.
The statistic that I think most powerfully illustrates Israel’s disproportionate value as an ally in technology is what is happening in cyber. In 2014, Israel accounted for over 10% of global investments in cybersecurity. Think about that. Israel is 1/10th of 1% of the world’s population. But in cyber, Israel in 2014 was punching 100 times above its weight. That sounds impressive. But in 2015, that number jumped to 20%. That means Israel is punching 200 times above its weight. So in cyber, do not think of Israel as a small country of 8.5 million people. In cyber, Israel is a China.
And as the United States looks at the top cyber powers, the only one that is a potential ally is Israel.
While most people seem to appreciate the hasbara value of Israel being branded the start-up nation, fewer seem to fully appreciate the strategic significance of the technology ecosystem that has been created in Israel. America’s leading technology companies — the Intels, Microsofts, Apples, Googles and dozens of others — are not in Israel because they are Zionists. They are here because they want to tap into our remarkable culture of innovation and position themselves to continue to lead the world into the next century. That is why the BDS movement will ultimately fail, and that is also one of the reasons why Israel’s alliance with America will continue to grow stronger.
In fact, I believe that for these two reasons alone – security and technology – Israel is likely to be America’s most important ally in the 21st century. I know that’s a strong statement. But if an Israeli Ambassador would have stood here thirty years ago and said that Israel would become a global technological power, it would have sounded no less far-fetched. But that happened. And if that same Ambassador would have also told you that Israel would one day be selling gas to its neighbors that would have sounded downright crazy. But that’s going to happen as well.
In fact, the significant energy resources we have discovered — and may yet discover — will not only enhance Israel’s strategic position in the region, it will affect our relationship with the United States as well by turning Israel into an even more powerful ally.
An alliance of shared values
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Beyond security and technology, my confidence in the future of the US-Israel alliance also comes from my appreciation that our alliance is rooted in things that run much deeper. It is rooted in our most cherished values and in a shared sense of destiny. The idea that all are created equal in the image of God, that no one is above the law, that compassion for the most vulnerable is a sacred obligation — ideas which have been a moral compass for generations of Americans — were ideas first championed thousands of years ago by the prophets of the Jewish people and which today are fused into the national identity of the Jewish state.
As so much of the Middle East continues its descent into chaos and barbarism, as our values come under further attack in a region where women are treated like chattel, Christians are beheaded en masse, minority populations are decimated, and gays are hanged in town squares, Israel will increasingly stand out as a beacon of humanity and decency. This will inevitably bring America and Israel closer together.
But there is something even beyond interests and values that goes to the very core of the unique alliance between Israel and America. You see, both America and Israel are not merely countries. They are also causes. America has long been what Lincoln called the last best hope on earth — a beacon of opportunity for people across the world, carrying the torch of freedom for all humanity and entrusted by history with securing liberty’s future.
Israel is the hope of the Jewish people, offering opportunity for all its citizens — Jewish and non-Jewish alike — safeguarding freedom in the darkest region on earth and entrusted by history with securing the Jewish future.
These causes imbue each country with a deep sense of purpose – and because these purposes are not at odds with each other but rather compliment and reinforce one another, they also imbue the two countries with a deep sense of solidarity. That is why I believe tens of millions of Americans support Israel in a way they support no other country in the world and why Israelis mourn America’s tragedies and rejoice in America’s triumphs as perhaps no other country in the world does. That is why from New York to California, from Alabama to Montana, Israel resonates with Americans in a way no other country does and why so many Israelis fly American flags on our own Independence Day.
I believe that to truly appreciate the unique alliance between America and Israel, you must appreciate what having such a sense of purpose means to both countries. Those who don’t share this sense of purpose or who are too cynical to even believe in a sense of purpose will never truly appreciate the power of the friendship between America and Israel. But this sense of purpose is bigger than any leader or any issue. It is the DNA of both countries and it lies at the bedrock of our unique alliance.
That is why the real danger to this alliance will not come from disagreements over policy, demographic changes, or the numerous other reasons that are routinely cited as potential signs of trouble. The real danger would be for either America or Israel to lose its sense of purpose, for either country to no longer believe in its own exceptionalism. It would come if those who work day in and day out to tear down that sense of exceptionalism succeed.
I believe they won’t succeed. I believe that the sense of purpose of both countries will continue to remain strong. In fact, it may even get stronger in the face of a fanaticism that is lashing out across the world, from San Bernadino and Orlando to Paris and Brussels to Istanbul, Tel Aviv and Hebron. And with that strong sense of purpose buttressed by common interests and anchored in shared values, I believe that the alliance between Israel and America will become stronger than ever.
Ron Dermer is Israel’s Ambassador to the United States.
The above remarks were delivered on July 7, 2016, at the B’nai B’rith World Center Award for Journalism ceremony in Jerusalem.