Diplomatic relations between the United States and Israel have been strained for several years, but developments in the last few months have led some people to consider the possibility of the previously unthinkable: the end of the U.S.–Israel security alliance. In recent weeks, Robert Satloff, George Friedman, and Ariel Ilan Roth have raised this possibility. Their attention is focused on the idea the recent agreement with Iran is symptom of a shift in America’s regional posture, as part of an overall effort to reduce commitments there. Satloff warns that in 2014, “the partnership may face its most severe test ever.”
These concerns—at least as they relate to Iran—are overblown. Although Israel is dismayed by the reversal in direction of Iran’s diplomatic relationship with the U.S. and Europe, the shift in American policy is not as severe as many assert. Their analysis understates the continuing mutual benefits derived from the strategic relationship, and an exaggerated assessment of the severity of the disagreements between the sides.
First, it is important to contextualize Israel’s position. Although Israel acts independently of the U.S. most of the time, the two countries have a true strategic and political partnership that has lasted for decades and withstood many trials. When the UK and France abandoned Israel as patrons in 1967, the United States took up the slack. (America’s first military aid to Israel in any form did not arrive until the following year, with the sale of F-4 Phantom fighters.) Since then, Israel has served a number of useful roles for the United States, including as a balance against the Soviet Union’s allies in the Middle East, as a proving ground for American weaponry and a demonstration of its superiority and as a direct source of high-tech development. The U.S. in turn, guaranteed Israel’s qualitative superiority against its regional adversaries and made some efforts to use its relationships with those countries to resolve the question of Israel’s status in the region. Israel has sometimes acted independently as the “bad guy” to accomplish a security objective, such as the bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981, but Israel has also refrained from certain actions in the interest of maintaining good ties to Washington. For example, Israel did not retaliate against Saddam Hussein’s provocative Scud missile strikes in early 1991. Instead, the U.S. provided intelligence on Iraqi forces, deployed Patriot antimissile batteries in Tel Aviv, and bombed ballistic missile facilities in Western Iraq. When the security relationship has been strongest, the two countries have maintained regional security in mutually beneficial ways.
U.S.–Israeli cooperation regarding Iran’s nuclear program has therefore rested on a solid foundation of cooperation in advancement of common interests. Since the Second Intifada died down, the Iran issue has been Israel’s overwhelming security priority. Israeli leaders since Ariel Sharon have followed a multi-pronged approach to addressing this problem. First, they have reoriented the bulk of their intelligence collection toward Tehran, with former Mossad chief Meir Dagan playing a major role in that transformation. Second, Israel has executed a number of clandestine operations to undermine Iranian nuclear progress—against personnel and technology. Third, it has trained its air force for missions to disrupt or destroy Iranian nuclear facilities in case a strike becomes the most prudent option. Fourth, Israel has tried (with limited success) to degrade Iran’s forward deployed assets in the Levant—namely, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Hizbullah. Fifth, and no less important than the others, Israel has shaped the Iran problem as a threat to world security—not just Israel. Israel has urged the major powers to coerce Iran into a peaceful resolution of the issue, because as its leaders have said repeatedly, “Iran is the world’s problem—not Israel’s.”
Every one of these approaches to the Iran problem (other than the assassinations of Iranian nuclear personnel) has depended on the good will and collaboration of other countries, especially the United States. The U.S. has provided Israel with extensive intelligence and regularly invites Mossad officials to consult with the CIA about Iranian nuclear progress. The two countries jointly produced the Stuxnet virus to disrupt the Natanz enrichment process, and the CIA has conducted a number of operations to sell sabotaged material to Iran for its nuclear facilities. The Israeli Air Force, flying American F-16s and armed with American bunker-busting bombs, has been training with the U.S. Air Force for mock strikes against Iran. And the U.S. has provided Israel with diplomatic cover for its operations against Hamas and Hizbullah, as well as funding and co-developing several layers of antimissile technology. On the sanctions front, the U.S. has led a major worldwide campaign to isolate Iranian commerce, such as by persuading East Asian countries to buy discounted Saudi oil as an alternative to Iranian crude.
By closely coordinating its policy with the U.S., Israel has ceded the ability to manage the Iranian agenda directly. Israel continues to threaten military strikes to prod the parties, but in essence Tel Aviv has trusted Bush (and then Obama) to handle the Iranian issue on its behalf on the diplomatic front. There was never any hope that Iran would agree to completely dismantle its nuclear program as Israel demands, but we have seen in the last year a recognition on the part of the Islamic Republic of the necessity of dealing directly with the Great Satan. Israel could only hope that the American negotiating stance would reflect Israeli concerns.
The interim agreement with Iran ostensibly presents a high watermark in U.S.–Israeli tensions. This is based on the blistering critiques of the Geneva interim agreement delivered by Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has accused the U.S. of betraying the trust on which the relationship depends. His public rebuke of the agreement startled observers in both capitals and has sharpened the perception of a possible breach in the U.S.–Israel alliance.
However, this impression is misleading. Netanyahu’s sense of betrayal is not as widely shared in the Israeli establishment—particularly among leaders in the Israeli military and intelligence arenas.
To begin with, Netanyahu and his former defense minister Ehud Barak have been far more eager to engage Iran with military force than other Israeli leaders (though Barak was less strident and tried to maintain positive relations with Washington as much as possible). In 2010, when Barak and Netanyahu proposed striking Iran, they were met with fierce resistance from IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, the Mossad’s Dagan, and Amos Yadlin, the chief of Aman, the IDF’s military intelligence unit (all now retired). Former Shabak (internal security) head Yuval Diskin publicly accused Netanyahu of misleading the Israeli public about the Iranian threat.
In fact, Israeli security leaders seem to agree a lot more with American views of Iran than with Netanyahu. Current IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz told Haaretz in 2012 that he does not believe Iran will build a nuclear bomb in the foreseeable future. Current head of Aman Aviv Kochavi has expressed the view that Iran’s leadership is focused on regime survival, presciently assessing that “[t]he weight of sanctions is going to become a more important factor in [Iran’s] decision-making.” An unclassified report prepared by Aman is even considering that pragmatist Iranian President Hassan Rouhani could represent a change in Iranian strategic thinking.
Far from decrying the 2013 Geneva agreement as a “historic mistake” as the Prime Minister did, Yadlin deemed it an acceptable short-term solution. Shaul Mofaz, the former IDF Chief of Staff, Defense Minister, and current head of the centrist Kadima Party said, “Netanyahu’s fighting a losing battle and it would have been better to work quietly to bring the Americans on board with our strategy.” Contrasted with the language of Netanyahu, who has deeply alienated successive American administrations, the IDF and intelligence community seem very unwilling to declare the U.S.–Israel strategic bargain defunct.
The close relationship with the United States remains the cornerstone of Israeli national security as it has since 1968. It is a privilege few countries Israel’s size have enjoyed. The Israeli security elite does not take it for granted and does not underestimate American commitment to maintaining Israel’s well-being. Whether politics or sheer obstinacy get in the way of that relationship remains to be seen, but Netanyahu’s pronouncements hardly represent a consensus Israeli decision to move away from the protection of the United States.