October 9, 2006

There is no other Middle East state where an American airplane can count with certainty on being welcomed.The major challenges to US diplomacy in the post Cold War era – threats to the free flow of oil, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and Islamic terrorism – originate in the Middle East. With America’s invasion of Afghanistan in 2002 and of Iraq in 2003, this region has become the focus of US efforts to neutralize radical anti-American forces.

Washington thus welcomed Israel’s military response to the provocations of the radical Islamist Hizbullah, an Iranian proxy and an enemy of the US. Yet, Israel’s mixed military performance against Hizbullah in Lebanon has raised questions in Washington as to whether Israel still constitutes a strategic asset for the US.

For four decades, the US has provided Israel with generous financial aid and with access to America’s arsenal of the latest weaponry in order to strengthen the IDF and make it into a mighty military machine. Yet, the IDF failed to achieve a clear defeat of Hizbullah, an accomplishment that would have enhanced Israel’s deterrence and weakened the influence of Iran and other radical factions in the region. In light of America’s difficulties in Iraq, Washington was more in need than ever of such a success against the radical Islamic forces.

Despite the troubling questions regarding Israel’s strategic behavior in the summer of 2006, Washington still understands that Israel remains its most reliable ally in the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean. There is no other state in the Middle East where an American airplane can count with certainty on being welcomed in the near future. Even American allies such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey may have second thoughts about hosting an American presence and all of them have a record of denying the US military use of their facilities. Moreover, the stability of their regimes cannot be taken for granted as all of them grapple with modernization and are threatened to various degrees by Islamic radicals.

Israel is one of the few countries in the world that does not see US primacy in international affairs as a troubling phenomenon. Unlike much of the rest of the world, Israel is not preoccupied with how to tame American power. In fact, Israeli foreign policy displays an unequivocal pro-American orientation.

In addition, Israel’s strategic culture is much closer to that of the US than to that of many of the US’s European allies. In contrast to Washington and Jerusalem, European ruling elites usually have a low threat perception and question the utility of the use of force in the international arena. Indeed, it is becoming politically more and more difficult for European capitals to dispatch troops to join the US in Afghanistan and Iraq. European support for the seemingly inevitable American use of force against the nascent Iranian nuclear program is also uncertain. Unlike other American allies, Israel supports America’s unilateralism, which is in fact in tune with its own defense doctrine that stresses self-reliance and is skeptical of the effectiveness of multilateral action.

Following 9/11, the US approach to the use of military force has come to bear an even closer resemblance to that of Israel. In 2003, the US adopted preemptive strikes as part of its official menu of policy options. Such strikes have been part of the Israeli modus operandi since the 1950s. Israel’s preemptive posture, which was once a source of tension in the bilateral ties, is now met with better understanding in the US, for which the dilemmas involved in combating terrorists particularly in urban settings with large civilian populations are no longer merely academic questions.

Cooperation with Israel on security matters confers many advantages. The American military uses Israeli training installations and has continuous access to Israeli intelligence, military experience and doctrine. Currently, officers serving in Iraq compare notes regularly with Israeli counterparts on a variety of military issues connected to low-intensity conflict operations. Israel has vast combat experience and an array of weaponry specifically tailored for such situations – both of which the US capitalizes upon. Similarly, the greater American effort to defend its homeland from terrorist threats has intensified US cooperation with Israel, a country that has coped with such threats for decades.

Israel is also an important source of military technology. While the US dominates the international arms market, Israel enjoys a relative technological advantage in several niches, upon which US firms have capitalized. Israeli-developed systems are employed by the American military and the US Senate, recognizing this contribution, has just approved an appropriation of half a billion US dollars for American-Israeli weapon R&D.

The case for the continued US support of Israel as an important strategic ally due to its strategic location and political stability, as well as its technological and military assets, is very strong. The current strategic relationship is based on a common strategic agenda that has survived the Cold War politics.

However, this commonality of strategic interests must be continuously nurtured. Being a Western democracy in the Middle East with a strong and supportive Jewish lobby in the US is not enough to secure critical America support. Rather, Israel must take care to ensure that it is playing a positive strategic role in an American-dominated world.

(Reprinted with permission from The Jerusalem Post)

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

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