A dramatic front-page New York Times story on Jan. 8, 2013 gave readers a rare glimpse into the level of intelligence cooperation between the U.S. and Israel. According to the article, written by two of the newspaper’s leading reporters David Sanger and Eric Schmitt, several months earlier senior IDF officers had received satellite intelligence that showed Syrian forces mixing chemical weapons at two sites and filling 500-pound bombs. The chemical munitions were loaded onto vehicles near Syrian air bases and, according to assessments, could be deployed within two hours of an order by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Israel reportedly handed the intelligence it had in its possession over to the Pentagon. After U.S. President Barack Obama was informed, he worked to assemble an international coalition to prevent Assad from employing his chemical weapons against rebel forces in the Syrian civil war. The U.S. reached out to Russia, China, Turkey and even to several Arab states that were undoubtedly concerned with Assad’s behavior on the basis of the intelligence originally received from Israel.
Beyond the details outlined in The New York Times report about the dangers emanating from Syria’s continuing uprising, the article also demonstrated how important U.S.-Israel intelligence sharing had become. On the eve of Obama’s upcoming visit to Israel it is useful to take stock of the nature of the security ties between the U.S. and Israel that have come to light in open sources, like The New York Times report from January.
This report was certainly not the first time that the extent of the security relationship between the U.S. and Israel came to light. During the Cold War, Israel provided the U.S. with data on the performance of captured Soviet weapons systems that had been in Syrian and Egyptian arsenals. As early as 1966, Israel provided the U.S. with a MiG-21 fighter jet that the Mossad had flown out of Iraq; the MiG-21 was to become the workhorse of the North Vietnamese Air Force.
In the years that followed, Israel supplied Washington with whole Soviet radar systems. In a famous remark, former head of U.S. Air Force Intelligence Maj. Gen. George Keegan Jr. expressed his appreciation for Israel’s contribution to U.S. security by stating that the U.S. could not have received the same kind of intelligence “with five CIAs.”
Not everyone shares this kind of enthusiastic view of the U.S.-Israel relationship. There is a small but vocal school of thought led by Prof. John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Prof. Stephen Walt of Harvard University who argue that even if Israel was a “valuable ally during the Cold War,” this aspect of the relationship ended when the Soviet Union collapsed. Since that time, in their judgment, Israel is not a strategic asset but rather it is a strategic liability and the bilateral relationship is only sustained by pro-Israel lobbying in Washington. Despite its flaws, their 2007 book “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy” still influences the discourse on Israel within the U.S.
Yet since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the security relationship between the U.S. and Israel appears actually to be closer than ever. The two countries are collaborating closely in the area of missile defense, as exemplified by the recent testing of the Arrow-3 anti-missile system (tested at Israel’s Palmachim base on Feb. 25). But the new threat of global terrorism has also transformed the defense ties between the two countries. The key to winning the war on terrorism was obtaining accurate intelligence about the organizations and their leaders, who are waging this new war. It has required a scale of intelligence cooperation that many states had been unwilling to undertake in the past, including Israel.
After he left his position as head of the research division of Israeli Military Intelligence, Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser wrote a paper for the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution in 2007 on how Israel was implementing intelligence reforms. One critical area of reform was intelligence cooperation, which had been restricted in the past. In fact, according to Kuperwasser, Israeli military intelligence was not only focusing on Israel’s intelligence needs; it also was collecting and analyzing intelligence “whose main beneficiary is the U.S.”
In any event, it appears that the U.S.-Israel strategic relationship remains vital in multiple areas for both countries in the 21st century, just as it was during the Cold War. The scale of joint military exercises has also increased, reaching record numbers. Delegations from the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) regularly study Israel’s lessons from its recent operations in the West Bank, Southern Lebanon and in the Gaza Strip.
While the Pentagon has not made public pronouncements on the application of these lessons to U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan, it would not be surprising if one day it is disclosed that some of the tactics used in the 2004 battle of Fallujah in Iraq could be traced back to the battle of Jenin in 2002.
Signaling the importance of defense ties between the two countries, visits by chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Israel and the Israeli chief of Staff to the U.S. have become far more frequent in recent years. In 2007, the commander of EUCOM, General Bantz Craddock called Israel the U.S.’s “closest ally” in the Middle East in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee. In a speech at the Washington Institute in April 2010, Obama’s first National Security Adviser General James Jones remarked: “I can say from long experience that our security relationship with Israel is important for America.”
Despite these statements, Israel’s critics have a built-in advantage when they debate the value of the U.S.-Israeli defense ties to America. The substance of much of U.S.-Israeli strategic cooperation is classified. This is particularly true of the area of intelligence cooperation. So if academics like Mearsheimer and Walt question the value of the defense relationship, what can Israel do? Clearly, it is not worth leaking sensitive information that is classified as “secret” by both countries in order to win a public relations battle. The degree that a strategic partner is perceived as a reliable ally is affected by the extent to which he can be trusted to protect secrets.
American military experts voiced their concern in the past that if aspects of U.S.-Israeli military cooperation were to become public, it would alienate the Arab leaders from Washington. But at present, given the preoccupation of the Sunni Arab states with the threat of Iran, they are not about to refuse the visit of an American warship because it docked several weeks earlier in Haifa.
In fact, U.S. diplomatic cables reporting the visits of senior U.S. officers to Arab capitals, that were published by Wikileaks, show that the leaders of the Gulf states do not spend their time talking about Israel but rather about what the U.S. should do to stop Iran. In many of the new conflicts now erupting, Israel and the Arab states are actually on the same side. Those writing commentary about the Middle East must take into account this new reality and not present outdated stereotypes about the Arab world that were probably never accurate to begin with.