Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was right to speak about U.S.-Israeli strategic ties during his speech at Tuesday’s AIPAC conference.
During the recent bilateral tensions between the Obama administration and the Israeli government, a vicious rumor began to spread that the U.S. feels that Israeli “intransigence” in the peace process puts U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan at risk.
The source of this rumor was not Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the U.S. Central Command, who recently testified before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee. Petraeus is concerned with the possible outbreak of an intifada that is shown on the Al-Jazeera satellite network and foments rage in the Arab street that weakens the legitimacy of his Arab military partners.
Yet the idea that Israel was putting U.S. forces at risk began to spread inside the Washington beltway. For example, Jake Tapper, White House correspondent for ABC News, interviewed President Obama’s political advisor, David Axelrod, March 14 and asked whether the Israeli “housing issue” put the lives of U.S. troops at risk.
When Axelrod refused to answer, Tapper persisted and asked the question a second time. Clearly this idea has penetrated the thinking of political reporters.
Columnist Jeffrey Goldberg wrote that linking construction plans at Jerusalem’s Ramat Shlomo neighborhood to the security of U.S. forces in the Middle East actually came from Israeli press reports of the meeting between Vice President Joe Biden and Netanyahu in Jerusalem. Biden’s spokesman denied those reports when Goldberg made a formal inquiry.
The net effect of rumors of this sort is to reinforce the image of Israel as a strategic burden rather than as a strategic asset, which only exacerbated the current tensions. For years, there has been a whole cottage industry of anti-Israel forces, who have been trying to promote this view across the United States.
It began with professors Stephen Walt of Harvard and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, who argued in their 2007 book, The Israeli Lobby, that Israel is nothing less than “a strategic liability.” They have made significant inroads in universities and think tanks, so that the rumors about Jerusalem building projects threatening soldiers in Afghanistan fell on fertile ground.
Netanyahu argued at AIPAC that Israel has actually helped save the lives of Americans. Historically, he is absolutely correct to paint Israel’s strategic partnership this way. In August 1966, the Mossad succeeded in recruiting an Iraqi Air Force pilot who flew his MiG-21 to Israel.
The intelligence on the MiG-21 was shared with Washington and would prove to be extremely valuable, considering the fact that the MiG-21 was the work-horse of the North Vietnamese Air Force in the years that followed.
Israel supplied the Americans with many other Soviet weapons systems, from 130mm artillery to T-72 tanks. Gen. George Keegan, the former head of U.S. Air Force Intelligence, was quoted in the New York Times on March 9, 1986, saying that the intelligence the U.S. received from Israel could not have been obtained if the U.S. had “five CIAs.”
Keegan went further: “The ability of the U.S. Air Force in particular, and the Army in general, to defend whatever position it has in NATO owes more to the Israeli intelligence input than it does to any single source of intelligence.”
Even after the Cold War, Israel continues to be a vital American strategic partner. In 2007, the U.S. ambassador to Israel revealed that Israeli technology was being used by the U.S. armed forces in Iraq to protect them from Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) that were responsible for most U.S. casualties in the Iraq War.
In short, Israel was helping save American lives in Iraq.
On March 15, 2007, the commander of EUCOM, Gen. Bantz Craddock, told the House Armed Services Committee that “in the Middle East, Israel is the U.S.’s closest ally that consistently and directly supports our interests.”
During his AIPAC speech, Netanyahu disclosed: “Israel shares with America everything” that it knows about their common enemies, especially intelligence.
When states like the U.S. and Israel have high-profile diplomatic disagreements, it is sometimes the nature of the press to seek the dramatic. A learned debate about the applicability of the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention to Jerusalem would be fitting for Yale Law School, but it does not sell newspapers.
For that reason, the Obama administration has a special responsibility to contain its tensions with Israel. It would be a serious development if the disagreement over Israel’s rights in Jerusalem spilled over into the strategic relationship between the two countries.
Netanyahu tried to contain this problem at AIPAC, but both sides need to make sure that unnecessary diplomatic tensions do not sacrifice their long-held strategic interests that have served the security of both countries.
Dore Gold served as Israel’s ambassador to the UN. His website is www.dore-gold.com. He heads the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.