Vol. 5, No. 20 March 24, 2006
On December 27, 1962, President John F. Kennedy told Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir: “The United States has a special relationship with Israel in the Middle East really comparable only to what it has with Britain over a wide range of world affairs.”
The U.S. and Israel had a joint strategic interest in defeating aggressors in the Middle East seeking to disrupt the status quo, especially if they had Moscow’s backing. In 1970 when Syria invaded Jordan, given the huge U.S. military commitment in Southeast Asia at the time, it was only the mobilization of Israeli strength that provided the external backing needed to support the embattled regime of King Hussein. That same year, Israeli Phantoms downed Soviet-piloted MiG fighters over the Suez Canal, proving the ineffectiveness of the military umbrella Moscow provided its Middle Eastern clients.
In 1981, Israel destroyed the nuclear reactor of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, severely reducing Iraqi military strength. Ten years later, after a U.S.-led coalition had to liberate Kuwait following Iraq’s occupation of that oil-producing mini-state, Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney in October 1991 thanked Israel for its “bold and dramatic action” a decade earlier.
In the 1980s, several memoranda of understanding between the U.S. and Israel on strategic cooperation were followed by regular joint military exercises, where U.S. forces were given access to Israel’s own combat techniques and vice versa. The U.S. Marine Corps and special operations forces have particularly benefited from these ties, though much of the U.S.-Israel strategic relationship is classified.
Saudi Arabia has tried to tilt U.S. policy using a vast array of powerful PR firms, former diplomats, and well-connected officials, with the result being that America is still overly dependent on Middle Eastern oil. Given the ultimate destination of those petrodollars in recent years (the propagation of Islamic extremism and terrorism), a serious investigation of those lobbying efforts appears to be far more appropriate than focusing on relations between the U.S. and Israel.
A Special Relationship Spanning Decades
It was mid-morning on December 27, 1962, when President John F. Kennedy hosted the Foreign Minister of Israel, Golda Meir, in Palm Beach, Florida, for a heart-to-heart review of U.S.-Israel relations. Kennedy’s language was unprecedented. In the secret memorandum drafted by the attending representative of the Department of State, Kennedy told his Israeli guest: “The United States has a special relationship with Israel in the Middle East really comparable only to what it has with Britain over a wide range of world affairs [emphasis added].”1
According to a new paper prepared by two of America’s top political scientists, Professor John Mearsheimer from the University of Chicago and Professor Stephen Walt from the Kennedy School at Harvard University, “neither strategic nor moral arguments can account for America’s support for Israel.” The explanation for U.S. backing of Israel, according to these academics, is the “unmatched power of the Israel lobby.”2 Yet their analysis is not grounded in any careful investigation of declassified U.S. documents from the Departments of State or Defense.
What led Kennedy in 1962 to declare that the U.S.-Israel relationship was even comparable to America’s alliance with the British? Since the early 1950s, the U.S. defense establishment has understood Israel’s potential importance to the Western Alliance. Thus, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Omar Bradley, assessed in 1952 that only Britain, Turkey, and Israel could help the U.S. with their air forces in the event of a Soviet attack in the Middle East.3 But against whatever Israel could tangibly offer the U.S., there was always a need to politically juggle America’s ties with Israel and its efforts to create strategic relations with the Arab states. The first limited U.S. arms supply to Israel preceded Kennedy. During the Eisenhower years, when Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’ plans for a Baghdad Pact collapsed with the 1958 overthrow of the Hashemite monarchy in Iraq, the U.S. began to upgrade its defense ties with Israel. Kennedy started his presidency trying to build on a new relationship with Egypt’s Nasser. But by 1962, Nasser intervened with large forces in Yemen, bombed Saudi border towns, and threatened to expand into the oil-producing areas of the Persian Gulf.
Israeli Actions That Served U.S. Interests
The U.S. and Israel had a joint strategic interest in defeating aggressors in the Middle East seeking to disrupt the status quo, especially if they had Moscow’s backing. This became the essence of the U.S.-Israel alliance in the Middle East. It would repeat itself in 1970 when Syria invaded Jordan. Given the huge U.S. military commitment in Southeast Asia at the time, it was only the mobilization of Israeli strength that provided the external backing needed to support the embattled regime of King Hussein.
In 1981, Israel destroyed the nuclear reactor of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, severely reducing Iraqi military strength. Ten years later, after a U.S.-led coalition had to liberate Kuwait following Iraq’s occupation of that oil-producing mini-state, Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney thanked Israel for its “bold and dramatic action” a decade earlier. Indeed, Cheney would add in an October 1991 address: “strategic cooperation with Israel remains a cornerstone of U.S. defense policy.”
During those years, Israel became one of the main forces obstructing the spread of Soviet military power in the Eastern Mediterranean. In 1970 Israeli Phantoms downed Soviet-piloted MiG fighters over the Suez Canal, proving the ineffectiveness of the military umbrella Moscow provided its Middle Eastern clients in exchange for Soviet basing arrangements. When in the 1980s the Soviet Mediterranean Squadron made the Syrian port of Tartus its main submarine base, Israel offered Haifa to the U.S. Sixth Fleet, which had already begun to house U.S. ships in 1977. U.S.-Soviet arms control agreements in the 1980s over arms deployments in Central Europe increased the importance of NATO’s flanks – including its southern flank – in the overall balance of power between the superpowers.
This expanding cooperation was made concrete in the 1980s by several memoranda of understanding (MOU) between the U.S. and Israel on strategic cooperation, signed in 1981 and 1983. According to the Congressional Research Service, the strategic cooperation agreements were followed by regular joint military exercises, where U.S. forces were given access to Israel’s own combat techniques and vice versa. The U.S. Marine Corps and special operations forces have particularly benefited from these ties. The U.S. European Command took a particular interest in Israeli combat helicopter training ranges.
By 1992, the number of U.S. Navy ship visits to Haifa had reached 50 per year. Admiral Carl Trost, the former Chief of Naval Operations, commented that with the end of the Cold War and the shifting American interest in power projection to the Middle East, the Sixth Fleet’s need for facilities in the Eastern Mediterranean had actually increased.
Do U.S. and Israeli interests diverge sometimes? Like any two countries, such differences can be expected. During the Cold War, Israel needed U.S. security ties in order to increase its own capabilities to deal with hostile Arab states. But Israel did not seek to become a target of the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, it signed an MOU with the U.S. in 1981 which singled out the USSR as a joint adversary of both countries. The MOU underscored that “the parties recognize the need to enhance strategic cooperation to deter all threats from the Soviet Union to the region.”4 In the 2003 Iraq War, most Israeli military leaders identified Iran as the greater threat to the Middle East at the time. Nonetheless, Israel certainly did not oppose the efforts of the U.S.-led coalition to topple Saddam Hussein.5
One complaint about the U.S.-Israel defense relationship has been the constraints Israel has put on it as a result of Israel’s firm commitment to its doctrine of self-reliance. As Carl Ford, the Principal Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs in the Bush (41) administration, confided to a Senate Caucus in October 1991: “Another limitation, of course, is the longstanding view on the part of Israel, one which I think most of us share the viewpoint on…that not one ounce of American blood should be spilled in the defense of Israel.” He suggested that changes needed to be introduced to make “our operations and interactions with Israel the same as they are with Great Britain and Germany.”
This comment was significant since detractors of the U.S.-Israel relationship like to insinuate that Israel seeks to get America to fight its wars for it. The truth is completely the opposite: while U.S. forces have been stationed on the soil of Germany, South Korea, or Japan to provide for the defense of those countries in the event of an attack, Israel has always insisted on defending itself by itself. If Israel today seeks “defensible borders,” this is because it wants to deploy the Israel Defense Forces and not the U.S. Army in the strategically sensitive Jordan Valley.
Much of the Relationship Is Classified
There are other issues affecting the public discourse on U.S.-Israel defense ties. Much of the U.S.-Israel strategic relationship is classified, particularly in the area of intelligence sharing. There are two direct consequences from this situation. First, most aspects of U.S.-Israel defense ties are decided on the basis of the professional security considerations of those involved. Lobbying efforts in Congress cannot force a U.S. security agency to work with Israel.
Second, because many elements of the relationship are kept secret, it is difficult for academics, commentators, and pundits to provide a thorough net assessment of the true value of U.S.-Israel ties. Thus, Israel is left working shoulder-to-shoulder with the U.S., and finds itself presented by outside commentators as a worthless ally whose status is only sustained by a domestic lobby. Nonetheless, what has come out about the U.S.-Israel security relationship certainly makes the recent analysis of Professors Walt and Mearsheimer extremely suspect.
Ask About the Saudi Lobby and U.S. Dependence on Middle East Oil
Does Israel have supporters in the U.S. that back a strong relationship between the two countries? Clearly, networks of such support exist, as they do for U.S. ties with Britain, Greece, Turkey, and India. There are also states like Saudi Arabia that have tried to tilt U.S. policy using a vast array of powerful PR firms, former diplomats, and well-connected officials. The results of those efforts have America still overly dependent on Middle Eastern oil with few energy alternatives. Given the ultimate destination of those petrodollars in recent years (the global propagation of Islamic extremism and terrorism), a serious investigation of those lobbying efforts appears to be far more appropriate than focusing on relations between the U.S. and Israel.
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1. “Memorandum of Conversation, Palm Beach, FL, December 27, 1962, 10:00 a.m.,” in Nina J. Noring (ed.), Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963, Volume XVIII: Near East 1962-1963 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1995), pp. 276-283.
2. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, “The Israel Lobby,” London Review of Books, Vol. 28, No. 5, March 23, 2006, http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n06/print/mear01_.html.
3. “Military Requirements for the Defense of the Middle East” (A Briefing by the Chairman, the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the Deputy Secretary of Defense), JCS 1887/61, November 26, 1952, in Paul Kesaris (ed.), Records of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Part 2, 1946-53, the Middle East.
4. “U.S.-Israel Memorandum of Understanding, October 30, 1981, Memorandum of Understanding between the Government of the United States and the Government of Israel on Strategic Cooperation,” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/Peace+Process/Guide+to+the+Peace+Process/ US-Israel+Memorandum+of+Understanding.htm.
5. Dore Gold, “Wartime Witch Hunt: Blaming Israel for the Iraq War,” Jerusalem Viewpoints #518, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, June 1, 2004.
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Dr. Dore Gold, who served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations in 1997-1999, heads the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.