Obama’s Chance to Reinvent the U.S.-Israel Defense Relationship
Despite what you may hear this week, the U.S. and Israel are far closer than many realize, says Obama's former Middle East policy chief at the Pentagon.
Conventional wisdom is that the U.S.-Israel relationship is in crisis and the best hope is for both countries to wait it out until there is a new president.
That is a mistake. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s meeting with President Barack Obama on Monday offers an opportunity to change course. But that effort need not start from scratch. The answer lies in reinventing the most solid foundation that exists between both countries—the U.S.-Israeli defense and intelligence partnership—through three new areas of cooperation.
America and Israel share more enemies and threats than they have differences in policy. A professional military and defense dialogue is a key to finding creative solutions to our most vexing problems. This does not mean ignoring or endorsing the Netanyahu government’s policies we disagree with – from the Arab-Israeli peace process to diplomacy with Iran. That would be profoundly wrong. But we should not miss the opportunity for what a parallel security effort can accomplish.
The depth of our defense relationship gets too little attention. As President Obama’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy, I traveled to Israel over two dozen times in three years to meet with Israel’s top defense officials about the deepest threats to our nations and how to preserve Israel’s “qualitative military edge”. Last year, the United States provided more military assistance to Israel than at any other time in history. Last week, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter reinforced his priority that America’s military must develop an insurance policy should Iran back away from the nuclear agreement. It was no accident that new Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford’s first visit abroad was to Israel.
That is for good reason. The defense relationship makes America safer. Israel has the military and intelligence capabilities of no other nation in the Middle East. It provides the U.S. critical intelligence, joint military exercises, and technology. But that defense relationship will stagnate unless we reinvent it beyond dollars for the Israeli defense budget. The U.S. and Israel should negotiate a new Security Memorandum of Understanding, which would provide a formal guarantee of U.S. security assistance to Israel for the next decade or more.
Three principles should guide the next step in the relationship.
First, innovate together against our enemies. The U.S. is the hotbed of technological innovation for the world. Joint technological cooperation produced the Iron Dome rocket defense system, which has saved countless Israeli lives shooting down rockets fired from the Gaza strip. As rocket and missile technologies are advancing from Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, and Israel’s other enemies, rocket and missile defense must evolve as well.
Obama and Netanyahu should announce a U.S.-Israel Innovation Race. It should not be based out of Washington and Jerusalem, but instead out of Silicon Valley and Israel’s Silicon Wadi. It should be jointly led by the secretaries of defense and commerce, and the U.S. chief technology officer, as well as top tech CEOs. Venture capital firms in Silicon Valley already see countless startups from former Israeli military officers; the group should recruit young veterans from the Israeli and U.S. defense and intelligence forces, now in the startup community. The product cycle for a startup is just a few months; this Innovation Group can produce results in the last 14 months of the Obama administration.
Defensive technological cooperation can find better ways to shoot down enemies’ missiles, defend against cyber attacks, and detect weapons smuggled through tunnels on Israel’s border. But it can do more. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, who has made two trips to Silicon Valley this year, should take his Israeli counterpart on his next visit to explore how new technologies from data analytics, wearable devices, and the internet of things can address the threats Israel and the U.S. face on the Middle East. The Defense Department should make startup funding available to joint U.S.-Israel technology projects, taking advantage of the talent from veterans of the Israeli Defense Force, U.S. military, and National Security Agency.
Second, seize the strategic moment. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Israel and the Gulf states fear two existential threats: Iran’s regional hegemonic ambitions and the Islamic State’s murderous plan to create a regional caliphate. Use that to advantage.
The United States next should convene a quiet trilateral security dialogue with Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia in a third country like Jordan. Begin with a security assessment of threat in the region, focusing on common threats – the impact of the Islamic State and instability on Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon; Russia’s new military action; security cooperation with Egypt; and Iranian threats in Yemen, Syria, and beyond. Although Saudi Arabia and UAE do not have diplomatic relations with Israel, the strategic rationale for cooperation is even stronger now two and a half years later.
Finally, do not try to put our nations’ disagreement over Iran behind us. Put them in front of us by establishing a formal monitoring group over the Iranian threat. The battle scars of Netanyahu lobbying against the nuclear agreement are not as deep as the shared interest in holding Iran accountable to the deal, and deterring and responding to Iran’s destabilizing threats.
Create a joint monitoring group for the Iran nuclear deal reaching across the U.S. and Israeli governments. Some of the most effective diplomacy I saw in my time in government came from an interagency team from the U.S. government meeting with our colleagues in a foreign country as a group. Given the breadth of the Iranian issue, this group should include the White House, and Departments of Defense, Treasury, State, and intelligence community representatives. The room will be bigger and the agenda larger. But an interagency group is so much more effective in addressing issues that could slip between silos in the government, and prevent passing the buck to an agency that is not in the room.
The group should have two purposes. The first is to hold joint discussion and monitoring of the nuclear agreement. The second is to openly discuss Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region that go beyond the nuclear issue – Iran’s significant conventional forces in the region, its terrorist attacks, and cyber capabilities. That will give us more information about Iran’s threats, and how to deter and respond to them.
Of course, a partnership between military and defense professionals cannot bear the full weight of the U.S.-Israel relationship. Politicians must set the context, and the political aspects of the relationship need confidence building measures as well. But the United States and Israel are far closer than many realize on our core issues. Defense cooperation cannot do all the work to rebuild the relationship, but it will be a powerful start.