US defense secretaries’ relationships with their Israeli counterparts have been among the closest of any around the world.
In the turbulence that has followed House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak before Congress, commentators have universally described the U.S.-Israeli relationship as in “crisis” or “on the brink.” The relationship is widely perceived as unusually dysfunctional and personally bitter. Watching this, one might think the two sides are barely on speaking terms.
But all this drama masks an important fact: under President Barack Obama, the U.S.-Israeli security relationship has become stronger than ever.
Now it’s easy for American officials (or former officials) to make such an assertion. So listen to Israeli leaders. Former Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said there is more “intimacy” between the two militaries than ever before. Current Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon describes the relationship as “deep and intimate, and unprecedented in its scope.” Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador in Washington who has been in the middle of the recent imbroglio, says his government appreciates how the Obama administration has “upgraded security cooperation” with the Israelis. And Netanyahu himself recently called the defense ties a “remarkable partnership.”
Of course, this starts with the significant security assistance the U.S. provides the Israeli military – well over $100 billion during the past few decades, and increasing in the past few years. Such support is bipartisan: in 2007 President George W. Bush agreed to provide Israel with $30 billion for a decade, which Obama has agreed to extend in the coming years. This aid has provided Israel with the most advanced weapons capabilities, from precision munitions to sophisticated fighter aircraft. Israel is the only country in the region that will get the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the only country in the world the U.S. has agreed to provide the V-22 Osprey.
Perhaps the most famous recent example of U.S.-Israel security cooperation is in missile defense, where the two sides have worked together to develop and finance the Iron Dome system, which has proven its effectiveness in protecting Israeli cities from Hamas rockets.
Yet the strength of these ties goes beyond money and hardware. It includes policy, such as the common interest in fighting extremists, maintaining a strong relationship with Jordan and ensuring that Israel maintains its “Qualitative Military Edge” in the region -- which is a way to say that Israel has the capability to protect itself, by itself, against larger sized militaries in the region.
Israeli officials praise U.S. policy in places that some critics would find unusual. On Syria, the Israelis are among the few who give the Obama Administration credit for its diplomacy, backed by force, to get the Assad regime to give up its chemical weapons. Syria’s vast chemical weapons arsenal was an acute threat to Israel (a threat Israeli had no military answer for), and its removal is an accomplishment that Netanyahu described to the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg as “the one ray of light in a very dark region.”
Ironically, the current military relationship is undergirded by what many perceive to be the most brittle area of today’s American-Israeli partnership: the personal relations among leaders. For the past three defense secretaries – Robert Gates, Leon Panetta and Chuck Hagel – the relationships with their Israeli counterparts have been among the closest of any around the world.
This is something I saw up close during many hours of meetings and phone calls Secretaries Panetta and Hagel had with their counterparts. For example, outgoing Secretary Hagel (who before taking office endured criticism about his views on Israel), met more often with Minister Yaalon than any other counterpart; they developed an especially warm relationship and upon leaving office Yaalon publicly praised Hagel as a “true friend” of Israel. And there’s every expectation this will continue: the incoming defense secretary, Ashton Carter, has strong ties to Israeli defense leaders through his previous work at the Pentagon.
This doesn’t mean that the two sides agree on everything, or that such disagreements are always handled well. Even the strongest personal relations can’t (and shouldn’t) trump enduring national interests. So on such issues as West Bank settlements and the peace process, Republican and Democratic administrations alike have tangled with Israeli governments over the years. What matters is how such disagreements are managed and, in some cases, resolved.
And this makes clear how risky the current eruption sparked by Netanyahu’s invitation to speak before Congress has become. The fact that the U.S.-Israeli military relationship has become so close recently is not an accident; it is because of shared values, overlapping interests and, yes, leadership on both sides. The current squabble, as intense as it is, does not reflect the strength of the security relationship. But it does serve as a reminder of the stakes, for if it spins out of control and squanders this close partnership, our common security will be undermined.
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