Israel’s Role In U.S. Middle East Strategy

Everyone who was avidly watching last week’s meeting between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu to see if the lingering bitterness over the Iran nuclear deal has had an impact on U.S.-Israeli relations should not have been surprised with how quickly the two have moved on from that spat. The tiff was a tempest in a teapot since Netanyahu–like all the deal’s Congressional opponents—played the foe because he wanted to benefit from the inevitable agreement and it seems like he succeeded. The focus of the get-together was on significantly upping the U.S.’s annual military aid package to Israel to a proposed five billion dollars. A fly on the wall would have certainly heard the Israeli premier justifying the hike as a way that the White House could help out Congressional Democrats who are itching to make nice with pro-Israel donors. While they would doubtless pay the asked-for amount to get back in AIPAC’s good graces, not everyone who would normally be on the Democrats’ side is on board.

The New York Times came out against the five billion figure, writing “It is hard to see how such a large increase could be justified, especially when Congress is trying to keep a lid on federal spending and is cutting back many vital programs. And Israel has long been a leading recipient of American assistance.” That’s a good point and it got me to look into why a well-off Israel receives the most in U.S. foreign aid. I know that 75 percent of that yearly three billion gets recycled back into the U.S. arms industry but there is also something much deeper to it. This passage from an article about the U.S.-Israel relationship by Scott McConnell gets to the heart of why Washington has had to adopt the policy of maintaining Israel’s military superiority over all of its neighbors:

“Surely domestic politics accounts for a good deal of the explanation. But there is another, strategic, reason that is seldom mentioned publicly. It was expounded clearly by Ariel Roth, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and an Israeli army veteran. In an essay in International Studies Perspectives, Roth argued that the key U.S. interest in the Middle East is stability and unfettered access to the region’s oil. This is indisputable; it is the point James Forrestal made to Truman more than 60 years ago. And what is the greatest threat to stability? Well, says Roth, it is Israel itself. Because of its unique history and the heavy weight of the Holocaust in the consciousness of Israeli leaders, Israel is uniquely terrified of being “alone” in the international arena. As a result, any suspicion on the part of its leaders that the US is backing away from it might incite Israel to behave more aggressively than it already does. Those who decry the special relationship “are blinded to how Israel’s sense of vulnerability causes…behaviors that have the potential to undermine American interests.” Israel needs constant “reassurance” that it “does not stand alone.” Supporting Israel through “constant affirmation” and generous arms shipments is the best way to pursue American interests “without the fear of a panicked and unrestrained Israel bringing a cataclysm to the Middle East.”… The threat of Israel’s turning itself into a nuclear-armed desperado striking at will at the oil states in the Gulf cannot, alas, be entirely dismissed.”

Similar thinking about the consequences of an Israel that wasn’t a close U.S. ally accounted for Washington eagerly seeking out a rock-solid military alliance soon after Israel was established. It started off in the immediate Post-WWII period as part of the U.S.’s planning for a possible Third World War against the Soviets, as Irene Gendzier explains:

“As Michael Cohen observes, among the reasons for such a policy was recognition that “a hostile Israel” would adversely affect plans for “the construction of forward airfields on her territory, and the free movement of forces and equipment along their planned lines of communication.” The signing of armistice agreements between Israel and its neighbors in 1949 facilitated such moves. As the memorandum to the secretary of defense indicated: “Because of United States strategic interests in Israel, it would be desirable for her orientation toward the United States to be fostered and for her military capability to be such as to make her useful as an ally in the event of war with our most probable enemy. [illegible due to word VOID printed over text]…of these points justify favorable consideration of eventual establishment of a United States military mission to Israel.”… Third, there was the importance of Israel’s “indigenous military forces, which have had some battle experience,” and, as the joint chiefs contemplated, could be important to “either the Western Democracies or the USSR in any contest for control of the Eastern Mediterranean-Middle East area.” Hence, in the face of a Soviet attempt to “secure or neutralize the oil facilities of the Middle East and to operate against the Cairo-Suez base area,” Israel’s position and its forces would be critical. “Should Israel ally herself with the Western Democracies in the event of war with the USSR, full advantage could be taken of defensive positions in that country and of Israel’s forces for the defense of the Cairo-Suez area and for land operations to defend or to recapture the Middle East oil facilities.” The above considerations were based on the axiom that “the security of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East is of critical importance to the future security of the United States.” This, in turn, assumed that the “stability of the Middle East, including assurance that the peoples of this area will not turn to the USSR and against the United States, is a vital element in United States security.”

If you’re not sure what Middle East stability has to do with the U.S.’s security, Gendzier cites a quote from Philip Jessup which clarifies the connection: “the economic stability and developing prosperity of Palestine and the Middle East area under peaceful conditions could make a very substantial contribution to the economic recovery of the world generally and thus contribute to the economic welfare of the U.S.” All of the strategic reasoning of the early Cold War era continues to apply today. The U.S. still wants to keep rivals like Russia and China out of the Middle East so our “unfettered access” to the oil stays secured. The U.S. still wants stability in the Middle East because, as Jessup pointed out, a thriving Middle East facilitates a sound global economy, the upkeep of which ties into that other great U.S. Post-WWII objective of avoiding another Great Depression. Because of these foreign policy priorities, Israel is a critical pillar of American grand strategy and so it’s totally understandable that some policymakers in Washington were a little freaked out about the possibility of a souring in the relationship over Netanyahu’s political partisanship (not his opposition to the deal which I’m sure they deduced was phony) and were so anxious to get back to bipartisan business as usual.