Promoted from the Ricochet Member Feed by Editors Created with Sketch. America and Israel: Sentiment and Strategy

 

shutterstock_170342135I was recently at a dinner party in mixed company. The political views of my fellow diners ranged across the spectrum from archconservative to radically liberal. I prefer the sort of arrangement. I’m a bit of a contrarian and I find nothing more tedious than agreement. This is particularly so when, as in this case, everyone at the table is intelligent and articulate.

Because we were a politically minded group, the topics focused mostly on current events, including Ukraine, the Obamacare rollout, and the latest Supreme Court decision on affirmative action. Eventually conversation turned toward the recently failed peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and, inevitably, to a discussion of settlements and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute generally.

Opinion at the table was fairly evenly divided, with conservatives taking a staunchly pro-Israeli stance and the liberals (with the exception of one of my friends who is Jewish) taking a more sympathetic view of the Palestinian position. I tend to side with Israel because I admire its liberal democratic values and military prowess, and I consider the Palestinian leadership to be at best corrupt and disingenuous and at worst genocidal terrorists. On settlements I’m fairly agnostic, as I have not taken the time to delve into the intricacies of the subject. To the extent that I care about the specific issue of settlements or even the larger Israeli-Palestinian dispute, it is through the lens of how it affects America and its interests.

In the course of arguing that Israel was justified in breaking off negotiation with the Palestinian Authority, my friend said that America needs to support Israel, not merely because it is the morally just thing to do, but because Israel is America’s closest and most valuable ally in the Middle East. This is a commonly held opinion, particularly on the Right, and usually goes without question.

As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an issue that I do not feel strongly about, I had been largely a passive observer of the conversation, a position to which I am unaccustomed. Feeling the urge to participate, as well as desiring to divert a conversation which showed signs of degenerating into charges of apartheid and anti-Semitism, I asked my friend what made Israel a particularly valuable ally to America. Specifically, I asked him to explain why, setting aside the moral case for doing so, it was in America’s strategic interest to be closely allied with the State of Israel.

This was not meant to be a gotcha question and I had every expectation that my friend would provide a convincing answer since up to this point he had demonstrated a knowledge of subjects relating to Israel which was masterful, bordering on encyclopedic. However, to my considerable surprise and mild disappointment, the question seemed to stump my friend. Aside from saying that Israel shares intelligence with United States regarding Islamic terrorists and Arab states, and that we conduct some joint military technology research, he didn’t have much of a response. Even these reasons were presented in the most general terms, contrasting sharply with the level of detail and specificity with which he had made his previous points.

I was actually a bit shaken by his lack of a robust answer. So, I submit it to you Ricochet members, what does America gain strategically from its close alliance with Israel and why, from the perspective of someone who is solely concerned with American interests, is America’s close alliance with Israel a net-benefit?

Dean Rusk, former Secretary of State, stated in the 1960s that America’s alliance with Israel was based more on sentiment then on strategy. Was he wrong? If so, why?

There are 237 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. raycon and lindacon Inactive

    The moral case for standing with Israel began when the US and Great Britain supported the existence of the State of Israel in 1947, after arguing in it’s favor for 2 years. Continued support is more than sentiment, if is an act of moral integrity.

    Strategically, Israel is only as important as is the US’s willingness to join with Israel against the many Islamist foes, and their supporters, mainly Russia. We have minimized the strategic importance of Israel by leaving it an isolated ally. After decades of Arafat and now Hamas ruling the Palestinian territories, a disingenuous kleptocracy running a non-stop war against Israel, including homicide bombers and rocket attacks, training their children in the most vile sort of fanaticism, there remains no example of the Arabs showing a desire to do other than eliminate Israel.

    If the above ranks as a sentimental attachment, then where do we rank as a nation in the self-interest area?

    • #1
    • May 21, 2014, at 10:15 AM PDT
    • Like
  2. Tom Meyer, Common Citizen Contributor

    Though this might easily slide into sentiment, I think one can make an argument that it’s in the United States’ interest to protect and ally with countries who broadly share it’s values and Israel certainly meets that standard.

    Add that they’re a nuclear power with a similar — though not identical — enemies list as ours, as well as a respectable-if-not-massive trading partner, and I think you’ve a decent case.

    • #2
    • May 21, 2014, at 10:16 AM PDT
    • Like
  3. Salvatore Padula Inactive
    Salvatore Padula

    raycon and lindacon: Strategically, Israel is only as important as is the US’s willingness to join with Israel against the many Islamist foes, and their supporters, mainly Russia.

     Though they didn’t during most of the Cold War, Israel and Russia get along quite well at the moment.

    • #3
    • May 21, 2014, at 10:18 AM PDT
    • Like
  4. Salvatore Padula Inactive
    Salvatore Padula

    Tom Meyer:

    Though this might easily slide into sentiment, I think one can make an argument that it’s in the United States’ interest to protect and ally with countries who broadly share it’s values and Israel certainly meets that standard. Add that they’re a nuclear power with a similar — though not identical — enemies list as ours and a respectable-if-not-massive trading partner, and I think you’ve a decent case.

     I can see how that would justify having friendly relations with Israel, but does it explain why it is in our strategic interest for our relationship to be a close as it is?

    • #4
    • May 21, 2014, at 10:22 AM PDT
    • Like
  5. Mike H Coolidge

    Salvatore Padula:

    raycon and lindacon: Strategically, Israel is only as important as is the US’s willingness to join with Israel against the many Islamist foes, and their supporters, mainly Russia.

    Though they didn’t during most of the Cold War, Israel and Russia get along quite well at the moment.

    Russia immediately recognized Israel as a country, just like the US. There was a large Jewish population in Russia at the time. Probably still now?

    • #5
    • May 21, 2014, at 10:26 AM PDT
    • Like
  6. Salvatore Padula Inactive
    Salvatore Padula

    Mike H:

    Salvatore Padula:

    raycon and lindacon: Strategically, Israel is only as important as is the US’s willingness to join with Israel against the many Islamist foes, and their supporters, mainly Russia.

    Though they didn’t during most of the Cold War, Israel and Russia get along quite well at the moment.

    Russia immediately recognized Israel as a country, just like the US. There was a large Jewish population in Russia at the time. Probably still now?

     That’s true, though Israel and the USSR had a bit of a falling out when the Soviets decided to back Nasser and pan-Arab nationalism as a tool against the West.

    • #6
    • May 21, 2014, at 10:29 AM PDT
    • Like
  7. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron MillerJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    It’s prime real estate at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and Africa. So long as war with distant nations is a possibility, maintaining reliable access to such a strategic position — particularly a position which the inhabitants have proven very capable of defending by themselves — seems a worthwhile effort.

    Also, I’ve been told that Israel has (or had) one of the finest spy networks in the world. When Jews from around the world sought asylum in Israel, some were convinced to remain behind for intelligence purposes. And, because Israel has never existed without overt threats from hostile neighbors, there were strong incentives to invest heavily in information gathering. 

    Those seem two valid military interests, though neither is a primary reason I favor our alliance with Israel over others.

    • #7
    • May 21, 2014, at 10:40 AM PDT
    • Like
  8. Son of Spengler Contributor

    Salvatore Padula:

    raycon and lindacon: Strategically, Israel is only as important as is the US’s willingness to join with Israel against the many Islamist foes, and their supporters, mainly Russia.

    Though they didn’t during most of the Cold War, Israel and Russia get along quite well at the moment.

    There have been some high-level photo ops, but is there anything more? I’m not aware of anything like the kind of military exchange (technology and tactics), diplomatic support (e.g. support at the UN), trade relationships, academic cooperation, or cultural exchange that Israel shares with the U.S. Israel’s attitude to Russia has cooled since the late 1990s as Russia has continued to support the Iranian mullahs and their Syrian proxies.

    Note that the Sixth Fleet docks at the port of Haifa; Israel does not afford that courtesy to Russia. The news is that Haifa hosted a “goodwill visit” of Chinese warships in 2012. If the US continues to waver in its support of shared interests (e.g. Iranian nukes), the risk is that Israel will gravitate toward China’s orbit — not Russia’s.

    • #8
    • May 21, 2014, at 10:50 AM PDT
    • Like
  9. Son of Spengler Contributor

    Salvatore Padula:

    That’s true, though Israel and the USSR had a bit of a falling out when the Soviets decided to back Nasser and pan-Arab nationalism as a tool against the West.

    Israel fought three hot Cold War battles (1956, 1967, 1973) against Soviet proxy forces, without asking the US to put any boots on the ground. Then Israel gave the US an opportunity — which it skillfully exploited in 1978 — to turn Egypt from a Soviet client to a US ally. (Ditto for bringing Jordan into the US orbit in the early 1990s.)

    However, although history is important because it creates a reservoir of trust, it is not history but present-day strategic interests that matter. If the US decides that the War on Terror is over, and that a regional balance of power is more in US interests, the Israel will be less of a strategic asset to the US than Iran will. I think there’s a huge value in being able to pick up the phone and ask a favor when the next crisis hits. The president can do that with Israel as he can with few, if any, other countries.

    • #9
    • May 21, 2014, at 11:02 AM PDT
    • Like
  10. Salvatore Padula Inactive
    Salvatore Padula

    Son of Spengler: However, although history is important because it creates a reservoir of trust, it is not history but present-day strategic interests that matter. If the US decides that the War on Terror is over, and that a regional balance of power is more in US interests, the Israel will be less of a strategic asset to the US than Iran will. I think there’s a huge value in being able to pick up the phone and ask a favor when the next crisis hits. The president can do that with Israel as he can with few, if any, other countries.

     That’s a good point.

    • #10
    • May 21, 2014, at 11:10 AM PDT
    • Like
  11. Roberto, Crusty Old Timer LLC Member
    Roberto, Crusty Old Timer LLCJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Son of Spengler:

    If the US decides that the War on Terror is over, and that a regional balance of power is more in US interests, the Israel will be less of a strategic asset to the US than Iran will.

    This strikes me as precisely the current US State Department position. It appears dangerously foolish to myself, but we clearly seem to be pursuing a strategy where the threat from Islamists is regarded as trivial or completely past and it is now suitable for Israel to be abandoned in favor of an accommodation with Iran.

    So in answer to Padula’s question I would have to respond with another: Do you regard Islamists in the Middle East to be an ongoing threat to US interests? If so there is significant strategic value to having Israel as an ally, if not the value strongly diminishes as mutual enemies are a great part of what binds the two nations.

    • #11
    • May 21, 2014, at 11:24 AM PDT
    • Like
  12. Jason Rudert Member

    Because they can do our dirty work? Like when they bombed Osirak? Also, their intelligence-gathering ability, which we’ll probably never be able to replicate. Other than that, yes, it’s mostly sentiment.

    • #12
    • May 21, 2014, at 11:49 AM PDT
    • Like
  13. Salvatore Padula Inactive
    Salvatore Padula

    Son of Spengler: Israel fought three hot Cold War battles (1956, 1967, 1973) against Soviet proxy forces, without asking the US to put any boots on the ground.

     The United States opposed Israel’s actions in ’56. I agree that the Arabs were backed by the Soviets, but their objectives in ’67 and ’73 were not dictated by the Soviet Union. They were motivated by Arab antipathy to Israel. Those were wars for Israel’s survival and I’m certainly glad that Israel prevailed, but Israel wasn’t defending us, it was defending itself.

    • #13
    • May 21, 2014, at 12:04 PM PDT
    • Like
  14. Son of Spengler Contributor

    Salvatore Padula:

    Son of Spengler: Israel fought three hot Cold War battles (1956, 1967, 1973) against Soviet proxy forces, without asking the US to put any boots on the ground.

    I agree that the Arabs were backed by the Soviets, but their objectives in ’67 and ’73 were not dictated by the Soviet Union. They were motivated by Arab antipathy to Israel. Those were wars for Israel’s survival and I’m certainly glad that Israel prevailed, but Israel wasn’t defending us, it was defending itself.

    The same could be said in the cases of Korea, Vietnam, Nicaragua, El Salvador, etc. The USSR (and China) did not dictate the actions of the socialist side; and the anti-totalitarian side fought for themselves, not for the US. But it was in our interest to contain the spread of communist influence across the globe. Israel was our ally in that corner of the map.

    • #14
    • May 21, 2014, at 12:13 PM PDT
    • Like
  15. Tom Meyer, Common Citizen Contributor

    Salvatore Padula: I can see how that would justify having friendly relations with Israel, but does it explain why it is in our strategic interest for our relationship to be a close as it is?

    What countries would you say meet that standard and why?

    BTW, this is a very interesting, throughtful thread; kudos to Sal for starting it.

    • #15
    • May 21, 2014, at 12:22 PM PDT
    • Like
  16. Salvatore Padula Inactive
    Salvatore Padula

    Roberto: Do you regard Islamists in the Middle East to be an ongoing threat to US interests? If so there is significant strategic value to having Israel as an ally, if not the value strongly diminishes as mutual enemies are a great part of what binds the two nations.

     I do consider Islamists in the Middle East a threat to American interests, though perhaps not to the degree many here do. I’m much more concerned about China and Russia. Countries which Israel (being a rational actor and cognizant of the shift in power) is becoming increasingly friendly with. In my view, the biggest Middle Eastern threat is Iran, and, while I agree that our interests relative to Iran are closely aligned with Israel’s, the same is true of the interests of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the Gulf States. Frankly, I’m not optimistic about the possibility of stopping Iran from becoming a nuclear power and a regional hegemon. We seem to lack the resolve to do anything and Israel probably doesn’t have the capacity at this point to conduct an operation along the lines of Osirak.

    • #16
    • May 21, 2014, at 12:30 PM PDT
    • Like
  17. Salvatore Padula Inactive
    Salvatore Padula

    Tom Meyer:

    What countries would you say meet that standard and why?

     I would say that the standard is either countries which have demonstrated a capacity and willingness to take part in our various foreign wars, notably Britain, Canada, and Australia, or countries which can be used to counterbalance significant regional opponents such as Japan is able to do with China.

    Israel, through no fault of its own, really isn’t in a position to assist us in our foreign expeditions despite the fact that it possesses a formidable military. As to providing a balance against an unfriendly regional power, I think the argument in Israel’s favor was stronger when Egypt was a hostile country. Since Sadat kicked the Russians out Egypt has been a basically friendly power (the brief rule of the Muslim Brotherhood being the exception). As far as Iran is concerned, I’m not sure how useful Israel is from our perspective and in any case, even if we were not as close as we are to Israel it’s not like Israel is likely to come to an accommodation with the ayatollahs.

    • #17
    • May 21, 2014, at 12:44 PM PDT
    • Like
  18. Salvatore Padula Inactive
    Salvatore Padula

    Tom Meyer: BTW, this is a very interesting, throughtful thread; kudos to Sal for starting it.

     Thanks.

    • #18
    • May 21, 2014, at 12:46 PM PDT
    • Like
  19. Valiuth Member
    ValiuthJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I don’t know America has working relationships with many Arab governments with respect to anti-jihadist operations. While our fleet docks in Hifa it could as easily dock in Cyprus under Turkish auspices or Crete under the Greeks. Currently we also keep one of our fleets in the UAE, and we have military bases in Kuwait (which is far more centrally located for our purposes.

    While Israel did undertake operations that benefited us those same operations were far more in their interest than they were in ours. So it isn’t that clear that they do our dirty work so much as they do their own which over laps with ours. 

    I think sentimentality accounts for the majority of our support, and I think Israel gains far more from the relationship than we do. At least from what I can see. It is possible that their benefit as an intelligence asset is great but that isn’t easily verified. Mind you none of this should be taken as any kind of reprimand. I think basically all US allies gain far more from being our friend than we gain from any one of them specifically. 

    • #19
    • May 21, 2014, at 1:33 PM PDT
    • Like
  20. Salvatore Padula Inactive
    Salvatore Padula

    Valiuth:

    I don’t know America has working relationships with many Arab governments with respect to anti-jihadist operations. While our fleet docks in Hifa it could as easily dock in Cyprus under Turkish auspices or Crete under the Greeks. Currently we also keep one of our fleets in the UAE, and we have military bases in Kuwait (which is far more centrally located for our purposes.

    While Israel did undertake operations that benefited us those same operations were far more in their interest than they were in ours. So it isn’t that clear that they do our dirty work so much as they do their own which over laps with ours.

    I think sentimentality accounts for the majority of our support, and I think Israel gains far more from the relationship than we do. At least from what I can see. It is possible that their benefit as an intelligence asset is great but that isn’t easily verified. Mind you none of this should be taken as any kind of reprimand. I think basically all US allies gain far more from being our friend than we gain from any one of them specifically.

    That’s my view.

    • #20
    • May 21, 2014, at 1:42 PM PDT
    • Like
  21. David Williamson Inactive

    Easy peasy – America is the Great Satan and Israel is the little satan.

    • #21
    • May 21, 2014, at 1:54 PM PDT
    • Like
  22. iWe Reagan
    iWeJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Islamic terrorism (state-aided in many cases) is a real threat.

    For better or worse, Israel is the front line against Islamism. If Israel were not there, radical muslims would turn their attention increasingly toward the US.

    The other argument is that the technological links between Israel and the US (Intel, Google, medicine, etc.) are extremely important to the US, and so Israel has become a critical technology trading partner, perhaps one of the most important (in terms of pure IP) in the world. And FAR more important than all the Arab countries combined, especially as we now know that there is practically infinite natural energy sources outside the Middle East.

    • #22
    • May 21, 2014, at 2:28 PM PDT
    • Like
  23. Salvatore Padula Inactive
    Salvatore Padula

    iWc: Islamic terrorism (state-aided in many cases) is a real threat. For better or worse, Israel is the front line against Islamism. If Israel were not there, radical muslims would turn their attention increasingly toward the US.

     I agree that Islamic terrorism is a threat, but I do wonder how much Israel diverts terrorism which would otherwise be directed against the United States. I’ve no doubt that some is, but it seems unlikely that the majority of the terrorist effort directed against Israel would be shifted toward the US. As we’ve recently been shown, Iraq and Syria have been much more convenient. In any case, the question of what would happen were Israel not there is beside the point. It is there and it will be the focus of much Islamic terrorism regardless of our relationship with it.

    • #23
    • May 21, 2014, at 2:59 PM PDT
    • Like
  24. Salvatore Padula Inactive
    Salvatore Padula

    iWc: The other argument is that the technological links between Israel and the US (Intel, Google, medicine, etc.) are extremely important to the US, and so Israel has become a critical technology trading partner, perhaps one of the most important (in terms of pure IP) in the world. And FAR more important than all the Arab countries combined, especially as we now know that there is practically infinite natural energy sources outside the Middle East.

     I agree that Israel is a very important trading partner when it comes to technology, but that does raise the question of why such a technologically dynamic country receives a $3 billion in aid from the United States annually. I know that that isn’t a huge amount of money when compared to US expenditures, but it isn’t chump change. $3 billion is enough to keep our A-10 fleet flying for another decade. I’m open to the argument that we get more value for money by giving it to Israel than we would using it ourselves, but it is far from clear that that is the case.

    • #24
    • May 21, 2014, at 3:08 PM PDT
    • Like
  25. True Blue Inactive

    Salvatore: You say above that Israel and Russia didn’t get along in the Cold War very well. This is extremely misleading. Israel played off both sides in the Cold War regularly. In fact, one of their spies, Jonathan Pollard, stole secrets from America and sold them to Israel. Israel then horse-traded them to the Soviets for military technology. This idea that Israel has historically been one of America’s greatest allies is a lie.

    • #25
    • May 21, 2014, at 4:00 PM PDT
    • Like
  26. True Blue Inactive

    Now, perhaps a tactical alliance with Israel today is in America’s best interest. However, this is far from obvious (as you point out). We should feel no moral obligation whatsoever to defend Israel. We do not owe them.

    We ought not to wish them ill. But we need to look at this relationship in terms of cold, hard costs and benefits. We did not fight with the Israelis in Normandy or Vietnam. We should save the “greatest ally” talk for when we really ought to mean it.

    • #26
    • May 21, 2014, at 4:04 PM PDT
    • Like
  27. Son of Spengler Contributor

    True Blue: In fact, one of their spies, Jonathan Pollard, stole secrets from America and sold them to Israel. Israel then horse-traded them to the Soviets for military technology.

    I’ve seen accusations that Israel compromised CIA assets by acting on Pollard’s information to thwart terror plots, but I’ve never seen that horse-trading accusation before. What Soviet military technology does Israel use? That one just doesn’t pass the smell test. Would Israel expose itself that way for a one-time gain in questionable Soviet materiel?

    (And there’s room for at least a little skepticism regarding Pollard’s exposure of CIA assets, since Pollard was convicted before the exposure of Ames and Hanssen, two agents who were known to be providing the Soviets with intelligence at that time. But that’s been the US government’s explanation, and I’m prepared to accept it for the sake of this discussion.)

    • #27
    • May 21, 2014, at 4:18 PM PDT
    • Like
  28. Petty Boozswha Inactive

    I think these comments illustrate your point completely, Sal. The Israel supporters are sputtering because… because… with nothing to follow through with. Israel is a bottomless pit of foreign aid and military commitment that a rational superpower would reign in; we should wish them well, but as long as they are besmirching our reputation by using our foreign aid to colonize the West Bank we should practice a tougher brand of realpolitik.

    • #28
    • May 21, 2014, at 4:22 PM PDT
    • Like
  29. iWe Reagan
    iWeJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I agree entirely that Israel should NOT be receiving US foreign aid.

    That said, Petty and True Blue cross the line. Israel allows its citizens to BUILD HOUSES. This is not a crime. And it is not being done with US Foreign Aid (which is mostly used to buy hardware from US defense companies). 

    And Israel clearly *has* been a great ally by any metric one would care to name. Pollard? feh. Every country spies on every other.

    • #29
    • May 21, 2014, at 4:34 PM PDT
    • Like
  30. Son of Spengler Contributor

    Valiuth

    I don’t know America has working relationships with many Arab governments with respect to anti-jihadist operations. While our fleet docks in Hifa it could as easily dock in Cyprus under Turkish auspices or Crete under the Greeks.

    Would that be the same Turkey that is a NATO ally, yet wouldn’t let Bush use their territory to enforce UN Security Council resolutions against Iraq in 2003? The same Turkey that has routinely broken promises to Obama? I think Israel offers the US much more than Turkey does as an ally, yet no one asks whether Turkey is an ally for sentimental reasons.

    While Israel did undertake operations that benefited us those same operations were far more in their interest than they were in ours. So it isn’t that clear that they do our dirty work so much as they do their own which over laps with ours.

    Can’t the same be said of, e.g., Australia’s anti-piracy efforts? But again, no one asks whether Australia is our ally for sentimental reasons. I thought that’s what allies are — countries whose substantially overlapping interests and efforts lead to cooperation in most diplomatic and military spheres.

    • #30
    • May 21, 2014, at 4:36 PM PDT
    • Like

Comments are closed because this post is more than six months old. Please write a new post if you would like to continue this conversation.