By Adam Lammon, Programs Assistant
In the late spring, the United States and Israel signed an agreement to exchange cadets between the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis and the University of Haifa, broadening a military relationship which has endured for more than six decades. As reported by The Jerusalem Post, the American cadets will spend several months in 2018 training alongside Israeli students in Israel’s demanding Naval Officers Course and participating in language and cultural immersion programs. This cadet exchange program follows a long history of joint exercises and training opportunities such the multilateral “Blue Flag” exercise between the air forces of the United States, Poland, Italy, Greece, India, France, Germany, and Israel. This exercise occurred at the beginning of November 2017 and was the largest international aviation exercise that the Israeli Air Force has ever hosted.
Although these programs bolster the broader American-Israeli relationship – which Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis recently praised as the “cornerstone of a larger regional security architecture” – the alliance was not always as robust as it is today. As Israeli professor Dr. Ephraim Kahana has detailed, the Cold War aligned American and Israeli interests and caused their cooperation to blossom from its tepid beginnings. In the early-1950s, the Israeli Mossad had been trying to entice greater cooperation from its American counterpart, the CIA, by offering intelligence on the USSR that it was receiving from Soviet Jews emigrating to Israel. Despite the fact that that this information was invaluable for American spies operating in Eastern Europe, it was insufficient to overcome the CIA’s instinctive unease towards establishing ties to a foreign intelligence agency. However, this changed in 1956 after Mossad gave an exceedingly furtive document to the CIA – Soviet General Secretary Nikita Khruschev’s speech to the 20th Soviet Communist Party Congress – which revealed the horrors of Stalinist rule and gave the CIA an immense propaganda victory. This overture laid the foundation for today’s intelligence relationship, which capitalizes on each partner’s comparative advantages in regional intelligence collection – Israeli’s human intelligence assets and the U.S.’ sophisticated signals collection capabilities.
The rise of American-Israeli intelligence cooperation then supported a concurrent growth in bilateral military ties. In 2014, retired U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Blain D. Holt observed in American Foreign Policy Interests that U.S. military support for Jerusalem ballooned in the 1960s following President John F. Kennedy’s belief that a well-resourced Israel would support Middle Eastern stability. Kennedy’s policy set the stage for Lyndon B. Johnson’s subsequent decision to develop an Israeli “Qualitative Military Edge” (QME) over its Soviet-backed Arab neighbors through the provision of offensive arms.
Continually endorsed with bipartisan support, this QME strategy has been frequently strengthened by American-Israeli political commitments. For instance, as Holt recounts, after the Camp David Accords were endorsed in 1978, Washington and Jerusalem signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in 1981 which launched joint military exercises and collaborative defense research projects. That MOU was succeeded by two more in 1983 and 1987, institutionalizing routine intelligence sharing, establishing two joint political-military working groups, and permitting Israel to purchase advanced weapons from the U.S. by codifying it as a non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally.
In addition to creating political ties, these memorandums (of which there are many more) are most renowned for the financial investment that they represent in Israeli security. U.S. Foreign Military Financing (FMF) to Israel, which now exceeds a total subsidy of $70 billion since 1949, is the most salient measure of American support and directly advances bilateral programs such as chemical and biological weapon defense, missile defense, and tunnel detecting and mapping technologies. In 2016, President Barack Obama signed the U.S.’ most recent MOU with Israel, allocating $3.8 billion in annual FMF to Jerusalem for the next decade. The biggest change in this MOU is how it affects Israel’s ability to spend American FMF on indigenous Israeli products—a program known as Off-Shore Procurement. Previously, Israel could spend up to 26.3% of American FMF on products made in Israel, but since the Israeli defense industry has become self-sufficient and is now a competitor to U.S. companies, this policy will start being phased out in 2024.
With so many domestic programs in need of funds, some Americans are probably wondering why the U.S. should continue to support Israel. Yet last year Yair Lapid appropriately argued in Foreign Policy that Israel delivers priceless services for the U.S. by acting as a forward operating base, intelligence partner, research hub, and technological testing ground. Without Israel, the U.S. would lose its radar facility in Dimona and the ability to store military materiel throughout the country. Without Israel, the U.S. would also need to station more troops in the region for missions in places like Syria. Likewise, Israel supports American jobs by spending much of its awarded FMF on American defense contractors and then later tests their products in operations against groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. For example, Vice Admiral James Syring, Director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, previously testified that the American military has benefited from Israel’s deployment of the “David’s Sling” interceptor, a joint American-Israeli project. Further, due to its location, Israel has cultivated expertise in countering violent extremism (CVE), which supports American efforts across the Middle East and Northern Africa.
The modern American-Israeli partnership is the result of decades of joint operations, collaboration, and conviction. Since the U.S. became the first country to offer de facto recognition to Israel on May 14, 1948, the two countries have built upon a common commitment to democracy, rule of law, religious freedom, and pluralism. Their bond, now nearly seventy years old, has constructed a strategic relationship which not only serves both nations’ interests, but is coveted by nations around the world.
Volume 71. Number 4. Winter 2017