Home inFocus Sustaining the Pillars of the U.S.-Israel Relationship

Sustaining the Pillars of the U.S.-Israel Relationship

Peter J. Roskam Spring 2013

In May 2011, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a most moving and memorable speech in the House chamber. One passage in particular resonated with me: “Israel has no better friend than America. And America has no better friend than Israel. We stand together to defend democracy. We stand together to advance peace. We stand together to fight terrorism.” This may be the case today, but there is no guarantee it will be true tomorrow. If there comes a day when the United States no longer views Israel as a strategic partner, the relationship may fall apart. My fear is not that Israel will abandon the United States, but that the United States will abandon Israel.

The U.S.-Israel relationship has been strained at times. President Eisenhower threatened to cut $100 million in foreign aid if Israel failed to fully comply with a U.N. resolution to withdraw completely from the Sinai. The Johnson Administration denied Israel’s request to aid its preemptive strike on Egypt in June 1967 and remained neutral in the Six Day War. And recent feuding between the Obama Administration and the Israeli government over the peace process and Iran’s nuclear program has been unhealthy to say the least.

While the alliance is strong today, some Americans view the relationship as a one-way street rather than a mutually beneficial partnership. Israel is not just a cause worth defending, but a partnership we must fight to preserve. To be sure, Israel has benefited immensely from its relationship with the United States. American economic, military, and diplomatic support has been essential to Israel’s prosperity and security. But America has also benefited. Military and intelligence cooperation, Israel’s commitment to nuclear non-proliferation, and strong economic ties have paid immeasurable dividends for the United States. Pro-Israel Americans must continue to highlight Israel’s role as a strategic asset to the United States, or risk the erosion of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Military & Intelligence Cooperation

U.S.-Israel military and intelligence cooperation has been the cornerstone of America’s foreign policy in the Middle East for decades. Joint U.S.-Israel security collaboration dates back to the Cold War, in which Israeli intelligence on the Soviet Union was critical to America’s ability to combat the spread of communism. The United States and Israel have worked together ever since to pursue mutual national security interests in the region.

Foreign aid is the most tangible and critical component of U.S. support for Israel—it is also the most commonly misunderstood. A 2011 Gallup poll showed that 59 percent of Americans support making budget cuts to foreign aid to balance the budget. A separate poll shows that the average American believes foreign aid comprises 25 percent of the annual federal budget and thinks 10 percent would be an appropriate percentage. But this perception is far from reality. Total foreign aid spending comprises approximately 1 percent of the federal government’s annual budget. A fraction of this 1 percent is allocated to Israel, 75 percent of which is required to be spent purchasing U.S. military equipment. Nearly all of the remaining funds are used to purchase Israeli-made military goods.

Israel’s security concerns are unparalleled. Israel faces Hezbollah to the north, Hamas to the southwest, Iran to the east, Syria to the northeast, and the Muslim Brotherhood to the south—all of whom desire Israel’s destruction. These security concerns are very real and defending them very costly. A Central Bureau of Statistics report revealed that defense spending comprised nearly a fifth of Israel’s budget in 2009. At 6.5 percent, Israel’s defense spending to gross domestic product ratio ranks amongst the highest in the industrialized world. Our foreign aid is not a gift, but an investment that enables Israel to maintain a military more advanced and capable than its enemies—known as a qualitative military edge (QME). And in turn, Israel’s QME serves the direct national security interest of the United States.

As the world’s de facto counterinsurgency expert, Israel is an essential resource for U.S. counterterrorism efforts not only in the Middle East, but North Africa, Asia, and as close to home as Mexico. Regular joint military exercises integrate U.S.-Israel defense capabilities, and U.S. and Israeli troops frequently train side-by-side to learn each other’s battlefield techniques. A three-week drill this past October, which included 4,500 combined troops, marked the largest joint exercise to date between the two militaries. Last summer, the New York Police Department (NYPD) opened a branch in Israel’s Sharon District Police headquarters in Kfar Saba to enhance its counterterrorist operations.

This working partnership has been critical in combating common enemies. Iranian proxies Hezbollah and Hamas have murdered hundreds of Americans and are designated terrorist organizations by the United States and Israel. For example, Hezbollah killed 241 U.S. personnel in the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut and 19 servicemembers in the 1996 Khobar Tower bombings.

While Hamas suicide bombings within Israel have killed dozens of American citizens, Hezbollah has increased its activities beyond its Lebanese base, including coordinating with some of the most dangerous Mexican cartels. And Hezbollah was recently found guilty of killing dozens of Israeli terrorists in a bus bombing in Bulgaria—renewing the need to urge the European Union (EU) to finally designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. The days in which our enemies wear uniforms clearly identifying their affiliation are long gone. But Israel is on the front lines, and its intelligence is invaluable to the United States.

Imagine sitting at your desk at work or school when a siren sounds. You have 15 seconds to find shelter before a rocket strikes. Most of us cannot even fathom such a scenario. Nobody should have to live under these circumstances. Yet this is the reality I encountered while visiting families living in Sderot along the Gaza border, which has endured thousands of Hamas rockets over the years. But now the people of Sderot can sleep a little easier every night thanks to the anti-missile defense system Iron Dome.

Iron Dome was transformed from an idea to an operational, life-saving device in just five years. This is testament to close U.S.-Israeli military cooperation and U.S. financing. Arrow 3 and David’s Sling, similar systems designed to intercept medium and long-range rockets, are expected to be deployed within a matter of years. Iron Dome has intercepted hundreds of Hamas’ rockets from Gaza with an estimated 90 percent success rate since its deployment in 2011. It has rendered Hamas’ weapon of choice—deadly short-range rockets—nearly obsolete. And the Israeli government will match our development dollar-for-dollar once the United States begins co-producing the system.

Three of the last American casualties from the Iraq War were troops killed by a rocket from a Hezbollah-affiliate. If they had been protected by Iron Dome they would still be alive today. This joint venture offers an unprecedented return on investment—one only possible with Israel.

Nuclear Non-Proliferation

No country has a greater stake in preventing a nuclearized Middle East than Israel. For years, Israel has stood as a pillar of prevention against malicious nuclear programs in the Middle East. In 1981, the Israeli Air Force conducted a successful, preemptive strike on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor. One can only imagine a world in which Saddam Hussein possessed nuclear weapons. Israel’s bold actions spared countless lives and prevented U.S. troops from facing a nuclear-armed Iraq in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and recent Iraq War.

In just the last two years, the Syrian Civil War has resulted in 70,000 deaths and millions of refugees. Like its puppeteer Iran, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime funds and supplies proxies Hezbollah, Hamas, and other terrorist cells. And while there is grave concern over Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile—one of the world’s largest—Syria does not have a nuclear weapon thanks to Israel. Israel did the world a profound favor in bombing Syria’s North Korea-backed al-Kibar nuclear reactor in 2007. Few in the international community believed Syria had a nuclear reactor, but Israel was confident in its intelligence. When the United States refused to act, Israel took unilateral action and spared the world a nuclear Syria.

Iran’s race for nuclear weapons must be stopped at all costs. Israel and the United States must face this threat head on and in lockstep with one another. A nuclear Iran would trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, as countries including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt would in time pursue nuclear weapons of their own. Iranian long-range ballistic missiles can reach India, North Africa, western China and parts of Eastern Europe. Dozens of facilities and thousands of American troops and civilians would be in danger. Experts say that it could be less than a decade before Iran’s missiles can reach the East Coast of the United States.

And there is always the threat that nuclear weapons could also end up in the hands of Hezbollah, Hamas or other Iranian terrorist proxies. Hezbollah’s missile arsenal is estimated at 70,000 rockets—including long-range missiles. Hamas also has a deadly stockpile of at least 10,000 rockets, including powerful Iranian Fajr-5 missiles.

But my concern remains a nuclear Trojan Horse delivery system. These are cheaper to develop, easier to deploy, and harder to detect. A nuclear device arriving in Baltimore Harbor by container ship or in a briefcase would make the devastation of 9/11 pale in comparison. Iran is not a rational actor. We cannot afford to risk the endless terror that would come with a nuclear-armed Iran.

Economic Cooperation

Israel may represent the best return on investment of U.S. foreign aid dollars we’ve spent as a nation. Our first Free Trade Agreement was established with Israel in 1985, which fueled the explosive growth of U.S. exports to Israel from $2.5 billion in 1985 to over $14 billion in 2011. Total U.S.-Israel bilateral trade has skyrocketed over 350 percent over the past twenty years to $37 billion in 2011, making Israel the 24th largest importer of U.S. goods in the world. With a population of just under eight million people—or 3 percent of the Middle East’s population—Israel comprises a quarter of U.S. exports to the region. And in 2009, Israel provided $7 billion in direct investments in the United States. Very few recipients of U.S. foreign aid have been able to turn around and invest in our economy. As a result, the United States has been able to phase out nearly all economic aid to Israel.

In 1950, much of Israel’s population had fled persecution in post-war Europe or the Arab States. They arrived on Israel’s shores with little more than they could carry. A wave of more than one million immigrants arrived in the 1990s from the post-collapse USSR. In 2013, the country developed by those impoverished immigrants is expected to raise more than $600 million in venture capital funding through some 70 firms. And over 120 Israeli companies trade on U.S. stock exchanges.

Israel’s role as a high-volume trade partner with the United States comes as no surprise. Israel is a world leader in high-tech startups, scientific research and development (R&D), green technology, biomedical engineering, and agriculture to name a few. Apple opened its first R&D facility outside of California in Herzliya, Israel last year and has since added two more development centers—in Haifa and Ra’anana. Google, Intel, Microsoft, IBM, HP, Dell, AT&T, Motorola, Yahoo, and other high-tech companies also have hubs in Israel.

Drip irrigation, USB flash drives, AOL Instant Messenger, the revolutionary Multiple Sclerosis drug Copaxone, and the industry standard PillCam for intestinal visualization were all developed in Israel. American companies flock to Israel to take advantage of its highly educated and productive society, which many deem the next Silicon Valley.

Maintaining a Strong U.S.-Israel Relationship

Support for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship should be commonsense. While the partnership is strong today, the future of the historic alliance hangs in the balance. We have a moral responsibility and a practical necessity to maintain it. Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, the fate of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, new unstable governments, and the prevalence of Islamic extremism will put America’s partnership with Israel to the test. We cannot be complacent. We cannot be apathetic. We cannot take anything for granted.

So we must remain vigilant at a time when foreign aid is widely misunderstood and pressure to cut spending is immense. Those who care about the alliance must be vocal and active in their support. Israel is not a “client” that needs protection; it is not a “drain” on American resources. Israel has been a reliable—indeed indispensable—partner in providing intelligence, tactics, equipment, and understanding that enhance the security of the West. Maintaining the viability of the longstanding partnership is the best way to ensure that America will always have no better friend than Israel, and that Israel will always have no better friend than America.

Congressman Peter J. Roskam (R-IL) represents the Sixth District of Illinois. He serves as Chief Deputy Majority Whip and co-chair of the House Republican Israel Caucus.