Home inFocus Alliances: American Interests in a Changing World (Fall 2016) Protecting Israel’s Borders, and America’s

Protecting Israel’s Borders, and America’s

Ambassador Danny Ayalon Fall 2016
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing a joint session of Congress in 2015. (Photo: U.S. House of Representatives)

Throughout this year, Israel has been negotiating a new ten-year defense Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the United States, its strongest and most reliable military ally. In our day and age, with terrorism and militant Islam on the rise, particularly coming from both ISIS and Iran, it is now more important than ever for Israel to have a strong and reliable military ally. However, this ally was not always the United States. In 1948, Israel fought and won its War of Independence by using weapons made in Czechoslovakia. In 1967, Israel fought and won the Six–Day War with weapons from France. But alas, Israel’s military alliances with Czechoslovakia and with France both proved to be short lived, breaking up over several political disputes. That having been the case, Israel then chose to form a long-term military relationship with the United States of America, which to the benefit of both countries, has continued to this very day.

The U.S.-Israel Relationship

It is only natural for Israel to maintain its major strategic alliance with the United States, rather than with other superpowers such as Russia or China. This is because Israel shares more in common with the United States than it does with any other major player in the international arena. For instance, Israel and the United States are both democracies that protect basic freedoms and rights for all our citizens, and are both at the forefront of leading the war on terror. There is no other superpower that lives by these principles besides the United States. It would therefore not be in Israel’s national security interest to sign a ten-year defense agreement with any country except the United States, as no other superpower shares these values.

Our History

In order to fully understand the significance of the new Memorandum of Understanding, one must first examine the history behind this bilateral strategic alliance. Israel’s military relationship with the United States began in the early 1960s under the leadership of American President John F. Kennedy. President Kennedy ended the arms embargo that the administrations of Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower had enforced against Israel. In doing so, he strengthened Israel’s military by selling it advanced Hawk air defense missiles as part of an agreement he signed with then-Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion.

In 1968, one year after the Six–Day War, President Lyndon Johnson realized that many of the Arab states had permanently drifted toward the influence of the Soviet Union, America’s top enemy in the Cold War, which at the time had been ongoing for two decades. President Johnson was also aware that Israel was capable of using advanced weaponry, given the IDF’s strong showing in the Six–Day War in which it captured Judea and Samaria from Jordan, the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, and the Golan Heights from Syria. Given Israel’s decisive victory, President Johnson, together with the approval of the U.S. Congress, decided to establish precedent for maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge over its Arab neighbors. The Johnson administration sold F-4 Phantom fighters to Israel, and by doing so, countered all Soviet arms sales in the region.

But perhaps the most game-changing time for the military alliance between our two countries was during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. This was the first time that the United States had actually given military assistance to Israel, rather than just selling or loaning it. Upon learning that Egypt and Syria had launched a surprise military attack against Israel as it celebrated the  most solemn day of the Jewish year, President Richard Nixon authorized an overt strategic operation to be known as Operation Nickel Grass. In this mission, the United States shipped over 22,000 tons of tanks, artillery, ammunition, and supplies to Israel, all in a period of thirty-two days.

The Reagan Administration

In October of 1981, the strategic relationship between Israel and the United States reached another milestone when President Ronald Reagan and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed the first ten-year Memorandum of Understanding between our two nations. This agreement would guarantee Israel to receive a certain amount of military assistance from the United States for long-term usage, rather than short-term. In addition, it was agreed upon that seventy-five percent of the security assistance Israel receives would be spent back in the United States on American weapons. This was designed to help benefit the American economy, making aid to Israel not just assistance, but rather an investment.

Ending Economic Assistance

For nearly fifteen years, the Memorandum of Understanding included not just military assistance to Israel, but also social and economic assistance. The social and economic assistance to Israel was ended in the late 1990s when I served as the foreign policy advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his first term. Prime Minister Netanyahu declared in his first address to the U.S. Congress in July of 1996 that “Israel has reached childhood’s end, that it has matured enough to begin approaching a state of self-reliance.” In that same speech, Prime Minister Netanyahu went on to announce that he would “begin the long-term process of gradually reducing the level” of American economic assistance to Israel.

Indeed, by the time Prime Minister Netanyahu left the office in July of 1999, American social and economic aid to Israel had ceased, but the military aid continued. Prime Minister Netanyahu had mentioned to me several times that one of the greatest benefits of achieving economic independence from the United States was that we could now designate the entire MOU assistance for what we needed it the most, which according to Netanyahu, was defense and security. Indeed since then and up until this very day, every round of negotiations regarding a ten-year memorandum of understanding between Israel and the United States has focused on assistance in the areas of defense and security only.

Meeting the Current Threat: The Iran Deal

Under the most recent Memorandum of Understanding, which was agreed to in August of 2007 by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President George W. Bush, Israel receives S3.1 billion annually in military assistance from the United States. In addition, the U.S. Congress is permitted to authorize plus-ups – additional funds not in the President’s request to Congress – to this amount as needed, such as allocations for anti-missile defense systems like Iron Dome, David’s Sling, and Arrow. This Memorandum of Understanding, which expires at the end of next year, is expected to be succeeded by an increased amount in response to the increased threats to Israel over the past decade.

In July of 2015, the P5+1 (the five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council – the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, the Russian Federation – plus Germany) and the Islamic Republic of Iran agreed to a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which became more commonly known as “the Iran deal.” The parameters of the deal are catastrophic, particularly in that Iran would be allowed to receive billions of dollars in sanctions relief without fully dismantling its nuclear program. Shortly afterward, President Barack Obama asked Prime Minister Netanyahu not to lobby the United States Congress against the Iran deal. President Obama told the prime minister that if he were to comply with this request, the United States would begin the Memorandum of Understanding negotiations immediately and promised to give Israel everything it needed as part of the next major defense package.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, however, decided to forgo the negotiations for the time being and decided to move forward with full force in his attempt to stop the Iran deal. Unfortunately, these efforts did not succeed, and the Iran deal went into effect. More importantly, because Israel lobbied Congress against the Iran deal rather than accepting President Obama’s offer, it is now eminently clear that President Obama will not give Israel everything it has requested in the next agreement, and that what Israel receives will be far less generous than the original proposal before the fight over the Iran deal.

It would be wrong for President Obama to back away from his original proposal regarding the amount of funds to be specified for the next Memorandum of Understanding. To do so would be tantamount to taking revenge on Israel for opposing the Iran deal. President Obama might sincerely believe that he has halted Iran’s nuclear program, but he knows well that the Iranian nuclear issue is just the tip of the iceberg. Israel is on the front lines in the war against Iran, ISIS, and all the radical forces of militant Islam. When fighting against these threats, Israel is not just protecting its own borders; it helps prevent these threats from reaching America’s borders. It is therefore in the national security interest of the United States to strengthen Israel’s ability to fight these aggressions by providing Israel with every single mechanism it needs in the next ten-year defense Memorandum  of Understanding.

To fall short on security assistance to Israel would be to fall short on security protection for America. This is a risk that the United States cannot and should not take. I sincerely hope that the negotiations over the Memorandum of Understanding will be concluded shortly. The more of its request Israel receives, the safer America becomes. I hope the White House understands this and pray that it will act on it. There is simply no better method of investing in America’s security during what may turn out to be a very challenging period in the years to come.

Danny Ayalon served as Israel’s ambassador to the United States and is currently the president of Hod Ayalon LTD, an Israel-based consulting firm.