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U.S.-Israel: A Common Understanding

Shoshana Bryen
Former U.S. Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, talks with IDF soldiers in Israel on Oct 30, 2012. (Photo: Pentagon)

Notes from a speech given by Shoshana Bryen at the American Zionist Movement Conference November 2017, Washington, DC

This panel is supposed to talk about Israel in Washington – I’m going to stretch the boundaries a little and talk about Israel in Virginia. In the Pentagon, to be precise. One of the few points of – I think -unbounded bipartisan agreement in Washington is that US-Israel security cooperation is right, good, mutually beneficial and worth every nickel we spend on it.

But I’m not sure we always understand why that’s true. And this is the Zionist part. In a recent speech, Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks talked about the Jewish people’s demand of the prophet Samuel to have a King. God told Samuel to explain what having a king would mean, and if the Israelites still wanted one, to give them one.

Rabbi Sacks explained:

What happened in the days of the Prophet Samuel is a social contract, exactly on the lines set out by Thomas Hobbes in “The Leviathan.” People are willing to give up certain of their rights, transfer them to a central power, a king, a government, who undertakes to ensure the rule of law internally and the defense of the realm externally.

In fact, One Samuel, Chapter Eight is the first recorded instance in all of history of a social contract.

But what makes the Hebrew Bible unique… and makes it completely different from Hobbes and Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau is that this wasn’t the first founding moment of Israel as a nation, as a political entity. That took place at Mount Sinai when the people made with God not a contract but a covenant. And those two things are often confused, but actually they’re quite different.

In a contract, two or more people come together to make an exchange… which is to the benefit of the self-interest of each.

A covenant isn’t like that. It’s more like a marriage than an exchange… A covenant isn’t about me, the voter, or me, the consumer, but about all of us together. Or in that lovely key phrase of American politics, it’s about “We, the people.”

Biblical Israel had a society long before it had a state… And there is only one nation known to me that had the same dual founding as biblical Israel, and that is the United States of America which has its social covenant in the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and its social contract in the Constitution in 1787.

Covenant is central to the Mayflower Compact of 1620. It is central to the speech of John Winthrop aboard the Arbela in 1630. It is presupposed in the most famous line of the Declaration of Independence… “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”

They are self-evident only to people who have internalized the Hebrew Bible.

End, Rabbi Sacks.

That is the center of America’s security relationship with Israel – the notion that our two countries have the same founding principles, the same respect for the social contract and for the social covenant. I have taken more than 400 American security professionals – primarily retired American Admirals and Generals – to Israel in more than 30 trips. And at the other end of their careers, I have sent more than 500 cadets and midshipmen of our service academies to Israel before they received their commissions. And I can say that they all understood the fundamental and profound principles that guide both the United States and Israel.

They don’t always agree with Israel’s politics – or Israel’s defense choices – or any other single aspect of Israeli political, military and social life, but I never found one that didn’t believe in the relationship between Jews and the land of Israel.

The United States military, then, is a Zionist institution.

Starting there – and you have to start there – you quickly reach the practical aspects of our partnership. Those haven’t changed since 1979, when I first published a “quick reference guide” to security cooperation.

Israel brings to the party:

  • A secure location in a crucial part of the world
  • A well-developed military infrastructure
  • The ability to maintain, service, and repair U.S.-origin equipment
  • An excellent deep-water port in Haifa
  • Modern air facilities
  • A position close to sea-lanes and ability to project power over long distances
  • A domestic air force larger than many in Western Europe and possessing more up-to-date hardware
  • Multilingual capabilities, including facility in English, Arabic, French, Farsi and the languages of the (former) Soviet Union
  • Combat familiarity with Soviet/Russian style tactics and equipment
  • The ability to assist U.S. naval fleets, including common equipment
  • The ability to support American operations and to provide emergency air cover
  • A democratic political system with a strong orientation to support the United States and the NATO system.

In 1996, I noted that Israel’s military R&D capabilities complement those of the U.S.; its intelligence services cooperate closely with ours – to our benefit; and large numbers of American troops train in Israel.

In 2006, I added the establishment of police-to-police counterterrorism training in Israel. Can you imagine the American police learning tactics from Saudi Arabia, China or Venezuela?

In 1967, in the War of Attrition, in 1973, and over Lebanon in 1982, Israel fought pro-Soviet forces and provided intelligence information and Russian equipment to the U.S.  Most of the equipment had never been inspected close-up by American troops that then expected to face them in battle.

It was the aftermath of the 73 war that led to the American “combined arms doctrine” that was so successfully deployed in Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1990/1991.

In 1981, Israel’s bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak meant the US knew it wouldn’t be facing a nuclear-armed Iraq in 1991.

After 9-11, Israel “opened the closets” for the US, supplying battle-tested experience in combating terrorism and urban warfare. Americans benefitted from Israel’s tactics against car bombs, IEDs and homicide bombing.

After the 2003 allied invasion of Iraq, American military personnel were being introduced to Israel’s bomb-sniffing dogs. The U.S. wanted such dogs, but the training period is fairly long. The IDF was willing to make Israeli dogs available, but they only took commands in Hebrew. It was quicker to train the Marines than retrain the dogs, making some interesting scenes in Baghdad

In September 2007, the IAF destroyed a Syrian-North Korean nuclear plant, extending the US’s strategic arm and providing vital information on Russian air defense systems, which are also employed by Iran.

Not a single American serviceperson needs to be stationed in Israel. Aside from training missions, there have been American soldiers stationed in Israel since 2009, working with the US-Israeli co-designed X-band radar system – a deployment that helps the US and Israel monitor threats from the east.

And, as a reminder, Israel’s missile defense capabilities – developed and produced in conjunction with American industry – not only protect Israel from Hamas and Hezbollah missiles, but protect the United States from emerging threats from North Korea and Iran.

After the 2014 Gaza War, where Israel was roundly criticized by the American administration for allegedly not taking proper precautions to limit Palestinian civilian casualties, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey said,

“Israel… did some extraordinary things to try to limit civilian casualties, to include… making it known that they were going to destroy a particular structure. The IDF,” Dempsey said, “is not interested in creating civilian casualties. They’re interested in stopping the shooting of rockets and missiles out of the Gaza Strip and into Israel.” He surprised his audience – the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs – by telling them he had already sent an American delegation to Israel to learn lessons from the IDF, “including,” he said, “the measures they took to prevent civilian casualties.”

Israel has been a partner in US and multi-lateral military exercises for years – interestingly, most recently there was an exercise in which Israel and the UAE flew together, signaling a change in Israel’s relations with Gulf countries.

Right now, Israel is hosting the largest aerial training exercise in its history – Blue Flag, in the Negev Desert. 70 foreign aircraft from around the world, hundreds of pilots and air support team members. Participants include the United States, France, Italy, Greece, Poland, Germany, and India. It is the first time French, German and Indian contingents have trained in Israel.

And if you thought you would ever see the Luftwaffe flying in Israel, you have a better imagination than I do.


Israel and the United States are drawn together by common values and common threats to our well-being. The bipartisan support of our ally Israel is a testament to those values as well as to the practical recognition that the threats require cooperation in intelligence, technology and security policy.

We have that with Israel. But more than that, the United States and Israel share an intimate understanding of nationhood. The British – our other best friend in the world –  can’t say that rights are inalienable and come from The Creator. For the British, rights came from the earthly King or Queen, and only those rights the sovereign choses to give – which is why we had a Revolution.