The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS ROSS spent the U.S. Navy’s 243rd birthday in Ashdod, Israel; it was quite a party.
American Ambassador David Friedman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and their wives were hosted by Commander David Coles, and the speeches emphasized the close relations between the United States and Israel — specifically, between the two navies.
Amid the comradery, however, it was noted that the ceremony was the first U.S. port visit to Ashdod in twenty years.
The naval base at Haifa has seen more action. Most recently, in June, the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Donald Cook visited, following March visits by the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima and the Blue Ridge-class command and control ship USS Mount Whitney.
In that context, however, when the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush docked in Haifa in July 2017, it was the first carrier visit to an Israeli port since the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in April 2000.
The 1980s and 1990s were the heyday of the Sixth Fleet in Haifa. American ships did repairs at Israel Shipyards and brought the first Marines for training in Israel. The American government paid to refurbish the shipyards to enable them to handle the fleet’s larger ships. A well-used USO facility opened in Haifa in 1984 and the sailors contributed about $1 million a day to the Israeli tourist economy.
In 2000, however, after the bombing of the USS Cole near Yemen, liberty for American sailors in the Middle East was largely curtailed — in Israel as well as in countries that posed an overt threat to American interests.
After 9/11, the United States put more money and attention into threats emanating from the Persian Gulf, and the Mediterranean theater of operations lost its primacy.
By 2002, the USO was closed. The ship visits tailed off.
The U.S.-Israel security relationship, of course, never ended. American troops of all services continue to train in Israel and missile defense sharing is an ongoing proposition. Israel has established a more direct relationship with NATO, opening a mission at NATO HQ in 2016 and its first full office in NATO in 2017.
The summer of 2018 saw Israeli participation in a variety of joint American and NATO exercises and the docking of the French Helicopter Carrier Dixmude in Haifa. French Ambassador to Israel Helene Le Gal noted that 11 French ships had docked in Israel this year — more than those of any other country’s navy.
Western security attention has returned to the Mediterranean Sea, and not only because of the refugee influx.
All the countries along the north shore of the Mediterranean are European, and all are in NATO except Bosnia. The countries facing them along the North African coast are Sunni Muslim; all except Libya are partners in NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue.
The arrangement helps keep the Mediterranean calm and free for shipping. At the eastern end sit Syria and Lebanon — pawns of Iran and Russia — and Israel, making Israel, once again, a secure partner at a crucial point.
The 2011 ouster of Libya’s Moammar Qaddafi by the United States, France and the U.K., caused chaos in a previously stable — if repressive — country and released weapons and fighters to poor, and poorly governed countries in the second tier of Africa.
Iran has been able to capitalize, despite being Shiite while Africa’s Muslims are largely Sunni. Money talks and, following the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA — the Iran deal) deal, Iran has cash.
While the North African countries still have close ties to their European NATO partners, the tier of countries underneath is less stable.
Chad, Mali, Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan, and Niger are all volatile and insecure mixes of Christian, Muslim and traditional religions. Transnational jihad has taken root in all of them, making NATO less effective and providing resources to African migrants seeking to reach Europe – some of whom are jihadist; others of whom are not.
Iran’s infusion of funds and weapons supports Sunni Hamas, al-Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram and others. Instability, chaos, anti-Americanism, anti-Israelism, anti-Westernism, and anti-Christianism are what Iran seeks – and they are what Sunni jihadists seek. In Iraq and Syria, ISIS did the destabilizing and Iran reaped the benefit.
The appearance of the USS Ross in Ashdod was a welcome sight for those who value the U.S.-Israel security relationship and for those who value stability and security in the vital Mediterranean Sea.