With the Biden administration now in office, the U.S. “special relationship” with Israel is entering a new phase. But its diverse roots remain firmly in place: common values, democratic politics, and strategic interests, as well as close intelligence, military, economic, scientific-technological, cultural, and people-to-people ties. At the same time, recent years have witnessed some dramatic ups and downs in the relationship, along with significant changes in the broader strategic context.
At the global level, the sharpening U.S.-China – and, to a lesser extent, U.S.-Russia – competition looms larger today than in the past, while Middle East oil and gas have lost their centrality to the American economy. Nevertheless, the Middle East is an important arena in this new Great Power competition due not just to growing Asian demand for its energy resources but also to its geographic location, political and religious significance, and continuing potential to export instability worldwide. To the extent that Great Power competition is increasingly economic and technological as well as military and political, Israel is one Middle East state well-placed to deliver outsize contributions.
Israel is a world-class innovator in technologies that will be critical to meeting future challenges, including artificial intelligence (AI), information technology (IT), and cybersecurity; sustainable water, food, and energy solutions; and high-tech medicine. All these areas are supportive of America’s foreign policy priorities: pursuing peaceful Great Power competition; restoring global economic competitiveness; and building climate resilience, while addressing development, public health, sustainability, and similar concerns. And in all these areas, the United States is the preferred partner of Israeli firms seeking to expand operations and access to the global market. Furthermore, while Israel maintains ties with China, the latter’s investment in the Israeli high-tech sector, for example, is holding at just around 10 percent, while the remaining 90 percent is overwhelmingly with Western, and especially American, partners.
In the Middle East regional arena, a major recent shift offers new horizons for U.S.-Israel cooperation: the tide of Arab “normalization” with Israel, which has occurred with active American support. This current is embodied by the August 2020 Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, later joined by Sudan, along with a separate but parallel Israeli deal with Morocco. Saudi Arabia, Oman, and others could follow. This trend overturns the conventional wisdom that the unresolved Palestinian conflict is an insurmountable obstacle to decent relations between Israel and Arab states. Beyond that, it paves the way for U.S.-Arab-Israel collaboration in a host of areas. The recent decision by the U.S. Department of Defense to move Israel from the European Command (EUCOM) to the Middle East–focused Central Command (CENTCOM) was greeted without objections by America’s Arab allies and partners and is another important indicator of this new reality.
Regarding Iran, Washington and Jerusalem were at odds during President Barack Obama’s second term, then in agreement in the era of President Donald Trump, as he withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the nuclear deal is known, and reimposed stiff sanctions against Tehran. Renewed disagreement can be expected as the Biden administration seeks to rejoin the nuclear accord in some form. As demonstrated by the controversy surrounding Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi’s public criticism of this U.S. plan, it is best to air these differences privately. Future consultations on this matter, moreover, will likely include a number of Israel’s new Gulf Arab partners.
Yet despite the serious Obama-era quarrel, both sides have long understood the value of cooperation against threats from Iran. This has included intelligence sharing, missile defense, joint cyber activities, and covert counterterrorism operations.
In addition, one can readily foresee renewed diplomatic disputes over Israeli-Palestinian issues, including the fate of the two-state solution. Managing, if not resolving, such disputes will pose a complicated challenge for both Washington and Jerusalem. To be sure, resolving the conflict would be best for all parties, but this issue is no longer central to U.S.-Israel bilateral ties or the region’s politics.
In the United States, there is rising partisan polarization regarding Israel (but) American domestic politics is no longer the primary driver of the informal U.S.-Israel alliance. Rather, new regional and global realities, along with the tangible benefits to the United States of security and economic partnerships with Israel, now drive the “special relationship” to a greater extent.
The Enduring Strategic Logic of the Alliance
The U.S.-Israel special relationship has traditionally been defined in terms of a moral obligation, shared values, and common interests. During the Cold War, Israel also came to be seen as a strategic asset that served as a bulwark against Soviet influence and a counter to radical Arab nationalism. U.S. military assistance to Israel contributed to peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan and has deterred the outbreak of major interstate Arab-Israel conflicts since 1982.
Washington has demonstrated a commitment to preserving Israel’s “qualitative military edge,” bolstering Israeli deterrence against hostile state and nonstate actors. The United States has also granted Israel “major non-NATO ally” status, signed a free trade agreement with it, and provided it with substantial military and economic aid – topping $146 billion since 1949. Moreover, military equipment prepositioned in Israel, valued at around $1.2 billion, is available to support U.S. contingencies in the eastern Mediterranean and Persian Gulf. This assistance has helped Israel build an extremely capable military that can independently ensure the survival of the state, without U.S. military intervention.
Washington, moreover, is still seen as an address for Arabs seeking to influence Israeli policies, while Israel is still seen as an address for Arabs seeking to influence Washington. Indeed, the recent Abraham Accords were at least partly born of these kinds of calculations. And Israel is seen by a number of Arab states as a critical ally in the struggle to contain Iran’s influence, as the United States draws down its military presence in the region.
Countering Traditional and Emerging Military Threats
To address common traditional hard security threats, the United States and Israel collaborate in numerous areas: intelligence sharing, rocket and missile defense, military and defense-industrial cooperation, and, since 9/11, homeland security.
Intelligence Cooperation: U.S.-Israel intelligence cooperation dates to the early 1950s and has long been a pillar of the security relationship.
Today, Israeli intelligence remains a major source of information regarding the activities of IS and al-Qaeda and their affiliates, Hezbollah’s global activities, as well as Iran’s nuclear program – as exemplified by its successful heist of Iran’s pre-2003 nuclear archive. Israeli sabotage operations, moreover, have helped delay Iran’s nuclear program. Israel’s comparative advantages include a sustained focus on key hard targets, the development of unique sources and innovative methods, and a willingness to incur risk. And as U.S. intelligence increasingly turns its attention to China, Russia, and North Korea and U.S. intelligence spending likely remains flat or decreases, America will rely more on allies such as Israel to fill capabilities and knowledge gaps, manage risk, and maintain situational awareness in the Middle East.
Missile Defense. Israel – America’s most sophisticated partner in this arena – is the only country worldwide with an operational national missile defense system protecting major population centers. U.S. aid for this program since the early 1990s totals more than $7 billion. In return, the United States has obtained a deeper understanding of the rocket and missile threat in the Middle East, and lessons drawn from Israel’s extensive operational experience since 1991. Israel’s Iron Dome counter-rocket and mortar system – the most active component of the country’s rocket and missile defenses – is credited with more than 2,400 intercepts and an 85 percent success rate, enabling Israel to act with relative restraint in the face of frequent rocket attacks from Gaza.
In light of this success, the United States has purchased two Iron Dome batteries – renamed “SkyHunter” by the U.S. Army – to fill an interim cruise missile defense gap, and elements of the system are being considered as a long-term answer to the growing rocket, unmanned aircraft system (UAS), and cruise missile threat. However, interoperability and cyber vulnerability challenges may preclude their integration into U.S. missile defenses. Looking toward the future, Israel and the United States are discussing joint R&D for laser weapons and hypersonic missile defenses.
Military Cooperation The U.S. and Israeli armed forces have benefited from decades of extensive collaboration in the fields of counterterrorism, military lessons learned, and UAS employment.
Counterterrorism. The Israeli military conducted the first successful rescue of hostages from a hijacked airplane in 1972 and pioneered many of the tactics eventually adopted by U.S. and allied counterterrorism units.
UAS, counter-UAS, and robotics. Israel is producing robotic systems for use on the land and in the sea, and its military is pushing to rapidly integrate robotic systems into its force structure. The U.S. military is evaluating a number of Israeli robotic systems, including the unmanned Micro Tactical Ground Robot and the manned EZRaider HD4 off-road vehicle.
Defense-industrial cooperation. In the past two decades, Israel has emerged as a major supplier of defense articles to the U.S. military, with sales growing from $300 million annually in the 1990s to nearly $1.5 billion annually in 2019 – about 20 percent of Israel’s $7.2 billion in arms exports in that year. Israeli firms partner with American counterparts or create U.S. subsidiaries to enhance the prospects of sales to the U.S. military and to third countries, thus preserving or creating American jobs. A number of Israeli firms are also trusted suppliers of major components for U.S. weapons systems.
Artificial Intelligence. The AI revolution promises to transform every aspect of human activity, and Israel is poised to help lead it – ranking first globally in the number of AI companies per capita, and third globally in the number of AI start-ups. Israeli developers and start-ups are teaming up with American partners, from giant corporations to small and medium-size entrepreneurs.
While Israeli contributions to U.S. economic, national security, and foreign policy objectives are substantial, achieving the full potential of the partnership will require both sides to address several challenges:
Lingering Mistrust. Despite enjoying intimate ties, an undercurrent of mistrust continues to affect U.S.-Israel relations. This is the result of a number of events, including the 1980s-era Jonathan Pollard espionage affair, secret U.S. nuclear talks with Iran followed by Israel’s open lobbying against the 2015 nuclear deal, and Israel’s commercial ties to China. While differences between even the closest of allies are inevitable, the United States and Israel can do more to avoid or defuse such tensions.
Delegitimization. Israel’s critics and enemies are turning to boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) as a means of diplomatically isolating the Jewish state, limiting its military and economic options, and pressuring it to unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank – which, for many BDS proponents, is a first step toward dismantling Israel itself. Such efforts have not garnered widespread support in the United States and have had a limited impact thus far. Nevertheless, they could, if successful, harm investment in Israel and hinder collaborative R&D and production efforts that are central to the Israeli economy, to high-tech sectors of the U.S. economy, and to the broader U.S.-Israel relationship.
Peace with the Palestinians. The perception that Israel bears significant responsibility for the impasse with the Palestinian Authority has gained traction in various U.S. circles, and could eventually endanger the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Regional Cooperation: A “New Normal”
The past decade has shown the most promising areas for U.S.-Israel engagement to be in the wider regional and global arenas, rather than the narrow Israeli-Palestinian framework, based not only on growing, mutually beneficial U.S.-Israel economic partnerships, and on the Arab normalization wave, but also on the closer cooperation between Washington and Jerusalem on other important regional issues – including Syria, Iran, and the eastern Mediterranean.
Accordingly, the United States should work with Israeli and Arab diplomatic partners to create synergies between the normalization process and Palestinian needs. If Palestinians resist joint projects with Israel aimed at enhancing their quality of life, addressing water and food security challenges, and building climate resilience, then perhaps Arab partners can help.
This growing momentum on the regional front, moreover, could prompt Egypt and Jordan to warm up their “cold” peace accords with Israel. While they cooperate closely with Israel on border and other security issues, and periodically on shared energy or water issues, conspicuously lacking have been the deeper economic, environmental, public health, and other ties that would clearly benefit all three countries.
Hard Security Partnerships
Despite longstanding U.S.-Israel cooperation on hard security issues, room exists for broader and deeper engagement on several fronts. on projects in the region and beyond. Finally, Israel already participates in several significant UN regional programs, with representatives at the Middle East Desalination Research Center in Oman (since 1996) and the International Renewable Energy Agency headquarters in the UAE (since 2015). This is the ideal time for the United States to become more engaged in these endeavors, which would serve multiple American and global objectives.
A drone and missile defense “Manhattan Project.” Increasingly, the United States faces adversaries such as Iran, China, North Korea, and Russia that rely on drones and surface-to surface missile systems as core components of their anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) and warfighting capabilities. Everywhere, expensive U.S. and allied missile defenses risk being overwhelmed by much cheaper and more numerous adversary drones and missiles or defeated by countermeasures.
Cybersecurity and AI. Protecting intellectual property from theft and industrial espionage, and protecting economic activity and infrastructure from cyberattack, will be critical to the economic future of both countries. In particular, protecting the fruits of joint U.S.-Israel investments and R&D in cutting-edge proprietary technologies, formulas, and processes – both civilian and military – will be key to preserving U.S. and Israeli global competitiveness. Washington and Jerusalem should therefore tighten and broaden cybersecurity cooperation and seek collaborative cybersecurity ventures with other high-tech democracies. And they should consider creating a joint AI R&D institute, emulating successful entities in other areas, such as the U.S.-Israel Energy Center and the BIRD Foundation.
Growing the National Technology and Industrial Base. The United States must strengthen technological/industrial cooperation with other states. The ability to do so is one of America’s key asymmetric advantages vis-à-vis strategically lonely adversaries such as China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran. To this end, the U.S. should consider expanding the NTIB – a defense technology alliance that currently includes the United States, Canada, Britain, and Australia – to include Israel and other high-tech partners that share U.S. interests and values. President Biden should also consider following up on his proposed “Summit for Democracy” by creating an informal grouping of high-tech democracies to set norms, define a common agenda on emerging issues, Israel should be included as a founding member-state of such a grouping, which would offer new ways to advance the U.S.-Israel relationship in a multilateral framework. This could likewise require hard decisions by Israel regarding its ties to China.
In today’s global context, Israel is one of America’s most valuable strategic partners – one that not only shares myriad interests and values with the United States, but also makes unique contributions to addressing common challenges in the military, economic, sustainability, and other domains. The Biden administration, even as it attends to other urgent concerns, should build on the achievements of its predecessors to broaden and deepen this partnership toward achieving its full potential – for the benefit of the people of both countries and of the global community. For the relationship’s potential to be fully realized, U.S. commercial, technical, scientific, medical, and aid agencies should take even greater advantage of Israeli expertise – and more actively involve Israel alongside other international partners. And the U.S. private sector, which is already deeply invested in practical partnerships with its Israeli counterparts, should be further incentivized to bring home the benefits of these unusually productive connections.
To be sure, even the closest allies occasionally disagree; and some U.S.-Israel disagreements are almost inevitable, regarding both Iran and the Palestinians. Yet as this paper has shown, those issues are no longer the centerpiece of bilateral relations. Instead, a whole web of mutual interests and joint projects – whether security-related, economic/scientific, or some combination thereof – links the two countries, in ways that benefit both. And with the current wave of Arab-Israel normalization, those benefits promise wider sharing across the region as a whole.
Michael Eisenstadt is director of Military and Security Studies Program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. DAVID POLLOCK is director of TWI’s Project Fikra. This article is excerpted from a TWI policy Paper available at https://www.washingtoninstitute.org.