On Tuesday, July 20, The Nixon Center hosted a luncheon discussion on “Israel: Strategic Asset or Liability?” in which Ambassador Chas Freeman, Jr., (US ambassador to Saudi Arabia for the George H.W. Bush administration from 1989 to 1992) delivered the following remarks:
Is Israel a strategic asset or liability for the United States? Interesting question. We must thank the Nixon Center for asking it. In my view, there are many reasons for Americans to wish the Jewish state well. Under current circumstances, strategic advantage for the United States is not one of them. If we were to reverse the question, however, and to ask whether the United States is a strategic asset or liability for Israel, there would be no doubt about the answer.
American taxpayers fund between 20 and 25 percent of Israel’s defense budget (depending on how you calculate this). Twenty-six percent of the $3 billion in military aid we grant to the Jewish state each year is spent in Israel on Israeli defense products. Uniquely, Israeli companies are treated like American companies for purposes of U.S. defense procurement. Thanks to congressional earmarks, we also often pay half the costs of special Israeli research and development projects, even when — as in the case of defense against very short-range unguided missiles — the technology being developed is essentially irrelevant to our own military requirements. In short, in many ways, American taxpayers fund jobs in Israel’s military industries that could have gone to our own workers and companies. Meanwhile, Israel gets pretty much whatever it wants in terms of our top-of-the-line weapons systems, and we pick up the tab.
Identifiable U.S. government subsidies to Israel total over $140 billion since 1949. This makes Israel by far the largest recipient of American giveaways since World War II. The total would be much higher if aid to Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and support for Palestinians in refugee camps and the occupied territories were included. These programs have complex purposes but are justified in large measure in terms of their contribution to the security of the Jewish state.
Per capita income in Israel is now about $37,000 — on a par with the UK. Israel is nonetheless the largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance, accounting for well over a fifth of it. Annual U.S. government transfers run at well over $500 per Israeli, not counting the costs of tax breaks for private donations and loans that aren’t available to any other foreign country.
These military and economic benefits are not the end of the story. The American government also works hard to shield Israel from the international political and legal consequences of its policies and actions in the occupied territories, against its neighbors, or — most recently — on the high seas. The nearly 40 vetoes the United States has cast to protect Israel in the UN Security Council are the tip of iceberg. We have blocked a vastly larger number of potentially damaging reactions to Israeli behavior by the international community. The political costs to the United States internationally of having to spend our political capital in this way are huge.
Where Israel has no diplomatic relations, U.S. diplomats routinely make its case for it. As I know from personal experience (having been thanked by the then Government of Israel for my successful efforts on Israel’s behalf in Africa), the U.S. government has been a consistent promoter and often the funder of various forms of Israeli programs of cooperation with other countries. It matters also that America — along with a very few other countries — has remained morally committed to the Jewish experiment with a state in the Middle East. Many more Jews live in America than in Israel. Resolute American support should be an important offset to the disquiet about current trends that has led over 20 percent of Israelis to emigrate, many of them to the United States, where Jews enjoy unprecedented security and prosperity.
Clearly, Israel gets a great deal from us. Yet it’s pretty much taboo in the United States to ask what’s in it for Americans. I can’t imagine why. Still, the question I’ve been asked to address today is just that: what’s in it — and not in it — for us to do all these things for Israel.
We need to begin by recognizing that our relationship with Israel has never been driven by strategic reasoning. It began with President Truman overruling his strategic and military advisers in deference to personal sentiment and political expediency. We had an arms embargo on Israel until Lyndon Johnson dropped it in 1964 in explicit return for Jewish financial support for his campaign against Barry Goldwater. In 1973, for reasons peculiar to the Cold War, we had to come to the rescue of Israel as it battled Egypt. The resulting Arab oil embargo cost us dearly. And then there’s all the time we’ve put into the perpetually ineffectual and now long defunct “peace process.”
Still the US-Israel relationship has had strategic consequences. There is no reason to doubt the consistent testimony of the architects of major acts of anti-American terrorism about what motivates them to attack us. In the words of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is credited with masterminding the 9/11 attacks, their purpose was to focus “the American people … on the atrocities that America is committing by supporting Israel against the Palestinian people….” As Osama Bin Laden, purporting to speak for the world’s Muslims, has said again and again: “we have … stated many times, for more than two-and-a-half-decades, that the cause of our disagreement with you is your support to your Israeli allies who occupy our land of Palestine….” Some substantial portion of the many lives and the trillions of dollars we have so far expended in our escalating conflict with the Islamic world must be apportioned to the costs of our relationship with Israel.
It’s useful to recall what we generally expect allies and strategic partners to do for us. In Europe, Asia, and elsewhere in the Middle East, they provide bases and support the projection of American power beyond their borders. They join us on the battlefield in places like Kuwait and Afghanistan or underwrite the costs of our military operations. They help recruit others to our coalitions. They coordinate their foreign aid with ours. Many defray the costs of our use of their facilities with “host nation support” that reduces the costs of our military operations from and through their territory. They store weapons for our troops’, rather than their own troops’ use. They pay cash for the weapons we transfer to them.
Israel does none of these things and shows no interest in doing them. Perhaps it can’t. It is so estranged from everyone else in the Middle East that no neighboring country will accept flight plans that originate in or transit it. Israel is therefore useless in terms of support for American power projection. It has no allies other than us. It has developed no friends. Israeli participation in our military operations would preclude the cooperation of many others. Meanwhile, Israel has become accustomed to living on the American military dole. The notion that Israeli taxpayers might help defray the expense of U.S. military or foreign assistance operations, even those undertaken at Israel’s behest, would be greeted with astonishment in Israel and incredulity on Capitol Hill.
Military aid to Israel is sometimes justified by the notion of Israel as a test bed for new weapons systems and operational concepts. But no one can identify a program of military R&D in Israel that was initially proposed by our men and women in uniform. All originated with Israel or members of Congress acting on its behalf. Moreover, what Israel makes it sells not just to the United States but to China, India, and other major arms markets. It feels no obligation to take U.S. interests into account when it transfers weapons and technology to third countries and does so only under duress.
Meanwhile, it’s been decades since Israel’s air force faced another in the air. It has come to specialize in bombing civilian infrastructure and militias with no air defenses. There is not much for the U.S. Air Force to learn from that. Similarly, the Israeli navy confronts no real naval threat. Its experience in interdicting infiltrators, fishermen, and humanitarian aid flotillas is not a model for the U.S. Navy to study. Israel’s army, however, has had lessons to impart. Now in its fifth decade of occupation duty, it has developed techniques of pacification, interrogation, assassination, and drone attack that inspired U.S. operations in Fallujah, Abu Ghraib, Somalia, Yemen, and Waziristan. Recently, Israel has begun to deploy various forms of remote-controlled robotic guns. These enable operatives at far-away video screens summarily to execute anyone they view as suspicious. Such risk-free means of culling hostile populations could conceivably come in handy in some future American military operation, but I hope not. I have a lot of trouble squaring the philosophy they embody with the values Americans traditionally aspired to exemplify.
It is sometimes said that, to its credit, Israel does not ask the United States to fight its battles for it; it just wants the money and weapons to fight them on its own. Leave aside the question of whether Israel’s battles are or should also be America’s. It is no longer true that Israel does not ask us to fight for it. The fact that prominent American apologists for Israel were the most energetic promoters of the U.S. invasion of Iraq does not, of course, prove that Israel was the instigator of that grievous misadventure. But the very same people are now urging an American military assault on Iran explicitly to protect Israel and to preserve its nuclear monopoly in the Middle East. Their advocacy is fully coordinated with the Government of Israel. No one in the region wants a nuclear-armed Iran, but Israel is the only country pressing Americans to go to war over this.
Finally, the need to protect Israel from mounting international indignation about its behavior continues to do grave damage to our global and regional standing. It has severely impaired our ties with the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. These costs to our international influence, credibility, and leadership are, I think, far more serious than the economic and other burdens of the relationship.
Against this background, it’s remarkable that something as fatuous as the notion of Israel as a strategic asset could have become the unchallengeable conventional wisdom in the United States. Perhaps it’s just that as someone once said: “people … will more easily fall victim to a big lie than a small one.” Be that as it may, the United States and Israel have a lot invested in our relationship. Basing our cooperation on a thesis and narratives that will not withstand scrutiny is dangerous. It is especially risky in the context of current fiscal pressures in the United States. These seem certain soon to force major revisions of both current levels of American defense spending and global strategy, in the Middle East as well as elsewhere. They also place federally-funded programs in Israel in direct competition with similar programs here at home. To flourish over the long term, Israel’s relations with the United States need to be grounded in reality, not myth, and in peace, not war.