The mantras that “the US-Israel relationship is rock solid” and “the US has Israel’s back”—so often proclaimed in the breach by both countries—may be wearing thin in Israel.
With the US courting Iran while pulling back from its dominant role in the Middle East, China entering the region to fill the vacuum and Russia solidifying its presence in Sunni and Shiite states alike, Israel is understandably hedging its bets. It is engaged in diplomacy with both Russia and China, America’s chief rivals, and a defense industry alliance with India.
Israel knows the US has never truly had its back. During Israel’s 1947-1948 War of Independence, the US imposed an arms embargo to prevent Israel from defending itself against the heavily armed Arab armies invading it. In the 1956 Suez War, the US forced Israel to withdraw from the Sinai and Gaza after Israel’s victory over Egypt.
In the 1967 Six-Day War, the US pressured Israel to halt its advance on Damascus. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, US fear of Arab criticism led to delays in resupplying Israel. The 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict, which saw the US temporarily suspend arms shipments, showed again that Israel could not depend on a US resupply during wartime.
The US opposed Israel’s destruction of Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 and Syria’s in 2007. Now the US is facilitating Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.
Over the decades, whenever Israel defended itself against attacks from its neighbors, the US intervened to force Israel to back off. This prevented decisive victories that could have discouraged future wars and led to lasting peace settlements.
The claim that Israel can always count on American military support is a fiction that both countries want to maintain. The US does it to reassure its domestic Jewish population. Israel does it so its enemies will see Israel as that much stronger.
Israel values American support but—contrary to conventional wisdom—does not need it.
“Israel knows how to work alone in the face of any security challenge,” IDF Chief of Staff Herzl Halevi recently told Army Radio. “It is good for the US to be by our side, but it is not essential.” Former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens, among others, has also discounted the importance of US aid.
American support, which includes some $4 billion a year in military aid, is a mixed blessing, partly because it comes with strings attached. Israel must spend the lion’s share of the money on US arms that don’t always provide value for money. Worse, the subsidies lead many Americans to believe Israel should be accountable to the US, giving Israel’s critics license to interfere in Israeli affairs.
In fact, Israel needs the US less and the US needs Israel more than many detractors would like to believe. While the IDF could make do without US subsidies, the US military’s Middle East capabilities would be severely compromised without Israeli resources.
Gen. George Keegan, the former head of US Air Force Intelligence, once said that the intelligence Israel provides the US is equivalent to that of five CIAs.
Gen. Alexander Haig and Adm. Elmo Zumwalt stated, “Israel is the largest US aircraft carrier, which does not require American soldiers on board, cannot be sunk and is deployed in a most critical region—between Europe-Asia-Africa and between the Mediterranean-Red Sea-Indian Ocean-Persian Gulf—sparing the US the need to manufacture, deploy and maintain a few more real aircraft carriers and additional ground divisions, which would cost the US taxpayer some $15 billion annually.”
While many US administrations have been high-handed in their relations with Israel, the Biden administration has been especially discourteous, reflecting increased hostility towards Israel from America’s progressive left. It has referred to the Israeli government as extremist, scolded Israel on all manner of issues and refused to invite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House.
The US-Israel relationship is anything but “rock-solid.” If a Republican administration is elected in 2024, the relationship will likely be righted. Should Biden or a Democratic progressive be elected, Israel might reassess the value of being tied too closely to an unreliable and often fickle ally. If it does so, the US will lose what is arguably its single greatest foreign asset.
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