In a sign of growing concern in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government over US President Barack Obama’s Middle East policies, Minister-without-Portfolio Yossi Peled proposed Israeli sanctions on the US in a letter to cabinet ministers on Sunday…
In the interim, the minister suggests reconsidering military and civilian purchases from the US, selling sensitive equipment that the Washington opposes distributing internationally, and allowing other countries that compete with the US to get involved with the peace process and be given a foothold for their military forces and intelligence agencies. Peled said that shifting military acquisition to America’s competition would make Israel less dependent on the US. For instance, he suggested buying planes from the France-based Airbus firm instead of the American Boeing.
This puts to test the notion that Israel is a major strategic asset for the United States, rather than a strategic liability. I have never been particularly convinced by the “Israel as asset” notion; it seems to me that underwriting the Israeli economy and Israeli military capability has had… limited strategic payoff for the United States. An irritated Israel could genuinely threaten the United States in the short term by selling advanced military equipment to China or Russia, or by sharing the fruits of US-Israeli intelligence cooperation with either. Both, of course, have already happened; the United States had to apply severe pressure to Israel to halt sales of military equipment to China, and Israeli intelligence cooperation with the Soviets in the 1980s resulted in the severe degradation of US capabilities in the USSR. The key thing to remember, however, is that Israel only has such leverage over the United States because of extraordinary US military and intelligence generosity; if the US were to cut the cord, Israel would have virtually nothing to offer the Russians or the Chinese. In terms of regional military capability, the United States obviously did not need Israeli assistance to undertake the simultaeneous conquest and extended occupation of two Middle Eastern countries. Israeli intelligence on the capability of Soviet weapon systems following the 1967 and 1973 wars did prove useful to the United States, but the technical characteristics of Syrian tanks and surface-to-air missiles are no longer overriding US security concerns. The Syrian and Iranian nuclear programs are a bit more of an issue for the United States, and Israeli intel has done good work especially with the former; given that the Russians and the Chinese don’t particularly care about the issue, however, I’m not convinced that it grants the Israelis much leverage. Israeli intelligence is focused primarily on states and organizations that threaten Israel, not on those that threaten the United States.
This is a short way of saying that Israel needs the United States MUCH more than the United States needs Israel. The Israelis can buy equipment from France and China and Russia and whoever else, but they are extremely unlikely to find a patron willing to undertake the degree of generosity that the United States has exhibited. There are good reasons for this generosity; the United States shares important ideological commitments with Israel, and there are longstanding ties between the Israeli and the American people. The key, however, is that American generosity is justified largely on the basis of these ideological and cultural ties, rather than on the somewhat nebulous notion that Israeli intelligence and military capability are really important to the security of the United States. China, Russia, or France might be happy to explore the limited fruits of tight cooperation with Israel, but none share the ideological and cultural connections that Israel has with the US. As such, the notion that Israel can actively threaten to hurt the United States is a bit silly; I sincerely hope that the Israeli strategic class isn’t taking the idea particularly seriously.