The US Defense Establishment’s Special Relationship with Israel
JNS.org – Over the last few decades, the American defense establishment—the Department of Defense, the armed services and parts of the intelligence community—has increasingly played a significant and positive role in shaping Washington’s position towards Israel.
This became clear in 2020, when Israel was transferred to the Area of Responsibility of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), whose former commander, Lloyd Austin, is now the Secretary of Defense.
The impact is felt in US policy on issues central to the dialogue between America and Israel, particularly the Iranian nuclear program. This is essentially a reflection of the growing affinity between Israel and the Gulf Arab states, which CENTCOM has been assigned to defend ever since its inception in 1983.
President Joe Biden’s decision not to delist Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from its foreign terrorist organization blacklist was influenced by the Defense Department. This growing affinity with Israel’s point of view can have significant consequences that align with fundamental Israeli national interests.
Nevertheless, the unique aspects of the Iranian crisis require a careful balancing act between tightening defense cooperation and retaining Israel’s freedom of action in times of need.
During the crucial Oval Office debate on May 12, 1948, on recognition of the soon-to-be Jewish state, and again in the early decades of Israel’s existence, the Defense Department and the US military and intelligence establishment were a center of solid internal opposition to any pro-Israel stance. They firmly objected to the emerging “special relationship”—a term coined by John F. Kennedy in 1962—between Israel and the US.
This position was primarily motivated by the desire to bolster strategic relations with key Arab states—particularly those seen as vital to the supply of oil to Western economies and US forces in time of need. All of this was in the context of a time when the Cold War dominated strategic thinking and military planning.
The defense establishment’s distaste for Israel began to change after Israel emerged victorious in the 1967 Six-Day War and proved its worth against the Soviet-supplied Egyptian military at the height of the War of Attrition from 1969-1970. Israel then stood ready to intervene to save the pro-American regime in Jordan in 1970.
Later, as the two countries faced a common challenge from Soviet-backed Syrian conduct in Lebanon, this change led—to the dismay of Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger—to the development of a strategic partnership. Elements of the US military came to appreciate the benefits of close relations with Israel, and this became more pronounced as the US was drawn into conflicts in the Middle East from the 1990s onward. The partnership grew in the face of regional challenges, from two wars in Iraq to Iran, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
The realization that Israel is an asset, not a liability, slowly gained ground not only in the political echelon and the higher ranks of command, but also among officers in the field. They came to appreciate not only the IDF’s fighting spirit, but the fact that Israel did not ask Americans to fight for its sake. Israel also shared technical and tactical solutions that often saved American lives.
What Drives the US Defense Establishment’s Close Ties with Israel?
Undoubtedly, one of the primary drivers of the US defense establishment’s close relationship with Israel is the firm base of support Israel enjoys in Congress despite some dissent from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Joint projects thus stand a good chance of being funded and supported.
As early as 1983, this was the reason Weinberger invited Israel to take part in the Strategic Defense Initiative (popularly known as “Star Wars”). As a result, Israel eventually became the first nation to field a combat-worthy missile defense system.
Today, the US is formally committed to sustaining Israel’s “qualitative military edge,” and further legislation has defined the relationship as a “strategic partnership” in technological projects, including missile defense, cyber and a variety of other defense-related fields.
Even without this reliance on congressional and public support, there are a multiplicity of reasons for the entrenchment of closer relations between the two countries’ defense establishments.
First, Israel offers the US military and, even more so, the intelligence community critical support. For example, the US Army has benefited from the acquisition of the Iron Dome missile defense system, tank technology such as reactive armor, solutions to the challenge of improvised explosive devices, mine-clearing equipment and much more. Cooperation in military R&D is now regularized by formal bodies monitoring joint projects. At the doctrinal level, the experience of both sides, especially in asymmetrical warfare, has led to significant progress.
In the air, Israel is the first country to deploy F-35 aircraft in active operational scenarios. The Israeli Air Force’s contributions were manifested in the 2021 Blue Flag and further expanded exercises. Since the transfer to CENTCOM, certain operational activities fed the growing affinity between the Israeli and American militaries, which is rooted in shared values and professional culture.
For decades, the US has been committed to defending the Gulf nations against aggression. This became official when former President Jimmy Carter announced his Carter Doctrine in March 1980 following the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It called for using military force to prevent any country from taking control of the Persian Gulf region, which has been the core mission of CENTCOM since its creation by the Reagan administration in 1983.
Energy concerns are central to this mission. Even when the US has become a net exporter, its dominant position in the Gulf gives it—for years to come—significant leverage over friend and foe alike. By necessity, this mission means being attentive to the concerns and perspectives—indeed, the existential angst—of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Gulf allies regarding the regional balance of power.
In earlier times, for reasons rooted in their ideology and national identity, the Gulf states tended to present a firm anti-Israel position to their American interlocutors—although at least one of them had undeclared security cooperation with Israel going back to the 1970s. Today, Kuwait is the outlier in continuing to take a hostile anti-Israel line. But for the UAE, Bahrain and, behind the scenes, the Saudi ruling family, things have changed dramatically in recent years.
There is effectively no daylight between Israel and many key Arab players on an extensive range of issues. They support many of Israel’s policies and actions, such as the “campaign between wars” meant to block Iranian penetration in the region, which involves almost daily air operations over Syria and beyond. This, in turn, is reflected in their interactions with the US military. This led to, for example, the permission to station a uniformed IDF liaison to the US Fifth Fleet in Bahrain. In March 2022, according to The Wall Street Journal—via a leak that Israel and Saudi Arabia did not welcome—the IDF Chief of Staff met in Egypt with his Saudi, Egyptian and other Arab counterparts under the aegis of CENTCOM, another unprecedented landmark in this unfolding three-way partnership.
The common enemy of the Gulf states and Israel is the mullah’s regime in Tehran. In this respect, the US defense establishment has provided continuity in relations with Israel amidst several US administrations. During the Obama administration’s second term and Biden’s current tenure, the focus has been on reaching a negotiated agreement with Iran over its nuclear program. All the while, the US defense establishment never ceased to see the revolutionary regime in Tehran in starkly adversarial terms. American military and security services carry the vivid memories and scars of events such as the abduction of its diplomats and citizens during the Iranian Revolution and devastating attacks on US targets such as the bombings of the Marine barracks at the Beirut Airport in 1983.
More recently, there are the Iranian-trained Shi’ite militias in Iraq, which have targeted American forces. Hence, the willingness to team up with Israel on issues like cyberattacks and thwarting Iran’s nuclear program. At times, the US took direct action—such as the assassination of IRGC commander Qasem Soleimani—with the help of Israeli intelligence.
When it came to the activities of Unit 840 of the IRGC’s Quds Force, intelligence obtained by Israel in a ground-breaking operation on Iranian soil provided evidence of plots to assassinate American officers, which helped consolidate the Defense Department’s position against delisting the IRGC. This, in turn, appears to have played a significant role in Biden’s ultimate decision not to accept Iran’s demand, with all that has ensued as a result, including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s denunciation of the Iranian regime’s conduct.
The Importance and Limits of Cooperation: Plan B and Beyond
All the above lends ever-greater importance to enhancing US-Israel cooperation at all levels, such as strategic dialogues usually held each year between national security advisers and top defense officials. For example, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz and his counterpart Lloyd Austin have a long-term relationship going back to the days when the latter was commander of CENTCOM.
To this should be added the regular and frequent meetings between commanders on both sides, including visits to Israel by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other senior military officials.
In recent years, joint exercises have become more common than ever, including those that barely attempt to conceal that Iran is the potential adversary. With Israel integrated into CENTCOM, the American partner can now bring the Israeli Navy and Air Force into active participation in operational activities in the Red Sea and beyond, alongside Arab navies belonging to the signatories of the Abraham Accords. All this is complemented by the broad, intensive, daily work of intelligence sharing that serves both countries’ interests.
Still, friction is bound to arise from time to time, even in the context of such close cooperation. The resentment in Israel over a leak to The New York Times on the assassination of a senior IRGC officer in the heart of Tehran was warranted. However, there is no reason to assume the leak was ordered from on high. Many in the US government still do not look favorably upon cooperation with Israel and support of certain Israeli activities.
In any case, the crisis over Iran’s bid for the bomb is now bound to intensify following the overwhelming vote at the IAEA, backed by the US, its Western allies, and Israel, to censure Iran over its policies on non-disclosure. The nuclear talks in Vienna may have collapsed already. To some extent, this is due to the Defense Department’s firm stand and Iran’s aggressive attitude and accelerated drive toward the nuclear threshold. For Israel, a careful balancing act between two equally important imperatives is required.
On the one hand, Israel must enhance and intensify cooperation with all relevant elements of the US defense establishment on joint plans of action, with the support, if not the active participation, of our partners in the Gulf. This should be in the context of the quest for what has been referred to as a “Plan B” on the Iran issue. Former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett spoke of “a death by a thousand cuts”—a constant campaign to disrupt Iran’s nuclear, ballistic missile and drone projects, as well as other aspects of Iran’s efforts to destabilize the region.
On the other hand, Israel should be on guard so that the US embrace does not become a chokehold, denying Israel the freedom to act on its own when there is no other choice.
Biden’s visit to Israel and the messages he is bound to hear from US partners in the Gulf provide an opportunity to make this final point quite clear, even as cooperation intensifies in other areas. At the end of the day, even US interests—in the Iranian context and on first principles—would be ill-served if Israel came to be perceived as an obedient actor whose decisions are subject to American directives.
Col. (ret.) Dr. Eran Lerman, the former deputy director of Israel’s National Security Council, is the vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.
This article was originally published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.