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U.S.-Israel Strategic Cooperation: Evolution of Strategic Alliance

by Mitchell G. Bard

In 1952, Gen. Omar Bradley, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, believed the West required 19 divisions to defend the Middle East and that Israel could supply two. He also expected only three states to provide the West air power in Middle Eastern defense by 1955: Great Britain, Turkey and Israel. Bradley's analysis was rejected because the political echelon decided it was more important for the United States to work with Egypt, and later Iraq. It was feared that integration of Israeli forces in Western strategy would alienate the Arabs. This was no doubt also a reason why NATO turned down Israel's request for membership and the United States declined to sign a bilateral defense treaty that Israel hoped would counterbalance the Western alliance with Arab states that would eventually become the Baghdad Pact.

Israel's crushing victory over the combined Arab forces in 1967 caused this view to be revised. The following year, the United States sold Israel sophisticated planes (Phantom jets) for the first time. Washington shifted its Middle East policy from seeking a balance of forces to ensuring Israel enjoyed a qualitative edge over its enemies.

Israel proved its value in 1970 when the United States asked for help in bolstering King Hussein's regime. Israel's willingness to aid Amman, and movement of troops to the Jordanian border, persuaded Syria to withdraw the tanks it had sent into Jordan to support PLO forces during Black September. In addition, the Soviets knew that all the squadron leaders of the Sixth Fleet landed in Israel to coordinate activities.

Also, by the early 1970s, it had become clear that no Arab state could or would contribute to Western defense in the Middle East. The Baghdad Pact had long ago expired, and the regimes friendly to the United States were weak reeds in the region compared to the anti-Western forces in Egypt, Syria and Iraq. Even after Egypt's reorientation following the signing of its peace treaty with Israel, the United States did not count on any Arab government for military assistance.

The Carter Administration began to implement a form of strategic cooperation (it was not referred to as such) by making Israel eligible to sell military equipment to the United States. The willingness to engage in limited, joint military endeavors was viewed by President Carter as a means of rewarding Israel for "good behavior" in peace talks with Egypt.

Though still reluctant to formalize the relationship, strategic cooperation became a major focus of the U.S.-Israel relationship when Ronald Reagan entered office. Before his election, Reagan had written: "Only by full appreciation of the critical role the State of Israel plays in our strategic calculus can we build the foundation for thwarting Moscow's designs on territories and resources vital to our security and our national well-being."

Reagan's view culminated in the November 30, 1981, signing of a Memorandum of Understanding on "strategic cooperation." On November 29, 1983, a new agreement was signed creating the Joint Political-Military Group (JPMG) and a group to oversee security assistance, the Joint Security Assistance Planning Group (JSAP).

The JPMG was originally designed to discuss means of countering threats posed by increased Soviet involvement in the Middle East. It has placed increasing emphasis, however, on bilateral concerns about the proliferation of chemical weapons and ballistic missiles.

The JSAP was formed in response to Israel's economic crisis in the mid­1980s. It is a binational group that meets annually in Washington to examine Israel's current and future military procurement requirements. It also formulates plans for the allocation of U.S. Foreign Military Sales credits in light of current threat assessments and U.S. budgetary capabilities.

An example of cooperation between the branches occurred January 23, 1987, when Congress designated Israel as a major non-NATO ally. This law formally established Israel as an ally, and allowed its industries to compete equally with NATO countries and other close U.S. allies for contracts to produce a significant number of defense items.

In April 1988, President Reagan signed another MOU encompassing all prior agreements. This agreement institutionalized the strategic relationship.

By the end of Reagan's term, the U.S. had prepositioned equipment in Israel, regularly held joint training exercises, began co-development of the Arrow Anti-Tactical Ballistic Missile and was engaged in a host of other cooperative military endeavors.

Since then, U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation has continued to evolve. Today, these strategic ties are stronger than ever. To cite a few examples:

  • Israeli-based Elbit systems and their subsidiaries were awarded a $50 million contract by the U.S. Navy in April 2017, to supply helmet displays and tracker systems for the MH-60S helicopters.  
  • Israeli defense firm Elbit Systems and it's U.S. counterpart Elbit Systems of America LLC announced on February 16, 2016, that they signed an Indefinite Delivery/Indefinite Quantity (ID/IQ) contract to provide and maintain mortar fire control systems for the U.S. Army.  The contract, worth $102 million , is to be completed over a 5-year period.  
  • The United States announced an investment of $120 million in Israel anti-tunneling technology on February 3, 2016. Later that week IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot spoke at a press conference, where he confirmed that nearly 100 engineering vehicles were currently working at the border to identify and destroy Hamas tunnels. “We are doing a lot, but many of [the things we do] are hidden from the public. We have dozens, if not a hundred, engineering vehicles on the Gaza border,” Eisenkot said. Israeli officials briefed U.S. security personnel on their anti-tunneling activities in early May 2016, and made plans to share their anti-tunnel technology with the United States for use on the US-Mexico border.
  • The Pentagon awarded a $25 million contract for a portable, stair-climbing, bomb-detecting robot to Israeli startup Roboteam in December 2015. These bots are deployed in various situations are are used for foil terrorists, identify and safely dispose of explosive devices, and generally keep ground troops safer. The robots are designed in Israel but manufactured in Bethesda, Maryland.
  • Israel Military Industries and U.S. based Raytheon were awarded with a Pentagon contract to develop and manufacture GPS guided mortar shells in December 2015. This contract was allegedly worth $98 million.
  • Jewish security personnel from four U.S. cities (Cleveland, Memphis, Detroit and Kansas City) joined Israeli police officers in a tour of Israel during November 2015, to examine the safety and security procedures used by Israelis. The Security Directors for Montreal's Jewish Community, a representative from the New Jersey State Police, and a senior Department of Homeland Security official also participated in the tour. This trip was organized by the Secure Community Network, affiliated with the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA).
  • In the wake of the Iran agreement's implementation, in October 2015 U.S. officials announced that they were planning to increase military aid to Israel by $1 billion, on top of the $3.1 billion in military aid Israel already receives annually from the U.S. Israeli Minister of Defense Moshe Ya'alon held meetings with U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter during late October and early November 2015, during which they further discussed the aid package being offered to Israel.
  • The U.S. approved $40 million in June 2015 for a joint project with the Israeli government aimed at addressing the threat of cross-border attack/smuggling tunnels.
  • U.S. diplomats reported in 2014 that Israel was assisting in the fight against the Islamic State by providing the United States with intelligence information, including lists of Westerners who have joined ISIS. Israel has also provided vital intelligence in the form of drones flying over ISIS territory. This information is then used to carry out air strikes and plan coordinated attacks. 
  • Because of its strategic location and its unquestionable reliability as an ally, the U.S. has found Israel to be an ideal place for training, maintenance, and prepositioning of material and supplies.
  • More than 300 Department of Defense personnel travel to Israel every month.
  • Joint military exercises are regularly held. Israel has had more extensive naval exercises with the U.S. than any other country in the Middle East and has conducted training exchanges with special American anti­terrorist forces.
  • Israel's Haifa port has routinely been declared to be the best and most cost-effective facility of its kind in the region by senior Navy officials. Haifa receives approximately 40 U.S. Navy ships each year, hosting thousands of U.S. sailors and Marines.
  • Israel also makes other facilities available to the U.S. including hospitals, training areas, and bombing ranges in the Negev Desert. And most important, Israel is the only country in the area that the U.S. can truly rely on to provide open and unhindered access to its ports and facilities.
  • A Joint Anti-Terrorism Working Group has been created.
  • A direct hotline was established between the Pentagon and the Israeli Defense Ministry.
  • A study found that Israel can help the United States in 13 of the 21 critical technological areas that the Pentagon has identified as vital to keeping American defenses strong. The U.S. continues to fund the research and development of Israeli weapons systems and military equipment including the Arrow missile, the Tactical High Energy Laser, the Barak ship self-defense missile system, Reactive Armor Tiles, Crash-Attenuating Seats, the Have-Nap missile and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.
  • In early 1997, Israel linked up to the U.S. missile warning satellite system, which will provide Israel with real-time warning if a missile is launched against it.

The strategic cooperation agreements established Israel as a de facto ally of the United States, institutionalized military to military contacts, sent a message to the Arabs that America was not afraid to risk upsetting them and shifted at least part of the focus of relations with Israel from Congress to the Executive Branch.

During a press conference following talks with Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon in November 2015, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter stated, “I hesitate to make invidious comparisons, but if you’re making comparisons to, say, the European legacy arms (industry), the guys who have made the tanks and planes and ships in Europe, they’ve been very slow to come out of the industrial age. The Israelis you will find to be more clever and more innovative.” Carter referenced the Israeli solution to taking care of dangerous improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and said that there was, “no question that lives were saved as a consequence of their (the Israelis) help.”