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The Evolution of the U.S.-Israel Strategic Alliance

by Mitchell G. Bard

Ike Learns to Appreciate Israel
Israel Proves Its Strategic Value
Strategic Cooperation Formalized
Examples of Cooperation
Lessons From Gaza Wars
Cooperation Expands

In 1952, Gen. Omar Bradley, head of the U.S. 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 the integration of Israeli forces into 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.

During his first term, President Dwight Eisenhower was hostile toward Israel. Eisenhower believed that the creation of a Jewish state was impractical. He did not think it could survive without substantial U.S. military involvement that he feared would destabilize the region, open the door to Soviet infiltration, and threaten oil supplies. He believed that Israel was one small piece on the global strategic chessboard that made his policies more difficult. The Suez War exacerbated those concerns.

Ike Learns to Appreciate Israel

In his second term, however, Eisenhower’s attitudes shifted dramatically because following the advice of the Arabists in his administration to distance America from Israel had backfired: relations with much of the Arab world worsened; the Soviets gained a foothold in the region; Egypt joined the Soviet camp and was working to weaken America’s allies; the Saudis failed to emerge as a reliable counterweight to promote U.S. interests; U.S. troops were forced to intervene to save pro-Western regimes in Lebanon and Jordan, and the pro-Western government of Iraq was overthrown.

Israel emerged as a potential asset for the first time in July 1958, after the pro-Western government in Iraq was overthrown and nationalist forces were threatening the regimes in Lebanon and Jordan. Just two years after condemning the nation’s allies for their intervention at Suez, Eisenhower sent U.S. troops to bolster the government in Lebanon. He also agreed to ship vital strategic materials to Jordan as part of a joint American-British airlift. Saudi Arabia, however, refused to allow either country to fly through their air space and even denied the U.S. access to the American airfield at Dhahran. Instead, the supplies were flown through Israel, which was happy to cooperate.

In August 1958, a memorandum submitted to the National Security Council by the NSC Planning Board concluded:

It is doubtful whether any likely US pressure on Israel would cause Israel to make concessions which would do much to satisfy Arab demands which — in the final analysis — may not be satisfied by anything short of the destruction of Israel. Moreover, if we choose to combat radical Arab nationalism and to hold Persian Gulf oil by force if necessary, then a logical corollary would be to support Israel as the only pro-West power left in the Near East.

Israel’s crushing victory over the combined Arab forces in 1967 reinforced the view that Israel was a power to be reckoned with and could help America achieve its strategic goals in the region. 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 Proves Its Strategic Value

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 the 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. President Carter viewed the willingness to engage in limited, joint military endeavors 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.

Strategic Cooperation Formalized

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 on 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.

Examples of Cooperation

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

  • The U.S.S. Iwo Jima aircraft carrier docked at the Port of Haifa in March 2018, following a bi-annual Juniper Cobra joint training exercise.  
  • In 2017; the United States and Israel formed a bilateral working group to fight cyber attacks.
  • 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 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 U.S.-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 reportedly 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. 
  • 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. Former IDF Chief of Staff, Maj.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, revealed that Israel’s “campaign against ISIS was intensive and far beyond that of any other country.” He said, “they paid the price of hundreds of casualties and injured.” 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.
  • 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.
  • On October 20, 2021, a U.S. base in southern Syria was attacked by five Iranian suicide drones. Most American troops were evacuated beforehand after receiving a warning from Israeli intelligence.
  • In August 2023, the U.S. Marine Corps announced plans to acquire three batteries worth of Iron Dome systems, including 44 launchers and 1,840 Tamir interceptors.

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.”

UCLA professor Steven Spiegel also noted at least six changes adopted by the U.S. military that were prompted by Israeli combat experiences: 1) decreased use of searchlights; 2) increased use of thermal sights for night fighting; 3) greater use of tanks and armored personnel carriers (APCs) in tandem; 4) improvements in command, control, and communications; 5) use of electronic warfare in reconnaissance units; and 6) enhanced air-to-air missiles and electronic countermeasures. Several of these were used with great success in Operation Desert Storm.

Lessons From Gaza Wars

A study by the Rand Corporation on Israel’s wars in Gaza noted that “Israel has been a source of vicarious learning for the U.S. military for decades, and these latest Gaza wars are no exception.” Specifically, the report said three broad lessons were that “public support for the conflict often hinges more on perceptions of the campaign’s success than it does on casualties—a rethinking about sensitivity to casualties,” “the U.S. military needs to be even more wary about misunderstanding the region,” and “modern democratic militaries must increasingly confront lawfare – using law as a substitute for traditional military means to achieve a warfighting objective – when combating irregular forces.”

The study also said the United States could learn four operational, tactical, and technological lessons:

  • Precision firepower has limitations, particularly in dense urban terrain.
  • Missile defense has potential.
  • There is value in armor and active protective systems that protect vehicles from rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank-guided munitions.
  • Tunnel warfare needs to continue to develop.

The report concluded: “Today, the Army and the joint force need to continue to learn from IDF’s challenges and successes – and use those lessons to identify gaps in their own approaches.”

Cooperation Expands

One additional area of growing cooperation is the development of responses to the threat of drones, especially those used by Iran. In June 2021, teams led by White House National Security Council Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk and Israeli Deputy National Security Adviser Reuven Ezer reportedly met to discuss how to address the threat to Israel and other U.S. allies from Iranian drones and precision-guided missiles.

On March 1, 2023, the Israeli Defense Ministry and the U.S. Department of Defense signed a security of supply arrangement to ensure that both countries have special priority to purchase security supplies on an emergency basis in the case of a conflict.

See also Intelligence Cooperation

Sources: Mitchell Bard,  The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance That Undermines America’s Interests in the Middle East, (NY: HarperCollins: 2010).
Steven Spiegel, The Other Arab-Israeli Conflict: Making America’s Middle East Policy from Truman to Reagan, (IL: University of Chicago Press, 1986).
“Israel and US said to increase cooperation to combat Iranian drones,” Times of Israel, (June 23, 2021).
Eric Schmitt and Ronen Bergman, “Strike on U.S. Base Was Iranian Response to Israeli Attack, Officials Say,” New York Times, (November 18, 2021).
Yonah Jeremy Bob, “Israeli, US defense establishments sign security supply deal,” Jerusalem Post, (March 1, 2023).
“Israel attacked ISIS in 2015, killing hundreds of terrorists, former IDF chief says,” Jerusalem Post, June 12, 2023).
Joseph Trevithick, “USMC Buying Nearly 2,000 Tamir Interceptors For Its Iron Dome Systems,” The War Zone, (August 25, 2023).