For two weeks in the summer of 1982, U.S. and Soviet jets dueled in the skies over Lebanon in one of the largest aerial dogfights since World War II. The pilots were Israelis and Syrians. In a classic Cold War proxy battle, U.S.-backed Israel humiliated Soviet-backed Syria, downing 86 MiGs without a single loss. It was the finest example of Israel’s strategic value to the United States: In return for the planes, Israel served as America’s shield and a model for the superiority of American-made weaponry.
In the summer of 2013, American-made Israeli jets are humiliating Syria once again. Israel’s ability to evade sophisticated Russian-made anti-aircraft systems to bomb Syrian territory over the past week does not just signal a possible expansion of Syria’s civil war or the latest salvo in the struggle with Iran. It also suggests that the U.S.-Israel alliance may be returning to its Cold War roots—which is good news for both countries.
The strategic bond between the United States and Israel did not begin with the Jewish state’s founding in 1948. Many U.S. officials cautioned against becoming too close with the nascent state, which identified itself as a socialist country, had diplomatic support within the Soviet bloc, and was hated by America’s Arab oil suppliers. As the United States attempted to build a regional security alliance to contain Soviet power in the Middle East, President Dwight Eisenhower pressured Israel to cede a large portion of the Negev Desert so that Egypt and Jordan could link borders. He also forced Israel to abort its military incursion into Egypt to seize the Suez Canal in concert with Britain and France.
But as Cairo and other Arab capitals increasingly sided with Moscow, Washington began to see Jerusalem as a possible bulwark against Soviet influence. In 1962, John F. Kennedy told Golda Meir, then Israel’s foreign minister, “The United States has a special relationship with Israel in the Middle East really comparable only to what it has with Britain over a wide range of world affairs”—a statement that wasn’t true at the time, but did turn out to be prophetic. The Kennedy and Johnson Administrations generally ignored Israel’s development of nuclear weapons during the 1960s and sent moderate amounts of small arms that helped the Jewish state smash Arab armies fighting with Soviet weapons in the Six Day War.
Israel’s victory—largely achieved with French-made jets and homemade Kfir fighters rather than American weapons—suggested the benefits of a strategic alliance with Israel. After the Six Day War, the United States would supply the advanced weapons and Israel would do the fighting. Over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, Israel rescued the U.S.-supported Hashemite monarchy in Jordan from a Syrian invasion, embarrassed the U.S.S.R. by downing Soviet planes over the Suez Canal, and opened its port in Haifa to the U.S. Sixth Fleet to counter the establishment of a Soviet submarine base in Syria. Despite several points of tension, such as U.S. displeasure with Israel’s full-scale invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the partnership between the two countries became a key component of Washington’s Cold War strategy in the Eastern Mediterranean and a powerful advertisement for high-end American arms.
But the end of the Cold War shook the strategic foundations of the U.S.-Israel relationship. No longer worried about the Soviet threat, U.S. officials began to see Israel as an obstacle to building relations with erstwhile enemies in the Arab World. The rise of Palestinian resistance to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank furthered this view. Many in Washington embraced the notion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict drove anti-American resentment across the Middle East and saw Israel as a chief obstacle to regional harmony. President George H.W. Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker tried to force Israel to make peace with the PLO at the Madrid Peace Conference in the hopes of winning friends among the Arabs. When the United States cobbled together a coalition of Arab nations against Saddam Hussein, it sought desperately to keep Israel out of the war, suggesting that it saw the Jewish state as a strategic burden rather than an asset. The signing of the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn and subsequent negotiations at Wye and Camp David seemed to suggest that Israel’s chief value to the United States was as a source of prestige for presidents who could deliver that most enchanting diplomatic prize, Middle East peace.
The 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah gave the Jewish state its first real opportunity since the end of the Cold War to quiet doubters by applying the classic alliance model. In a new Middle Eastern proxy struggle, this time between the United States and Iran, Israel sought to crush Hezbollah. Yet it did not perform up to its Cold War standard. In a bumbling operation, it fought the Lebanese terrorist group to what many saw as a draw, causing then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, among others, to lose faith in its value as an arm of U.S. deterrence in the region.
The strategic drift between Washington and Jerusalem opened up space for critics to call for an end to a special relationship that had outlived its usefulness on the ground. Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer spearheaded this campaign in 2006 with an explosive article arguing that there was no longer any strategic rationale for a continued alliance. Although critics rallied against aspects of their work, their basic contention was widely accepted in Washington. In 2010, Gen. David Petraeus, then the head of U.S. Central Command, testified on Capitol Hill that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “foments anti-American sentiment” and “limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships.” Tensions during the Obama Administration’s first term over the stalled peace process and Iran seemed to underscore the idea that official Washington saw the alliance with Israel as a costly political burden that served no evident military or strategic purpose.
But recent events in the Middle East suggest that 20 years of uncertainty about Israel’s strategic value may be ending.
The Israeli bombings in Syria over the past week came with Washington’s close coordination and President Obama’s post-strike blessing. Although the United States does not seek any escalation of the war in Syria, it appears to have deputized Israel to police the spread of chemical weapons and advanced Iranian arms bound for Hezbollah.
Iran, to be sure, poses a lesser threat to the United States than the Soviet Union. Yet its drive for regional hegemony comes exactly as the United States is attempting to disengage from the region. That makes the strategic logic of relying on Israel to guarantee U.S. interests more clear than it has been in a generation for Republicans and Democrats alike. Those who want the United States to intervene more actively in the Middle East can take solace in the fact that the United States still has a means of striking back at Iran and containing other possible regional threats, like Syria’s aborted attempt to develop its own nuclear bomb. Those who want the United States to get as far away from the Middle East as possible, meanwhile, can be happy that Israel will do the fighting while America extracts itself.
The Pentagon, at the very least, appears to be embracing the idea of Israel fighting America’s battles in the Middle East in exchange for high-end weapons systems, the same way it did during the Cold War. The strikes in Syria came two weeks after a major arms sale between the United States and Israel in which the Jewish state will receive anti-radiation missiles designed to target enemy aerial defenses, upgraded radar systems, Osprey helicopters, and air refueling tankers—a sale that U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel described as a “clear signal” to Iran.
The United States has long had moral, emotional, and domestic political reasons to support Israel. The return of the American-Israeli alliance to its Cold War foundations will aid both countries in overcoming their disagreements and coordinating their efforts in Syria and across the Middle East. Just as Israel downed Soviet-made Syrian jets in the Cold War, it will now destroy Iranian-made missiles, bolstering U.S. deterrence as Washington’s proxy war with Tehran approaches its climax.
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