At the height of Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s seven-week war with Hamas in the summer of 2014, then President Barack Obama imposed an embargo on a shipment of Hellfire missiles to Israel after the Pentagon approved the transfer.
A senior Obama administration told the The Wall Street Journal at the time that Israel could no longer expect automatic resupply of critical munitions in wartime. The decision to embargo the Hellfire missiles, the official averred, amounted to “the United States saying ‘the buck stops here. Wait a second … It’s not OK anymore.’”
The embargo was spurred by an IDF artillery round that fell on a United Nations school Hamas was using as a missile launching site. As is its wont, Hamas placed civilians at the site to serve as human shields.
The Hellfire embargo was meant to teach Israel a lesson.
But what lesson? If the administration wanted Israel to minimize civilian casualties, Obama should have been happy to supply Israel with more Hellfire missiles. Unlike regular artillery shells, the precision guided Hellfire missiles minimize civilian casualties.
By embargoing the Hellfire missiles, Obama was ensuring that all things being equal, more civilians would die. And that was the point. By denying Israel access to Hellfire missiles in the middle of a war, Obama was forcing Israel to choose between fighting Hamas with “dumb” artillery rounds at the cost of more civilian casualties and more U.S. and international condemnation, or standing down.
Under the circumstances, the IDF General Staff might have been expected to reevaluate the desirability of maintaining Israel’s dependence on U.S. military assistance over time. But no such reassessment took place then, or since. Over the five decades since the U.S. transformed Israel into a U.S. client state through military aid, the handful of senior IDF officers who opposed the aid found themselves denied promotions, marginalized, and out of the IDF.
To be sure, U.S. military assistance to Israel has a lot to recommend it. $3.8 billion annually in free U.S. military platforms and munitions is a lot of money. True, it’s less than a sixth of Israel’s military budget and Israel would survive without it. But it’s still a lot of money.
Moreover, the U.S. is the most powerful country in the world. To the extent U.S. military assistance to Israel is viewed as a tangible manifestation of a U.S. commitment to Israeli power, it advances Israel’s global and regional position.
But there are good reasons for the IDF to oppose U.S. aid. The first is the uncertainty of procurement. When Israel jointly developed its Iron Dome and David’s Sling missile defense systems with the U.S., Washington insisted the missile production lines be located in the U.S., not Israel. The position raised few concerns at the time. But during Israel’s miniwar with Hamas in 2021, anti-Israel, progressive lawmakers sought to block supplemental orders.
In 2021, the progressives lacked the political power to get their way. But there is every reason to fear the balance of power will eventually shift to the progressives’ advantage.
There is also the problem of U.S. weapons themselves. While the U.S. remains the most powerful force in the world, its technological advantage over Russia and China is no longer as clear-cut today as it was in the past. With both countries increasingly active in the Middle East arms sales market, their rising prowess casts a pall on the U.S.’s ability to preserve Israel’s qualitative military edge. Israel has little interest or ability to purchase Russian or Chinese systems. But Israel has a profound interest in developing its own systems and expanding its productive capacity in partnership with outside partners including but not limited to the U.S., India, South Korea, and Japan.
Another reason the IDF might have been expected to question the desirability of continued dependence on U.S. aid is because it comes attached to strategic goals which, while perhaps reasonable for the U.S., are often bad for Israel. The U.S.’s strategic goal in the Middle East is to avoid a war. Israel’s goal is to achieve security.
These are two very different goals. Sometimes, they overlap and sometimes they clash. The IDF’s sense of dependence on the U.S. makes Israeli generals toe the U.S. line at all times, regardless of the implications of doing so for Israel’s strategic interests.
Consider for instance, the IDF’s support for the U.S.-dictated maritime border agreement with Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon last October. The deal is a strategic disaster for Israel. It gives Hezbollah a share of the eastern Mediterranean gas industry. It limits Israel’s offensive options and maneuver room in a future war with Hezbollah. It threatens Israel’s northern coast from the sea. It presents Israel as a paper tiger who succumbed to Hezbollah extortion.
While the danger the deal posed for Israel was easy to discern, the IDF General Staff parroted the same lines proclaimed by President Joe Biden’s team, applauding the surrender deal as “win-win,” for all sides.
The generals defend their refusal to reevaluate the implications of continued reliance on U.S. military assistance with a merry-go-round of circular reasoning. The U.S. is the guarantor of Israel’s existence, they begin, and then proclaim that any step Israel takes that angers the U.S. endangers that guarantee and so endangers Israel’s existence.
When you mention, for instance, that the U.S.’s nuclear diplomacy with Iran provides Tehran with the ability to acquire nuclear weapons which endanger Israel’s existence, their response is that the U.S. is the guarantor of Israel’s existence.
In the 1970s, Israelis perceived U.S. military aid as their safety belt. A demonstration of the U.S.’s moral and strategic commitment to the Jewish state, the aid assured both the General Staff and the public that they wouldn’t again suffer the existential fear that seized them during the Yom Kippur War.
Fifty years on, the safety belt is too tight and not reliably safe. By ending Israel’s status as client state, the U.S. would free the IDF General Staff from its herd mentality. It would preserve the U.S.-Israel alliance by shifting U.S.-Israel ties to the more stable, politically insulated and mutually beneficial status of strategic partnership. Together Israel and the U.S. can partner in developing and fielding technologies that will guarantee both nations’ defenses while preserving, stabilizing, and expanding Israel’s procurement options and doctrinal flexibility to meet the threats it faces as a powerful, dependable U.S. ally.
Caroline B. Glick is the senior contributing editor and senior columnist at JNS.org. She is a columnist at Newsweek, a diplomatic commentator at Israel Channel 14, and the host of the Caroline Glick Show. Glick is the author of The Israeli Solution: A One-State Plan for Peace in the Middle East, and Shackled Warrior. She is currently writing a book on the political chaos in Israel surrounding judicial reform.