Obama with Netanyahu - Reuters - May 20, 2011
U.S. President Barack Obama with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office in Washington, May 20, 2011. Photo by Reuters
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House, May 20, 2011. Photo by GPO

These days, when reporters are mercilessly grilling State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland over the United States' funding cut to UNESCO following its approval of Palestine as member, the argument that Israel is a strategic asset to the U.S. might sound slightly presumptuous.

But according to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy – as expressed in their latest report, "Israel: A Strategic Asset for the United States" – the U.S.-Israel relationship is not a one-way street at all.

Its authors argue that Americans – starting with top administrative officials – should start acknowledging that Israel is a strategic asset for the U.S. They say the U.S.-Israeli relationship "stands equally on an underappreciated third leg: common national interests and collaborative action to advance those interests."

One of the authors, Robert Blackwill, is the former deputy national security adviser for strategic planning and presidential envoy to Iraq, and currently serves as a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Blackwill said Tuesday that contrary to popular opinion, the U.S.-Israel relationship in no way weakens United States' standing in the Arab world.

"Since 1973, we haven't identified any instances in the Arab world in which the U.S. paid a price for its relationship with Israel," said Blackwill.

"American diplomats, of course, hear much condemnation of U.S.-Israel relations, but when Arab governments act, they act on the basis of their national interests and we can't find examples of concrete tangible actions of the Arab governments against the U.S. because of its relations with Israel."

"Would Saudi Arabia's relationship with Washington be different if relations between Washington and Israel went into decline? Would they lower the price of oil? Would it view American democracy promotion in the Middle East more favorably? Would it regard U.S. Afghanistan policy more positively? Our criterion in this report was to check how the Arab government act; not what they say," said Blackwill.

When asked by Haaretz whether they see the recent vote approving Palestinian membership at UNESCO as an unfavorable result of the U.S.-Israel relationship, both Blackman and co-author Walter Slocombe exclaimed, "No!"

"The optic that we look though is the U.S. national interest, and this vote did not have a substantial influence on [that]," Blackwill said. "We are trying to make a very long-term argument. We want the debate to be on the long-term proposition, not what happened last week or last month," he added.

They admitted their argument is not widely accepted in the U.S. government, not to mention in academic circles.

Blackwill said Tuesday that the topic of the U.S.-Israel relationship is "very emotional" for a lot of people. So far U.S. administrations have not been willing to make the strategic advantage part of the argument in support of U.S.-Israeli relations, he said, adding that "It's hard to change the embedded views of the bureaucracy."

"The kinds of changes that are proposed in this report are never bottom up. They have to be top-down."

Blackwill and Slocombe's report reflects on U.S. cooperation with Israel with regards to various security concerns, from Israel's undertakings of tasks the U.S. might not be willing to do, to sharing intelligence and missile defense cooperation, to the Israeli expertise in cyber security that has already benefitted U.S. banking, communications, transportation and utilities.

This relationship is even more critical now, as both countries share an interest to prevent nuclear proliferation and oppose the spread of Iranian influence and the influence of Iran's proxies.
Still, Slocombe, who is a former Pentagon official and currently senior counsel at Caplin & Drysdale law firm, admitted "there is no magical military solution for Iran". So long as it's the case, he said, the argument in favor of military force is weak. He added, however, that the option of a surgical military strike should not be ruled out.

Blackwill added that, today, Israeli and U.S. intelligence estimates of Iran's nuclear program are "pretty close". "This was not the case five years ago," said Blackwill, who described Iran's nuclear program as "the most consequential danger for American national interest in the Middle East."

Regarding the Arab Spring, Blackwill and Slocombe were skeptical as to whether the U.S. would benefit from impending changes to the political structures of Israel's neighboring countries. "[The Arab Spring] is good in itself, but we're not sure it furthers our national interest." In contrast, they said, Israel is already a stable democracy and there is no other country in the Middle East whose national interests are "so closely aligned with those of the U.S."

קראו כתבה זו בעברית: דו"ח בוושינגטון: יחסי ארה"ב-ישראל קריטיים נוכח האיום האיראני