Last week, 50 retired U.S. generals and admirals signed a statement of support for Israel. As defense professionals, and after many visits with officials from the Israel Defense Forces, they say they "came away with the unswerving belief that the security of the State of Israel is a matter of great importance to the United States and its policy in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean. A strong, secure Israel is an asset upon which American military planners and political leaders can rely. Israel is a democracy - a rare and precious commodity in the region and Israel shares our commitment to freedom, personal liberty and rule of law."
The retired senior officers mention "shared values and shared threats" such as terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, but stay away from the essence of the dispute between Washington and Jerusalem. The organization that initiated and published the statement, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, is well aware of the precedent: its letter of October 2000, also signed by 50 retired generals and admirals. The gist a decade ago was defending the IDF's efforts to suppress Palestinian terror attacks.
The signatories this time are not supporters of the policies of the Netanyahu government, they're only reporting that they were impressed by their Israeli interlocutors' "determination to protect their country and to pursue a fair and workable peace with their neighbors." Their main issue is to prevent the impression that Israel is a burden and not an asset; this is also the case after the recent statements attributed to Gen. David Petraeus (which have been denied).
It's good that an organization like JINSA exists to decrease the alienation between retired and current officers on the one hand, and the American Jewish community on the other. JINSA would also help improve relations between the Pentagon and Israel. It's also good that the retired officers, who visit Israel on JINSA tours with their wives and are taken on informative trips and given briefings, express a positive opinion to their friends and sometimes also the press, as military commentators. It's even better to understand what they don't say in the letter, which leaves out each of the following words: Palestinians, territories, Jerusalem, construction.
In the mid-1970s, Israel was shocked to find out that the admiration of some American officers for the IDF did not balance out the hostility of other officers because of Israel's urgent need for military equipment during and after the Yom Kippur War. The lack of materiel led to a political decision, contrary to the opinion of U.S. commanders, to thin out U.S. military stores in Europe and send equipment to Israel.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, Gen. George Brown, said that from a military standpoint, Israel was a burden and not an asset. That was a narrow and simplistic way to view the main task: protecting Europe from a Soviet invasion. Military people tend to focus on their responsibility and clearly defined area and leave broader considerations to their leaders.
Since the end of the Cold War, Israel's position has become even more delicate. The Middle East has become a major arena with complex interrelationships between regions and issues. Various and conflicting strata can exist simultaneously: Israel can both contribute on the operational level and be a strategic hindrance.
It is best to stop presenting Israel as a landlubbing aircraft carrier: When an aircraft carrier becomes obsolete and worn out, and maintaining it becomes too expensive, it's junked or turned into a floating museum. The IDF also does this; for example, with its Phantom jets, the pride of the Israel Air Force in their day. When they got old, they were no longer suitable for combat and training pilots and navigators. Another example is the South Lebanese Army. What was useful under certain circumstances is unnecessary and even harmful under others. The weight of the armor that protects the foot soldier could drown a swimmer.
Nostalgia and heritage are not enough. Israel cannot act like Uncle Sam's reckless niece and expect to be indulged; her uncle would have to send her to rehab, limit her allowance and eventually appoint her a guardian.
Israel is in charge of its own security, but it cannot determine how much of an asset it is to the United States. The hint in the JINSA letter is clear: Israel must prove it is a partner in values, not only in threats and military responses, because the discussion about peace, liberty and human rights is on a different level than security. The policy of the Netanyahu government, which insists on sabotaging the chance for an agreement and to ease the conflict, is eroding Israel's strength.
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