Despite U.S. Anger Over Settlements, Defense Ties Are Flourishing

A high-profile diplomatic row between Israel and the U.S. has done nothing to dent military cooperation.

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Even as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received the full wrath of the Obama administration, the Defense Ministry and Pentagon were concluding yet another huge deal.

Israel will buy three new Hercules-J transport aircraft, built by Lockheed Martin, at a cost of $250 million. The planes will be manufactured according to Israeli specifications and include many systems produced by Israeli military suppliers.

The deal goes to show that a continuing diplomatic crisis between Israel and the United States has still to make itself felt as far as defense relations are concerned.

During a previous row earlier in the decade, when Israeli agreed to sell Phalcon early-warning and reconnaissance aircraft to China, the Pentagon made its displeausure clear. Relations took years to return to normal.

But over the past two years defense ties have flourished. The air force now holds extensive exercises with its American counterpart, while this November a large joint missile defense exercise, code-named Juniper-Cobra, is due to take place in Israel.

Against a background of high-level tensions between U.S. President Barack Obama and Netanyahu, now rumbling on into a second year, the U.S. defense establishment has been careful to build an alternative in the form of direct and friendly links with Israeli defense officials. To a considerable extent, these links center on Defense Minister Ehud Barak's personal relationship with U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

Under present circumstances, it appears that the U.S. administration is keen to maintain this relationship, even while stepping up political pressure on Netanyahu.

The bigger problem, from the defense point of view, lies in the implications of Palestinian-Israeli tensions on the number-one strategic issue: the Iranian nuclear program. A series of visits to Israel by senior U.S. officials in recent months was meant to make clear that Washington has no intention of giving Israel a green light to strike Iran - or even a yellow one.

Defense officials are certainly getting the message. With relations so tense, it is becoming hard to coordinate international diplomatic steps against Iran. If Israel needs to improve its readiness in the event of a further escalation in the region - against Iran, or against Hezbollah, Hamas and possibly Syria - it might be difficult to find a friendly audience.

One of America's demands to Israel is a goodwill gesture toward the Palestinian Authority that would restore security conditions in the West Bank to their state on September 28, 2000, the eve of the second intifada.

This would give the PA complete control over regions of the West Bank designated 'Area A' by the Oslo Accords - meaning that Israel would agree to limit its powers arrest there. For some months now, defense officials have been discussing at least partial implementation of the idea.

So far, neither the IDF nor the Shin Bet security service has entirely rejected the plan, in view of the improved security coordination with the Palestinian Authority.

Only that under the current American political pressure, agreeing to such a demand may lead the Palestinians to assume that the balance of power has shifted - and that they owe Israel nothing. In view of the dwindling trust between Israel and the PA, such an assumption is a guaranteed recipe for trouble.

Posted by Amos Harel, March 26, 2010

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