The grandiose opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games often serve as a useful venue for informal meetings between world leaders. The Beijing Olympics in August 2008 was no exception. Vladimir Putin (at the time prime minister of Russia, on a break between his periods of presidency, but no one had any illusions that he was still very much in charge of the Kremlin), had a brief meeting with then-Israeli president Shimon Peres.
Putin had one message for Peres: “Get your people out of Georgia.” Russian troops were about to invade the neighboring country, in what was to become the first round in Putin’s campaign to keep former Soviet vassals in line, and he was now telling Israel to remove the private Israeli defense contractors working with the pro-western Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili’s military. Peres sent the message on to prime minister Ehud Olmert and Israel swiftly complied.
The Russia-Georgia war was a geopolitical turning point. Putin, who had consolidated his control of Russia and ruthlessly ended the internal war in Chechnya, had begun projecting his power beyond Russia’s borders. President George W. Bush, at the end of his second term, exhausted from two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, was not about to offer Saakashvili much more than lip-service. A western ally was left to Putin’s tender mercies. A pattern that would repeat itself over the next decade had been established.
The west, led by the United States, had won the Cold War. The Soviet Union disintegrated and most of its former republics and satellites were embracing democracy and capitalism to various degrees. For countries like Israel which had aligned itself with the U.S., now the only global super-power, it was vindication. But the euphoria didn’t last.
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The post-Cold War leaders of the west had lost the inclination confront rivals. Sapped by the folly of the Iraq War, the U.S., under three presidents so far, has stood aside while Putin and other lesser regional powers such as Iran and Turkey exploited the vacuum left by an increasingly isolationist America. NATO, the most successful defense alliance in history, no longer had a clear purpose. Less than three decades after its victory in the Cold War, few regard the U.S. as sole, even pre-eminent, world-power: instead the talk is increasingly of a multipolar world.
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Israel’s leaders, to their credit, were prepared for this. Peres and Olmert, Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu have all been extremely wary and respectful of Putin and made major efforts over the past two decades to improve ties with other aspiring, global and regional powers, particularly China, India and Brazil. Even when the leaders of these countries were incurring the displeasure of Israel’s supreme ally – some would say patron – in Washington.
In recent years, Israel was slow to join the U.S. and other western governments in condemning Russia for its expansionist moves in Crimea and Ukraine, and has rebuffed pressure to place more stringent restrictions on sales of technology to China. This has been the situation both under Barack Obama and Donald Trump, despite their radically different relationships with Israel’s current leaderNetanyahu.
U.S.-Israel special relationship
That doesn’t change the fact that Israel still sees its alliance with the U.S. as its primary strategic asset. It’s not just the military assistance of 3.8 billion dollars a year (mainly a subsidy to American arms manufacturers who sell their wares to the Israel Defense Forces), the almost blanket veto in the United Nations of any resolution against Israel, or the “joint values” and the historic fact that the U.S. was the first to recognize the newly-born state of Israel, 11 minutes after midnight on May 15, 1948. The fact that Israel is widely viewed across the world as one of America’s closest allies has huge strategic importance for its foreign relations and military deterrence.
As eight years of naked personal hostility between Netanyahu and Obama proved, including the breathtaking spectacle of an Israeli prime minister brazenly addressing Congress against the president’s treasured Iran deal foreign policy, the relationship between the two countries is much stronger than the personal ties between any two leaders. This will remain true for the foreseeable future, whoever eventually replaces Netanyahu and Trump. Even the most critical of the current crop of Democratic candidates, Bernie Sanders, constantly repeats (to the dismay of some of his supporters) how pro-Israel he is.
The question however isn’t whether the U.S. will continue to support Israel. For a generation to come at least, that support is all but guaranteed. The real question is whether the U.S. will continue its gradual retreat from it lone superpower position, and its unwillingness to get involved in conflicts far from its borders?
A second Trump term would certainly signal more isolationism and, with the exception perhaps of Joe Biden, none of those vying to replace Trump in a year’s time seem keen for America to resume its global policeman role. If the trend which began at the end of the Bush presidency with the Georgian war, and intensified under Obama and Trump continues, will American support for Israel be as helpful as in the past? Could it even become a burden? And does Israel have a viable alternative (or need one)?
Let’s start with the most visible and quantifiable part of U.S. support for Israel, the actual financial support. Many years ago, there was both economic (ie civilian) financial support and military financial support; today all of it, all 3.8 billion dollars a year of it, is military. Though, importantly, the economic aid (with the exception of a small proportion which is being phased out) doesn’t actually go to Israel, but to American arms manufacturers, to subsidize the sales of weapons systems to Israel.
In other words, the arms industry gets billions of dollars in federal subsidies, and in return has to supply Israel with arms. But how useful is it really for Israel?
As the Israeli economy has grown, the need for American assistance has decreased and the actual costs for Israel of a dependency on American arms are becoming more evident. In the short-term, having this $3.8b annual voucher for some of the best weapons available is a useful thing, but it has significant drawbacks in the long-term.
It means the IDF has less incentive to invest in developing homegrown weapons systems. It doesn’t consider purchasing systems from other sources such as Europe and Russia, and is limited to one or two American manufacturers with whom it has far less bargaining power. And it makes the IDF used to relying on a relatively large number of expensive-to-use and expensive-to-maintain American systems (especially fighter jets) instead of a much leaner and efficient fighting force.
In other words, without the $3.8b the Israeli taxpayers would have to make up part of the shortfall, in the short-term, but in the long-term both the IDF and the Israeli economy could benefit. Israel would still purchase some American weapons (at much more favorable prices, as it could shop elsewhere and Lockheed and Boeing would still have an interest to sell to Israel for reasons of prestige and for feedback from a prime customer) but only the quantity it really needs. The IDF would be more flexible, more cost-effective and be using more tailor-made Israeli systems, which would result in more investments in the domestic tech sector.
All in all, it makes sense to stop accepting U.S. military assistance in the long-run. And since there are still eight years to go until the current military assistance agreement ends, there is more than enough time for Israel to prepare for ending this needless dependence.
Another tangible form of American support is the (nearly) automatic veto of any anti-Israel United Nations Security Council resolution. That of course is a useful thing to have and to be able to rely on. But what if Israel wasn’t able to rely on the U.S. veto? Would that be a disaster? How damaging could UNSC resolutions really be? Israel has ignored enough of them in the past. And besides, there are four other permanent Security Council members with the power of veto. Perhaps they would find it useful to offer their veto to Israel as well?
But of course, the strategic ties between the two nations has never been just about money or UN votes. Israel gets also intangible support from the U.S. in many other ways. There’s intelligence-sharing, military coordination and planning, joint exercises. Can Israel do without that? That’s a tough question, but here’s another one. Would America want to do without it?
Israel is the weaker, more vulnerable and poorer partner in this relationship. It needs the U.S.’ support more. But it also provides America with crucial information, know-how and opportunities in the military and intelligence spheres that the U.S. does not and cannot get elsewhere. Even if the exclusive nature of the America-Israel alliance were to change, it would still be in both side’s interests to maintain high levels of security cooperation.
They may have to be more wary, but once again, it could be in Israel’s interests to suspend, or even end, exclusivity - especially if the U.S. is no longer certain about its long-term presence in the region. New security partnerships with the Europeans and closer relationships with the Russian and Chinese defense establishments make sense, even if they do come at America’s expense.
Partnering with nice European democracies is one thing, but Russia and China? What about shared values? Good questions, again. But shared values, or even the perception or myth of sharing them, are a luxury worth having only when the partners can first project each other’s power. As America retreats from the Middle East, there’s less and less American power for Israel to project, and the question of whether Israel can be better off without its strategic partner is no longer a question. It will have little choice in the matter anyway.