The Strategic Relationship with the United States: An Insider's View
For the past three decades I have been involved in the special relationship between Israel and the United States, which despite turbulent moments has flourished and grown. In this essay I reflect on how Israel maintains its unique bond with the world’s sole superpower
A street sign directing to the new US Embassy in Jerusalem, in early May | Photo: Sarah Shamir
The US-Israel relationship has a deep and long history, on many levels and across a wide spectrum of issues paramount to both nations. From Harry Truman’s recognition of the State of Israel to President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as its capital, the US has played an outsized role in Israel’s seventy-year ongoing story. Every American administration, Republican and Democratic alike, has made its mark on the relationship. There have always been disagreements between Israeli and American administrations, as there are occasionally between even the most steadfast of friends. But taken as a whole, the strategic relationship has endured and strengthened over time.
I have served in the Knesset for twenty-eight years, including eleven years as a Minister and ten as the Chairman of various Legislative Committees. Throughout my career, I have been consistently struck by the depth and breadth of the ties between the two nations.
In recent years, this relationship has seen moments of great cooperation and friendship, but also periods of significant tension. At times, particularly during the Obama Administration, Israel’s core interests were overlooked and our actions and motives were misunderstood by Washington. I’m sure this feeling was mutual. Both in good times and in bad, relationships take work, and as I have learned, with each US administration the challenges and nuances of the dialogue are a bit different. How we navigate the international waters when our biggest ally sees eye to eye with us – and, perhaps more interestingly, how we manage to do so when our interests do not align – is what I will elaborate upon in this essay. Common values, shared interests The first time I had an opportunity to witness first-hand the unique relationship between the United States and Israel was in my capacity as Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s Chief of Staff in 1986. In meetings between the Prime Minister and Secretary of State George Shultz disagreements arose, particularly concerning the Reagan administration’s initiative to convene an international peace conference. Prime Minister Shamir opposed this idea and was adamant that only direct negotiations between Israel and our neighbors could bring peace. Despite this disagreement, it was fascinating to see how the meetings remained friendly and intimate. This was in marked contrast to meetings with other nations – even allies – where disagreements often created a feeling of tension and animosity.
To me, at the core of our partnership are the shared values and beliefs of our two nations, such as liberty, the rule of law, entrepreneurship, and the free market. My life as a public servant has taught me that shared values often lead to shared national interests. At the next level is the relationship between our respective security and intelligence communities, which has been vital to the foreign policy and national security interests of both sides. And the top level is the political echelon: Several US Presidents and Israeli Prime Ministers forged a close personal relationship, and even mutual admiration, that further enhanced and strengthened the strategic ties between the nations.
National security experts in both countries overwhelmingly agree it would be detrimental to the national security of our nations to allow strategic cooperation to suffer because of a political disagreement
Surely, tensions and disagreements at the political level may arise – and have arisen – from time to time. These may originate from actual conflicts of interest between the two nations, political or ideological differences between the administrations, or even strained personal relationships between their leaders. But because of the depth of the relationship as a whole, these do not undermine the core of the alliance.
For example, national security experts in both countries overwhelmingly agree it would be detrimental to our armed services and intelligence agencies, as well as the national security of our nations, to allow strategic cooperation to suffer because of a political disagreement. In recognition of the strategic importance of the relationship, the decision-makers on the Israeli side, me included, are always attentive to the American interest at stake, no matter which issue is on the table. While most often Israel’s fundamental interests largely align with the US’, we have learned to maintain a healthy dialogue even in those rare occasions when our interests do not align.
How should the Israeli government, as the representative of the Israeli people, make foreign policy decisions when Israeli and US interests seem to be heading different ways? It goes without saying that our mandate and ultimate concern is to protect and serve Israel and the Israeli people. However, since we view the bond with the US as a strategic asset for Israel, we often ask ourselves how our decisions may affect US interests and consequently the robustness of the relationship between the two nations. We understand that as the dominant power in the world, the US has broader and more complex concerns than the average nation. It must often consider the interests of its close allies in making policy decisions in a way most nations do not.
Against this backdrop, we acknowledge that Israel at times must defer to what the US sees as a fundamental interest – not only because the balance of power and resources tilt strongly in its ally’s favor, but because Israel views a strong and engaged US as a strategic asset important to our overall national security. Within the defense and intelligence establishments of both nations it has become accepted fact that the well-being of one of us is in the interest of the other. In this context, it is vital that we in the Israeli leadership honestly and openly convey our core interests, including in those areas where we cannot accommodate the US position without compromising the well-being of our citizens.
The Obama years The Obama presidency was one of the most challenging times for the US-Israel relationship. President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu famously, and openly, clashed. Nearly all of these clashes focused on two issues – Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians, and the Iranian nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). On both issues, the Obama administration made policy decisions that we felt had adverse effects on the Middle East and ran counter to our core interests.
Before I elaborate, it is important to note that while those issues are among the most high-profile and most vital for Israel, they are not the only aspects of the relationship that matter. Many aspects of the strategic relationship flourished during the Obama presidency even while there were public disagreements over the Iran deal and settlement construction policy. Military cooperation and aid to Israel reached unprecedented levels, including joint development and US funding of the Iron Dome missile interceptor system. And, of course, President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu concluded the largest ever memorandum of understanding on foreign aid for a period of ten years.
Nevertheless, there were times when tensions seemed to reach almost unbearable levels. In 2015, Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed the US Congress to express Israel’s opposition to the emerging agreement with Iran. In Israel, across the political spectrum – including in large factions of the opposition – there was a consensus that the nuclear agreement posed grave dangers to Israel and the world. The Prime Minister very clearly laid out these dangers: the legitimization of Iran’s right to enrich uranium, ultimately without restriction once the agreement’s sunset provision comes into effect; The concern that the agreement will trigger a nuclear arms race throughout the Middle East; and, the fact the agreement failed to address Iran's intercontinental ballistic missile program, which has progressed unhindered, despite violating a series of UN Security Council resolutions.
In Israel, while there were some voices in opposition, the Prime Minister received broad support for his decision to address Congress on this critical issue. However, in the US, or more precisely from elements within the Democratic Party, Netanyahu's move was viewed as a personal insult to President Obama. We gave considerable attention for those voices, but the Prime Minister felt that while there was an element of risk in openly clashing with the administration, the issue is vital to our national security, and that ultimately the countries’ relationship is stronger than the chemistry between their leaders. He believed that the members of the Congress, because of their longstanding support for Israel, truly understood the fragility of Jewish sovereignty. For that reason, he believed our friends in both houses would ultimately come to respect why he felt the need to try and convince them of our position on an issue of such fundamental and existential importance.
I was the only member of the Knesset to accompany the Prime Minister for his address to Congress. Before we left for Washington DC, I asked him why he thought it was necessary, despite the fact it could be perceived as an insult to the President. He replied: “I will not be able to forgive myself if I do not try to influence the US decision on the most fateful issue to our national security, even though the chances of changing something are very slim. What will history say? That I gave up the chance, however small, to take care of my country's security because I was afraid of criticism and damage to my position or reputation?”
In my conversations after the speech with members of Congress from both parties, I was impressed that they appreciated it was an exceptional moment. And while it was clear to me we cannot dictate or change their feelings about the interests of the US, I felt from them genuine sympathy for Israel and for the Prime Minister's decision to openly express our concerns.
The JCPOA was viewed negatively across the Arab world and, of course, we made our opposition quite clear. In addition to hurting partnerships with traditional allies, releasing over $100 billion to Iran gave it the means to immediately expand its malign behavior in Yemen, Iraq and Syria, and increase funding to Hezbollah and Hamas. President Obama’s Approach to the Middle East Public opinion polls consistently showed that the Israel public was very skeptical of President Obama’s policies towards Israel and the Middle East. While many saw Prime Minister Netanyahu as responsible for this, the fact is President Obama’s actions early in his presidency set the stage. Six months into his term, at a meeting with American Jewish leaders, President Obama made clear he sought to create public daylight between the US and Israel. When he made his first trip to the region, he not only excluded Israel from his schedule, but delivered a speech in Cairo that Israelis found deeply troubling. In one passage, he suggested that the legitimacy for Israel’s establishment and existence was rooted in the Holocaust, borrowing a narrative commonly used to delegitimize Israel, rather than the Jewish people’s millennia-old connection to our ancestral homeland.
These were critical missteps. Trying to achieve progress between Israel and the Palestinians by creating a gap between Israel and the US sends the wrong signals to both parties. When the US appears at odds with Israel, the Palestinians harden their position. Israel has historically been more willing to take chances, or “risks for peace”, when the Prime Minister and the Israeli people felt they could trust the US and the President to stand with them. This was not the case with President Obama, and it hurt his ability to make progress on an already extremely difficult issue.
The Obama administration put the onus on Israel, believing it was Israel’s responsibility, as the stronger power, to make concessions. It prioritized the settlement issue above all others, making sustained negotiations, let alone reaching an agreement, far more difficult. The heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2009 was the same as it was in 1948 (and the same as it is now). The reason for a lack of peace and a viable peace process has not changed. The conflict is not about the borders of Israel or any Israeli action – it is about Israel’s very existence.
The Obama team believed in the flawed concept of “linkage” – that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is linked to all other ills in the region, and that a Palestinian state would serve as a panacea. This idea has little basis in reality
The Obama team never appreciated this fundamental fact. That is why they believed pressuring Israel was the path to peace. But pressuring the party committed to peaceful coexistence is not the way to reach a deal. Peace will be possible when the Palestinians finally internalize that Israel is not a colonial project, that it is not going anywhere, and that the Jewish people have a right to sovereignty in our ancestral homeland. If the Obama administration had used its considerable influence to convince the Palestinians to accept those basic facts, it may have been more successful in its efforts.
We also found challenging the Obama team’s belief in the flawed concept of “linkage” – the idea that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is linked to all other ills in the region, and that a Palestinian state would serve as a panacea for the entire Middle East. To begin with, this has little basis in reality – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is not, after all, bombing his people because the Palestinians do not have a state, and the Sunni-Shia divide will not miraculously heal if the Palestinians achieve sovereignty. But more importantly, making clear to the Palestinians that the US viewed their aspirations as the key to solving regional issues important to American interests was a tactical blunder. It served to toughen Palestinian demands to the point where true progress was all but impossible.
Furthermore, the Obama administration’s broader strategic approach to the Middle East was counterproductive from a geopolitical perspective and made our relationship with the administration challenging. The failure in Summer 2013 to enforce its self-proclaimed “red line” on using chemical weapons in Syria emboldened extremists, who no longer feared American pronouncements and threats. It also opened the door to direct Russian involvement in Syria after President Vladimir Putin played the role of hero by cutting a deal on chemical weapons. By appearing to withdraw from the region and permitting Russia to re-assert itself, the US came to be viewed in the Arab world either as a power in decline, or at the very least an unreliable partner. At the same time, Russia was seen as willing to risk blood and treasure to defend its allies.
The Middle East is a tough neighborhood; loyalty and strength are rewarded, while even the appearance of weakness is extremely dangerous and potentially lethal. This was only reinforced in the “Arab Spring” events of 2011, when the Saudis, Emirates and others watched in dismay as the Obama administration immediately abandoned their longtime ally in Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak. Their dismay was only reinforced by American support for Mohamed Morsi, who, despite being elected in a fair process, is nevertheless a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is considered by many across the region a terror organization and the ideological forebearer of more radical groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS.
Taken together, President Obama’s policies made a regional approach to peace impossible. They provided a disincentive for the Palestinians to compromise, while creating a belief in the Arab world that the US was neither to be trusted nor feared. Given the hostility towards Israel that exists in the populace of most Arab countries, they are unable to play a constructive role in the peace process without believing in the US, both as a trusted partner and as a superpower to be crossed at their peril. The Trump administration: A new era?
President Trump during his visit to Israel in May 2017 | Photo: Haim Tzach, GPO
The Trump team came into office without the type of long-term policy experience most administrations bring to the table. President Trump was elected in large part to change things in Washington and many of his choices for posts important to Israel lacked a long track record to analyze.
For example, when President Obama nominated Hillary Clinton or John Kerry as Secretary of State, their records in the Senate gave a sense of their general views. By contrast, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Special Envoy for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt and Senior Advisor Jared Kushner arrived at Foggy Bottom (State Department headquarters) and the West Wing from the business rather than political or policy world. Even UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, who did have a political background, served at the state level so did not have a long history in the foreign policy realm. And while President Trump had just run an extraordinary, and obviously effective, campaign for the Presidency, he was far better known for his success as a developer and television personality than for his views on the complicated issues facing the Middle East.
President Trump and his team view Iran as an aggressor and a problem to be confronted in the region, rather than a partner to be engaged and appeased
Of particular concern were some pronouncements, under the slogan of “Make America Great Again”, which sounded neo-isolationist. As I mentioned earlier, American engagement and leadership in the world, and in particular the Middle East, is very important to Israel’s strategic outlook. If the US were to withdraw from the world and look inward it would not be positive for Israel or many other states across the region and around the world. Nearly all of candidate-Trump’s statements specific to Israel were positive, but politicians, even new ones, are known to sometimes govern differently than they campaign.
Now that the Trump administration has spent over a year in power, most of the neo-isolationist concerns as they relate to Israel appear to have been unfounded. The President has surrounded himself with individuals broadly in sync with Israel’s views on the challenges and opportunities of today’s Middle East. As they were during the Obama years, two of the most critical aspects of Israel’s dialogue with the Trump administration will be the American position towards Iran and the Palestinian issue.
President Trump and his team, including new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, view Iran as an aggressor and a problem to be confronted in the region, rather than a partner to be engaged and appeased. This puts their viewpoint far closer to that of Israel and the pragmatic Arab world. While this perspective is very encouraging, the coming months and years will be critical to see how they put positive inclinations into practice.
President Trump recently withdrew the US from the JCPOA and announced the re-imposition of US sanctions on Iran. There are some who believe this will isolate the US. While the move has alienated some American partners in Europe and elsewhere, it is extremely difficult to truly isolate the most powerful economic and military power on Earth. Just as the international community went along, largely against its will, with crippling sanctions against the Iranian regime before the JCPOA, it will accept American sanctions against Iran now. Very few corporations, if forced to make a decision, will choose to do business with Iran’s $393 billion economy rather than the US’ $18.6 trillion economy. While most of the world will reluctantly go along with a more confrontational approach to Iran, the pragmatic nations of the Middle East are ecstatic.
Israel stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the US and President Trump as he moves forwards with steps to truly prevent Iran from reaching the nuclear weapons threshold, halt its ballistic missile production, and reign in its malign activity across the region. And the Sunni Arab world also supports strong moves that reassert American leadership in the region. By challenging Iran, a nation reviled across the region for its destabilizing actions, the US will bring the nations of the region closer together, and hopefully push forward budding relationships between Israel and some of its neighbors. A Regional Approach to the Peace Process
The Trump administration, and in particular Special Envoy Greenblatt, has made clear it believes a regional approach is necessary to reach a lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Trump team correctly views the region as the key to solving the issues between Israel and the Palestinians, rather than the other way around. Nothing will make a regional approach more feasible than weakening Iran. The Iranians abhor the idea of Israeli-Arab reconciliation and see it as a threat to their aspirations to regional hegemony. In this area, American leadership is crucial, and it appears the Trump administration is moving in the direction of holding Iran accountable for its actions. This is good news for the entire Middle East.
That being said, nothing can replace direct face-to-face negotiations. Sitting around a table and reaching difficult compromises has always been, and remains, the only way to reach a viable deal between Israel and the Palestinians. However, there are issues, such as refugees, that will require the cooperation of surrounding nations. And on the political level, the broad backing of the Arab world will make it easier for the Palestinians to make difficult compromises.
In today’s Middle East, Sunni Arab states are fully cognizant they face real threats – most significantly, from Iran and international terror groups. One country they do not see as a threat is Israel
In the not-too-distant past, the notion of Arab nations helping Israel forge a lasting peace was fanciful at best. But in today’s Middle East, Sunni Arab states are fully cognizant they face real threats – most significantly, from Iran and international terror groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda. One country they do not see as a threat is Israel. And significantly, they have come to realize Israel shares their assessment and is a uniquely qualified partner in facing down threats to regional stability and prosperity.
It remains to be seen if under the radar cooperation can blossom into actions that improve the lives of people across the region. The Trump administration has pushed hard in this area. They believe, and Israel agrees, that reconciliation becomes more possible when people see the fruits of peace for themselves. There are joint programs we can undertake on the ground (including providing desperately needed water to the region), that can begin the process of thawing relations and building trust in ways statements from political leaders cannot.
The Trump administration is still relatively new. There is hope in Israel that a new approach can sideline bad actors while empowering those who strive for peace and prosperity. Nothing President Trump can say or do will make it easy to achieve the “ultimate deal” or any deal at all. But the US is still, without question, the world’s one indispensable nation. With clear-eyed and strong leadership, it is possible to make positive changes even to the most intractable conflicts. An enduring partnership
Notwithstanding which president or party controls the White House, the bonds between Israel and the US are strong and deeply rooted. This relationship makes me optimistic about my country and the Middle East as a whole.
In 2005, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon appointed me to lead Israel’s delegation to the strategic dialogue with the US. The process had been frozen by the Americans for a period of three years following leaks of important details from the discussions. The decision to renew the dialogue was rooted in the close relationship between President Bush and Prime Minister Sharon. Sharon and Bush had not gotten off to the best start: the Prime Minister angered the Administration when, following a series of Palestinian terrorist acts, he gave a speech stating Israel would not be like Czechoslovakia, which the free world abandoned to Nazi Germany in 1938. But over time the two leaders forged a strong mutual trust. This relationship allowed the renewal of the strategic dialogue, an institution beneficial to both nations.
Because the 2005 strategic dialogue was the first to be held in three years, there were a large number of issues on the table of fundamental importance to Israel’s security, first and foremost Iran’s nuclear program. Before I left for Washington I was briefed by Prime Minister Sharon. He told me that no matter how critical the issues under discussion, to always remember the US is our closest ally in the world. The most important thing is not that we always see eye-to-eye on every issue, but that we must always be honest and sincere with the US.
Prime Minister Sharon knew the strategic relationship made sense on every level. It was then, as it is now, in the national security interest of both nations, across a spectrum of issues that can be analyzed and overanalyzed in volumes that can fill a library. But he also knew that the fundamental basis of the relationship is really quite simple. It is about people, values and morals.
Times and faces have changed, but the US has been Israel’s most valuable and trustworthy ally throughout my life in politics. That being said, it is not something Israel, or the US, should ever take for granted. Like any meaningful relationship it takes work to maintain it, and the regional and political dynamics we face today create both challenges and opportunities. As we move forward in a chaotic region and a chaotic world, I am confident that Israel and the US will continue to work together to advance peace and prosperity whenever we can, and to stand by each other’s side even when we cannot.
Tzachi Hanegbi heads Israel’s Ministry for Regional Cooperation. He has served in the Knesset since 1988, including eleven years in several ministerial positions, and six years as chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Hanegbi has headed the ministry of Health, Justice, Internal Security, Environmental Protection, Transportation, and Communications, and was also Minister in charge of Israel’s intelligence services and the strategic dialogue with the United States. Hanegbi served as a paratrooper in the Israel Defense Forces. He earned a B.A. in International Relations and an L.L.B from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
(Photo courtesy of the author)