NATIV Online        

  Vol. 4  /  June 2004                      A JOURNAL OF POLITICS AND THE ARTS      


    New Horizons for
    the American-Israeli Partnership

    Ilan Berman

Since its inception in the early 1980s, strategic cooperation has become a cornerstone of the larger “special relationship” between the United States and Israel, and one of the main prisms through which both nations have approached the volatile politics of a turbulent Middle East. But over the past decade, the partnership first formalized by President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Menachem Begin has struggled, buffeted by post-Cold War regional changes, and by a growing divergence of policy priorities between Washington and Jerusalem.

All that is now changing. In the aftermath of September 11th, strategic ties between the two countries are entering a new era, one defined by a fundamental transformation of American strategy – and by new principles for the strategic partnership.

The Post-Cold War Partnership Adrift

The 1990s were not a good decade for the US-Israeli alliance. The strategic bonds forged during the latter half of the Cold War – which, by the mid-1980s had become a centerpiece not only of Israeli security doctrine, but of the Reagan administration’s “strategic consensus” in the Middle East as well – were fundamentally altered with the implosion of the Soviet sphere.

In the aftermath of the USSR’s collapse, policymakers in both countries had rushed to reaffirm the continued relevance of their union. And, in fact, common concerns over a range of threats – from terrorism to proliferation to ballistic missiles – did provide a continuing basis for cooperation. But the post-Cold War international environment also inserted new variables into the traditional strategic equation between Washington and Jerusalem.

Foremost among these was the intrusion of politics into the Israeli-American strategic dialogue. During the Cold War, the durable, insulated nature of military and defense ties allowed the two countries to successfully weather significant turbulence in their larger relationship. As a result, events like the infamous 1985 Pollard Affair – and a succession of defense-industrial scandals1 – did little to dampen the evolving bilateral dialogue.

The commencement of the Middle East peace process, however, changed everything. The 1991 Madrid Conference, and the signing of the Declaration of Principles by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat two years later, embroiled Israel in the most extensive diplomatic exercise in its history.

The effects on the strategic relationship were dramatic. Previously seen as both a strategic asset and a force multiplier, Israel suddenly found its role in American security policy subordinated to the vagaries of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. Military and defense priorities increasingly took a back seat to politics, leading to diplomatic and territorial concessions that gradually diminished Israel’s standing as a strategic asset – thereby weakening the very rationale for the relationship.

The peace process was hardly the only problem, however. The very nature of America’s engagement in the Middle East had changed dramatically with the USSR’s demise. Instead of the strategic deterrence of the Reagan era, policymakers in Washington now emphasized the need for broad international engagement. This shift became visible soon after the Soviet collapse, when the Bush White House put great effort into cobbling together a broad coalition against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq – one that effectively sidelined Israel, at great cost to the Jewish state and its citizens.

In the war’s aftermath, “containing” Iran and Iraq – and providing security assurances to those countries living in the shadow of Baghdad and Tehran – led the United States to ratchet up its cooperation with the countries of the Persian Gulf. The resulting military contacts and sophisticated technology transfers to countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar steadily narrowed the capabilities gap between Israel and its hostile neighbors, eroding one of the central pillars of the strategic partnership between Jerusalem and Washington – the “qualitative edge” of Israel’s military over any combination of regional adversaries.2

By the end of the decade, these changes had profoundly altered the underlying principles of US-Israeli cooperation. Then came September 11, 2001, and with it a fundamental reordering of American strategic planning and security priorities.

 The Transformation of American Strategy

To be sure, even before the Bush administration took office in January of 2001, a multitude of indicators had suggested the United States faced new, and dramatically different, threats from terrorist groups, rogue states and rampant international proliferation. These signs did not go entirely unnoticed; an array of blue-ribbon panels – from the 1998 Rumsfeld Commission to the 2000-2001 Hart-Rudman Commission – warned of such dangers. But it was not until the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington that these realities were brought into focus.

The American response, embodied in part in the Bush administration’s 2002 National Security Strategy, has entailed a dramatic change in how the United States uses force, how it defines defense, and how it approaches proliferation.

Most directly, the Bush administration has moved to adapt the use of force to respond to the rapid pace and asymmetric nature of contemporary threats. As President Bush outlined in his now-famous June 2002 commencement address at West Point, “[t]he gravest danger to freedom lies at the perilous crossroads of radicalism and technology. When the spread of chemical and biological and nuclear weapons, along with ballistic missile technology… occurs even weak states and small groups could attain a catastrophic power to strike great nations.”3 The 2002 National Security Strategy therefore argues that “the capabilities and objectives of today’s adversaries” must become the overriding criteria for the evaluation of threats.4 This understanding has enshrined a preventive posture, one aimed at responding to such gathering dangers, in American doctrine.

A corresponding conceptual reorientation has taken place in US military posture. Discarding the traditional, adversary-based model that dominated the Cold War and the 1990s, new American defense directives have outlined the need for a capabilities-driven approach designed to achieve assurance, dissuasion, deterrence and defense against any potential adversary in any environment at any time.5 As part of this focus, the Bush administration has given high priority to the creation of a layered global system capable of defending the United States, its allies and deployed forces from ballistic missile attack, and has moved ahead with both an “initial deployment” of theater, ground- and sea-based antimissile capabilities and with substantial international efforts to engage allies in Europe, Asia and the Middle East on the creation of a layered international anti-missile architecture.

Lastly, the United States has dramatically altered its approach to proliferation. During the Cold War, efforts to arrest the steady bilateral accretion of American and Soviet strategic arsenals, and to prevent the spread of such weapons into the Third World, yielded an elaborate system of international arms control measures. The inadequacy of this system in curbing the post-Cold War ambitions of aspiring regional powers, however, has led the Bush administration to emphasize the centrality of active countermeasures to the prevention of contemporary nonproliferation. Thus, programs like the US-led Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), as well as bilateral endeavors with allies in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia, have begun to adapt Cold War-era arms control to include proactive enforcement.

Mirroring this tripartite security transformation, the United States has embarked on an ambitious effort to remake the Middle East as part of its global war on terrorism. This drive, entailing the introduction of sweeping regional reforms, democratization and the rule of law among countries in the region, is intended – in the words of the National Security Strategy – to eliminate regional threats through the creation of a “balance of power that favors freedom.”6

 New Principles

The resulting security agenda now preoccupying policymakers in Washington suggests a new, reinvigorated role for the US-Israeli partnership.

Such an adaptation is made possible by the nature of strategic ties between the two countries. Since its beginnings, the US-Israeli entente has not been defined by formal alliance. Rather, the strategic bonds between Jerusalem and Washington have historically drawn much of their strength from their fluidity and informal nature. In lieu of a rigid union, the strategic partnership is driven by converging capabilities and shared threat perceptions.

This realization has served to defeat repeated impulses to codify a formal defense pact. Most recently, a proposal for just such an alliance floated as part of the year 2000 round of peace negotiations between Jerusalem and Damascus was ultimately discarded, based on Israeli fears that such a bargain would negate the core logic for the relationship by constraining Israeli freedom of military action and fostering a corrosive dependency on the United States to guarantee fundamental security requirements.7

Such sentiments have been echoed in Washington, where concerns persist over the impact of a formal union on US resources, and on American ties with countries in the Middle East.8 And this stance has only been reinforced since September 11th. With the advent of the war on terrorism, the United States has placed growing emphasis on issue-dominated partnerships in lieu of fixed alliances. As American officials have made clear, “In this war, the mission will define the coalition – not the other way around.”9

For Israel, the resulting post-September 11th paradigm holds profound implications. During the Cold War, the Reagan administration’s “strategic consensus” had emphasized the Jewish state’s potential as a hedge against Soviet expansionism and hostile Soviet-backed regional actors. Congruent interests in containing rogue states like Iraq and Iran, and in preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, managed to sustain the partnership to some degree following the fall of the Soviet Union. But Israel’s status as a strategic asset, one both willing and able to further American regional objectives, has steadily declined. Now, Israel once again has the opportunity to reclaim its position in American strategy on several fronts:


While diplomatic dialogue on the issue of terrorism has long been a part of US-Israel ties,10 a true counterterrorism partnership between Washington and Jerusalem is a relatively new phenomenon. The events of September 11th served to narrow the gap between American and Israeli perceptions of the global threat posed by international terrorism, and to infuse the United States with a greater understanding of (and support for) Israel’s own war on terrorism – albeit one not always consistently applied.

This has paved the way for an expanded Israeli role in US counterterrorism efforts. By virtue of its strategic location in the region, its intimate familiarity with the doctrine and methodologies of radical Middle Eastern movements, and its robust intelligence capabilities, Israel is emerging as a vital – if often tacit – ally for US regional efforts.

New Tactics

Both in Iraq and in Afghanistan, the United States now faces a new type of conflict, one defined by urban warfare, low intensity conflict and counterinsurgency. Israel’s ongoing experiences in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as the lessons of its long-term (1978-2000) presence in southern Lebanon, make it an invaluable resource. From tactics and training to critical infrastructure protection, Israel has the ability to provide a major contribution to the evolving American strategic agenda by assisting the United States to adapt to new military realities.

Indeed, such cooperation is already becoming visible. Military-to-military contacts between Washington and Jerusalem –a traditional component of strategic ties – have begun to be bolstered by interaction between the law enforcement, first responder and homeland security professionals of the two countries.11 Advanced Israeli technology and weaponry, meanwhile, have become an increasingly important component of equipment and tactics for American special operations forces, now active in both Iraq and Afghanistan.12

Missile Defense

A similar synergy is visible on the issue of missile defense. Israel’s deep involvement in American efforts dates back to the mid-1980s, when growing worries of vulnerability to missile attack from its Arab neighbors led Jerusalem to enlist as an international partner in Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. Over the two decades since, the resulting dialogue has grown to encompass substantial work not only on the jointly-funded Arrow Theater Missile Defense system, but on next-generation concepts like high-energy lasers and boost-phase interception as well.

This interaction is poised to take center stage in the post-Saddam Middle East. Despite the recent removal of Iraq as a strategic adversary, mounting regional threats have led to a renewed Israeli focus on missile defense – one that entails the deployment of additional radars, the creation of a comprehensive national missile defense command, and plans for a naval component to the country’s missile defense infrastructure.13 Officials in Jerusalem have also made clear their intention to commence advanced testing for the Arrow in the near future as part of efforts to enhance the sophisticated system.14 The Israeli Defense Ministry has even made overtures to the Pentagon regarding participation in the advanced concept High Altitude Airship program – a project aimed at creating a solar-powered, unmanned high-altitude airship for long-term surveillance and threat detection – as a means to monitor regional threats, including Iran’s “Shihab-3” medium-range missile.15

Regional partnerships

Over the past decade, Israel has made major strides in its traditional quest for “peripheral” alliances in the Middle East and South Asia. From initial overtures in 1993 and 1994, Israel’s relations with Turkey have blossomed into a major geopolitical alliance, one defined by joint trainings, missile defense dialogue, intelligence sharing and even mutual military cooperation with the new republics of the Caspian and Caucasus. Indo-Israeli ties have similarly evolved into a broad defense dialogue, complete with routine military-to-military contacts and extensive defense-industrial cooperation, since their start in 1992.

For Israel, the importance of these unions has increased with the erosion of its qualitative edge by asymmetric regional threats (ranging from the possibility of guerrilla attacks from nearby Arab states to the burgeoning ballistic missile capabilities of hostile neighbors). For the United States, these parallel partnerships – driven by the common threats posed by international terrorism, rogue states and proliferation – hold enormous value as ready complements to American counterterrorism, counterproliferation, missile defense and regional security initiatives in the greater Middle East.

The Partnership Beyond the Peace Process

Without a doubt, central to any discussion of these dynamics is the Palestinian question. For decades – and particularly since the start of the Middle East peace process in 1993 – Israel’s long-running conflict with the Palestinians has bedeviled American policymakers. And as that crisis has grown in scope and profile, it has increasingly dominated even the strategic dimension of Jerusalem-Washington ties. Reflecting this reality, the joint statement issued by then-President Bill Clinton and then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak in July of 1999, upon codification of a new Memorandum of Understanding on military and defense cooperation, explicitly linked the strategic relationship between the two countries to their joint effort to “achieve a comprehensive peace in the Middle East.”16

By contrast, the Bush administration has muted the urgency of such a settlement. To be sure, the quest for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian question has hardly been abandoned in Washington. Indeed, for all their corrosive effects on Israeli security, diplomatic initiatives intended to resuscitate the moribund Israeli-Palestinian dialogue (like the 2001 Mitchell Plan and the 2002 “Road Map” for Middle East peace) continue to figure in American policymaking.

Nevertheless, these efforts have progressively been overshadowed by a broader focus in Washington on democracy and security in the Middle East. Thus, when the White House has addressed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict directly, as in President Bush’s June 2002 Rose Garden address, it has increasingly predicated US support for a Palestinian state on “new leaders, new institutions and new security arrangements” capable of guaranteeing Israel’s defense.17 While this set of priorities has fanned fears in some quarters of a larger American disengagement,18 it in fact reflects a mature understanding of the proper position of the Israeli-Palestinian issue on the American regional agenda, and a recognition that the peace process remains tangential to Israel’s true worth to the United States – as a regional asset both willing and able to supplement American strategy.

That utility is now growing. After more than two decades, the core fundamentals of the Israeli-American strategic relationship remain intact. Indeed, Israel’s stable, pro-Western and democratic character, its robust defense infrastructure and modern military, and its strategic location in the volatile Middle East have only grown in importance to the United States since September 11th.

Effectively adapting the partnership to respond to contemporary regional realities, however, requires an awareness on the part of both countries of the new principles now animating strategic cooperation – and of the strategy driving them.




Of these, the most notable was the “Dotan Affair” of the late 1980s. Named after Israeli Air Force General Rami Dotan, the scheme involved the diversion of tens of billions of dollars in US foreign military aid through subcontracts to front companies by Israeli citizens and US military officers.


That principle, predicated on the possession of superior equipment, tactics and troops, became a building block of US-Israeli ties in the late 1960s, following Israel’s victory in the 1967, Six Day War.


President George W. Bush, remarks at West Point, New York, June 1, 2002.


National Security Strategy of the United States of America, White House, Office of the Press Secretary, September 2002, p. 12. Found online at


Ibid., p. 29.


Ibid., p. 5.


Ha’aretz, February 14, 2000.


Defense News, April 17, 2000.


See, for example, Donald H. Rumsfeld, “A New Kind of War”, New York Times, September 27, 2001.


Though sporadic contacts on terrorism-related issues can be traced back to the 1970s and 1980s, these links were institutionalized in 1994 with the establishment of an International Program in the US State Department’s Counterterrorism Technical Support Working Group, and by a subsequent 1996 Memorandum of Understanding formally creating a bilateral Joint Counterterrorism Group between the United States and Israel.


One such initiative is the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs’ Law Enforcement Exchange Program (LEEP), which regularly brings US law enforcement officials to Israel to learn counterterrorism techniques from their Israeli counterparts.


Defense News, March 29, 2004.


Jane’s Defence Weekly, October 22, 2003.


Flight International, November 11, 2003.


Defense News, July 14, 2003.


Joint Statement President Clinton and Prime Minister Barak, White House, Office of the Press Secretary, July 19, 1999.


President Bush Calls for New Palestinian Leadership, White House, Office of the Press Secretary, June 24, 2002.


See, for example, Aluf Benn, “The American Disengagement Plan”, Ha’aretz, January 22, 2004.