The major challenges to American diplomacy in the post-Cold War era — threats to the free flow of oil, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and Islamic terrorism — originate in the Middle East.
With America's invasions of Afghanistan in 2002 and Iraq in 2003, this region has become the focus of the United States' efforts to neutralize radical anti-American forces.
Washington thus welcomed Israel's military response to the provocations of the radical Islamist Hezbollah in southern Lebanon — an Iranian proxy and an enemy of the United States. Yet Israel's mixed military performance against the group has raised questions in Washington as to whether Israel still constitutes a strategic asset.
For four decades now, the United States has provided Israel with generous financial aid and access to America's arsenal of the latest weaponry to strengthen the Israel Defense Force and make it into a mighty military machine. Yet the IDF failed to achieve a clear defeat of Hezbollah — an accomplishment that would have enhanced Israel's deterrence, and weakened the influence of Iran and other radical factions in the region. In light of America's difficulties in Iraq, Washington was more in need than ever of such a success against the radical Islamic forces.
Despite the troubling questions regarding Israel's strategic behavior in the summer of 2006, Washington still understands that Israel remains its most reliable ally in the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean. There is no other state in the Mideast where an American airplane can count with certainty on being welcomed in the near future. Even American allies — Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey — may have second thoughts about hosting an American presence, and all of them have a record of denying the U.S. military use of their facilities. Moreover, the stability of their regimes cannot be taken for granted, as all of them grapple with modernization and are threatened to various degrees by Islamic radicals.
Unlike much of the rest of the world, Israel is not preoccupied with how to tame American power. In fact, Israeli foreign policy displays an unequivocal pro-American orientation.
In addition, Israel's strategic culture is much closer to that of the United States than to that of many of Washington's European allies. Israel supports America's unilateralism, which is, in fact, in tune with its own defense doctrine that stresses self-reliance. In 2003, Washington adopted pre-emptive strikes as part of its official menu of policy options. Israel's own pre-emptive posture, which was once a source of tension, is now met with better understanding in the United States, for which the dilemmas involved in combating terrorists are no longer merely academic.
Cooperation with Israel on security matters confers many advantages. The American military uses Israeli training installations, and has continuous access to Israeli intelligence, military experience and doctrine. Currently, officers serving in Iraq compare notes regularly with Israeli counterparts on a variety of military issues connected to low-intensity conflict operations. Israel has vast combat experience and an array of weaponry specifically tailored for such situations — both of which the United States capitalizes upon.
Israel is also a vital source of military technology. While the United States dominates the international arms market, Israel enjoys a relative technological advantage in several niches, upon which U.S. firms have capitalized. Israeli-developed systems are employed by the American military and the U.S. Senate, recognizing this contribution, has just approved an appropriation of half a billion dollars for American-Israeli weapon research and development.
The case for the continued American support of Israel as a strategic ally remains indelibly strong. The current relationship is based on a common agenda that has survived Cold War politics.
However, this commonality of strategic interests must be continuously nurtured. Being a Western democracy in the Middle East with a strong and supportive Jewish lobby in the United States is not enough to secure critical America support. Israel must take care to ensure that it is playing a positive strategic role in an American-dominated world.
Efraim Inbar is director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.