The Cable

Is Israel an asset or a liability? Satloff vs. Freeman

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Robert Satloff and the Middle East Policy Council’s Chas W. Freeman, Jr., squared off Tuesday at the Nixon Center to debate whether Israel is really a strategic asset or a strategic liability for the United States. Here are some excerpts. On the overall question of whether America’s relationship ...

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Robert Satloff and the Middle East Policy Council’s Chas W. Freeman, Jr., squared off Tuesday at the Nixon Center to debate whether Israel is really a strategic asset or a strategic liability for the United States. Here are some excerpts.

On the overall question of whether America’s relationship with Israel is worth it:

Robert Satloff: My job today is to make the case why Israel and that relationship is a strategic asset. I will go even further. I will argue that Israel and the US-Israel relationship is — both in objective terms and compared to any other relationship we have in the ME — a strategic bonanza for the U.S.:  not just an asset, but a downright bargain … I don’t think there’s anyone in this room who would disagree with the contention that there is no country in the Middle East whose people and government are so closely aligned with the U.S. … We share a way of governing, ways of ordering society, ways of viewing the role of liberty in individual rights and ways to defend those ideals. Now, some realists tend to dismiss this as soft stuff with no strategic value. I disagree. The commonality of culture and values is at the heart of national interests.

Chas Freeman: Clearly Israel gets a great deal from us. It’s pretty much taboo in the U.S. to ask what’s in it for Americans; I can’t imagine why. What’s in it and what’s not in it for us to do all these things for Israel? I think we need to begin by recognizing that our relationship with Israel had never been driven by strategic reasoning. It began with President Truman overruling his strategic and military advisors, in deference to political expediency … There’s no reason to doubt the consistent testimony of the architects of major acts of anti-American terrorism on what motivates them to attack us … Some substantial portion of the many lives and the trillions of dollars that have we so far spent in our escalating conflict with the Islamic world must be [measured against] the costs of our relationship with Israel.

On the wisdom and results of U.S.-military support to Israel:

RS: [There’s a] long list of military-related advantages that Israel brings to the U.S., directly by its own actions and through the bilateral relationship — contingency planning, Israeli facilities available to the U.S. as needed, the U.S. has deployed early morning radar for missile defense, supplementing Americans’ missile defense assets, the U.S. has been stalking war reserves in Israel for 15 years now … Israel as a prime source of effective counterterrorism and counterinsurgency tactics which have played an important role in America’s fight in Iraq, Israel as an important innovator … add all this up and Israel, through its intelligence, its technology, lessons learned from its own experience in counterterrorism and asymmetric warfare, has saved American lives.

CF: Thanks to congressional earmarks, we also often pay half the costs of Israeli research and development projects, even when, as in the case of defense against very short -range unguided missiles, the technology being developed is essentially irrelevant to our own military requirements. In short, in many ways, American taxpayers fund jobs in Israeli military industries that could have gone to our own workers and companies. Meanwhile, Israel gets pretty much whatever it wants in terms of top of the line military equipment … and we pick up the tab. Meanwhile, Israel has become accustomed to living on the American military bill … Military aid to Israel is sometimes justified by the notion of Israel as a test bed for new weapons systems and operational concepts. But no one can identify the program … All originated with Israel and members of Congress … What Israel makes, it sells not just to the United States but to China, India, and other major arms markets outside our country. It feels no obligation to take U.S. interests into account when it transfers weapons and technology to third countries, and does so only under duress.

On U.S. economic aid to Israel:

RS: Do a cost-benefit analysis; I invite you to do this. Over the last 30 years, 30-plus years of the U.S. relationship with Israel and the U.S. relationship with our Arab friends in the Gulf — what do you find? To secure our interests in the Arab-Israeli arena, the U.S. has spent $100 billion in economic assistance to Israel, plus another $30 billion to Egypt and small change to a couple of other places. Our losses in human terms: 255 Americans in the Beirut Embassy barracks bombings and a handful of others in terrorism in that part of the region. On a state-to-state basis, I would argue that investment has paid off very handsomely. Now compare that with the Gulf. Look at the massive costs we have endured to ensure our interests there.

CF: Identifiable U.S. government subsidies to Israel total in $140 billion since 1949 … in either case, Israel is by far the largest recipient of American giveaways since WWII and the total would be much higher if aid to Egypt and Jordan, Lebanon, and support for displaced Palestinians in refugee camps and the occupied territories were included. These programs have complex purposes but are justified in large measure in terms of their contribution to the security of the Jewish state. Per capita income in Israel is now around $37,000, on par with the UK. Israel is nonetheless the largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance, accounting for well over one-fifth of it. Annual U.S. government transfers run at well over $500 per Israeli, not counting cost of tax breaks for private donations and loans that are not available in any other country.

On the effect of the peace process:

RS: First, I would argue that a strong Israel with a strong U.S.-Israel relationship at its core has been central to what we now know as the peace process and second, in historical terms, the peace process has been one of the most successful U.S. diplomatic initiatives in the last half century. In the words of one knowledgeable observer, "The peace process has been a vehicle for American influence throughout the broader Middle East region, and has provided an excuse for Arab declarations of friendship with the U.S. even as Americans remain devoted to Israel. In other words, it has helped to eliminate what otherwise might be a zero-sum game." … Oh, I forgot to mention that observer I mentioned earlier as praising the peace process for eliminating the zero-sum game in the Middle East: Chas Freeman.  Thank you, Chas."

CF: There’s all the time we put into the perpetually ineffectual and basically defunct peace process … I think one of the reasons that there is no support of any kind from the Arab world for George Mitchell’s efforts to recreate or revive a dead peace process is that there’s no confidence in the ability of the U.S. to play a mediating role. We are, in the famous words of one member of the previous peace-making exercise, Israel’s lawyer.

On the drag the U.S.-Israel alliance has on American outreach to the Arab world:

RS: I’m perfectly willing to stipulate the following: Arab leaders like to harangue U.S. presidents, U.S. ambassadors, U.S. special envoys, and even U.S. generals about Israel. I don’t think we have to have a debate about that. The point of contention is whether their harangues have strategic importance. Does Arab talk match Arab walk? … Instinctively, we all know that it doesn’t; we just lacked the data to support it. Thanks to outstanding research by my Institute colleague David Pollock, who crunched the numbers on a half-dozen indicators of U.S.-Arab relations for twenty Arab states over a ten-year period, we now have the data. And the results are crystal clear-the key principle is "watch what we do, not what we say." And, importantly, this applies both to Arab governments and to Arab publics. Except for episodic and passing moments, like the period around the spring 2003 U.S. attack on Saddam’s Iraq, and notwithstanding public opinion poll data to the contrary, the actual, measurable trajectory of U.S.-Arab relations-travel, education, trade, security relations, etc.-has been consistently up.

CF: Political costs to the U.S. internationally of having to spend our political capital this way are huge … The need to protect Israel from mounting international indignation about its behavior continues to do grave damage to our global and regional standing. It has severely impaired our ties with the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. But it has also cost us much of our followership in international organizations. These costs, I think, are far more serious than the economic and other burdens of the relationship. Against this background, I think it’s a little short of remarkable that something as fatuous as the notion of Israel as a strategic asset to the U.S. could have become the unchallengeable conventional wisdom in the U.S., which it is. Perhaps it’s as someone once said: People more easily fall victim to a big lie than a small one.

 Twitter: @joshrogin

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