Elephants in the Room
Democratic Frontrunners Are Wrong About Aid for Israel
Putting America’s annual $3.8 billion of military assistance to Israel on the chopping block makes for good politics. But it makes no sense for U.S. national security.
In a jarring moment during last month’s Democratic primary debate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, asked about Washington’s complicated relationship with Riyadh, lit into the Saudis for the murder of the U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, condemning the kingdom as a brutal, misogynistic dictatorship that “is not a reliable ally.” Then, without skipping a beat, he pivoted to an attack on Israel for its mistreatment of the Palestinians, particularly in Gaza—a tack that won a spontaneous outburst of applause from the attending audience. Seamlessly lumping together the Middle East’s only stable democracy with its most reactionary absolute monarchy, Sanders concluded, “we need to be rethinking who our allies are around the world.”
Of course, harsh criticism of Israel has long been a staple of the Sanders playbook. A tad more disconcerting was the apparent approval it triggered in the crowd. Condemnations by other candidates earlier in the evening of dangerous U.S. adversaries such as China, North Korea, and Russia didn’t seem to elicit nearly the same level of enthusiasm. Also hard not to notice was the fact that none of Sanders’s nine rivals on the stage rose to push back against the suggestion that the long-standing U.S. alliance with Israel should be up for reassessment. This was especially striking because in the days leading up to the debate, the Gaza-based Palestinian terrorist group Islamic Jihad had fired close to 500 rockets at Israeli population centers, sending tens of thousands of civilians into bomb shelters and shutting down schools and businesses in Tel Aviv, the country’s most important commercial hub.
In fairness, it’s possible that the format and rhythm of the debate simply didn’t allow for that type of intervention. On the other hand, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that, when it comes to Israel, a shift is indeed afoot in the Democratic Party—at least among its more progressive and activist base.
That trend was most visible in October, when several Democratic candidates in succession—including leading contenders such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg—joined Sanders in advocating for the position that the United States should consider withholding military aid if Israel pursued policies that undermined a two-state solution. Only one of the top-tier candidates, former Vice President Joe Biden, spoke out forcefully against the idea, calling it “absolutely outrageous” and a “gigantic mistake.”
Biden is right. It may increasingly be the case in today’s Democratic Party that putting America’s annual $3.8 billion of military assistance to Israel on the chopping block in service to the peace process makes for good politics. But it makes no sense as national security policy. The fact is that Israel’s recent emergence as one of the world’s most powerful industrial democracies has never been more important to the United States. And the value to U.S. interests of Israel’s world-class military, intelligence prowess, and cutting-edge science and technology sector is only likely to grow in the future.
In the last three presidential elections, the U.S. public—frustrated and weary from fighting so-called endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—has consistently supported the candidate (Barack Obama twice, Donald Trump once) who exhibited the greatest enthusiasm for reducing the country’s military commitments in the Middle East. Especially as the United States’ own dependence on oil exports from the region continues to decline, the long-term trajectory of U.S. retrenchment seems almost certain to continue. For its part, the U.S. military is also looking to draw back from the Middle East so it can divert more of its capabilities and energies to higher-priority missions, in particular the need to counter increasingly aggressive great-power competitors, China and Russia.
Yet even as it seeks to reduce its burdens, the United States still has important interests in the Middle East that need defending. It wants the region to be more stable. It wants to avoid significant disruptions in oil supplies that could wreak havoc on the economies of key trading partners. It wants to contain Iranian aggression, combat Islamist terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, deter the outbreak of major war, and ensure Israel’s security. Logic dictates that doing all that with less U.S. involvement means someone else will have to step up to help fill the void. That, in turn, puts a premium on reliable local allies that have both the will and the capability not just to defend themselves without the United States riding to the rescue but also to act effectively on their own across the Middle East to help advance major U.S. interests. With all due respect to Washington’s other longtime partners in the region and even Europe, it’s patently obvious that only one country comes close to meeting those criteria today: Israel.
Israel has, by an order of magnitude, the most powerful and operationally effective military in the Middle East. Its intelligence services rank among the world’s best, far outpacing any regional rival. It’s a technological superpower with leading research and development capabilities in priority national security areas for the United States, including cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, unmanned systems, missile defense, space, and anti-terrorism. Israel’s assessment of the most serious threats to Middle East security is nearly identical to Washington’s. And its government and population are unwaveringly pro-American, ready and willing to lend Israel’s full support to countering shared threats and securing key U.S. objectives.
With little fanfare, Israel in recent years has taken on sustained military missions that extend well beyond its historical preoccupation with the defense of its immediate borders. As Washington’s stomach for wielding hard power against the Middle East’s most dangerous challenges recedes, the new reality is that Israel has become a major exporter of security and extended deterrence to the broader region. Since at least 2017, it has been the only power in the world conducting regular military operations to push back successfully against Iranian forces and their expansionist designs. A kind of de facto division of labor has emerged whereby the United States restricts itself to punishing Iran and its regional proxies with harsh economic sanctions while Israel does the more difficult and dangerous work of directly confronting and containing Iranian power on the ground.
In Syria, probably the Middle East’s most strategically consequential battlefield of the past decade, Israel has reportedly attacked more than 1,000 targets affiliated with Iran. Almost singlehandedly, in fact, Israel has foiled Iran’s ambition to entrench itself militarily in Syria. Iran’s far-reaching plan to establish a series of land and naval bases, command a force of up to 100,000 pro-Iran fighters, and stockpile and deploy thousands of highly accurate rockets and missiles in Syria has been stillborn. Though garnering little attention, Israel has over the past four years inflicted one of the worst defeats ever suffered by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its imperial project to dominate the Middle East’s northern tier from Tehran to the Mediterranean Sea. The IRGC’s goal of replicating in Syria the same level of military power and threat that it built in Lebanon through Hezbollah has been almost completely thwarted by a sustained campaign of discreet Israeli military attacks and intelligence activities—all without triggering a larger war and conflagration. The United States—not to mention Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and much of the rest of the region threatened by rising Iranian hegemony—has quietly applauded from the sidelines without having to put any of its own forces at risk.
Though on a far lesser scale, Israel has over the last year extended its targeting campaign against Iran to Lebanon and Iraq as well, as the IRGC seeks to adjust for its failure in Syria by further building up its capabilities in those countries, especially by giving precision missiles to Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias. In Egypt, an under-the-radar but extensive program of Israeli military and intelligence support has proved essential to preventing extremist groups loyal to the Islamic State from taking over the strategically vital Sinai Peninsula. Israel has long played a similarly critical role in bolstering the security of neighboring Jordan. Meanwhile, in the eastern Mediterranean, as the region’s massive gas reserves become an increasingly important factor in global energy markets, Israeli defense capabilities will play a leading role in securing the area’s critical infrastructure, in cooperation with other stakeholders including Cyprus, Egypt, and Greece.
There’s every reason to believe that the demand for Israeli security assistance will only increase as U.S. disengagement continues apace. Already, it seems a near certainty that Israel is engaged in unprecedented, albeit covert, cooperation with several Gulf states, including the Saudis, to help them counter Iran and other extremist threats. Given the direct impact on its own interests, it’s easy to imagine Israel taking on much greater responsibilities for policing the Red Sea, or ensuring that Houthi rebels in Yemen don’t become the next repository of long-range Iranian missiles and drones capable of accurately striking strategic targets not only in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, but in Tel Aviv and Haifa as well.
In the 1970s, the administration of U.S. President Richard Nixon, preoccupied with the war in Vietnam, developed a “twin pillars” strategy for the Middle East. It relied on two local allies, the shah’s Iran and Saudi Arabia, to help counter Soviet meddling and enforce regional security. The strategy quickly crumbled when the shah was overthrown and the Saudis proved both unwilling and for the most part incapable of fulfilling their assigned role.
By contrast, Israel today is the real deal, a stable democracy and longtime ally that has consistently demonstrated the will, power, and operational effectiveness to do more to secure the Middle East from common threats, so the United States can do less. From countering Iranian imperialism and Islamist terrorism to protecting energy resources and vulnerable regional allies, Israel’s role in the region has become critically important for the United States. At a time when war fatigue and other global priorities are driving Washington to reduce its involvement in the Middle East, it’s increasingly apparent that Israeli power will be indispensable if the United States hopes to maintain a regional order that favors its interests.
In other words, Israel is America’s new pillar in the Middle East. Truth be told, it’s the only pillar. To jeopardize such a strategic asset on the altar of a Palestinian conflict that has dragged on chronically for decades, with no resolution in sight and the issue’s relative geopolitical significance in steep decline, would be a huge unforced error. Many of Washington’s most important Arab partners are now moving systematically to deepen their security cooperation with Israel, refusing to allow their national interests to be subjugated to one of the world’s most intractable disputes any longer. It would be an odd time for the United States to start moving in the opposite direction, as several of the Democratic candidates suggest, and throw into question its own tremendously beneficial defense relationship with Israel. That’s precisely the kind of strategic indulgence that a superpower bent on retrenchment can ill afford.