The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

Israel offers the US military and, even more so, the intelligence community critical support. For example, the US Army has gained through the acquisition of the Iron Dome missile defense system, tank technology such as reactive armor, solutions to the challenge of terrorist improvised explosive devices, mine-clearing devices, and much more. In turn, the US defense establishment –specifically CENTCOM, now that Israel is in its area of responsibility – increasingly reflects Israeli perspectives in Washington policy debates. This has recently been the case on Iran.

In the last few decades, the American defense establishment – namely, the Department of Defense, the armed services, and its segments within the intelligence community – has increasingly played a significant and positive role in shaping Washington’s position towards Israel.

This became even more pronounced when Israel was transferred in 2020 to the Area of Responsibility of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), whose former commander, Lloyd Austin, is now the Secretary of Defense.

The impact is felt in formulating US policy on issues central to the dialog between the two countries, particularly the Iranian military nuclear project. This is essentially a reflection of the growing affinity between Israel and the Gulf Arab states – which CENTCOM has been assigned to defend ever since its inception in 1983.

US President Joe Biden’s decision not to delist the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from its foreign terrorist organization blacklist was influenced by the views of the Defense Department. This growing affinity with Israel’s point of view can have significant consequences that align with fundamental Israeli national interests.

Nevertheless, the unique aspects of the Iranian crisis require a careful balancing act between tightening defense cooperation, on the one hand, and retaining Israel’s freedom of action in times of need.

Historical Background

During the crucial Oval Office debate on May 12, 1948, about recognition of the soon-to-be Jewish State, and again in the early decades of Israel’s existence, the Defense Department and the US military and intelligence establishment were a center of solid internal opposition to any pro-Israeli stance. They firmly objected to the emerging “special relationship” (a term coined by John F. Kennedy in 1962).

This position was primarily motivated by the hope of bolstering strategic relations with key Arab states – particularly those seen as vital to the supply of oil to Western economies and US forces at times of need. This came when the Cold War dominated strategic thinking and military planning.

This preference began to change after Israel emerged victorious in 1967, again proving its worth against the Soviet-supplied Egyptian military during the height of the War of Attrition from 1969 to 1970. It then stood ready to intervene to save the pro-American regime in Jordan in 1970.

Later, as the two countries faced a common challenge from Soviet-backed Syrian conduct in Lebanon, this led (to the dismay of Secretary of Defense Weinberger) to the developing of this strategic partnership. Elements of the US military came to appreciate the benefits of close relations with Israel, and this became more pronounced as the US became drawn into conflicts in the Middle East from the 1990s onwards. The partnership grew in the face of regional challenges, from two wars in Iraq to Iran to al-Qaida and the Islamic State (ISIS).

This realization that Israel is an asset, not a liability, gained currency gradually not only in the political echelon and the higher ranks of command but also among officers in the field, who came to appreciate not only the IDF’s fighting spirit but the fact that Israel did not ask Americans to fight for its sake. Israel also shared technical and tactical solutions that often saved American lives.

What Drives the US Defense Establishment’s Close Ties with Israel? 

Undoubtedly, one of the primary motivations that drive the US defense establishment’s close relationship with Israel is the firm base of support Israel enjoys in Congress despite some descent from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

Joint projects thus stand a good chance of being funded and supported. Already in 1983, this was the reason Weinberger invited Israel to take part in the Strategic Defense Initiative (popularly known as “Star Wars”). Israel, as a result, ended up being the first nation to field a combat-worthy missile defense system.

Today, the US is formally committed to sustaining Israel’s “qualitative military edge,” and further legislation has defined it as a “strategic partnership” in technological projects – including missile defense, cyber, and a variety of other defense-related fields. 

Even without this reliance on congressional and public political support, there is a multiplicity of reasons leading to the entrenchment of closer relations between the two countries’ defense establishments:

  1. Israel offers the US military and, even more so, the intelligence community critical support.

For example, the US Army has gained through the acquisition of the Iron Dome missile defense system, tank technology such as reactive armor, solutions to the challenge of terrorist improvised explosive devices, mine-clearing devices, and much more.

Cooperation in military R&D is now regularized by formal bodies monitoring joint projects. At the doctrinal level, the experience of both sides, especially in a-symmetrical warfare, has led to improvements.

In the air, Israel is the first country to deploy F-35 aircraft in active operational scenarios; the Israel Air Force’s contributions were manifested in the Blue Flag exercise of 2021 and afterward during ever-expanding joint exercises. Since the transfer to CENTCOM, certain operational activities fed the growing affinity between the militaries, which is also rooted in shared values and professional culture.

  • For decades, the US has been committed to defending the nations of the Gulf against aggression. This became official when former President Jimmy Carter announced his Carter Doctrine in March 1980 following the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It called for using military force to prevent any country from taking control of the Persian Gulf region and has been the core mission of CENTCOM since its creation by the Reagan Administration in 1983.

Energy concerns are central to this mission. Even when the US itself has reverted to being a net exporter, its dominant posture in the Gulf gives it – for years to come – significant leverage over foe and friend alike. By necessity, this mission also translates into an attentive ear towards the concerns and perspectives – indeed, towards the existential angst – of Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and other Gulf allies as regards the regional balance of power.

In earlier times, for reasons rooted in their ideology and national identity, the Gulf states tended to present to their American interlocutors a firm anti-Israel position (although at least one of them had undeclared security cooperation with Israel going back to the 1970s). This came even though at least one of the Gulf states had quietly cooperated with Israel on security matters back in the 1970s.  Today, Kuwait is an outlier, persisting in this hostile line. But as for the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and behind the scenes, the Saudi family, things have changed dramatically in recent years. On an extensive range of issues

There is no daylight between Israel and many key Arab players on an extensive range of issues. They support many of Israel’s policies and actions, such as the “campaign between wars” meant to block Iranian penetration in the region and has included almost daily operations over Syria and beyond. This, in turn, is reflected in their interactions with the US military: hence, the permission to station in Bahrain a uniformed IDF liaison to the US 5th Fleet. In March 2022, according to the Wall Street Journal (a leak that Israel and Saudi Arabia did not welcome), the IDF Chief of Staff met in Egypt with his Saudi, Egyptian, and other Arab colleagues under CENTCOM’s aegis, one more unprecedented landmark in this unfolding three-way partnership.

  • The common enemy for the Gulf states and Israel is the Mullah’s regime in Tehran. In this respect, the US defense establishment has provided continuity in relations with Israel amidst several US administrations.

During the Obama administration’s second term and Biden’s current tenure, the focus has been on reaching a negotiated agreement with Iran over its nuclear program. All the while, the US defense establishment never ceased to see the revolutionary regime in Tehran in starkly adversarial terms.

American military and security services carry the vivid memories and scars of events such as the abduction of its diplomats and citizens during the Iranian Revolution and devastating attacks on US targets such as the bombings of the Marine Barracks at the Beirut Airport in 1983.

More recently, there is the role of Iranian-trained Shi’ite militias in Iraq that have targeted American forces. Hence, the willingness to team up – in varying degrees of daring and intensity – with Israeli actions, such as the cyber targeting (operation “Olympic Games”) or Iran’s nuclear project. At times the United States took direct action – such as the assassination by one of its drones of Qassem Suleimani with the help of Israeli intelligence.

When it came to the activities of Unit 840 of the al-Quds Force, the intelligence evidence (some of it obtained by Israel in a ground-breaking operation on Iranian soil) of plots to assassinate American officers, among others, helped consolidate the Defense Department’s position against delisting the IRGC. This, in turn, apparently played a significant role in Biden’s ultimate decision not to accept Iran’s blatant demand – with all that has ensued as a result, including the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) denunciation of the Iranian regime’s conduct.

The Importance and Limits of Cooperation: Plan B and Beyond    

All the above lends ever-greater importance to enhancing cooperation at all levels – whether at top-level strategic dialogue usually held each year between National Security Advisers and top defense officials. For example, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz and his counterpart, Lloyd Austin, have a long-term relationship going back to the days when the latter was commander of CENTCOM.

As the first-ever Secretary of Defense of African-American origin  – and given the composition of Biden’s political base – Austin holds a privileged position, to some extent, in the inner circle in Washington.

To this should be added the regular and frequent meetings between commanders on both sides, including visits in Israel of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other senior military officials.

In recent years, as indicated, joint exercises on a wide range of scenarios have become more common than ever – including ones that barely hide the identification of Iran as the potential adversary. With Israel integrated into the CENTCOM, the American partner can now bring the Israeli Navy and Air force into active participation in operational activities in the Red Sea and beyond, alongside Arab navies belonging to the signatories of the Abraham Accords. All this is complemented by the broad, intensive, daily work of intelligence sharing serving both countries’ interests.

All this is complemented by the broad, intensive, daily work of intelligence sharing serving both countries’ interests. Still, friction is bound to arise occasionally, even with close cooperation.

Still, friction is bound to arise from time to time, even in the context of such close cooperation. The resentment in Israel over the leak to The New York Times as to the assassination of a senior IRGC officer – in the heart of Tehran – is warranted. However, there is no reason to assume this happened due to a directive from on high. Many in the US government still do not look favorably upon the cooperation with Israel and the nod given to certain Israeli activities.

In any case, the crisis over Iran’s bid for the bomb is now bound to intensify following the overwhelming vote at the IAEA, backed by the US and its Western allies and Israel, to censure Iran over its policies on non-disclosures. The talks in Vienna may have collapsed already. To some extent, this is due to the Defense Department’s firm stand and Iran’s aggressive attitude and accelerated drive toward the status of nuclear threshold power. All this requires, currently, careful balancing in Jerusalem between two equally important imperatives:

1. On one hand, enhancing and intensifying close cooperation with all relevant elements of the US defense establishment regarding joint plans of action – with the support, if not the active participation, of our partners in the Gulf. All this in the context of the constant quest for what has been referred to as “Plan B,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has spoken of “a death by a thousand cuts” – constant and penetrating action to disrupt Iran’s nuclear project, its ballistic missile, and drone projects, and other aspects of Iran’s efforts to destabilize the region.

2. On the other hand, Israel should be on guard so that the US embrace does not become a gripping hold, denying Israel the freedom to act – at the moment of ultimate need – on its own and according to its conscious when no other choice is left.

Biden’s visit to Israel – and the messages he is bound to hear from US partners in the Gulf – provide an opportunity to make this point quite clear, even as cooperation intensifies in other respects. At the very end of the day, even US interests – in the Iranian context and at the level of first principles – would be ill-served if Israel came to be perceived as an obedient actor whose decisions are subject to American directives.

JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.

Photo: IMAGO / ZUMA Wire / Lisa Ferdinando/Dod