Friends With Benefits

Published on Friday, 09 November 2012 by Marina Rozhansky

Photo by Ronen Zvulun / Reuters
By Michael Eisenstadt and David Pollock

At the final presidential debate of the 2012 campaign season, President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney mentioned Israel some 30 times, more than any other country except Iran. Both candidates called the Jewish state "a true friend," pledging to stand with it through thick and thin. Some political commentators criticized these effusive declarations of support as pandering, suggesting that the candidates were simply going after Jewish and pro-Israel votes.

But if support for Israel is indeed such a political winner, then it's at least in part because the voters know best. The U.S.-Israeli alliance now contributes more than ever to American security, as bilateral cooperation to deal with both military and nonmilitary challenges has grown in recent years. The relationship may not be symmetrical; the United States has provided Israel with indispensable diplomatic, economic, and military support totaling more than $115 billion since 1949. But it is a two-way partnership whose benefits to the United States have been substantial. The other, less tangible costs of the U.S.-Israeli alliance -- mainly, damage to Washington's reputation in Arab and Muslim countries, a problem also caused by American interventions and decades of U.S. support for autocratic leaders in the Middle East -- pale in comparison with the economic, military, and political gains it affords Washington.

U.S.-Israeli security cooperation dates back to heights of the Cold War, when the Jewish state came to be seen in Washington as a bulwark against Soviet influence in the Middle East and a counter to Arab nationalism. Although the world has changed since then, the strategic logic for the U.S.-Israeli alliance has not. Israel remains a counterweight against radical forces in the Middle East, including political Islam and violent extremism. It has also prevented the further proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the region by thwarting Iraq and Syria's nuclear programs.

Israel continues to help the United States deal with traditional security threats. The two countries share intelligence on terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and Middle Eastern politics. Israel's military experiences have shaped the United States' approach to counterterrorism and homeland security. The two governments work together to develop sophisticated military technology, such as the David's Sling counter-rocket and Arrow missile defense systems, which may soon be ready for export to other U.S. allies. Israel has also emerged as an important niche defense supplier to the U.S. military, with sales growing from $300 million per year before September 11 to $1.1 billion in 2006, due to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Israel's military research and development complex has pioneered many cutting-edge technologies that are transforming the face of modern war, including cyberweapons, unmanned vehicles (such as land robots and aerial drones), sensors and electronic warfare systems, and advanced defenses for military vehicles.

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