Israel’s ties that bind


Although John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt accuse the “Israel lobby” of bullying American politicians into a positive relationship with Israel, the truth is that the long-standing U.S.-Israel alliance exists because it is good for America.

President Bush, like his predecessors, determines U.S. policy toward Israel, but the relationship is far deeper than the ideology of an individual president. What makes the countries’ friendship so strong is not just geopolitics but the web of military, economic, academic and personal connections.

One pillar of the special relationship is mutual strategic interests. Until the mid-1960s, State Department and Pentagon officials argued that Israel did not need American arms because it was strong enough to defend itself and had other arms sources. They also said that selling U.S. arms to Israel would alienate Arab states, which could seek weapons from the Soviets and Chinese, thus sparking a Middle East arms race.


U.S. policy shifted when, disregarding State Department objections, President Kennedy sold antiaircraft missiles to Israel shortly after Egypt obtained long-range bombers from the USSR. President Johnson subsequently provided Israel with tanks and aircraft, balancing these sales with arms transfers to Arab countries. But Johnson’s sale of Phantom jets to Israel in 1968 established the U.S. as Israel’s principal arms supplier and ensured Israel’s qualitative military edge over its neighbors.

President Reagan formalized this strategic relationship in a 1981 agreement to “enhance strategic cooperation to deter all threats from the Soviet Union to the region.” By the end of Reagan’s term, the U.S. had pre-positioned equipment in Israel, held regular joint training exercises and began co-development of the Arrow anti-tactical ballistic missile and other cooperative military endeavors. Israel became a de facto American ally, and the Arab states learned that the U.S. was not afraid to risk upsetting them.

Another pillar is shared values. While living in a region dominated by autocracies, Israelis have a commitment to democracy no less passionate than that of Americans. All citizens of Israel, regardless of race, religion or sex, are guaranteed equality before the law and full democratic rights. Israel’s independent judiciary vigorously upholds these rights. The political system differs slightly from America’s — Israel’s is a parliamentary democracy — but it is still based on free elections with divergent parties.

Joint ventures are the third pillar. Reagan expanded the scope of these joint activities that existed since the 1950s, creating partnerships between nearly every U.S. government agency - from NASA to the Environmental Protection Agency to the Department of Health and Human Services - and their Israeli counterparts. The collaborative research has produced innovations that benefit people around the world.

The relationship extends beyond the federal government to the state and local level. A milestone in these contacts occurred with the 1984 creation of the Texas-Israel Exchange, promoting projects in agriculture. Since then, at least 23 other states have signed agreements with Israel to increase cooperation in trade, tourism, research, culture and other activities of interest to individual states. The financial benefits to the states from bilateral agreements can also be substantial, considering that 17 states exported at least $100.million worth of goods to Israel in 2006, and three exported more than $500.million, with New York leading the way with $4.6. billion.

Critics want to see an all-powerful lobby as the reason for America’s pro-Israel policy, but they have chosen to focus on an ungainly tree amid the forest of flourishing ties between the two nations. The real reasons for the U.S.-Israel relationship are far more complex and beneficial to the United States than Mearsheimer and Walt imagine.

Mitchell Bard is the director of the Jewish Virtual Library and the author of “Will Israel Survive?”