WASHINGTON — Although much attention in recent weeks has been focused on the strained political relationship between Israel and the United States, cooperation between the defense establishment of the two nations continues to be close and, if the Feb. 4 Senate Armed Services Committee hearings on President Barack Obama’s nomination of physicist Ashton Carter to replace Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel are any indication, may even improve.
Whereas Obama’s nomination of Hagel two years ago was fought tooth and nail by a number of Jewish organizations and pro-Israel groups, the Pentagon under his leadership has maintained good relations with its Israeli counterparts. And when the same senators who challenged Hagel questioned Carter this week, there were none of the fireworks that typified the earlier battles.
Although Israel did not come up during questioning, Carter, whose views on Iran are believed to be more hawkish than those of Obama, mentioned the Jewish state in an answer to a question from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) on the danger posed by a nuclear-armed Iran.
“They have the ambition to wipe off the map other states in the region, namely Israel,” said Carter. “They have a long history of behaving in a disruptive way, of supporting terrorism, of trying to undermine other governments operating around the world. So I think they give abundant evidence that they’re not the kind of people you want to have having nuclear weapons.”
According to Aaron David Miller, vice president for new initiatives and distinguished scholar at the Wilson Center, the Pentagon under Carter will likely continue to be the anomaly in U.S.-Israeli relations.
“I think in some respects the U.S.-Israeli relationship is on autopilot, and it continues to improve. … You have a measure of personal dysfunction at the top of this relationship,” he said, referring to the public spats between Obama’s administration and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “And yet … institutionally the relationship [has] so much momentum, so much deliverables that are mutually beneficial, that it’s in some respects on autopilot.
“I think that sense of confidence and trust among long-established mechanisms and relationships simply continues to endure and actually grow stronger regardless of the political dysfunction at the top,” he added.
That dysfunction has been a near constant narrative of the relationship between the executive and legislative leaders of both governments; its latest iteration is seen in the controversy over the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) for Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress about the dangers of a nuclear Iran without having coordinated it with the White House.
Last year, it was even seen at the cabinet level, such as when Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon called Secretary of State John Kerry’s quest to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority “messianic.” Other times, the slander has come from anonymous officials, such as when White House officials were reported calling Netanyahu “Aspergery” and a “chicken——.”
Reached outside the House of Representatives chamber after finishing a vote, Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) blamed the Obama administration for the sore relations at the top but joined Miller and other observers in identifying the Pentagon as apparently above the political fray.
The people in the Defense Department “understand perhaps more than anyone how critical our alliance with Israel truly is,” said Franks. “The Pentagon understands how important Israel is to America, and I think that’s why they’re going to do everything they can to mollify or at least ameliorate this president’s — what I think has become an obvious sort of — resentment toward Israel.”
Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) agreed that defense cooperation with Israel was crucial and tied the issue to the question of automatic budget cuts enacted in 2013, known as sequestration. During his hearing, Carter argued that across-the-board cuts imperiled America’s defense posture.
“We support Israel and we give Israel money to procure things like the Iron Dome missiles,” said Ruppersberger, a member of the House Intelligence Committee. “And when you cut across the board instead of prioritizing, I think that clearly it will hurt our allies, including Israel, because we won’t have the money to work with them and help them deal with the threats Israel faces every day.”
There is “increasing depth tied into U.S.-Israel coordination, cooperation and co-budgeting on things like missile defense,” said Aram Nerguizian, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “In parallel to any development within the bilateral political arena, there has been a pretty steady sense of continuity on military affairs. A lot of systems like David’s Sling; the Iron Dome; funding and planning for the Arrow II and Arrow III ballistic missile defense systems — these wouldn’t be possible if you didn’t have a sense of expanding scale and depth in the military-to-military partnership.”
Israel has been the largest cumulative recipient of foreign aid from the United States since World War II. With support for Israel high among the American population, Congress has not hesitated to provide additional funds for joint U.S.-Israeli research and development projects and other forms of cooperation, such as allowing the Israeli Defense Forces to use vast stockpiles of American military equipment stored within Israel on an emergency basis.
Under President George W. Bush, the United States and Israel signed a 10-year agreement in which Israel would receive $30 billion in U.S. aid annually.
In 2014 alone, according to the Congressional Research Service, Arrow and Arrow II mid-altitude ballistic missile defense system projects (researched and jointly developed by Boeing and Israeli Aerospace Industries) received $44.3 million, while $74.7 went to aid research and development of the new Arrow III high-altitude anti-ballistic system.
Another joint U.S.-Israeli project, David’s Sling, was budgeted for $149.7 million.
The Iron Dome missile defense system, another joint project that successfully intercepted Hamas rockets during last summer’s war in Gaza, initially received $235 million in the congressional budget. In response to the war, this amount was bolstered with an additional $225 million to assist Israel in replenishing its Iron Dome missile stockpile.
Both Nerguizian and Miller agreed that institutional momentum that has seen defense establishments of both nations grow closer and more codependent since 1949 is unlikely to reverse itself.
“When you get to where we are now, in this decade, it’s not because of any development in the last one two or three years, it’s tied to decades of systemic focus and you’re not going to have a dramatic shift either in the positive or negative,” said Nerguizian. “It’s just a steady state.”
Faith in the continuity of the military-to-military relationship was challenged when Obama nominated Hagel, whose statements for a book Miller wrote in 2006 were seen as critical of the Jewish state and its allies in Washington. Hagel’s confirmation hearing was quite a spectacle, but Carter’s hearing was surprisingly tranquil and respectful. Such civility between Republican and Democratic lawmakers toward each other and toward Obama’s nominees has been rare.
When asked whether he thinks it is likely the relationship would change if the Senate confirms Carter, Miller said that in the current defense environment, in which dealing with conflicts in the Middle East takes up much of the Pentagon’s time and energy, it is nearly impossible for a defense secretary to be anti-Israel.
“Along with the Saudis, the Israelis constitute the closest American ally in this entire region,” said Miller. “Whatever the drama and the soap opera of the Bibi/Obama relationship, it’s just a fact.”
Dmitriy Shapiro is the senior political reporter at Washington Jewish Week.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.