IS Israel still an American strategic asset? The Gulf crisis and Jerusalem controversy may raise doubts about this, but in fact the United States-Israel military relationship remains important and is likely to become stronger rather than weaker. Israel's strategic importance is evident even in the current crisis, despite its low-profile role. Neither the US nor Israel ever thought it politically realistic to deploy Israeli forces to the Persian Gulf - whether against Soviet divisions marching through Iran or Iraqi troops invading Saudi Arabia. Instead, Israel was expected to provide just the type of cooperation seen to date - sharing intelligence while providing a force capable of punishing Iraq were its aggression to extend westward.
Beyond the current crisis, the military relationship that developed between the US and Israel in the 1980s is likely to continue because both sides see advantages in the cooperation. In this regard, Israel is no different from many of America's NATO allies. Without a Soviet threat, it is hard today to know precisely under what circumstances the US may have to use force in Europe or in the Mediterranean. Accordingly, the US will reduce its military presence and activity there. But American presence and interests will remain. For as the current crisis illustrates, even in a post-cold-war era military threats to US interests will arise.
In the eastern Mediterranean, Israel will continue to provide excellent training opportunities for US military forces - hard to find in a post-cold-war Europe. Indeed, in an era when it will be increasingly difficult for American forces to find friendly ports throughout the world, Israel will almost certainly be one of a very few nations willing to host and support American military visitors. More American ships visited Israel last year than any other Mediterranean country. Should the US need to use force in Israel's neighborhood - be it the eastern Mediterranean or the larger Middle East - it can be confident of a politically friendly environment and militarily competent support.
With shrinking budgets, there is likely to be greater incentive for cooperation between American and Israeli defense industries. On the official level, the US military currently has about $1.3 billion under contract in Israel. Defense Secretary Cheney has also agreed to a second phase of the US-Israel Arrow anti-tactical ballistic missile program, a program whose importance is thrown into stark relief by the threat of Iraqi ballistic missiles.
The US-Israel strategic relationship has always been controversial. Before President Reagan, American administrations limited military cooperation with Israel because they feared damage to American-Arab relations. There were noteworthy exceptions, such as President Nixon's request for Israeli assistance during the 1970 Syrian threat to Jordan. But only the hard-line anti-Soviet Reagan administration saw fit to formalize a strategic relationship with Israel with the establishment of a US-Israel Joint Political Military Group in 1983. Since that time, under the auspices of the JPMG, the US and Israeli military establishments have undertaken combined planning, extensive military exercises, and the prepositioning of US stocks in Israel.
Undoubtedly, the Reagan administration's anticommunist exuberance led to exaggerations within Israel of the importance of strategic cooperation, particularly in the ruling Likud Party. Not trusting an American commitment to Israel's security based on shared moral values and affinity, some Israelis felt that strategic cooperation rooted in common interests could provide a better anchor for US-Israel relations.
But exaggerations of the importance of strategic cooperation should not be replaced by total skepticism about the US-Israel military relationship. While US-Israeli strategic cooperation cannot solve the Gulf crisis or substitute for a viable peace process, it is likely to remain an important component of the US-Israeli relationship as long as both countries face military threats. Strategic cooperation will also remain critical for Israel's deterrence posture and for fostering an environment in which Israel can feel secure making the concessions necessary for peace.