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Israel Fights America’s Battles

Why the U.S.-Israel alliance may be returning to its Cold War roots

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U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (right) and Israeli Minister of Defense Moshe Yaalon speak during a helicopter tour of the Golan Heights on April 22, 2013. (Jim Watson/Getty Images)
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For two weeks in the summer of 1982, U.S. and Soviet jets dueled in the skies over Lebanon in one of the largest aerial dogfights since World War II. The pilots were Israelis and Syrians. In a classic Cold War proxy battle, U.S.-backed Israel humiliated Soviet-backed Syria, downing 86 MiGs without a single loss. It was the finest example of Israel’s strategic value to the United States: In return for the planes, Israel served as America’s shield and a model for the superiority of American-made weaponry.

In the summer of 2013, American-made Israeli jets are humiliating Syria once again. Israel’s ability to evade sophisticated Russian-made anti-aircraft systems to bomb Syrian territory over the past week does not just signal a possible expansion of Syria’s civil war or the latest salvo in the struggle with Iran. It also suggests that the U.S.-Israel alliance may be returning to its Cold War roots—which is good news for both countries.

The strategic bond between the United States and Israel did not begin with the Jewish state’s founding in 1948. Many U.S. officials cautioned against becoming too close with the nascent state, which identified itself as a socialist country, had diplomatic support within the Soviet bloc, and was hated by America’s Arab oil suppliers. As the United States attempted to build a regional security alliance to contain Soviet power in the Middle East, President Dwight Eisenhower pressured Israel to cede a large portion of the Negev Desert so that Egypt and Jordan could link borders. He also forced Israel to abort its military incursion into Egypt to seize the Suez Canal in concert with Britain and France.

But as Cairo and other Arab capitals increasingly sided with Moscow, Washington began to see Jerusalem as a possible bulwark against Soviet influence. In 1962, John F. Kennedy told Golda Meir, then Israel’s foreign minister, “The United States has a special relationship with Israel in the Middle East really comparable only to what it has with Britain over a wide range of world affairs”—a statement that wasn’t true at the time, but did turn out to be prophetic. The Kennedy and Johnson Administrations generally ignored Israel’s development of nuclear weapons during the 1960s and sent moderate amounts of small arms that helped the Jewish state smash Arab armies fighting with Soviet weapons in the Six Day War.

Israel’s victory—largely achieved with French-made jets and homemade Kfir fighters rather than American weapons—suggested the benefits of a strategic alliance with Israel. After the Six Day War, the United States would supply the advanced weapons and Israel would do the fighting. Over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, Israel rescued the U.S.-supported Hashemite monarchy in Jordan from a Syrian invasion, embarrassed the U.S.S.R. by downing Soviet planes over the Suez Canal, and opened its port in Haifa to the U.S. Sixth Fleet to counter the establishment of a Soviet submarine base in Syria. Despite several points of tension, such as U.S. displeasure with Israel’s full-scale invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the partnership between the two countries became a key component of Washington’s Cold War strategy in the Eastern Mediterranean and a powerful advertisement for high-end American arms.

But the end of the Cold War shook the strategic foundations of the U.S.-Israel relationship. No longer worried about the Soviet threat, U.S. officials began to see Israel as an obstacle to building relations with erstwhile enemies in the Arab World. The rise of Palestinian resistance to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank furthered this view. Many in Washington embraced the notion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict drove anti-American resentment across the Middle East and saw Israel as a chief obstacle to regional harmony. President George H.W. Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker tried to force Israel to make peace with the PLO at the Madrid Peace Conference in the hopes of winning friends among the Arabs. When the United States cobbled together a coalition of Arab nations against Saddam Hussein, it sought desperately to keep Israel out of the war, suggesting that it saw the Jewish state as a strategic burden rather than an asset. The signing of the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn and subsequent negotiations at Wye and Camp David seemed to suggest that Israel’s chief value to the United States was as a source of prestige for presidents who could deliver that most enchanting diplomatic prize, Middle East peace.

The 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah gave the Jewish state its first real opportunity since the end of the Cold War to quiet doubters by applying the classic alliance model. In a new Middle Eastern proxy struggle, this time between the United States and Iran, Israel sought to crush Hezbollah. Yet it did not perform up to its Cold War standard. In a bumbling operation, it fought the Lebanese terrorist group to what many saw as a draw, causing then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, among others, to lose faith in its value as an arm of U.S. deterrence in the region.

The strategic drift between Washington and Jerusalem opened up space for critics to call for an end to a special relationship that had outlived its usefulness on the ground. Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer spearheaded this campaign in 2006 with an explosive article arguing that there was no longer any strategic rationale for a continued alliance. Although critics rallied against aspects of their work, their basic contention was widely accepted in Washington. In 2010, Gen. David Petraeus, then the head of U.S. Central Command, testified on Capitol Hill that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “foments anti-American sentiment” and “limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships.” Tensions during the Obama Administration’s first term over the stalled peace process and Iran seemed to underscore the idea that official Washington saw the alliance with Israel as a costly political burden that served no evident military or strategic purpose.

But recent events in the Middle East suggest that 20 years of uncertainty about Israel’s strategic value may be ending.


The Israeli bombings in Syria over the past week came with Washington’s close coordination and President Obama’s post-strike blessing. Although the United States does not seek any escalation of the war in Syria, it appears to have deputized Israel to police the spread of chemical weapons and advanced Iranian arms bound for Hezbollah.

Iran, to be sure, poses a lesser threat to the United States than the Soviet Union. Yet its drive for regional hegemony comes exactly as the United States is attempting to disengage from the region. That makes the strategic logic of relying on Israel to guarantee U.S. interests more clear than it has been in a generation for Republicans and Democrats alike. Those who want the United States to intervene more actively in the Middle East can take solace in the fact that the United States still has a means of striking back at Iran and containing other possible regional threats, like Syria’s aborted attempt to develop its own nuclear bomb. Those who want the United States to get as far away from the Middle East as possible, meanwhile, can be happy that Israel will do the fighting while America extracts itself.

The Pentagon, at the very least, appears to be embracing the idea of Israel fighting America’s battles in the Middle East in exchange for high-end weapons systems, the same way it did during the Cold War. The strikes in Syria came two weeks after a major arms sale between the United States and Israel in which the Jewish state will receive anti-radiation missiles designed to target enemy aerial defenses, upgraded radar systems, Osprey helicopters, and air refueling tankers—a sale that U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel described as a “clear signal” to Iran.

The United States has long had moral, emotional, and domestic political reasons to support Israel. The return of the American-Israeli alliance to its Cold War foundations will aid both countries in overcoming their disagreements and coordinating their efforts in Syria and across the Middle East. Just as Israel downed Soviet-made Syrian jets in the Cold War, it will now destroy Iranian-made missiles, bolstering U.S. deterrence as Washington’s proxy war with Tehran approaches its climax.


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    I agree with your point of view. There are those who just won’t look at the big picture either past or present. BN is trying to establish an accord with Russia, but it won’t be easy. Putin is vain and power hungry, how long has he technically been in power?

ParisParamus says:

Well, if we need Israel to cover for the feckless, amoral, incompetent regime now in Washington, I’ll take it. I’m just worried how long Israel can hold out. Let us all pray it can outlast Obama, the Democrats, and the disgusting mainstream media.

Good article. However, I think that Israel is increasing an equal partner in the development of high tech weaponry. Iron Dome being an example of Us finance and Israeli technical excellence. The father of the drone programme was an Israeli. There is therefore an increasing co-dependence in this area. Since the Yom Kippur war, when Israel was hours from military collapse and the us had to establish an air-bridge to re-supply them, Israel embarked on the development of a high tech military industry, which is now bearing fruit.

    Beatrix17 says:

    I agree. Tablet justifies its existence with articles like this.

    abebird says:

    Israel never reached a moment of a military collapse in Yom Kippur 1973 war. Moshe Dayan was scared that the Israeli front line in the Suez Canal will break through, but his fear was recovered in the days later. But there was no moment that someone feared that the Egyptian will break through for 190 miles and reach the Negev!

And why, pray tell, is all this a good thing? Are you actually advocating a return to the bad old days when the Soviet Union was our mortal enemy – only this time, it will be Russia, China and presumably the other BRIC partners? For what – to put Iran in it’s place for defying the U.S. on it’s hegemonic designs, and it’s desire to end the dollar as the petro-currency? Lets just consider what the M.I.C. has wrought: a generation of emotional, physical and economical cripples who have been brainwashed into thinking war is a good thing. You boys need to spend a few years in the U.S. Army (NOT the IDF) in order to get a first hand look at a 20 year old with his legs blown off. Or better yet, just take a tour of Walter Reed/Bethesda. Then please shut up. You make me sick.

    Habbgun says:

    Want to see what an 8 year old looks like with its legs blown off. See a terror attack. Want to see what shooting someone in the streets for the “crime” of teaching their religion looks like? See the old Soviet Union. Want to see what Communist induced starvation looks like see the Ukraine under Stalin, China under Mao and North Korea. Want to see what phony outrage looks like ? Find a pacifist. US hegemonic designs indeed.

      Indeed, I may NOW be a pacifist but it’s because I did 27 years in the U.S. Army and know what I am talking about. War is hell. But in any case I have the courage to use my real name and not hide behind some cutesy nom de guerre/avatar like most posting on this site. What are y’all afraid of?

        Habbgun says:

        Right. You are aren’t hiding? Of course you are hiding. I looked you up. You were JAG and you defended Guantanamo detainees which is your right but nothing says you have to sound like them. You chose that and you choose to self-aggrandize yourself while hiding behind typical Leftist agitprop. The rest here are people discussing issues and going on with their lives. They are not professional activists and don’t have to act like one. That was your choice.

        Your were called out on being selective in your outrage and nothing you have said has for a moment been contradictory to that point.

          Hey, how does using my real name and face hide? I guess in your bizarro world that’s hiding, and war is peace, etc. (typical Orwellian BS doublespeak). Yes, I do have real outrage – at warmongers and at people like you who have the nerve to call ME a phony. Perhaps you should look in the mirror – if you have a face, that is. Have good day and don’t shoot yourself in the foot.

          Habbgun says:

          Well of course you are phony. Pretending to be one of the defense team who defended the Gitmo detainees is a pretty sorry way to go around the Internet. After all if the person who was a part of the defense team for a case of national importance runs around getting into Internet flame wars with someone who can’t get past the rope line at local bank that would be a SERIOUS sign of national decline and we’re not there yet. Thank goodness.

          Really its pretty obvious. You are one of those mentally ill people who hear the word Jew and it plays into your little disease and you come up with conspiracies. If it wasn’t the Jews it would be leprechauns or movie stars or even German Shepherds (Son of Sam anyone?). Please get help and forget about firearms. Stay away from sharp instruments.

          hypnosifl says:

          I really doubt that’s the real Lorraine Barlett, but if it was, it would be easy for her to prove her identity–she could just snap a picture of herself holding a piece of paper saying “yes, I post on tablet” or somesuch, and then put it online and post the link here.

          Ivor says:

          You are a self inflated bag of wind. It is people like you that speak of the world as some kind of personal entitlement. I agree with Lorraine. War is stupid, whether it is done by the men with cloth over their faces or by executives in Jackets and ties. It is time we get over all this nonsense about whose gun is bigger and try the difficult road of compromise and peace.

        Beatrix17 says:

        I think Lorraine is a cute name.

        BRIC is an economic alliance; they are not going to war for each other. But I agree with you about wanting to live in a world without war. This century may bring the end of huge global conflicts, but there are too many bad guys out there and too many good guys we support to hope for the end of all military skirmishes, but most of us would risk the loss of a limb to stave off Hitler or Ahmadinejad.

    lightharry says:

    You are 100 percent right. The boy scouts in the IDF will beg that America fights it´s wars when the shiiit hits the fan,

Putin is a dangerous man, power hungry and vain. China is unlikely to take Russia’s side, more China would prefer to keep Russia in its place. China is sleeping giant many under estimate including Putin probably. BN has already visit China, first incidentally, Russia this week? The US has an accord with China, in order to pay her debt to China (the economic downturn in US, borrowing from China). China exchanges goods for US debt. It may well be a good idea to end the dollar petro-currency, although right now the $ is doing so badly maybe not. No one wants to put Iran in its place, we just need to keep a lid on her. Her government is run by very odd people indeed. I note there is a piece on Sociopaths on this page must read. The US cannot supply her market for oil from her own reserves and is totally dependent on Mid-East oil! Putin no doubt aware of this, if you analyze coldly US is in a pincer grip regards her oil dependency world wide. Russia has lots of oil and gas, the Mid East has lots of oil and gas both areas have enough to export world wide and China is becoming hungry for oil. China also can import oil from Indonesia it is virtually on her doorstep. So in the big picture getting rid of Terrorist organizations world would be in her interest. Remember there is a huge muslim population in Indonesia and they have been causing mayhem there. So in conclusion what is the Middle really up to? In opinion the Mid East is aware of the rest of the world’s dependence on oil and since her Wahhabi religion was started in Saudia and has spread, we have a big threat on our hands.

Ari Raps says:

I dont know why anyone would think Israel – Hezbolla confrontation was a draw. Hezbolla is still rebuilding and border with Lebanon is relatively quite/ peaceful. All this while Israeli economy continues to grow. Draw?

    Jeshurun says:

    a draw in as much as Israel did not completely crush Hezbollah – as used to happen against the Arab enemy.

      alexa44 says:

      Terrorists fighting among civialians are not like regular armies.

Hmm… Israel is currently the only country in the Middle East worth supporting as it is the only democratic state thereabouts.

hekesq says:

This article, while a good historical analysis, is absurd as a treatise on present day international relations. Israel did not further a US agenda by attacking Syria. There is no cold war and cold war surrogates. Israel did what it did, and I applaud it for taking such action, for it’s own security reasons, not the US. The US has no good side in Syria and should keep out. Backing fundamentalist rebels will backfire as it did in Afghanistan. If Israel wants to take action in Syria then they do so for their own interests and attributing to the US shows a lack of understanding of current affairs.

Binyamin the Prophet says:

Of course, the headline should be: America Fights Israel’s Battles.

    alexa44 says:

    When did ever the US fight Israel bottle. They did fight and died for the arabs in kuwait .

    abebird says:

    Who asked you to brutally attack Iraq and Afghanistan? Keep your nose in your own sewage.

Lese Majeste says:

Israel is fighting battles to steal more land and resources and cover up the genocide of the indigenous Palestinians, so don’t try to frame this as ‘poor widdle Israel’ fighting the bad guys.
I’m old enough to remember that before Israel came into existence, the USA had no enemies in the ME, now they seem to be everywhere, which plays perfectly into Apartheid Israel’s insane behavior.
Oops, you forgot to mention those Israeli jets that attacked a US ship, the USS Liberty!

    alexa44 says:

    Funny, last I remember Israel is jut giving up lands since 1982 with the peace with Egypt. Sanai, Lands to Jordan, lebaon, Gaza, part of the WB. Genocide of Palestinians? is that they are more of them than was before 1967 in WB and Gaza. Or the arab in Israel. USA had no enemies in the ME? lol Al Queda blame the american for having their forces situated in many of the Gulf countries. American intrest in the ME was about oil and it begun after WW2 . So blaming Israel for it is the usual Jews hater exuses.

    abebird says:

    Tell America first to give Mexico back Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Southern California, before you preach on Israel case.
    The land of Israel is that land of Israel, and the Arabs are those who invaded there, stole the land and want it for their own. Israel is just doing what is historically justified.

abebird says:

You missed to mention another Israel great successful in 1982 war :- Israel destroyed 14 Soviet Syrian ground to air missile batteries (SA-2, SA-3, SA-6) in 2 hours, achievement that hadn’t been achieved at that time before and from that time till today.


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Israel Fights America’s Battles

Why the U.S.-Israel alliance may be returning to its Cold War roots

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