The Price Israel Pays for Being a Client State

The bond between the United States and Israel is both deep and broad. Yet the geopolitical alliance took shape in earnest after the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel’s military might convinced the U.S. of its value as an ally in the Middle East and a bulwark against Soviet expansion. Prior to that war, Israel turned to Europe–France in particular–for military aid; after 1967, the U.S. became Israel’s main arms supplier and patron.

That certainly helped Israel build its defenses. But it also complicated Israeli strategy and tactics. Forty years ago, on the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, Israeli officials suddenly realized that the intelligence warnings they had been receiving for weeks were correct: Egypt and Syria were going to launch a surprise attack the next day, as Israel’s reservists were at synagogue or home with their families.

Prime Minister Golda Meir faced a strange calculation as she faced a potentially catastrophic situation. She could order a pre-emptive strike that would at least blunt the enemy attack. Or she could wait until Egypt and Syria had fired the first shot, knowing that if Israel struck first–as it did in 1967–it would be condemned by the world and the U.S. might not be as willing to resupply it with arms and ammunition as the war went on.

Meir decided to wait. That fateful decision probably cost lives, and it certainly damaged her legacy in the eyes of many Israelis. President Richard Nixon did eventually send more weapons in a massive airlift–after the Soviets, too, had begun sending weapons to its Arab clients. Yet Meir still had to wrestle with Nixon and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, to ensure that the U.S. followed through with the needed assistance.

Once the tide of war had turned, with little to defend Cairo or Damascus, Kissinger pressured Israel to stop pressing its advantage. Many Israelis were furious: they had suffered greatly, and wanted to deter any future enemy attacks. But Kissinger was trying to manipulate the players in the Middle East to serve his broader goal of achieving détente with the Soviet Union. An Israeli rout would prompt the USSR to fight, not to talk. 

Fast-forward twenty years, to the White House lawn in September 1993, where Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed the Oslo Accords. That deal was partly brought about, and sustained, by U.S. pressure, not only from the Clinton administration but from the Madrid process under the George H.W. Bush administration, and was seen as the fulfillment of the Camp David process that Jimmy Carter had facilitated.

Today the Oslo process lies in ruins–killed off by the Palestinians last year with their push for statehood at the United Nations, and fatally damaged over a decade before that with the terror of the second intifada. The price Israel paid–in lives lost and strategic advantage fumbled away–remains deeply painful. And yet the U.S. under President Barack Obama continues to demand more, and deeper, concessions to an implacable enemy.

Obama, like Kissinger, has tried to use Israel as a pawn in a larger game. He declined to act against the Iranian regime when it was nearly toppled in 2009, and also apparently denied Israel support for a pre-emptive strike against the regime (as did George W. Bush in his second term). Obama’s aim has been to preserve the regime in order to achieve the goal of a grand bargain on nuclear weapons–a victory for his ideal of diplomacy.

Yet that victory has been elusive because Obama failed to understand the nature of the Iranian regime, as well as the broader reality that America’s enemies were not reacting to the perceived aggression of his predecessor but pursuing their own ideological beliefs and geopolitical interests. (This week, Obama invoked “American exceptionalism” in arguing for a Syria strike; if he really believes in it, he learned its value the hard way.)

Kissinger, in contrast, succeeded because he had clear strategic goals. The question is whether Israel can still place its security in the hands of an administration that does not. Critics of foreign aid, such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), focus narrowly on the price Israel that costs American taxpayers. But as important as the U.S.-Israel alliance is and must continue to be, Obama’s weakness makes a strong case for greater Israeli self-reliance.