In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States and the global war on terror that quickly ensued, it is difficult to remember that the first challenge to American security that the Bush administration encountered came not from the Arabs but from the Chinese.
On April 1, 2001, the Chinese government detained 24 US naval personnel whose EP-3E reconnaissance plane made an emergency landing on Hainan Island in China after colliding with a Chinese F-8 fighter craft that was tailing it. The Chinese held the US crew for 13 days before releasing them.
Today the US and Israel are embroiled in a serious dispute which Defense Ministry Director General Amos Yaron referred to as a "crisis" in his testimony Wednesday before the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. According to reports, the crisis revolves around Israel's upgrade or servicing of Israeli-made Harpy unmanned aerial vehicles which Israel sold to China in the mid-1990s.
The US objects to the upgrade or servicing of the UAVs and is currently demanding that Israel not return the weapons to China, in spite of the fact that China already owns them.
Concerned that Israel may buckle to US pressure, Chinese Deputy Prime Minister Tang Jiaxuan flew to Israel this week to meet with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and ostentatiously invited him for a state visit to China.
There is good reason for the US to be concerned over Israeli arms sales to China. China, with the second largest national economy in the world, an annual economic growth rate of eight percent, a seemingly insatiable and growing appetite for petroleum and rising global interests and influence is viewed by US policymakers in both parties as one of the central rising challenges to US global power.
At the same time, it should be noted that Israel's arms sales to China in the mid-1990s, including the sale of the Harpy UAVs as well as the aborted sale of Phalcon AWACs aircraft, received the blessings of the Clinton Administration, which in the run-up to the 1996 presidential elections was conspicuously courting Chinese support for the campaign. Bill Clinton's reversal on Israeli weapons sales to China in 1999 came about as a result of his weakened position in his scandal-wracked second term. His weakening, which was due partly to allegations that his campaign knowingly received illegal campaign contributions from Chinese agents, combined with allegations of Chinese nuclear espionage at the Los Alamos nuclear research facility, caused Clinton to do an about-face on his China policy.
The most visible casualty of this reversal was Israel's Phalcon sale to China. That is, it was inconsistency in US policy, combined with Israel's reasonable interest in cultivating good relations with a rising global power, which caused Israel to nurture closer military relations with China in the 1990s.
Additionally, when assessing the current crisis in US-Israel strategic ties arising from American ire at the servicing of the Harpy UAVs, it should be born in mind that the US is not coming to the table with its hands clean. China may be the principal emerging conventional threat to US national security interests, but Egypt, thanks to US arms sales, constitutes the largest potential conventional threat to Israel's national security. Indeed, the conventional threat that the Egyptian military now poses to Israel is far greater than the threat Egypt posed to Israel, with its Soviet platforms and military doctrine in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
To date, Egypt's arsenal boasts some 880 Abrams M1-A1 main battle tanks. Egypt has no external enemies and yet, in its military's main joint forces exercise each year, the imaginary enemy they are fighting is "a small country to the north." Its F-16 pilots receive training in the US and for some years now, Egypt has been producing Abrams tanks at its own domestic facilities.
The US has insisted that its arms sales to Egypt, like its arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Jordan, pose no danger to Israel's qualitative edge against its neighbors. Yet the truth is more complicated. The American weapons systems and platforms sold to Israel's neighbors are much more sophisticated than the Soviet models they have replaced. Their presence in Arab arsenals forces Israel to continuously upgrade its own weapons systems in order to maintain its qualitative advantage over the increasingly sophisticated Arab militaries. To do this, Israel must rely on its local military industries. To offset the cost of the constant upgrades of Israeli systems, again necessitated in large part by US weapons sales to Arab states, Like every other weapons developer, Israel must seek international markets for its systems. And China is not merely a major arms purchaser; it is also an important country with which Israel has a national interest in cultivating good relations.
It is easy for Israelis to be angry at the Americans for exhibiting righteous rage over Israeli sales to China given both US competition with Israeli weapons producers in the global arms market and American weapons sales to Arab states. It is also understandable why these weapons sales to China in and of themselves enrage the Americans.
When analyzing the current crisis, which both sides have a clear interest in defusing, it is not enough to engage in prurient and self-righteous finger-pointing. It is necessary to understand what it is about the Israel-US relationship that has caused this current crisis and to look for ways to change the nature of the relationship to ensure that such crises not repeat themselves every few years.
From a strictly strategic perspective, Israel is a valuable ally to the US. Both countries share mutual and increasingly dangerous enemies in Syria, Al Qaida, Hizbullah and Iran, just for starters. Israel is a stable and reliable ally to the US in its war on Arab and Islamic terrorism. Israel provides the US with a wealth of intelligence which Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has reasonably stated "is worth its weight in gold."
Since the terror war against US forces in Iraq was instigated shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in the spring of 2003, Israel has provided the US with constant and active assistance in improving its urban warfare capabilities and its tactical intelligence gathering and assessment abilities. Aside from that, the US has benefited greatly from Israeli collaboration in the development of anti-ballistic missile defenses and other sophisticated weapons systems.
From Israel's perspective, there is no question about the strategic importance if its alliance with America. America is Israel's only real ally in the world today. This alliance manifests itself in all spheres of Israel's national welfare – from its military prowess to its economic well-being to its ability to withstand the pressures of Europe and the UN to capitulate to Arab intransigence and Palestinian terrorism.
And yet, in spite of the mutual importance of the Israel-American alliance, which is recognized by both sides, it suffers from some serious drawbacks that can and ought to be faced and dealt with. Given Israel's international weakness, as a nation rejected by both Europe and the Arab world, American policymakers have a tendency to take Israel for granted as a dependent nation that must always follow America's bidding, lacking any ability to survive on its own.
It is true that Israel is weak internationally. But Israel does have its own national interests that are not a mere reflection of American will. To ensure the long-term health of the relationship it would serve America's interests to stop seeing Israel as a mere dependent and to recognize that Israel, as a sovereign state, may have interests that do not jibe completely with those of the US.
Rather than denying that this is the case, the strategic dialogue be
tween the two allies should focus not only on their shared interests but also on how their separate interests can be mutually beneficial. For instance, Israel's burgeoning security ties with India are a strategic asset to the US in spite of the fact that the alliance serves Israeli and Indian interests that are not specifically related to America. The same is the case with Israel's ties to Mauritania and Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Israel's international weakness has caused a childish neurosis of powerlessness to take hold of many Israelis. The thought that something that Israel does for itself might have adverse effects on a giant like America seems all but impossible to imagine. Indeed, Israeli weakness internationally and its dependence on America has caused many Israelis to become almost genetically programmed to view their state as a vassal of the US. As a result, some Israelis have developed a passive-aggressive and adolescent view of Washington.
Washington is perceived as an all powerful grown-up that can do anything it wishes without any worries. To strengthen its own long-term relations with the US, it is high time for Israelis to grow up and recognize that in spite of its international isolation, Israel is far from powerless in the grip of circumstances and that its actions can and do impact, sometimes adversely, the interests of its only ally.
The current crisis in the US-Israel alliance will no doubt be solved in due course given the importance of the relationship to both sides. Yet the crisis provides a learning opportunity for both countries. If this opportunity is seized, rather than simply patch up the ends that have been tattered, the alliance can be reworked and strengthened in a manner that better reflects the real value each side brings to the table and the shared interests and values that stand at the foundation of the alliance itself.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.