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How the US became Israel’s closest ally

How the US became Israel’s closest ally

A brief history of US-Israel ties

The US supported the creation of a Jewish state after World War II, but in the initial decades of its existence, the bond wasn’t particularly remarkable. President John F. Kennedy made it more a point of emphasis, calling it a “special relationship,” predicated on a shared commitment to Israel’s right to exist in peace, in 1962, and the relationship only really began to flourish following the 1967 War.

That war saw Israel defeat a coalition of Arab states, suffering comparatively few casualties in the process with little help from outside forces, and occupy swaths of new territory, including Gaza and the West Bank. The US had been concerned about Soviet influence in the region and that the conflict could have expanded into a Cold War proxy battle if it had escalated further. But Israel put a quick end to it — and made itself an attractive ally at a moment when the US was preoccupied with the Vietnam War and did not have the bandwidth to get involved militarily in the Middle East.

“What’s key about the ’67 War was Israel defeated the Arabs hands down in six days with absolutely no American military assistance,” said Joel Beinin, a professor of Middle East history at Stanford University. “What that said to the United States was, ‘These guys are good. We are in a mess in Vietnam. Let’s be connected to them.’ And things developed gradually over time.”

At first, the US was mostly giving, but also selling weaponry to the Israelis, as well as allowing them to borrow from US banks at lower-than-market rates to support development efforts. In the 1980s and ’90s, the US and Israel began cooperating on research and development and production of weaponry. And in 1999, as former President Bill Clinton set out to foster lasting peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, the US signed the first of three 10-year memorandums committing to provide billions in military aid annually.

After the 9/11 terror attacks, that money helped spur advancements in Israel’s surveillance technology and signal intelligence, which by the 2000s, “were at least as good as and in some cases better than [that of] the United States,” Beinin said.

In 2011, Israel implemented its Iron Dome — a short-range air missile defense system that uses radar technology to destroy rockets fired by Hamas and other militant groups. The system uses US-constructed parts, and is funded in part by the US.

Currently, Israel receives $3.8 billion in military aid from the US annually under a memorandum signed in 2019. That accounted for about 16 percent of Israel’s total military budget in 2022 — a significant fraction, but not so large that Israel still depends on US aid in the way it once did.

“This relationship has played a huge part in the advancement of sophistication of the Israeli armed forces,” said Michael Hanna, US director of the International Crisis Group, an organization focused on conflict prevention. “Israel’s relationship [to the US] is also unique in the region and that is demonstrated in the US commitment to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge, which is aimed to guarantee that Israel remains militarily superior to any other regional military.”

Israel has also developed advanced manufacturing capabilities such that there are very few weapons or crafts that it could not produce on its own without US assistance, Beinin said. The exception might be F-16 and F-35 fighter jets, but even parts of those crafts are currently manufactured in Israel. That has made Israel the 10th largest military exporter in the world — and also made the US conversely reliant on Israel.

“The military-industrial surveillance complexes of both countries are very tightly intertwined,” Beinin said. “American capacities are now to some extent dependent on Israel.”

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