Charlie Baker and Nir Barkat in Israel



Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, left, meets with Nir Barkat, Mayor of Jerusalem, Dec. 14, 2016. Baker is leading a delegation of some 50 business and academic leaders from Massachusetts to Israel. While no business deals have yet been announced, Baker said the meetings have brought together key players from Massachusetts and the vibrant Israeli high-tech scene.

Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Israel’s Dependence on the United States is Existential

| Feb. 07, 2017


A Hebrew-language version of the op-ed appeared in Haaretz on February 4, 2017. The translation was provided by the author.

Seventy years after independence, Israel confronts a difficult question: has it become so dependent on the United States that it could not survive without it?

Let's start with American financial aid. To date, Israel has been the beneficiary of approximately $125 billion in U.S. aid, an unimaginable sum, more than any other country since WW II, and which is slated to further increase to some $165 billion by the end of the new ten-year aid package, in 2029.

U.S. aid constitutes some 3 percent of Israel's total state budget and about 1 percent of its GDP, a highly significant sum, but one which it could do without if we truly wanted or had to. Conversely, a huge uproar erupts every time the government considers a budget cut of similar, or even smaller, proportions. Moreover, U.S. aid constitutes some 20 percent of the total defense budget, 40 percent of the IDF budget, and almost the entire procurement budget. There is no alternative to U.S. aid, except at the price of a change in the national order of priorities.

Even if we were to assume that Israel can do without U.S. financing, no other country would be both willing and capable of supplying us with weapons in such quantities even if we paid cash, especially advanced ones, like the F35. There is simply no alternative to American weapons, and our dependence on the United States is almost complete; the bitter truth is that without the United States, the IDF would be an empty shell.

Furthermore, Israel's dependence on the United States is not limited to financial aid and weapons sales. The United States provides technologies for the development of unique weapons systems that Israel needs, such as the Iron Dome and the Arrow rocket and missile defense systems. It mans the radar deployed in Israel which is linked to the global American satellite system, thereby providing us with additional warning time before missiles from distant countries, such as Iran, hit.

The United States also cooperates with Israel in a variety of areas related to counter-terrorism, the cyber threat, and prevention of the proliferation of WMD. The United States has prepositioned a huge store of weapons and munitions in Israel, some of which are available for Israeli use, and conducts joint military exercises with the IDF, which provide it with the opportunity to learn some of the most advanced military tactics. Intelligence cooperation is so broad and deep that Israel's capabilities would be totally different without the United States.

On the strategic level, a deep dialogue takes place on a variety of issues, including the Palestinians, the Iranian nuclear program, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, and more. Moreover, there is a de facto U.S. security commitment to Israel's existence, which comprises an important part of its overall deterrence. Israel may be able to face Iran on its own, on the basis of its independent capabilities, but it is unclear how we could handle the nightmare scenario of a Middle East with multiple nuclear states.

Imagine a crisis between a number of nuclear states, lacking in means of communications between them, some of which are extremist and sworn to our destruction, and whose mutual relations are not much better. The United States would have a vital role in containing a crisis such as this and in preventing a downward spiral. The nuclear agreement with Iran, so disparaged by our leaders, has apparently provided a greater gain of time than any other option could have, including military action. In so doing, it once again demonstrates Israel's great dependence on the United States, even in the face of this existential threat. The United States has also provided a diplomatic shield from international efforts to deprive Israel of its purported nuclear capabilities.

Among the world powers, only the United States seeks to promote a settlement with the Palestinians on terms that are acceptable to most of Israel's population. No other state so consistently supports Israel's demands for security and recognition as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and its opposition to the so called "right of return." No other power so consistently defends Israel in almost every international organization and leads the battle against its delegitimization and diplomatic isolation. We saw how the great heroes in Jerusalem trembled when the United States merely abstained recently from a non-binding Security Council resolution on the settlements.

The United States is Israel's largest trading partner, at least partially due to the bilateral free trade agreement, the first the United States signed with any country. Israel's hi-tech sector exists and flourishes largely because of the United States.

So maybe Israel can survive without the United States, significantly reduce its standard of living, withdraw into itself. Maybe. What is abundantly clear is that it would be a far less secure and far poorer existence, with severe isolation and a lifestyle fundamentally different from that which most Israelis have become accustomed to.

Significant changes are underway in American society that do not bode well for the future of the bilateral relationship, inter alia, the rise of population groups that are less identified with Israel (Hispanics, those with no religious identification, the young) and the dwindling numbers of the secular Jewish population, Israel's traditional base of support. It is high time that our leaders finally adopt a considered and responsible approach towards the United States, adapt our policies to those of the United States to the extent possible, narrow and minimize those disagreements that are truly unavoidable, and act in a serious and cautious manner towards our great ally. It is a matter of existential importance.

Statements and views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not imply endorsement by Harvard University, the Harvard Kennedy School, or the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

Freilich, Chuck. "Israel’s Dependence on the United States is Existential." Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, February 7, 2017