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Background Report U.s.- Israeli Stategic Cooperation

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The strategic cooperation relationship between the United States and Israel has been a notable success and is likely to remain solid despite current allegations — firmly denied-that Israel tried, illegally, to obtain cluster bomb technology in the U.S.

That was the consensus of American and Israeli experts who met at a conference here last week sponsored by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The subject was defense strategy in the Eastern Mediterranean. A group of Israeli military correspondents participated in the discussion.

Much hitherto undisclosed information emerged on the workings of strategic cooperation between the two countries. Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin spoke at length of the benefits that accrued to the U.S. from that relationship in recent years. Samuel Lewis, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel revealed for the first time publicly how strategic cooperation almost foundered.

He also offered what he stressed was “purely my hypothesis” of what lay behind suspected leakages to the media in the cluster bomb case and earlier instances of alleged Israeli practices with regard to military technology which appeared to overstep the boundaries of good faith between two allies.

RABIN EXPRESSES PERPLEXITY

The allegations that Israel conspired with three private American companies to obtain cluster bombs which the U.S. banned from export to Israel in 1982, appeared in the American media while the conference was under way. Rabin admitted he was perplexed by the allegations as he was by “the fairy tale” last April that Israel was smuggling U.S. weapons to Iran.

Both stories broke against the background of the Jonathan Pollard spy case. “It is beyond my understanding,” Rabin said. “It looks as though some people, somewhere, try to find out of nowhere stories which will undermine the (U.S.-Israel) relationship and put pressure on American industries, threaten them not to cooperate with Israel.”

Lewis, who last year ended an eight-year tour of duty as Ambassador to Israel, said he was also puzzled by the recent charges. “Let me give you a hypothesis — it is purely my hypothesis — from living in the States for the last year and here for the eight years before that,” he said.

He said the strategic relationship had to be seen “in the context of a steady rise in defense assistance grants to Israel over the last several years, to a very large amount today, and a very large proportion of our total foreign aid … and to the perception in some areas of the press and in some of those who have always been unsympathetic to Israel.”

A ‘BLANK CHECK’ RELATIONSHIP

According to Lewis, Israel’s relationship with the Reagan Administration has become so close “that it amounts to a blank check — a blank check because it admires Israel and its leaders — that American political leaders in this era have winked at or ignored a lot of Israeli practices in the U.S. related to technology and information which with any other country would have led to prosecutions.”

Lewis added, “Now that perception, I would argue, is rather widespread in the foreign policy bureaucracies in Washington, the State Department, here and there in the Pentagon, the CIA, Congressional staffs, even some Congressmen. At the same time, you have a President and a Secretary of State and even a Secretary of Defense and other senior leaders determinedly anxious to maintain a very close relationship with Israel, for our interests as well as Israel’s.

“And at the same time you have in the law enforcement agencies of the government — Customs, Justice, FBI — as in any security agencies — a lot of open files, suspicions which have been aroused in years past about things that go back as far as the famous nuclear diversion issue in Pennsylvania and the Krytron case and others.

“And you know that law enforcement agencies follow their noses. They smell something, they get some evidence, whether it’s good or bad, they want to pursue the case to the end … Yet because of the political closeness and their sense that it is not politically wise to be seen as violating the general line of the Administration, my guess is that a number of files have just been left open for quite a while …

“What happened here, I suspect, is that the Pollard case suddenly made it kosher for the law enforcement agencies to come out of the woodwork and begin pursuing some of the cases that they felt politically constrained not to pursue before,” Lewis said.

SOME EARLIER INCIDENTS

Pollard, a civilian analyst employed by the U.S. Navy, confessed to spying for Israel. Israel has contended that his was a rogue operation, an isolated case without official sanction or knowledge.

The “nuclear diversion” referred to by Lewis was a case that broke in 1968 when the CIA suspected that Israeli agents stole uranium for nuclear weapons from a Pennsylvania plant. Krytrons are switches that can be used to trigger nuclear bombs. An American exporter was indicted in 1985 for sending 810 of them to Israel. Israel said they were for non-nuclear purposes.

Last December, Customs agents raided several military contractors’ plants suspected of illegally shipping advanced combat tank armor technology to Israel. An investigation subsequently found no misconduct on Israel’s part, but the raids had been leaked to the press.

ANGERED BY LEAKS TO THE MEDIA

Rabin and other Israeli officials have been angered by the leaks on the cluster bomb case which were carried by the media before Israel was able to issue its denials.

Lewis stated that in his opinion “there is clearly nobody at high levels in this Administration who wants to do in Israel or embarrass Israel because it is totally contrary to the mind set and policy set of President Reagan and his immediate advisers.” He added, “I think there is some damage, inevitably. But I think it is pretty transitory and will be overtaken by the next Middle East crisis.”

Rabin engaged in his own damage control by stating for the record what the U.S. has gained from its strategic cooperation relationship with Israel.

“These days there is so much talk about Israel’s smuggling technical know-how,” he said. “I can’t but refer to the unique Israeli contribution to the American people, to the American armed forces … We are the only ones who unfortunately have combat experience of the most advanced American weaponry against the most advanced Russian weaponry. Where else have you had contacts between F-15s and F-16s against MIG-23s, MIG-21s, Sukhoi-22s?

“Where in the world have you ever experienced, since your raid on Libya, how to cape with ground-to-air missiles — Sam-2s, Sam-3s, Sam-6s, Sam-8s, Sam-9s … Where else could the U.S. collect the kind of information which is related not only to electronic beeps but to electronic beeps in operation? Where else could the U.S. collect encounters with the Russian weaponry in the way it could be collected through cooperation with Israel … We have passed it on to the U.S. as part of our partnership…”

FIRST STRATEGIC COOPERATION ACCORD FAILED

Lewis said the first agreement on strategic cooperation failed because then Premier Menachem Begin and his Defense Minister, Ariel Sharon, tried for too much. This was in 1981 when Begin and Sharon met at the White House with Reagan and his top aides. Begin made a general presentation with which Reagan agreed. Begin suggested that Sharon should describe in more detail what he had in mind.

“Up until this point everything had gone very nicely. This is where it went off the track,” Lewis said. “The Defense Minister described the scope of strategic cooperation which ought to be elaborated between our countries in very grandiose, far-reaching terms. He suggested roles Israel might play for the mutual benefit of the alliance which sent cold shivers down the backs of most of the people on the American side … and maybe even some on the Israeli side.”

Lewis said the result was that Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger saw to it that the agreement was a useless piece of paper. “Two years later, in 1983, there was a major change in the American approach. We have succeeded this time around so far because both sides have learned from our mistakes in round one,” the former envoy said.

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