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Speaking at a news conference in Jerusalem last week, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu expressed outrage at the refusal of the Obama administration to set "red lines" for Iran's progress on its nuclear program: limits that, if crossed by the Iranians, would trigger U.S. military action against the Islamic Republic. Netanyahu suggested that by not taking a harder line, the United States might fail to persuade Israel to forego a unilateral strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. "Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don't have a moral right to place a red light before Israel," Netanyahu proclaimed.
But it is Americans who ought to be incensed with Netanyahu. By insisting on red lines and threatening to launch a unilateral strike on Iran's nuclear infrastructure, Netanyahu is trying to commit the United States to fighting a preventive war on Israel's behalf. In effect, he is demanding that the United States do far more to protect Israel's security than it does for any of its other allies. Netanyahu is also inserting himself into a U.S. presidential campaign to a degree unprecedented for the leader of a close American ally, implicitly echoing the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's charge that the Obama administration is "throwing Israel under the bus."
To fully appreciate the audacity of Netanyahu's demand for still more open-ended American security assurances, it is crucial to recognize just how committed to Israel's security the United States already is. Netanyahu's dissatisfaction notwithstanding, the United States provides Israel with extraordinary levels of economic, diplomatic, and especially military support.
Consider first what the United States generally promises its other allies when they face threats. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty commits the United States to regard an armed attack against any NATO member as an armed attack against itself and to assist the victim, including with the use of armed force. But the treaty stipulates that it is up to each individual member—and not the victim of aggression—to decide precisely how to respond. If a non-NATO ally such as Australia, Japan, the Philippines, New Zealand, or South Korea is attacked, the United States promises only to respond "in accordance with its constitutional procedures." And, since 1979, Taiwan has had to promise not to declare independence in exchange for the ability to buy certain weapons from the United States and for a vague U.S. promise that it will "resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize" Taiwan's security.
When it comes to Israel, however, American security guarantees are far less hedged and legalistic, leaving little doubt that the United States seeks to protect it from almost any imaginable threat. In a 1994 address to the Knesset, U.S. President Bill Clinton waxed poetic on the subject. "Your journey is our journey," he told the Israelis, "and America will stand with you now and always." In a 2008 speech in Jerusalem, President George W. Bush was similarly expansive: "When you confront terror and evil," he said, "you are 307 million strong, because the United States of America stands with you." So when President Barack Obama declared that the U.S. commitment to Israel's security is "unshakable," or as he recently put it, in more colloquial terms, that the United States will "always have Israel's back," he was following in a long tradition.
Of course, the commitment to Israel's security goes well beyond rhetoric. The United States has provided Israel with more than $160 billion in bilateral aid since 1948, most of it for military purposes. About 60 percent of all U.S. aid to foreign militaries now goes to Israel, constituting around 20 percent of the Jewish state's annual military spending, according to the Congressional Research Service. Washington requires other recipients of its military aid to spend the money in the United States, but allows Israel to use a significant part of its aid allotment to buy weapons from its own defense industry rather than from U.S. suppliers.
The United States also takes steps to ensure Israel's ready access to American arms. The United States prepositioned ammunition and equipment in Israel in the 1980s as part of its war reserve stocks for allies program, and now regularly allows the Israel Defense Forces to replenish their supplies from them, as they did after the 2006 conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. Israel also benefits more than any other country from the U.S. Excess Defense Articles program, a veritable military flea market open to "major non-NATO allies" of the United States, a designation that Israel obtained in 2001.
But perhaps it is in the area of missile defense that the "special relationship" is most clearly revealed. The United States has been a major financial backer of Israel's short-range Iron Dome anti-missile system and has cooperated with Israel to develop longer-range systems, such as David's Sling and the Arrow series of interceptors. And the U.S. Department of Defense budget request for next year includes nearly $1 billion for a new joint U.S.-Israeli missile defense project.
Moreover, the Congressional Research Service reports that the United States has deployed to Israel a highly capable U.S.-manned X-band radar system, known as the AN/TPY-2, that not only increases the range at which Israel can detect incoming missiles but also connects it to the United States' own global system for detecting ballistic missiles. Israel's ballistic missile defense network is also bolstered by the array of ground-based and ship-based ballistic missile detection and defense systems that the United States is deploying in the Persian Gulf.
On top of this largesse, in 2007, the George W. Bush administration made a ten-year commitment to provide $30 billion in military aid to Israel, and the Obama administration has kept that promise. Not to be outdone, the U.S. Congress recently passed legislation offering Israel new access to U.S. weapons and matériel, encouraging expanded Israeli cooperation with NATO, and promising to help preserve Israel's "qualitative military edge" in the region.
In short, not only does the United States have Israel's back—it has its front, top, and bottom, too.
All these perquisites and special arrangements have not mollified Netanyahu. But the United States has good reason not to share Netanyahu's apparent sense of urgency on Iran.
Despite some disconcerting recent reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency that the Iranians have achieved higher levels of uranium enrichment and may have made advances in their warhead designs, it remains the consensus judgment of the U.S. intelligence community that no Iranian decision has yet been made to cross the nuclear threshold. If the Iranians made such a decision, the United States would still have around a year in which to react before Iran could actually build a weapon, according to U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.
Even if the U.S. and Israel were unable to prevent the Islamic Republic from building a rudimentary nuclear arsenal, it is almost inconceivable that Iran would use those weapons to destroy Israel or even to blackmail its Arab neighbors, thanks to the robust deterrents represented by Israel and the United States' own conventional forces and nuclear arsenals. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Israel has around 200 nuclear warheads, constituting the world's fourth largest nuclear arsenal. These weapons can be delivered in a variety of ways, including on Jericho ballistic missiles, by F-15 and F-16 aircraft, and perhaps eventually on submarine-launched cruise missiles. This deterrent force is probably one reason why Admiral James Stavridis, who heads the U.S. European Command, told Congress last spring that Israel is "certainly more secure now" than during any prior crises or wars.
Finally, it is important to note that Netanyahu's views are not broadly representative of those of the Israeli public, most of which does not support the idea of a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran. Nor are Netanyahu's views widely shared within the Israeli national security establishment, and some of its members—such as Meir Dagan, the former head of the Mossad, and Dan Meridor, the deputy prime minister and minister for intelligence and atomic affairs—have publicly rejected Netanyahu's dire warnings and condemned his saber-rattling.
In light of all that the United States does to ensure Israel's security, and the fact that a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran would thrust the United States into a regional or even global crisis, it is hardly unreasonable for the Obama administration to try to put the brakes on Netanyahu's rush to war. After all, an Israeli strike would face low odds of success but would nevertheless implicate the United States, since Iran would retaliate against American interests even if there were no U.S. involvement in the attack. And even a U.S.-led strike would probably do little more than delay Iran's acquisition of the potential to build a nuclear weapon.
Rather than succumbing to Netanyahu's pressure, U.S. leaders should use the country's generous military support for Israel to advance core U.S. interests. For example, they should make it clear that additional pressure on Iran (and additional aid packages for Israel) will not be forthcoming until Israel takes significant and concrete steps toward the creation of a viable Palestinian state, the stated goal of the past three U.S. administrations.
At a minimum, the United States should not allow anyone to push it into a corner on Iran. The only red line the Americans ought to set at the moment applies not to Iran but to the Israeli leadership, which should stay out of American domestic politics and not try to drag the United States into an unnecessary war.