MIDDLE EAST HISTORY: IT HAPPENED IN SEPTEMBER; U.S. Grants Israel Strategic Partnership and Then Pays for It

By Neff, Donald | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September 1997 | Go to article overview

MIDDLE EAST HISTORY: IT HAPPENED IN SEPTEMBER; U.S. Grants Israel Strategic Partnership and Then Pays for It


Neff, Donald, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


MIDDLE EAST HISTORY: IT HAPPENED IN SEPTEMBER; U.S. Grants Israel Strategic Partnership and Then Pays For It

It was 16 years ago, on Sept. 10, 1981, that the Reagan administration conferred an extraordinary privilege on Israel. It formally announced that the tiny nation of well under four million Jews and the mighty United States had a "strategic relationship.'" On Nov. 30, the United States made the compact official by signing a Memorandum of Understanding on Strategic Cooperation with Israel.(2)

The rationale for the unique relationship was that Israel would cooperate to counter threats in the Middle East "caused by the Soviet Union or Soviet-controlled forces from outside the region." Since Israel had shown a decade earlier that it could not stand up to Soviet air power in Egypt during the war of attrition, this was not exactly a major gain for the United States.3 But it had great benefits for Israel.

The agreement brought the Jewish state a large array of new claims to U.S. assets and technology and diplomatic prestige. The memorandum created a coordinating council and working groups on weaponry research, military cooperation, maintenance facilities and other areas of so-called "mutual interest," in effect giving Israel American expertise at the working level. In addition, the United States agreed to buy up to $200 million a year of Israeli military products, thus opening the lucrative U.S. arms market to Israel. The irony was that Israel had founded its industry on U.S. technology transferred to Israel as aid or purloined by Israeli spies.(4)

Not surprisingly, the pact angered Arabs, who charged the United States was directly helping Israeli "aggression and expansionism."(5) The Arabs were particularly disturbed by the timing of the announcement. It came barely a month after Crown Prince Fahd bin Abdul Aziz put forward the first comprehensive peace plan ever offered by Saudi Arabia.(6)

The U.N. General Assembly also criticized the agreement, saying it would "encourage Israel to pursue its aggressive and expansionist policies and practices in the occupied territories" and would have "adverse effects on efforts for the establishment of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East and would threaten the security of the region."(7)

Despite the enormous prestige and profit the United States had conferred on Israel by adopting it as a strategic partner, Israel then turned around and caused tremendous embarrassment to Washington two weeks later by annexing Syria's Golan Heights.(8) Israel's action on Dec. 14 directly defied U.S. policy and came at considerable cost to itself. In a rare show of anger at Israel, the Reagan administration joined in a unanimous U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the annexation and calling it "null and void."(9) More dramatically, on Dec. 18 Washington unilaterally suspended the Memorandum of Understanding on Strategic Cooperation.

Israel had shown a decade earlier it could not stand up to Soviet air power.

With that action, there also were suspended a series of special privileges enjoyed by Israel. These included halting technical advice to Israeli concerns seeking to sell military equipment to the United States, barring Israel's use of U.S. aid to buy supplies from Israeli rather than American firms, and rescinding permission for third countries to use U.S. aid to buy military equipment from Israeli firms.(10)

Washington also had strong words for Israel. A State Department spokesman said: "We do not recognize Israel's action, which we consider to be without international legal effect. Their action is inconsistent with both the letter and the spirit of U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338."(11)

Prime Minister Menachem Begin reacted to the U.S. actions with outrage and arrogance. He summoned U.S. Ambassador to Israel Samuel W. Lewis to his Jerusalem home and declared:

"You have no moral fight to preach to us about civilian casualties. …

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