Has U.S. eliminated Israel's qualitative edge over possible Arab foes?
By Shoshana Bryen
WASHINGTON, D.C. –The Forward started it in December. Ha’aretz picked up the theme this month, writing, “The Bush administration violated security related agreements with Israel in which the U.S. promised to preserve the IDF’s qualitative military edge (QME) over Arab armies, according to senior officials in the Obama administration and Israel,” and suggesting that National Security Adviser Jim Jones’s trip to Israel in mid-January was to discuss the QME. (Actually it was to push Israel into more pointless talks with Palestinians, who declined to cooperate.)
The objective appears to be PR for the Obama Administration, the standing of which is very, very low among Israelis. Trashing the previous administration is a favored tactic – but the truth is both less and more than it appears.
The concept of a QME is “iffy” to begin with; the Bush Administration did several things that reduced Israel’s capabilities against certain of its enemies, while strengthening Israel in other ways; the Obama administration is repeating the mistakes, doubling down on them and adding its own new ones;
Israel, in very important ways, isn’t protesting where it might.
The QME began as a Johnson Administration promise (not a treaty) to maintain Israel’s ability to prevail over any reasonable combination of Arab forces in a non-nuclear war. The promise has been repeated by successive administrations-unquantified and unquantifiable. Weapons themselves can be counted, but Israel’s edge over Arab armies was always more than that. It was-and remains-a combination of: the quality and quantity of weapons in both Israeli and Arab arsenals; the tactics and training of Israeli and Arab soldiers; and the quality of the soldiers and their leadership.
Only in the last is Israel independent.
In the beginning, it was easy. When the Soviets supplied the Arabs and the United States supplied Israel, the quality of Western arms would prevail over the quantity of Russian arms. The tactics and training of Israeli soldiers was an exclamation point-after the 1982 Lebanon War, when Israel shot down 82 Syrian (Russian) MiGs over Lebanon, Israeli pilots said that had the Syrians been flying F-16s and the Israelis flying MiGs, the ratio might have changed but the end result would have been the same.
But those days are over. Throughout the 1980s, 1990s and the first decade of the new millennium, the United States has been selling to the Arabs apace (beginning with President Reagan’s Saudi AWACS sale in 1981) including depleted uranium tank rounds and bunker buster bombs, and training Saudi pilots and Egyptian tank drivers and Kuwaiti radar operators. Israel, at formal peace with Egypt, does not actively oppose arms sales there, preferring or understanding the need to work to reduce the bells and whistles-keeping the edge in the technology if not in the platform. This is one reason Israel consistently “tweaks” what it buys from the United States, to extend the technological edge with indigenous capabilities.
Similarly, at one point in the 1980s, Israel declined to participate in certain U.S. air exercises, knowing that tactics the IAF developed for use in U.S. aircraft would be shared with American pilots and then shared with Saudi pilots. (“It’s one thing for our lover to take pictures in the bedroom,” said an Israeli pilot at the time. “It is another for them to sell the pictures on the street.”)
The U.S. administration certifies that each specific arms sale to each individual Arab country will not upset the balance in the region and Israel generally retains the right to buy more of almost anything it needs (see exceptions on Apache helicopters and the F-35 next generation fighter coming in Part II of this report). But Israel does not have unlimited resources-if the Saudis have about 153 American F-15 fighter jets of various types and six Eurofighter Typhoons (as it does), and then signs a deal for 71 more Typhoons (as it did), how does Israel compete when the Obama Administration announces 24 more F-16s for Egypt and 24 additional F-16s for Morocco (as it did)?
Israel, as previously noted, retains control of the quality of soldiers entering the IDF and their leadership.
That hardly seems enough.
The concept of the Qualitative Military Edge (QME) failed to keep up with the changes in U.S. arms sales and training policy over the decades. It also failed to keep up with the changes in the regional picture of Israel and its adversaries-and the problems the adversaries themselves face. And finally, the Obama Administration posture toward Iran-including diplomatic overtures to the government and failure to obtain allied agreement on meaningful sanctions or other action-appears to have shifted from preventing Iranian acquisition of nuclear capabilities to deciding how to deal with a nuclear Iran. The implications for the security “edge” Israel requires in the face of continued Arab and Iranian rejection are huge.
During the “decade of the oughts” (as it appears to have been retroactively dubbed), the strategic alignment in the region changed from “everybody against Israel” to a “pro-Iran vs. anti-Iran” axis. Israel found itself on the same side of the strategic divide as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Bahrain and Lebanese democrats. On the other side are Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria, Iran and, increasingly, Turkey. Iraq appears out of the picture, which is a very big change in historical terms. That doesn’t mean Saudi Arabia likes Israel any better, but there is a clearer meeting of the minds on what threatens who and how. Saudi condemnation of Hezbollah during the 2006 Lebanon war and decision not to give even rhetorical support to Hamas during the Gaza war were demonstrations of the shift; as was passage of an Israeli warship through the Suez Canal during the summer.
Early in the decade, the Bush Administration needed Gulf Arab help for the war in Iraq-particularly after Turkey denied the United States entrance into Iraq from the north-and wanted to bolster their ability to deal with problems as they saw them. There was little objection from Israel, which despite being pleased that Iraq was no longer in the circle of enemies, had always insisted that Iran was the real threat and increasingly saw the increased, if unspoken, relationship with Egypt and Saudi Arabia as positive. Arms sales to the Gulf ensued-but nothing much to Egypt, in American protest of Egyptian human rights violations.
The Obama Administration, however, has announced major new sales to the Arab states, including Egypt. Egypt will receive four batteries (20 missiles) of advanced Harpoon Block II anti-ship cruise missiles-capable of overcoming the countermeasures and electronic warfare suites generally available for defense-along with four fast missile boats, 450 Hellfire antitank missiles usually launched from Apache attack helicopters-12 of which the Obama Administration sold to Egypt during the summer (see below), 156 jet engines for F-16 jets to follow the October sale of 24 F-16 C/D fighter aircraft equipped with advanced electronic warfare suites.
Saudi Arabia will get 2,742 TOW-2 antitank missiles. Ha’aretz reports that Jordan will receive 1,808 night vision-equipped Javelin antitank missiles with 162 launchers capable of penetrating the most modern tanks. These are in addition to the September deal for more than 80 advanced rocket launchers of types that have been sold to Israel in the past. The UAE will get 1,600 laser-guided “smart” bombs, 800 one-ton bombs, and 400 bunker buster bombs. Morocco has contracted for 24 F-16s.
So, what’s the problem if Israel doesn’t consider those countries to be immediate threats? The problem is that the increased sales come at the same time U.S. policy has shifted from support for Israel’s right of self-defense to support for a new “peace process” aimed at settling borders to provide for a Palestinian state Secretary of State Clinton told the Qatari Prime Minister the Palestinians “deserve.” Changing Israel’s local security paradigm at the same time as increased sales to the neighbors-and no new sales to Israel-means the balance is pushed further out-of-whack.
Indeed, Israel’s request for six AH-64D Apache Longbow attack helicopters was blocked by the Obama Administration in June-the same time the Egyptian sale was approved. U.S. sources reported that the request was undergoing an “interagency review to determine whether additional Longbow helicopters would threaten Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip.” “During the recent war, Israel made considerable use of the Longbow, and there were high civilian casualties in the Gaza Strip,” a source close to the administration was reported to have said.
So Hamas paid no American price for its assault on the people of Israel, but Israel’s defense was subject to U.S. “review.”
Problems with Israel’s bid for the next-generation F-35 fighter have yet to be resolved. Israel wants permission to put its own avionics in the plane-a “tweak” that would give Israel its edge-and wants to be able to service the plane in Israel, thinking that sending it abroad for repairs during wartime might be a tad inconvenient. The Pentagon said “no” to both. To be fair, Britain was also denied access to the central computer codes as well, but that doesn’t help Israel.
The Obama Administration made much of the installation of the U.S. X-Band Radar in Israel and the November Juniper Cobra joint exercises as proof of its support for Israel. Both are useful and important, although the Bush Administration approved the X-Band Radar and the Juniper Cobra exercise was one in a long series of annual joint exercises. More important, both could be seen as ways to prevent Israeli action against Iran should Israel think that action necessary.
Radar serves to detect an attack and the X-Band will help Israel see an Iranian attack much earlier than its indigenously-developed Green Pine radar, but preparing to receive an Iranian attack means that efforts to prevent Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons will have failed. Likewise, the Juniper Cobra exercises are about defending Israel from attack, not preventing the attack in the first place.
The American commitment to Israel cannot only be to Israel’s defense should someone (Iran or any combination of Arab states) attack it; the commitment has to be to the security of Israel-including measures Israel deems necessary to protect its citizens before an attack, and deciding not to provide the means of attack to Israel’s enemies.
Including the Palestinians.
In this decade, threats to Israel from the inner circle of its enemies changed in a qualitative way as Hamas and Hezbollah acquired arms and training from Iran-and in the case of the Palestinians, the United States.
Arafat’s Fatah launched the “second intifada” in late 2000 primarily from the West Bank. Hamas was not a real factor and Gaza was relatively quiet. Israel was comfortable in the early years with the Bush Administration’s approach to the Palestinian Authority (PA), for example, not meeting Arafat, the June 24th speech, the President’s consistent support for Israel’s need to defend itself from terror across the borders including 2002′s Operation Defensive Shield and the construction of the Security Fence, the 2005 Gaza disengagement, the 2006 Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead against Hamas rocket attacks.
In what turned out to be a mistake of historic proportion, however, Israel and the United States agreed to allow Hamas to run in the 2006 Palestinian election, changing the Palestinian dynamic after the Palestinian civil war and the ouster of Fatah from Gaza. And it was the Bush administration-with Israeli acquiescence and assistance-that undertook training of Palestinian “security forces” under the leadership of an U.S. Army general.
It wasn’t the first time.
During the Oslo years, the Clinton Administration and Israel agreed that the Palestinians would have an armed “police force” working in concert with Israel against… Well, against what? The Israelis and Americans hoped that the Palestinians would provide security for Israel by “dismantling the terrorist infrastructure” and, and, and … Well, what? It was a vain hope that Palestinians could be induced to kill other Palestinians on behalf of security for the State of Israel and its citizens. A JINSA group met with a Palestinian police commander and his troops in 1997. A retired American general remarked, “These are soldiers, not police. They look like soldiers, they train like soldiers and they will kill like soldiers.”
True enough. During the “second intifada,” Palestinian police turned on Israel, bragging about their American training and equipment. The United States stopped the program, but reinstated it in 2005-with agreement from Israel. The 2006 Palestinian civil war showed that (U.S.-trained) Fatah forces were no match for Hamas troops, and had no more respect for human rights. Fighters on both sides appear to have executed wounded enemies and tossed people off rooftops.
The United States has spent hundreds of millions of American tax dollars training Fatah-related Palestinians as police and, increasingly under the Obama Administration, as Hamas-hunters-the theory being that the more Fatah does to control Hamas, the less Israel has to do to control Hamas. OK, but who controls Fatah?
Who ensures that the skills and discipline, the communications equipment, the sniper rifles, the armored personnel carriers and the body armor aren’t turned into weapons against Israel? What happens if Hamas and Fatah form a unity government-which the Obama Administration is pushing-and decide that they would do better to combine forces against Israel? Who will ultimately control the force, and why is the United States training a military whose ultimate loyalty cannot be reasonably assured? How does this help Israel be secure? And, parenthetically, why does the Israeli government think this is a good idea? Regular JINSA Report readers have all the details, going back to 2006.
[Also parenthetically, American military support for the Lebanese Armed Forces-increased under the Obama Administration-with a government that includes Hezbollah in the cabinet, raises precisely the same difficulties for Israel. It is inconceivable that Hezbollah government ministers are walled off from Hezbollah commanders in south Lebanon, particularly when Hezbollah is now an "official" militia operating with government permission. The destructive power of Iran's supply of weapons directly to Hezbollah would be greatly enhanced by the UAVs, radars and communications equipment in the hands of the Lebanese government. Where is Israel's "edge"?]
Unelected PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad recently told associates that what the United States carefully calls the “security force” is actually the nucleus of the Palestinian army he plans to have in the independent Palestinian state he plans to declare some time next year. Other media reports cite growing friction between PA authorities and the U.S. general in charge, with the Palestinians looking for other, perhaps more pliable, sources of training and arms. Someone should be looking into reported CIA support for the PA army.
Even now, Palestinian human rights organizations-not our favorite sources-regularly report Fatah security force harassment, arrest and detention of Palestinians who are not Hamas, but who are insufficiently obedient to Fatah. There is increasingly less freedom for journalists to report on activities of the PA, and Abu Mazen canceled the scheduled January election, announcing he would not run for a new term of office, but also would not stop governing. With his own U.S.-trained private army, who was going to complain? But that is not our problem here.
To the extent that there is such a thing as a Qualitative Military Edge (QME), a dubious proposition, it must exist at the level closest to Israel’s citizens as well as being balanced with countries far away. The Obama Administration doubled down on the Bush money to the Palestinian Army and added tens of millions more, making the Palestinians ever less likely to be receptive to constraints on their future military capabilities.
We would rather have an extra couple of dozen fighter planes in Morocco than an extra dozen battalions of American-trained, Fatah/Hamas-controlled Palestinians next to Israel’s population centers.
Bryen is senior director of security policy of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. Her column is sponsored by Waxie Sanitary Supply in memory of Morris Wax, longtime JINSA supporter and national board member
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