Americans seldom think of Israel in the conventional terms of “alliance,” but Israelis must, perforce, think of America that way. In the most fundamental sense, alliances are formed for security benefits. We don’t have allies because we need them; we have allies because they need us. This works both ways. The benefit is inherently mutual in any alliance that two or more parties take the trouble to form.
When allies begin shopping for defense-cooperation agreements elsewhere, moreover, it always means something. Our pursuit of abstract multilateralism over the last two decades has blinded us to that reality. American diplomacy has tended to behave as if all bilateral developments were benign — a mere natural outgrowth of upbeat nations getting in touch with each other. But in the case of Israel in 2010, the meaning is specific and conventional.
Israel signed a framework agreement for defense cooperation with Russia on September 6 — the first ever between these two nations — and has been at work this year resurrecting its defense-cooperation agreement with China. The rapprochement with China is informative because Israel agreed in 2005, at the behest of the Bush administration, to back off from its military-related projects with Beijing. The U.S. concern at the time was technology proliferation, which is what the news and opinion media tend to focus on, particularly in America. (The new agreement with Russia is being discussed, in its turn, as a means for Russia to obtain cutting-edge UAVs from Israeli manufacturers.)
But Israel has bigger concerns than markets for military hardware. “Defense cooperation” portends more than military sales; it can mean conferences, intelligence and personnel exchanges, joint training, and shared weapons development. It’s a field of agreement with inherent implications for regional relations and security. And Israel’s defense-cooperation outreach this year is hardly random. Binyamin Netanyahu typically handles national security like a statesman in the Western classical mold, and it appears he is doing so here. Warming up ties with Russia and China is a way to gain leverage with the major outside powers that are putting down stakes in the Middle East as Obama’s America loses energy and presence.
The Netanyahu leadership has no illusions about the character of either Russia or China. But courting Russia gives Israel an entrée with a member of the Quartet other than the U.S. Rejuvenating cooperation with China creates the potential for leverage with one of Iran’s chief patrons; the link with Russia offers a similar benefit regarding not only Iran but also Syria, Turkey, Libya, and Algeria as well.
The impetus for Israel to do this now comes from the persistent inertia of the Obama administration. As painful as it is to say it, the potential is obvious for Obama’s role in the Quartet to produce disadvantages for Israel. There is no rational basis for assuming Obama will take effective action against Iran or revise his approach to Syria. Exclusive alignment with the policy trend of Obama’s America promises nothing but disaster for Israel. In the absence of American strength — across the whole Middle Eastern region — Israel’s security situation will change. Although it means inviting Russia further into the Middle East, Netanyahu must work with reality in 2010: he must look for support — for a balancing agent with the region’s radical regimes — where he can find it.