(Bloomberg) -- Israel is commemorating its 70th anniversary next week, and the U.S. Embassy is moving to Jerusalem to coincide with the independence celebrations. It's a strong symbolic gesture — but there are several more concrete steps Washington should take right now to help ensure Israel’s security and protect its own interests in the Middle East.
Over the long term, Israel’s very existence is threatened by Iran’s nuclear program, which continues in the form of expanded atomic research and ballistic missile development, which are unfortunately permitted by the 2015 nuclear deal. The intelligence trove revealed by Israel last week confirms Tehran’s determination to acquire nuclear weapons capability — not a surprise certainly, but a clear warning of potential danger ahead.
President Donald Trump is expected to address this matter Tuesday, and most observers believe he will walk away from the nuclear agreement. This would ratchet up the tension in an already volatile region.
But the most immediate threat to Israel and U.S. interests isn’t Iran's nuclear program, but rather Tehran’s stunning expansion of influence. Its entrenchment in Syria, for example, generates ever-greater prospects for a major Iranian-Israeli conflict. Iran and its proxies also threaten America’s Sunni Arab allies, seek sway from Lebanon to Yemen, create more jihadists and refugees, put energy supplies at risk, and target U.S. ships and Saudi cities with missiles.
Gripped by “Middle East fatigue,” the U.S. remains reluctant to increase its military engagement in the region and is inadequately positioned to counter any of these threats, especially if Trump makes good on his rhetoric about abruptly pulling U.S. forces from Syria.
Israel, meanwhile, is responding to Tehran’s dogged efforts to establish a permanent military presence in Syria through a series of air and missile strikes. It has an unlikely ally in Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who compared Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei unfavorably to Hitler and acknowledged the Jewish state’s right to exist.
The U.S. must support its allies in the growing confrontation with Iran. It should seize upon Israel’s longstanding ethos of self-defense, and the newfound readiness among Sunni Arab states to defend their own interests and work quietly with Israel against Iran.
Alone, neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia can fully curtail and eventually roll back Iran’s adventurism. After fact-finding visits to Jerusalem and other regional capitals supported by the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, it is clear to us that the U.S. should bolster its regional partners, particularly Israel, and drive cooperation between them.
Foremost, Washington should consider elevating Israel’s official standing as an ally to that of the U.K. or Australia in terms of sharing intelligence, weapons technology and other vital information. This would mean raising Israel’s information-sharing clearance to the level enjoyed by signatories of the “Five Eyes” agreement on signals intelligence, and issuing an executive order creating a presumption of approval for sharing information, military equipment and technology with Israel.
Washington also has a legal obligation to ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge over its neighbors. This would best be done by "frontloading" the 2016 memorandum of understanding under which the U.S. is providing $38 billion in foreign military and missile-defense funding, spaced evenly over 10 years.
A fast-tracked MoU could allow Israel to acquire a host of weapons earlier than initially planned to meet growing threats from Iran and elsewhere. They might include F-35 fighter-jet squadrons; KC-46 air-refueling tankers; mobility capabilities like V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft; small-diameter bombs and Hellfire precision munitions; Joint Direct Attack Munition kits that turn unguided bombs into smart weapons; drones; and semi-submersible naval vessels. The U.S. should also replenish Israel’s precision munitions and other critical wartime stockpiles, and consider making Israel a prepositioning base to support American and allied operations region-wide.
The Pentagon should also consider relocating two Arleigh Burke-class destroyers from Rota, Spain, to a new homeport in Haifa, Israel. These ships, with their cutting-edge Aegis combat systems, would be well positioned to defend Europe against an Iranian missile attack, balance the new Russian naval presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, and reinforce Israeli deterrence.
The U.S. also needs to coordinate closely with Israel to support its ally’s legitimate security interests in Syria against Iranian encroachment. This will require not only deeper intelligence sharing but more cooperation in cyber operations and missile defense and strike planning.
Finally, Washington should encourage higher levels of Israeli-Arab security cooperation, acting as a hub between spokes in Riyadh and Jerusalem, as well as Amman and Cairo. The priority should be regional missile defense and shared early warning that synchronizes U.S., Israeli and Arab capabilities.
Cooperation is also possible against Iranian influence on the Arabian Peninsula and Red Sea. By facilitating Israeli intelligence-sharing and operational coordination with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the U.S. could enable more effective action against Iranian arms transfers and Hezbollah operations in Yemen. Much of this can occur at sea between the Israeli, American and Arab navies.
By ensuring that Israel can defend itself and facilitating tacit cooperation between Israel and our Sunni Arab partners, the U.S. can bolster the anti-Iranian coalition, lay the foundation for a more stable Middle East, and restore its regional leadership — all without putting significant numbers of American boots on the ground.
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