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Despite diplomatic tensions, U.S.-Israeli security ties strengthen

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 16, 2010; A09

This week, Israel successfully conducted a test of a new mobile missile-defense system designed to shield Israeli towns from small rockets launched from the Gaza Strip. When the "Iron Dome" system is fully deployed in the next year, about half the cost -- $205 million -- will be borne by U.S. taxpayers under a plan advanced by the Obama administration and broadly supported in Congress.

While public attention has focused on the fierce diplomatic disputes between Israel and the United States over settlement expansion in Palestinian territories, security and military ties between the two nations have grown ever closer during the Obama administration.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who has worked decades in Washington, "believes we are cooperating on military-to-military relations in an unprecedented manner," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said.

Military relations were very close during the Bush administration, but "in many ways the cooperation has been extended and perhaps enhanced in different areas" during the Obama administration, a senior Israeli official acknowledged.

Elliott Abrams, a former senior Bush administration official and a frequent critic of the Obama administration's policy toward Israel, gives the White House high marks for its handling of the security relationship, saying it is "very smart" to insulate it from the diplomatic turmoil.

"It is the sounds of silence," he said. "I do not hear from Israeli officials and officers any griping, and that is in a context when there has been a lot of griping in the past year about everything else."

Long-term investment

U.S. officials portray the effort as a long-term investment designed to improve the prospects for peace and to make Israel feel less vulnerable to any threat posed by Iran.

"A secure Israel is better able to make the tough decisions that will need to be made to make peace," said Andrew J. Shapiro, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs.

High-level exchanges of senior military and defense officials take place almost weekly -- more than 75 at the deputy assistant secretary level or above in the past 15 months, according to a Pentagon accounting. That results in an exchange of military and intelligence expertise that U.S. officials say is unique in the world.

The U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan draw on lessons learned and equipment developed by the Israelis in their conflicts -- and visa versa. Unmanned drones and the armoring of vehicles to protect against roadside bombs derive from Israeli technology, Israeli officials say.

"We exchange information and discuss developments in the region, and under this administration our communication has taken on a more frequent and intimate nature," Shapiro said. "It is a mutually beneficial exchange."

Solidifying those links, more than 1,000 U.S. soldiers last year participated in a joint missile-defense exercise in Israel last year known as "Juniper Cobra," the first such exercise involving boots on the ground between the two nations.

Besides Iron Dome, the United States provides about $200 million a year to two other Israeli missile-defense systems, known as Arrow and David Sling. The costs are shared 50-50, with the understanding that the United States will benefit from the Israeli experience.

"We have been working really closely with the Israelis on every tier of their missile-defense architecture, all the way from [the Hamas] Kassam [rocket] at the lowest level to the [Iranian] Shahab [ballistic missile] at the highest level," said a senior U.S. defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the breadth of cooperation.

Israeli Ambassador Michael B. Oren noted that the U.S.-Israel relationship is more than the sum of its military parts. "Security is more than financial support and cooperation on missile defense and joint maneuvers; security is also dialogue, and dialogue has been especially close and continuous with this administration," he said.

Under an agreement signed toward the end of the Bush administration, annual U.S. military assistance to Israel has been boosted from $2.5 billion in 2009 to $3 billion in 2011, meaning that almost a quarter of Israel's actual defense expenditures comes from the United States, according to Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Obama's Iron Dome money would be on top of that largesse, already the most military assistance to any country.

Unlike most other countries, which are required to use U.S. military assistance to buy U.S. weapons and technology, Israel is permitted to use 26 percent of the funds for the development and production of its own weapons. This arrangement gives Israel "five or six times the value per dollar as a country like Egypt or Jordan," Cordesman said.

Stockpile for Israel

The United States also maintains stockpiles of ammunition, spare parts, communication gear and other military items in Israel, which the Jewish state can draw on if it runs short during a war.

Because Israel has attacked without warning nuclear facilities in Iraq and Syria, experts inside and outside the Obama administration think that not halting Iran's nuclear program could prompt an Israeli military strike against that country.

Such an attack could prompt reprisals against American interests in the region, and U.S. officials hope the investment in close coordination with Israel will make a sneak attack less likely.

"Neither of us try to surprise each other but we try to coordinate on issues of mutual concern," President Obama told Israeli television this month.

"I don't think there is any question that the kind of relationship we have and the kind of intensity of contacts we have certainly breeds confidence in each other," a senior administration official said. "We have a partner who understands our interests and who we count on to be that cooperative partner going forward."

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