Israeli national security policy always has been based on the same principle that Winston Churchill articulated toward the United States during the British fight against the Nazis right up until Pearl Harbor was attacked: “Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.” Churchill wanted materiel support from the U.S., even as he understood why F.D.R. was politically unable to commit forces. Churchill was prepared to do the actual fighting but needed American equipment.
From its inception, Israel never wanted to be beholden to anyone. The Jewish state was self-reliant and wanted to fight its own battles without anyone else’s assistance. All it asked was the opportunity to purchase — or receive as aid or loans — necessary military equipment which it could not produce or manufacture itself. All the actual fighting Israel was always prepared, even demanded, to do alone.
Throughout its history Israel has faced arms embargoes, delays, postponements, and reassessments between it and its weapons’ suppliers — the Czech, the British, the French, and the U.S. — but they have always been resolved through payment, loans, diplomacy, or other resources. Since the late 1960s, Israel has obtained virtually all of its aircraft from the U.S.; yet, when it sought to manufacture its own fighters, its American suppliers balked. The Carter administration, seeking to prevent arms proliferation and protect potential markets for U.S. aircraft, banned the Kfir plane’s sale to other countries. Until the ban was lifted by President Reagan, the Israel Aircraft Industry was forced to work around American constraints in the manufacturing of the Kfir for export.
A long harsh history had taught the Jewish people that in crises they needed to be able to care for themselves; no one else could be relied upon to care for Israel or the Jewish people. (After the Holocaust, the religious doctrine of divine intercession attracted fewer and fewer adherents.)
Nevertheless, Israel knows that it cannot maintain its military edge without the aid it receives from the United States, which amounts to some $3.1 billion annually (and not counting plans to add another $1 billion following the discord over the Iran deal). The 2016 presidential campaign, and the ugliness of the foreign policy discussions, has thus raised challenging issues for the international community as a whole and for Israel and world Jewry in particular.
The Trump, Cruz, and Paul campaigns, among others, have all suggested various forms of isolationist rhetoric. While critiques of President Obama’s policy, especially in the Middle East, abound, the one essential statement that the president repeatedly has articulated is “no U.S. boots on the ground.” Ironically it is this slogan which some of his harshest critics have also articulated. Cruz has even spoken of an “America-first foreign policy,” echoing the isolationist lingo prior to World War II. While there has been an historical tension between America as an internationalist power versus an isolationist force since the days of George Washington and certainly since the days of President Wilson, since 1945 America has clearly been actively engaged in the world.
The entire debate over immigration reform is a throwback to some of the fundamental debates over U.S. Latin American policy in the 19th century, which in turn grew out of the nativist streak in American history.
Israel must avoid getting caught in this debate, which is now focused on Iran vs. Saudi Arabia; fighting ISIS; withdrawing from Afghanistan; maintaining a status quo with Russia; and constraining North Korea’s nuclear capability. All presidential aspirants, with the exception perhaps of Rand Paul, say they would guarantee that Israel would have access to whatever military equipment it needs to maintain a qualitative military edge in the Middle East. But if the neo-isolationist mood catches on, who knows what that will mean for foreign aid?
Israel will not ask any nation to step forward and fight for them. And for now assistance to Israel can be assured regardless of who is the next president. But it can’t be good news for Israel or the region if the United States were to further disengage itself from international affairs.