The Impasse Obstructing U.S.-Israel Relations, and How to Remedy It

In some ways, the two countries have never been closer, but in others, and notably with regard to China, they’ve never seemed farther apart.

An Israeli Iron Dome rocket-defense system, built in partnership with the U.S., stationed in the Golan Heights. Ilia Yefimovich/picture alliance via Getty Images.

An Israeli Iron Dome rocket-defense system, built in partnership with the U.S., stationed in the Golan Heights. Ilia Yefimovich/picture alliance via Getty Images.

Dec. 2 2019
About the author

Arthur Herman is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and the author of several books, including 1917: Lenin, Wilson, and the Birth of the New World Disorder (HarperCollins, 2017).

The strategic relationship between the U.S. and Israel has reached a strange impasse. In important ways, thanks in particular to initiatives by the Trump administration, the two countries have never been closer. In other ways, however, they have never seemed farther apart. This is notably the case with regard to relations with China, America’s most important geopolitical competitor.

A year ago in Mosaic, I detailed Israel’s increasing ties to China and the chill those ties might bring to the longstanding U.S.-Israel strategic partnership. That essay, entitled “Israel and China Take a Leap Forward—but to Where?” spelled out the dramatic expansion in Israel-China trade, with Israeli companies investing heavily in the Chinese market and China buying up large sections of Israel’s technology sector, especially in areas critical to future advanced-weapons systems. It also noted how U.S. officials, and even some Israeli security experts, were disturbed by the extent and potential direction of this relationship and its possibly deleterious effect on Israel’s security cooperation with the United States. In the words of one American observer whom I quoted:

The Pentagon is increasingly worried that artificial-intelligence capabilities acquired by Chinese firms through civilian investments or licensing deals could find their way into a new generation of Chinese weapons that would threaten American troops and American allies.

Since my article’s publication, the Israeli government has taken steps to ease U.S. concerns. But doubts remain. They spring not only from Israel’s continued relations with Beijing but also from a long history of friction over the U.S.-Israel defense trade relationship itself—as well as from an even deeper perception that, in the case of any conflict between its own interests and those of its American protector, Israel is only too likely to favor the former.

The argument I will advance here is that, where China is concerned, and especially where the defense and high-tech sectors are concerned, this American perception (or perhaps prejudice) has things exactly backward. Instead of an obstacle to U.S.-Israel cooperation, the Israel-China relationship offers an opportunity to reset that cooperation on a new and more solid basis—while also helping the U.S. get its own house in order with regard to the threat from China’s hegemonic ambitions. To that threat, after all, Washington still lacks a comprehensive strategic response.


I. The Right Kind of Relationship


After the nadir in U.S.-Israel relations during the Obama years, the Trump administration has unleashed an era of good feelings, beginning with the decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem in recognition of that city as the capital of the Jewish state and culminating most recently in the declaration by the State Department that it will no longer regard Israel’s settlements in the West Bank as illegal.

This new sense of strategic congruence has been further reinforced by Israel’s increasingly warm relations with Saudi Arabia. Instead of having to triangulate between its two most important Middle East allies—and two of its most important purchasers of U.S.-made arms—Washington now finds itself in the relatively happy position of seeing them draw together to halt Iranian expansionism in the region (and Shiite extremism in the Arabian peninsula).

Given these warm relations between Washington and Jerusalem, an observer might be forgiven for assuming that a logical next step would be a further strengthening of the U.S.-Israel alliance in the sectors of defense and national security. This needn’t include gestures like joint military exercises or maritime operations of the kind Washington uses to show its solidarity with other allies. But nearly every expert agrees that both countries could benefit by interlocking each other’s research and development in areas like cybersecurity, unmanned systems, artificial intelligence (AI), and missile defense.

Ironically, cooperation in the last-named sphere had made striking progress during the Obama administration, which facilitated joint development between the American company Raytheon and Israel’s Rafael Defense Systems on the advanced missile-defense systems Iron Dome and David’s Sling; it also eased the path for contracts with Israel to buy the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, America’s most advanced manned fighter.

Why, then, not let similar companies band together on projects relating to AI, cyber generally, and the 21st century’s “next big thing”: quantum computers and quantum sensors? After all, there is probably nowhere else on earth where the U.S. could benefit more than by working with an ally that understands how technology can be rapidly developed and deployed to foil enemies and project power in the battle space—including the battle space reflected on the computer screen. Israel’s expertise in applying advanced technology to specific military applications would seem the ideal partner for the American defense industry’s economies of scale—an area for both sides to foster and expand.

The sober truth, however, is that formidable barriers stand in the way. Talk with Defense Department officials off the record, or with observers who possess intimate knowledge of the American defense industry, and ask them when Israel will have the kind of special relationship in defense trade enjoyed by the UK or Australia, especially in technology and industrial cooperation. The answer is: never.

Why? What’s missing isn’t mutual respect or a broad congruence of values and foreign-policy goals, manifestly including the containment of Iran and the defeat of Islamic radicalism. Nor is there any questioning of America’s longstanding commitment to protecting the existence and safety of the Jewish state. What is missing is a basic level of trust, particularly on the issue of what Israel might do with secrets and technology passed along by the U.S. as part of an expanded bilateral arrangement.

This is still, in part, a lingering legacy of the 1985 episode in which Jonathan Pollard, a civilian Navy intelligence analyst, was arrested by the FBI and charged and convicted of espionage for passing to Israel classified U.S. information about Arab nations. To this day, Pollard remains the only person ever to have received a life sentence for spying on the United States on behalf of an American ally. More than 40 years later, the specter of the case continues to haunt the two countries’ strategic relationship.

The perception of an amoral Jewish state ruthlessly pursuing its own interest regardless of the cost reeked, and still reeks, of anti-Semitism.

For many in the Department of Defense, then and later, the real issue went beyond Pollard himself. The fact that the Israeli government was prepared to spy on its most dependable ally reinforced an existing stereotype that Jerusalem wouldn’t hesitate to flout international norms, not to mention U.S. law, to get whatever it wanted—whether it was land for settlements on the West Bank, classified data stolen from an ally, or technology “borrowed” from that ally in order to be sold to the highest bidder.

This perception of an amoral Jewish state ruthlessly pursuing its own interest regardless of the cost reeked, and still reeks, of anti-Semitism. But those who appeal to it in order to deny closer U.S.-Israel cooperation in developing and sharing sensitive technologies also invoke a history of Israel’s conduct as an international arms dealer that can seem to reinforce the stereotype. Israel’s increasingly close ties to China have only heightened such suspicions.

The friction came to a head in the Clinton and George W. Bush years, long before there was any general awareness of the larger threat posed by the mainland Communist state. In July 2000, American pressure forced Israel to abandon signed agreements with China to supply an advanced airborne tracking system for the Phalcon reconnaissance aircraft. Then, four years later, tensions came to an ugly head over the Harpy anti-radar unmanned aerial system: a drone aircraft, with an impressive range of more than 300 miles, that could seek out and destroy radar installations.

American officials had made no protest when Israel Aerospace Industries sold China the drones, since they did not incorporate U.S. technology. But the Bush administration lost patience on learning in 2004 of a new Israeli deal with China that would add advanced components to the Harpy system that could be a threat to U.S. forces—this, after a 2003 American request that Israel halt all military sales to China. From the U.S. point of view (as I wrote in my 2018 essay), the prospective new Harpy deal was a slap in the face; from Israel’s point of view, it became another agreement with China that Israel had to ditch in order not to strain relations with its older and more important partner.

And the price exacted for Israel’s transgression was high. As punishment, the U.S. suspended Israel from the coveted F-35 Joint Strike Fighter project and demanded the resignation of General Amos Yaron, director of Israel’s defense ministry. (Israel was allowed to rejoin the F-35 project a few months later, but at the considerable cost of establishing a separate department for overseeing defense exports.)

Other instances could be added, but the consensus line was that, in sum, Israel simply couldn’t be trusted not to “trade with the enemy,” as it were—especially when it came to advanced technology. And that perception still lingers, reflecting a recognition that, no matter how close the bond between the two countries may be, they still have very different ways of seeing the world.

Nor is that recognition confined to the American side alone. Last year, a Mosaic essay by Charles Freilich asked whether Israel, for its part, had grown too dependent on the U.S. To purge the air and clarify the terms of its relationship, Freilich proposed that the two parties conclude an actual defense treaty—an idea that drew notably cool or dissenting comments from his essay’s Israeli respondents. More recently, Douglas Feith, a former undersecretary of defense, has similarly warned against a defense treaty between the two countries—not only because it would limit both nations’ freedom of movement, and especially Israel’s, if it faced what it perceived as an existential threat (for example, a nuclear-armed Iran), but also because Israel’s interests are not always congruent with those of the U.S. and/or can contradict our treaty obligations to, among others, our NATO allies.

In short, in the minds of many experts, the “special relationship” that some enthusiasts might desire, resting on the kind of mutual trust and confidence that the UK and the U.S. have built since World War II, won’t work because it will fundamentally lack the same strategic basis.

Of course, this ignores the fact that the U.S.-UK relationship itself has suffered its own share of bumps from Suez, to Vietnam, and now to Britain’s willingness to allow the Chinese telecom-equipment giant Huawei to build its future 5G network. The last-named issue also bedevils the American relationship with Germany, another “trusted” NATO ally.

The reality is that we can’t expect any country, including our oldest democratic ally in the Middle East, to abandon its national interests for the sake of an alliance with its longstanding partner and protector, any more than Israelis can realistically expect the U.S. to risk everything, even all-out nuclear war, for the sake of Israel’s survival. Only Israel can do that, just as only the U.S. can stand up and defend its own vital interests with every means at its disposal.

But if a formal defense treaty is not in the cards for the foreseeable future, something else is. The political and bureaucratic stars might just be aligned for a formal, bilateral agreement for dramatically escalating defense-trade and -technology cooperation between the two countries.

Indeed, in the long run, such a formal arrangement might be even more valuable than a treaty—because, in getting the U.S. and Israel to work together on AI and Big Data, autonomous systems, robotics, cybersecurity, and quantum, the ultimate stakes are huge. The Chinese realize this, as is all too clear from their own heavy investment in the Jewish state’s high-tech sector; Americans need to be cognizant of it as well, and also cognizant of the risk of ignoring it.

From this perspective, rather than posing a barrier to U.S.-Israel cooperation, the China issue may present the ideal grounds and opportunity for getting the relationship right.


II. The Right to Certain Arms


Unlike their corporate competitors in countries like France and of course China, Israeli defense companies receive no subsidy from the government. Hence, to make their businesses scalable, Israel’s largest and most successful defense contractors—Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, Elbit Systems, and Israel Military Industries (IMI), which Elbit just purchased—are heavily export-driven. In 2017, their total exports, ranging from space- and airborne-reconnaissance systems to radar systems, UAVs, electro-optical systems, munitions, armored personnel carriers, and tanks like the Merkava (produced under license from the IDF by a cluster of defense firms) came to a record $9.2 billion.

There are also several hundred small to mid-sized firms active in the defense sector. Overall, almost 80 percent of Israeli defense companies’ output is destined for overseas customers, through an export process overseen by the government agency known as SIBAT.

By the early 1980s, more than 50 countries on five continents had become customers for Israeli military equipment. By the end of that decade, Israel had become one of the world’s leading suppliers of arms and security services, constituting one-third of the country’s total industrial exports and yielding foreign-exchange earnings estimated at $1.5 billion annually. Israel’s clients then included Communist countries like China and Romania; moderate Muslim states like Morocco, Turkey, Indonesia, and Malaysia; and its fellow “pariah state” of South Africa.

Israel’s joint ventures with South Africa’s apartheid regime certainly did not help to burnish its international reputation. Neither did allegations by the United Nations and human-rights groups that Israel had sold weapons and military services to Rwanda during the government-backed 1994 ethnic slaughter of the country’s Tutsis, and that in more recent years it did the same with South Sudan. As we’ve seen, Israel’s zeal in finding overseas customers has more than once run afoul of U.S. controls on arms transactions involving the transfer of components or technology of American origin.

At the same time, Israel is one of America’s largest and longest-standing arms customers. At the center of this ongoing trade arrangement is the Israel Military Purchases Mission based in New York City. Since its creation in 1947 by the then-future prime minister David Ben-Gurion, it has been Israel’s national-security lifeline. Its main function is to purchase the full range of equipment required by a modern military in confronting evolving challenges. Its staff is the main interlocutor between Israel and American arms suppliers and defense companies, as well as the Pentagon, and staff members are more familiar than are their American counterparts with U.S. arms-export laws and Pentagon procurement rules.

As is well-known, many of these purchases are made possible by the billions of dollars the U.S. annually provides to Israel in military assistance—which comes not as outright grants but through an arrangement known as “cash-flow financing.” This arrangement, under the terms of the Arms Export Control Act, authorizes the U.S. president to lend financing to friendly countries; it has allowed the Jewish state, instead of having to pay for defense systems upfront, to finance multiyear arms purchases through the installment plan.

In 2016, for example, Israel and President Obama signed a memorandum of understanding covering the years 2019 to 2028. It is worth $38 billion: $33 billion in Foreign Military Financing (FMF) plus $5 billion for joint-development missile-defense programs like Iron Dome and David’s Sling. While Israel isn’t the biggest purchaser of U.S. arms (Saudi Arabia has that honor), it is the largest recipient of FMF. For the fiscal year 2020, President Trump’s total request for Israel equals 18 percent of the Israeli defense budget.

This largesse has enabled Israel to purchase big expensive programs like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Since September 2008, Israel has bought no fewer than 50 of these fighters under three separate contracts, all covered by FMF dollars. It is expected to add another 25 to its air armada in the next round of contracts.

Israel’s military readiness depends to a great degree on which armaments the U.S. is willing to sell it.

All of this means, first, that Israel’s military readiness depends to a great degree on what the U.S. is willing to sell as part of the FMF program. Among that program’s greatly appreciated benefits are what it provides by way of contracts for Israeli companies, known in the defense business as offsets. Elbit, for example, will be building the Helmet Mounted Display System (HMDS) worn by Israeli F-35 pilots to keep track of the multifarious operating systems of their aircraft. The company will also be supplying a similar system for Israeli operators of American helicopters like the Chinook and the Blackhawk.

But the close relationship also means, second, that many U.S.-made items are integrated into Israeli defense products, which in effect then become re-exports of U.S. technologies from Israel to third countries. And that is precisely where friction can arise between the two allies.

In the aftermath of the Harpy debacle, the Pentagon ordered a case-by-case review to see which concerns were valid, and which were spurious. For an example of the latter: constantly arousing the suspicion of nervous Pentagon contractors was the “aggressive questioning” by Israeli procurement officials and other would-be customers who refused to take no for an answer when told that certain information was sensitive or proprietary or classified, and who would then pose the same question to others in hopes of a more forthcoming response. As reports of such conversations went up the ladder, the Israelis were likely to be categorized as potential security risks when in fact they were just Israelis being Israeli.

Considerably more serious was the Harpy incident, which, as we’ve seen, became an occasion for the Pentagon to force major changes in how Israel operated its defense export business, spawning a designated primary law (the Defense Export Controls Act) and a new Israeli government office, the Defense Export Controls Agency (DECA) as an integral department of the Ministry of Defense. The law directly regulates the control of defense-related equipment, knowledge, and services by requiring contractors to consider how and where Israeli weapons will be used, to disclose the identity of their foreign customers, and to obtain end-user certificates. DECA provides service to exporters in the area of their licensing duties with the aim of preventing damage to Israel’s foreign relations, national interests, and other strategic aspects.

DECA’s cooperative work with U.S. agencies enabled the almost unprecedented flow of dollars to Israel under Obama, including $5 billion outright for missile defense as well as the lucrative offsets worth some $4 billion if Israel buys the additional 25 F-35’s.

But there are still some sticking points. U.S. exporters to Israel must follow government requirements regarding documentation for sensitive technology exports, posing a challenge for the U.S. exporter of sensitive equipment to the Israeli defense industry. In addition, none of these arms transactions touches upon the key area of high-tech. Although Israel has agreed not to sell arms to China, the door is wide open for cooperation between China and Israeli companies on the advanced technologies that make up the high-tech arsenal of the 21st century.

Finally, the defense traffic between U.S. and Israel, except for technology like Iron Dome and the Trophy vehicle-protection system, remains by and large a one-way street from Washington to Jerusalem. As we’ve seen, the new military-aid program to Israel for the period 2019-2028 stands at $38 billion. Unlike the previous agreement, however, the new one includes a clause that gradually eliminates Israel’s option of converting 25 percent of the aid from dollars to shekels. This means that Israel will have to spend the entire amount in buying weapons, systems, and equipment solely from U.S. companies.


III. A Defense (Trade) Treaty


Each of these problems and others could be alleviated or resolved by a formal arrangement between Israel and the U.S.—let’s call it a Defense Trade Cooperation Treaty (DTCT)—that would open another lane between them based on commercial contracts. As it happens, moreover, such an arrangement would be crucial for the future defense of both nations, because it is in the commercial sphere that the heart of the high-tech arsenal lies.

In 2007, then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair proposed to President George W. Bush just such a DTCT. It exempted certain specified defense and defense-related items from the arms-export regulations of both countries. The treaty was duly signed by both leaders in June 2007, and three months later was followed by a similar treaty signed by President Bush with Prime Minister John Howard of Australia.

In the background to these twin initiatives lay the longstanding concern raised by both allies, and many in industry, that unnecessary regulations were slowing the transfer of vital defense technologies of special importance to the War on Terror. As originally formulated, the objective of the DTCT was therefore to allow the license-free transfer of existing technologies in order “to achieve fully interoperable forces” (as the text of the U.S.-U.K. treaty stated) and “a closer framework for security and defense cooperation” by lowering arms-control barriers like the requirements for an individual export license for each item. In leveraging the strength of the parties’ respective defense industries, a permanent new avenue might be created for cooperation, including in the co-development of technologies and systems in an atmosphere of mutual trust and information-sharing among longstanding allies.

Final approval of both treaties by the United States Senate came in 2010; three years later, the exemptions from existing export-control regimes were finalized by the State Department.

A defense trade arrangement between Israel and the U.S. would lead to more projects like the one that produced Iron Dome and David’s Sling.

If, in 2007, Great Britain and Australia seemed the perfect candidates for this kind of information- and technology-sharing, now Israel would seem an even more desirable candidate, not just because of the size of its defense purchases from the U.S., which dwarf those of the UK and Australia put together, but also because such an arrangement would facilitate more joint-development projects like the one that produced Iron Dome and David’s Sling.

Critics of the DTCT process have argued, correctly, that the treaties affect only company-to-company purchases and what are called “direct commercial sales,” whereas the bulk of sales to both the UK and Australia, as well as to Israel, come through government-to-government “foreign military sales” that are much more appropriate for complex big-ticket items like the F-35. They also point out, again correctly, that defense companies in the U.S., Britain, and Australia have actually not taken advantage of the exemptions under the treaties to increase their business. In terms of the aspirations of the treaty’s authors, both treaties have largely been a failure.

The reasons for this are mainly due to the complicated implementation requirements imposed on the treaties by the Senate and the State Department’s arms-export bureaucracy. In the case of a U.S.-Israel treaty, however, the situation would be completely different. It is precisely in the arena of company-to-company commercial sales that the most important technologies and innovations fall: the very innovations that will be crucial to future defense systems and cyber security. These are the sectors where anxieties about Israel-China cooperation are most pronounced and where, under the terms of a formal agreement, American defense companies could enjoy a freer hand.

Most of all, a properly formulated DTCT would sideline the issue of Israel’s already existing relations with Chinese companies in these sectors and allay the very real concern that developments shared with Israeli companies might find their way into future Chinese arms and defense systems. The incentive for Israeli firms and the Israeli government to expand dramatically their defense and high-tech business with the U.S. would decisively undercut their incentive to deal with China in those same areas.

How could such a treaty come about? To begin with, formal cooperation among Israel’s Military Purchases Mission, Israel’s Defense Export Control Agency, and Washington’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency would prepare for the next crucial step: creation in the U.S. of a presidential independent advisory committee for formulating and then overseeing the DTCT, and of a counterpart committee in Israel.

The American committee would be made up of industry representatives and special government employees who would in turn report to the deputies committee of the National Security Council (just as its Israeli counterpart would be answerable to that country’s National Security Council and prime minister’s office). The committee would first report on the framework needed to draw up and execute an effective treaty agreement, then oversee that treaty’s implementation and generate an annual report of its impact on defense-trade cooperation and industrial collaboration.

The American committee could also look at ways to revise the two other existing treaties with the UK and Australia so as to make them more effective and useful—including by enabling Israel to engage in defense trade with those nations as well. In this way, the committee’s work could provide a useful sounding-board for further reforms of defense-trade regulations and their implementation for all of America’s allies.

Done correctly, the committee could even become the administrative hub of a solid network of reliable defense trade and technology cooperation. Such a network could focus particularly on advanced areas where existing defense-trade regulations sadly lag behind the technology curve in quantum and artificial intelligence (to take only two examples).

As noted, DTCT’s have their critics. But the possibilities for Israeli defense companies to show how to apply advanced tech to managing and dominating the battle space seems too good an opportunity to miss.


IV. What to Do about China


The larger issue still remains: what to do about Israel’s relations with China? The good news is that in the past year, things have begun to move in a better direction.

In March, Israel’s National Security Council presented its recommendations to the cabinet on foreign investments in Israel with a particular focus on China. Then, in mid-April, a senior-level delegation from the NSC met with its counterparts in the Trump administration, including then-National Security Advisor John Bolton. In a tweet following the meeting, Bolton praised the discussions, which, he noted, dealt with increasing U.S.-Israel cooperation to secure 5G wireless networks—a major headache for a United States trying to head off Huawei’s rising dominance in that area. Prime Minister Netanyahu then heard from President Trump, who reportedly urged him to rein in Israel’s China connection lest it trigger unpleasant reverberations for security cooperation between the two countries.

This past month, Israel’s caretaker government announced the formation of a new advisory committee to review foreign investment in critical sectors of the economy. This is Israel’s first major step toward protecting itself—and its strategic relationship with Washington—from foreign investment that is hostile to both. The new committee will be Israel’s counterpart to America’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS); it will be run by the finance ministry, with participation from the NSC and the defense, foreign, and economy and industry ministries.

Unfortunately, the Israeli committee’s jurisdiction won’t cover the very area that’s of primary American concern: the high-tech sector. Israeli officials still worry that too much oversight could kill the golden goose that is the most dynamic part of Israel’s economy. “Instead,” as the analyst John Hannah has observed, those officials “privately suggest that the risks can be mitigated by having Israel’s security services exercise heightened vigilance in an informal manner.”

One doubts that this will suffice, and such doubts are only heightened by reports seeming to indicate that, unlike CFIUS, Israel’s advisory committee won’t have the authority to conduct independent investigations or even to void transactions it deems unsafe and insecure. In sum, Israel still has plenty of work ahead to preserve its defense-security cooperation with the U.S., not to speak of raising the level of that cooperation to new heights. Negotiations on a DTCT would be an excellent venue for sorting out and resolving these issues.

At the same time, the U.S. has its own work ahead to show that it, too, is serious about dealing with China. The gravity of that issue came home to me while watching the news in November about rockets falling into Israel from Gaza and then Syria. If Israel doesn’t seem as focused on the China threat as Americans would like it to be, perhaps that’s because it has other, more pressing matters to think about and deal with.

We have often in the past recognized this bedrock fact about Israel’s circumstances, and predicated our aid and military assistance on it—for instance during the 1967 and 1973 wars. Even during the Suez crisis in 1956, we were willing to cut Israel some of the diplomatic slack we denied to our ally France and our supposed “special relationship” partner Great Britain.

If it has taken this long for the U.S. to get China right, how can we expect Israel simply to jump to our bidding?

It’s important to return to this perspective in considering Israel’s relationship with China, and to remember another salient point as well. Until the advent of Donald Trump, not a single presidential administration was willing to take forthright action to confound China’s steady encroachment on the U.S. economy and security arrangements, let alone to raise the possibility of “decoupling” the Chinese economy from ours. Even during the George W. Bush administration, when Israel’s dealings with China in the Harpy affair raised hackles, and alarm was growing about China as a possible threat in the Western Pacific—and even after China’s massive 2007 cyber attack on the U.S. government in the so-called cyber “Pearl Harbor”—hopes still sprang afresh that somehow China would come around and see the light, become an economic partner as well as a normal competitor, and learn to behave as a regular member of the community of nations.

Today, especially in the shadow of events in Hong Kong, we ourselves have perhaps, at long last, begun to come around to a more realistic view of China and its ambitions. But if it has taken this long for the U.S. to get it right, how can we expect Israel to do the same simply at our bidding? Yes, Jerusalem needs to be more cognizant of Washington’s concerns, but Americans need to explain why we, as a democratic nation, are so intensely worried about the aggressive rise of China. It is not just because China’s rise threatens our superpower status—which it certainly does, and in a manner that will have a radically destabilizing impact if it succeeds—but also because in this digital and high-tech era China threatens the very basis of freedom and democracy. Its symbol is the Great Firewall, and its complementary partner is the total surveillance state: a model happily embraced and emulated by nations like Iran and Russia.

Even today, as I mentioned at the start, the United States lacks a comprehensive strategy for dealing with China. For years, Israel has been treated as part of the problem. Instead, it should be seen as a key enabling element of the solution. We live in a new world of great-power rivalries in which the U.S. has less leverage than during the cold war, or even than two decades ago, and in which the high-tech playing field has become dangerously level.

The Israelis can help us redress the situation. In 2011, I speculated in Commentary that Israel’s defense industry could “save” us. If we think not just in terms of weapons systems and acquisition models but about how to focus our resources with a firm commitment to a struggle in which freedom is locked in permanent contention with tyranny, that claim assumes non-hyperbolic resonance.

In the perennial struggle of modern history, we know on which side Israelis stand, just as they know where we Americans stand and need to stand. Fully recognizing that common interest, and acting upon it, goes beyond treaties and agreements. It is the moral foundation for the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship in the 21st century.

More about: American-Israeli Affairs, Israel & Zionism, Israel-China relations