NEITHER the end of the Cold War nor the involvement of most of the Arab world in the coalition against Iraq diminishes the strategic and moral importance of Israel to the United States. America and Israel enjoy a deep friendship based on shared democratic values and a common commitment to religious freedom. By virtue of this friendship and its military strength, Israel remains the only country in the Middle East with the power and willingness to consistently defend American interests in the region.
The Bush administration, out of a desire to protect the anti-Iraq coalition, has asked Israel to keep a "low profile" during the Persian Gulf crisis. Should a war with Iraq become necessary, however, America may come to depend on Israeli assistance. Israel's army and air force are among the world's best, and the United States may need their help if it becomes bogged down in a lengthy war over Kuwait. Israel also has the best intelligence in the region. In the event of a war in the Persian Gulf, Israeli information about Iraqi capabilities and facilities would be absolutely crucial to U.S. military targeting and planning.
As important and reliable as Israel is to the United States strategically, it is the moral ties based on ideological and cultural affinity that best explain and justify the relationship between the two countries.
Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, and the only country in the region that provides (however imperfectly) the basic rights of freedom of speech, press, religion, and emigration that Americans hold so dear. It is a society in which dissent is not only allowed -- it is a way of life. It is a society that fosters the formation of human rights commissions that scrutinize every aspect of governmental policy, including abuses of power resulting from Israel's continuing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
Americans also feel a special affinity with Israel as the birthplace of Judaism and Christianity. Religious Americans, Christian as well as Jewish, have an emotional attachment to the land of Israel and the cities of Scripture -- Nazareth, Beersheba, Jerusalem. They also appreciate the freedom of access to the holy sites in Israel -- Moslem, Christian, and Jewish -- that has been assured by the Israeli state.
However, the two countries also know how to disagree with each other. In the 1956 war, the United States condemned Israel's attack on Egypt and forced an Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai. In the early 1970s the United States criticized Israel for not being forthcoming enough in establishing peace negotiations. In 1982 the United States strongly condemned the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Most recently, America has condemned Israel for the killing of Palestinians on the Temple Mount.
It is to Israel's benefit, however, that it is subject to tougher U.S. moral standards than its neighbors. Precisely because Israel is seen as morally superior to its neighbors, it receives more U.S. political, economic, and military assistance than they do. The price Israel must pay for this largess is an intense American scrutiny of its behavior and the need to justify its actions to an extent far greater than its neighbors. It is a high price to pay, but so long as Israel expects U.S. backing, it is a price that must be met.
The central role of shared values in determining the American-Israeli friendship carries an important warning. The most likely way the U.S. relationship with Israel could be undermined would be through the perception that Israel is no longer committed to the values that drew U.S. support in the first place. Despite the many problems of Israeli society, events have not yet reached that level. But if they should, no demonstration of Israeli strategic worth would be enough to stave off an American abandonment of the Jewish state.
Steven R. David is associate professor of political science at ? Johns Hopkins University. This is excerpted from Policy Review, a publication of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think ? tank in Washington.