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WikiLeaks: Israel's Security Concerns Often Clash With U.S. Interests

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In an explosive WikiLeaks revelation, Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad, the head of the Political Military Bureau of Israel's Ministry of Defense, while discussing Israeli requests for U.S. military aid, "acknowledged the sometimes difficult position the U.S. finds itself in given its global interests, and conceded that Israel's security focus is so narrow that its QME [Qualitative Military Edge] concerns often clash with broader American security interests in the region," according to the State Department.

Gilad's "typically frank" remarks lend credence to the testimony of Gen. David Petraeus, then CENTCOM Commander, before the Senate Armed Service Committee in March. Petraeus articulated several reasons why U.S. and Israeli interests did not necessarily coincide. The Arab-Israeli conflict, according to Petraeus, "present[s] distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests," and "foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel." Petraeus went on to describe how Israel's ongoing conflicts spurred recruitment efforts for al-Qaeda and increased Iranian influence in the region.

What appears obvious to Petraeus and is reluctantly admitted to by Gilad is lost on Israel's most vociferous backers on Capitol Hill, such as incoming Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, who declared after conducting private diplomacy with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and undermining the Obama administration's efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that "the Republican majority understands the special relationship between Israel and the United States, and that the security of each nation is reliant upon the other." In Cantor's view, daylight between the strategic interests of the United States and Israel is inconceivable because they are symbiotic.

Cantor would do well to read some of the 19 cables released so far by WikiLeaks from the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, which shed important light on behind-the-scene tensions between Israel's quest for complete military dominance and U.S. attempts to militarize the Middle East, as evidenced by Gilad's admission. These documents display an incomplete, yet consistent, pattern of the United States saturating its allies with weapons while deflecting Israeli pressure not to do so.

Much of the disagreement, sanitized in diplomatic parlance, stems from different interpretations of what constitutes Israel's qualitative military edge (QME). This technical assessment, whose provisions were snuck into the 2008 Naval Vessel Transfer Act, sponsored by Rep. Howard Berman, requires the president to certify that any sale of weapons or military services to Middle East countries "will not adversely affect Israel's qualitative military edge over military threats to Israel." The law also mandates the president to submit to Congress secret reports that include an "empirical and qualitative assessment on an ongoing basis of the extent to which Israel possesses a qualitative military edge over military threats to Israel."

In conversations with U.S. officials, Israel stakes out an unequivocal position: any U.S. weapons sale, even to the most friendly of regimes, is potentially devastating to its security. The State Department reports that Israeli officials "attempted to make the argument that moderate Arab countries could in the future become adversaries -- and that this should be taken into account in the QME process." Israel raises specific concerns about the potential sale of F15-SA fighter planes to Saudi Arabia, the transfer of Cessna Caravan planes and Raven unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to Lebanon, and C-7 AMRAAM missiles to Jordan.

The always candid Gilad went a step further, stating the QME was nothing more than a "codename" for "potential threats against Israel." The cable summarizes his thinking:

"Israel currently enjoys peace with regimes in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates -- but the future is uncertain, and each of these regimes faces the potential for change, he [Gilad] argued. U.S. weapons -- 'the best in the world'-- level the playing field by reducing the need for training -- and could ultimately aid a future enemy of Israel, Gilad said."

While staking out this maximalist position, Israeli officials, however, are resigned to massive U.S. weapons sales in the region. The State Department notes that "Israel understands U.S. policy intentions to arm moderate Arab states in the region to counter the Iranian threat, and prefers such sales originate from the United States instead of other countries like Russia or China." Israel's Assistant Chief of Defense, Maj. Gen. Benny Gantz "seemed to acknowledge that Israel does not expect that all QME decisions will break in its favor, but that Israel only expects a fair and equitable process that incorporates 'intimate dialogue.'" And Israel's Mossad Chief Yair Dagan "clarified that he would not oppose U.S. security assistance to America's Arab partners. He expressed concern, nevertheless, about the current policies of those partners -- especially with regards to Syria and Iran. Dagan added that if those countries must choose between buying defensive systems from the U.S. or France, then he would prefer they buy systems from the U.S., as this would bring them closer to the U.S."

Israel's stance is a pragmatic one, in the realization that U.S. arms sales to the region will take place even over its objections. Discussing with Dagan the recently signed Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for $30 billion in U.S. military aid to Israel, then Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns affirmed in 2007 that the "MOU serves as a concrete reminder that the U.S. stands by its long-term security commitments to its friends, and is ready to help them with their needs."

However, Burns also "noted that the Middle East is now at the heart of American interests. Because Egypt also plays a vital role in the region, the U.S. would also renew its security assistance commitment to that country. U.S. relations with the Gulf states were longstanding, and America would stay true to those friendships, as well." In other words, massive amounts of U.S. military aid to Israel in no way conflict with massive U.S. arms sales to the region in general, as witnessed by the Obama administration's record-breaking $60 billion sale of fighter planes and attack helicopters to Saudi Arabia, announced just last month.

The sad reality is that this process deliberately fuels an unnecessary and never-ending arms escalation in the Middle East, making President Obama's goal of achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace during his first term in office that much more remote. WikiLeaks has done a great service by exposing the inner workings of how U.S. diplomacy is drowning the region in weapons. As President Jimmy Carter once said, "We cannot be both the world's leading champion of peace and the world's leading supplier of the weapons of war."

Josh Ruebner is the National Advocacy Director of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, a national coalition of more than 325 organizations working to change U.S. policy toward Israel/Palestine to support human rights, international law, and equality. He is a former analyst in Middle East Affairs at Congressional Research Service (CRS).