Israel has become one of the top recipients of US foreign aid since its creation in 1948. The US has provided over $140 billion in bilateral assistance to Israel, with most of it going to the Israeli military for procurement of advanced weapons systems and maintenance of Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME) over its neighbors. However, Israel’s impact on US foreign policy goes beyond just receiving foreign aid and weapons transfers. Through advocacy and influence work, Israel has shaped America’s strategic thinking and perceptions of the Middle East in ways that align with Israel’s national security interests.
This article examines the role of the “Israeli security complex” – a network of Israeli security institutions, defense companies, lobby groups, think tanks and advocacy organizations – in shaping US foreign policy on the Middle East. It looks at how Israel portrays itself as America’s closest ally in the region and leverages its strategic importance to garner US support. The article further analyzes the rationale behind America’s historic commitment to Israel and argues that safeguarding Israel’s security and military edge has become internalized in the strategic thinking of US foreign policy elites and decision makers. While the relationship is symbiotic, the balance of influence tilts in favor of Israel and its security complex, giving it outsized influence over America’s Middle East policy.
The US-Israel Special Relationship
US foreign policy has historically emphasized Israel’s strategic importance as America’s closest Middle Eastern ally. Israel is described as the “only democracy in the Middle East” that shares liberal values with America. After the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Israel also emerged as a potential proxy for US power in the Middle East to guard Western interests against Soviet threats. This cemented the US-Israel special relationship that has continued post-Cold War and still factors in US strategic thinking.
The US-Israel relationship has been reinforced by strong domestic support for Israel. Pro-Israel advocacy groups like AIPAC ensure continued high levels of foreign aid to Israel. They frame US support for Israel as being in America’s national interest. The two countries also benefit from extensive cultural, educational, business and other societal ties that promote mutual understanding and create stakeholders in both societies interested in close US-Israel ties. Polls routinely show Americans have more favorable views of Israel than any other Middle Eastern country.
At a strategic level, Israel provides valuable intelligence to the US and contains the influence of Iran and Islamist extremist groups. Backing Israel builds US influence in the Middle East. Israel’s military capabilities and nuclear weapons are seen as beneficial to US interests. The US and Israeli militaries and intelligence agencies have deep cooperation. Israel’s cutting-edge defense industry provides technologies that help maintain US military dominance.
In essence, Israel is seen as America’s closest and most reliable ally in a turbulent Middle East that has few stable democracies and many US adversaries. This has led to what scholars describe as a “strategic alliance” where both country’s foreign policies align on key goals like counter-terrorism and containing Iran’s influence. However, critics argue this relationship is imbalanced, with Israeli interests exerting disproportionate influence over America’s Middle East policies.
The Israeli Security Complex
Israel has cultivated an influential security complex – an interconnected network of security institutions, defense companies, advocacy groups, lobby organizations and think tanks – that plays an outsized role in shaping US foreign policy and public discourse on Israel and the Middle East. This complex works to portray Israel’s security interests as integral to America’s own strategic thinking.
Key parts of Israel’s security complex include:
Government security institutions like the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), Mossad spy agency, Shin Bet security service, and the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission that oversees Israel’s nuclear program. These entities frame regional threats and security policy for the Israeli government.
Israeli defense companies including giants like Elbit Systems, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). Israel is one of the world’s top defense exporters. Its cutting-edge military technologies support US strategic interests.
Lobby groups like American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) that advocate pro-Israel policies to US politicians. AIPAC and other groups work closely with Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to coordinate advocacy efforts. They help shape a favorable public and elite discourse around Israel.
Think tanks like the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) and Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) that provide policy research and analysis with a pro-Israel slant aimed at US foreign policymakers.
Public diplomacy organizations that seek to bolster Israel’s image among American elites and youth. These include the Israeli-American Council (IAC), StandWithUs, The Israel Project and Hasbara Fellowships.
Through these interconnected organizations, the Israeli security complex amplifies Israel’s perspective on regional threats and security issues to US policymakers and the broader foreign policy establishment. It also disseminates pro-Israel narratives to the American media, public and elites. ThisForms shapes how Americans perceive Israel and the Middle East.
Impact on US Foreign Policymaking
The Israeli security complex leverages Israel’s strategic value to America to exert significant influence on the US foreign policymaking process to align it with Israel’s interests and threat perceptions. It works to institutionalize and normalize staunch US government support for Israel and its security policies.
Some of the avenues through which the Israeli security complex shapes US foreign policy debates include:
Lobbying: Groups like AIPAC leverage Israel’s domestic popularity to pressure and incentivize US politicians across party lines to back policies that reinforce America’s strategic commitment to Israel – like high levels of foreign aid, arms sales and support for Israel at the UN. AIPAC activism helps secure Congressional resolutions supporting Israel and critical statements against its adversaries like Iran.
Framing security narratives: Israeli security institutions and think tanks propagate threat assessments and policy perspectives aimed at shaping how American elites and policymakers view the Middle East security environment and US interests in the region. For example, emphasizing the threat from Iran’s nuclear program and support for terror groups helped generate support for sanctions against Iran. Groups like WINEP validate hawkish neoconservative security paradigms that equate Israeli and US interests.
Providing intelligence: Israel’s intimate awareness of regional threats and adversaries, especially Iran’s nuclear program, feeds into and seeks to influence US national security assessments that drive policy. For instance, Israel applied pressure for harsh US policies against Iran by implying it might unilaterally strike Iranian nuclear facilities if the US did not act.
Defense industry cooperation: Collaboration between Israeli and American defense firms, with technologies flowing in both directions, builds stakeholder interests in both countries for maintaining Israel’s QME and alignment of defense policies.
Information dissemination: Israel lobby groups, public diplomacy organizations and Israeli security thinkers get ample exposure in American media and elite forums to transmit narratives that reinforce Israel’s strategic value to the US and frame issues from an Israeli perspective.
Cultural diplomacy: Educational initiatives like the Birthright Israel program that bring young American Jews on free trips to Israel promote emotional attachments to Israel and identification with its security interests among the next generation of American elites.
Strategic personal ties: Strong relationships between Israeli and American political and military leaders, security officials and policy elites provide Israel invisible backchannels of influence to sway US policies. Examples include Israeli PM Netanyahu’s close ties with neoconservatives, evangelicals and the Republican right.
Through these avenues, over time the Israeli security complex has succeeded in making support for Israel an almost “sacrosanct” pillar of US foreign policy that crosses party lines. This has skewed American threat perceptions, security paradigms and Middle East policies toward Israeli preferences and strategic doctrines like the QME. It has also helped shield Israel from US pressure over the Palestinian issue and settlement construction.
However, some critics argue this excessive US deference to Israeli interests is not fully reciprocal and undermines America’s credibility in the Arab world. They believe the unbalanced nature of the relationship stems from the Israeli security complex’s outsized influence on American policymaking compared to a relatively weak American lobby in Israel promoting reciprocal US interests.
US Strategic Thinking on Israel
At the heart of the Israeli security complex’s influence is its ability to frame Israel’s security as an extension of America’s own strategic interests. US foreign policy elites and national security establishment have internalized certain premises about Israel’s irreplaceable strategic value to the US that underpin America’s historic commitment to Israel’s security.
Moral Arguments: Israel is portrayed as an embattled liberal democracy surrounded by hostile authoritarian regimes, that shares progressive values with the US. Supporting Israel’s security is presented as an American moral imperative.
Pro-Israel Domestic Politics: America’s classic support for Israel cuts across party lines due to strong pro-Israel lobbying, the Christian Zionist movement and the electoral influence of Jewish Americans. This makes backing Israel an enduring feature of US domestic politics.
Intelligence Cooperation: The US-Israel strategic partnership enhanced by Israel’s adept intelligence services provides critical early warnings for America on looming regional threats. Israel has a front row seat on dangers posed by adversaries like Iran, Hezbollah and ISIS that threaten US interests.
Power Projection: Israel’s advanced military capabilities, including reported nuclear weapons, allow the US to exert influence in the Middle East through Israel as its most reliable regional partner. A strong Israel supplements American power projection in the region.
Containing Iran: Israel’s threat perceptions regarding Iran’s nuclear program, support for Hezbollah and other anti-Israel groups closely align with hawkish American assessments of Iran as the top destabilizing regional actor.
Combating Islamism: Israel is on the frontline facing radical Islamist groups hostile to the US. Maintaining Israel’s QME helps Israel defeat America’s Islamist enemies.
Shared Ideological Outlook: Pro-Israel groups highlight commonalities between Israel and America as liberal democracies in contrast to the region’s authoritarian regimes. They argue inherent cultural affinity underpins the two nations’ strategic alliance.
Promoting Stability: A secure and militarily dominant Israel prevents large-scale regional war. This benefits American interests by avoiding disruption of Gulf oil supplies and preventing hostile regimes from gaining dominance.
Lucrative Defense Ties: US arms sales and military cooperation with Israel provides strategic regional basing, testing of American weapons systems in combat, and access to Israeli military innovations to boost America’s defense capabilities.
These premises about Israel’s unique strategic value to the US have become deeply engrained among foreign policy elites and national security establishment over the years through efforts of the Israeli security complex to shape America’s Middle East policy discourse. They form the basis of arguments against any shifts in US policy that could undermine commitment to Israel’s security.
Rationale for Commitment to Israel’s QME
A major aspect of America’s historic support for Israeli security has been maintaining its qualitative military edge (QME) over other regional militaries through generous military assistance and arms transfers. This policy also emerged from lobbying by pro-Israel groups and was institutionalized by Congress in 2008 through legislation mandating efforts to uphold Israel’s QME. It is an example of the Israeli security complex shaping long-term US foreign policy.
Maintaining Israel’s QME has been justified by American policymakers through the following main arguments propagated by the Israeli security complex:
- Preventing Arms Race: Israel must maintain military dominance to deter neighbors from threatening Israel and prevent destabilizing regional arms race. US arms help preempt Israel’s adversaries from acquiring capabilities endangering its security.
- Self-Defense: Israel is licensed to meet security challenges posed by Hamas, Hezbollah and other groups by itself with minimal US involvement. This reduces risks to US forces. Supporting Israel’s QME provides Israel tools for autonomous self-defense.
- Combat Testing US Systems: US defense companies benefit from observing performance of American military platforms like the F-15 and F-16 fighter jets in the crucible of Israel’s wars. This helps improve the systems operated by the US military.
- Access to Israeli Innovation: Partnering with and selling arms to Israel allows the Pentagon to benefit from cutting-edge Israeli technologies like missile defense systems, drones, cyber capabilities and guided munitions developed by Israel’s vibrant defense industry.
- Interoperability: US origin military platforms operated by Israel like the F-35 fighter create opportunities for enhanced US-Israel interoperability and military cooperation down the road. They enable both militaries to work together more seamlessly.
- Containment of Adversaries: US arms enhance Israel’s ability to militarily threaten and impose costs on Iran and other radical regional actors seeking to undermine US interests and allies. A dominant Israel can do some of the military ‘dirty work’ America prefers to avoid.
- Forward Basing: Israel provides America some real estate in a strategic region from which to project US military power and signals America’s continued commitment to the Middle East despite some US retrenchment.
Through such arguments, the Israeli security complex has convinced US policymakers that generously arming Israel beyond its immediate defense needs is a strategic investment that pays dividends for America’s own regional military posture and defense technological base. This thinking has driven historic US policy of guaranteeing Israel’s QME.
Impact on America’s Perception of Israeli Wars
The Israeli security complex helps shape American perceptions of Israel’s wars and military actions against regional adversaries in ways designed to build support for Israel’s security policies. Its narratives transmit the Israeli government’s perspective on these conflicts to US policymakers and media in order to influence how Israel’s wars are perceived internationally.
For example, during the 2006 Lebanon War between Israel and Hezbollah, Israel relied on US support to sustain heavy bombing of Lebanon in the face of global criticism. Israeli advocacy groups helped Israel’s case in America by emphasizing Israel’s right to self-defense against Hezbollah provocations on its border. They also highlighted Israel’s efforts to avoid civilian casualties despite Hezbollah using Lebanese civilians as human shields.
Similarly, during the 2014 Gaza conflict between Israel and Hamas, the Israeli security complex lobbied extensively in Washington to justify Israel’s military actions as a legitimate response to Hamas rocket attacks. Pro-Israel groups painted Israel’s conduct as restrained, blamed Hamas for civilian deaths in Gaza, and called for US diplomatic support to Israel against condemnations in international forums like the UN Human Rights Council.
Through these narratives, the Israeli security complex amplified Israel’s strategic perspective on these wars among American elites and media as essentially defensive actions against terrorist groups embedded in civilian areas. This generated sympathy and support for Israel using force despite international criticism over perceived heavy-handed tactics and civilian casualties.
These cases demonstrated Israel’s reliance on US diplomatic cover to maintain operational freedom during its periodic wars with regional non-state actors. The Israeli security complex helps ensure America’s understanding of Israel’s security dilemmas and strategic imperatives that drive its military actions. This pays dividends for Israel in conflict situations by mobilizing US support. It limits America’s willingness to forcefully pressure Israel over its conduct even when Israel’s actions receive global condemnation.
Influence on the US-Iran Rivalry
The Israeli security establishment views Iran as an existential threat due to its nuclear program, ballistic missiles, alliance with Hezbollah, and ideological opposition to Israel as a Jewish state. As a result, Israel has sought to escalate US military, economic and diplomatic pressure on Tehran. Israeli advocacy groups and security thinkers transmit threat perceptions focused on demonizing Iran to US policymakers and the elite security discourse. They helped institutionalize Iran’s image as America’s number one adversary in the Middle East.
For instance, Israeli lobbying was central to sanctions legislation against Iran like the 1996 Iran Sanctions Act passed during the Clinton administration and the crippling sanctions regime under Obama from 2010 onwards. Israeli PM Netanyahu’s controversial speech opposing the Iran nuclear deal before the US Congress in 2015 was emblematic of such efforts to shape America’s Iran policy according to Israeli interests. His fiery rhetoric equating the deal to another Holocaust generated opposition from Democrats.
Some argue Israel’s hawkish stance on Iran has aligned with perspectives of Gulf Arab states like Saudi Arabia to reinforce anti-Iran narratives transmitted to Washington by the Israeli security complex. This contributed to Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal. Critics argue such lobbying creates blind spots and distorts US threat assessments on Iran, locking America into endless confrontation with Tehran contrary to US interests.
Israel also reportedly helped perpetuate threat inflation regarding Iran’s nuclear program in contradiction of intelligence assessments by America’s own agencies. For instance, Netanyahu famously touted suspect intelligence alleging Iran’s nuclear weaponization efforts before the UN General Assembly in 2012. America’s acceptance of inflated threats from Iran’s nuclear program enabled Israel to implicitly threaten military strikes to drive coerive non-proliferation US policies toward Iran for decades.
Through these efforts, Israeli security thinkers helped shape American threat narratives that frequently demonized Iran and limited Washington’s space for responsible engagement with Tehran. They promoted a zero-sum view of the US-Iran rivalry and helped box in US policy toward perpetual containment of Iran in alignment with Israel’s interests. This made diplomatic compromises like the Iran deal politically risky for Washington.
Impact on the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process
Another area where the Israeli security establishment has greatly influenced America’s negotiating stance involves the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and final status negotiations over issues like borders, security, Jerusalem and refugees. American mediators have often adopted positions favored by Israel on these sensitive issues. Critics argue this pro-Israel bias, amplified via the Israeli security complex lobbying US policymakers, has doomed American peace efforts by undermining trust from the Palestinians and Arab states.
For instance, the US has historically deferred to Israeli security assessments regarding threats from a potential Palestinian state. Israel has succeeded in limiting American flexibility on key final status issues like the territorial extent of a Palestinian state, single or limited crossing points between West Bank and Jordan, complete demilitarization, and allowing the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to remain in the Jordan Valley for years.
Israel justifies such maximalist positions by exaggerating risks like weapons smuggling across borders. Under pressure from Israel lobby groups, American negotiators have often parroted “Israel’s security needs” without independent threat assessments. This reduced US impartiality as a mediator in Palestinian eyes.
Many experts argue Israeli security complexes deliberately stake out uncompromising positions to sabotage negotiations and avoid territorial concessions. They manipulate threat perceptions regarding a Palestinian state so America restricts concessions by Israel. This has repeatedly stymied peace initiatives by constraining the solution space available to American mediators.
For the peace process to succeed, the US must conduct objective evaluations of threats posed to Israel from a Palestinian state rather than automatically deferring to maximalist Israeli security narratives promoted by groups like AIPAC. This is essential to reassure the Palestinians that
America can be an even-handed mediator.
Critics also argue America’s indulgence of Israeli security narratives on issues like Jerusalem and refugees has undercut chances for peace. Hardline Israeli positions on not dividing Jerusalem and prohibiting large-scale return of Palestinian refugees to Israel have been enabled by US acquiescence. This makes negotiations untenable for Palestinians as core grievances remain unresolved.
Again, the Israeli security complex lobbies Washington to adopt red lines on final status issues that favor Israeli interests over reasonable Palestinian needs for a sustainable deal. For instance, Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act in 1995, signaling American acceptance of Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital despite Palestinian claims to East Jerusalem as their future capital. This followed lobbying by AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups. They argued recognizing a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty was vital for Israel’s security. This severely constrained US flexibility as a mediator by adopting Israel’s stance on the most complex issue.
By allowing the Israeli security complex to limit the bargaining space on sensitive political issues like borders, Jerusalem and refugees, the US has repeatedly handicapped its own Middle East peace efforts. Critics contend this has harmed America’s image further as an “Israel first” mediator rather than fair arbiter, fueling Arab distrust of Washington as a broker. They argue the US must conduct its own assessments of Israel’s security needs and avoid conflating them with Israel’s political interests if peace initiatives are to progress.
US Middle East Strategy through an Israeli Prism
More broadly, across both Democratic and Republican administrations, the Israeli security complex has encouraged Washington to view the turbulent Middle East primarily through the lens of Israeli interests and threat perceptions. This has skewed US policies toward the region in alignment with an Israeli strategic vision that perceives threats emanating from multiple sources like Iran, Islamists, Palestinians and Arab nationalism.
For instance, under the Clinton administration’s “dual containment” policy in the 1990s, the US adopted the Israeli perspective to view Iran and Iraq as equal threats to be confronted rather than exploring engagement with either. America’s post 9/11 Middle East strategy also aligned with Israel’s view of Iran-backed Hezbollah and Islamist terror groups as existential threats requiring US military intervention. Groups like WINEP advocated for democratization of the “Arab tyrannies” by force based on unrealistic hopes it would pacify anti-Israel sentiment.
During the Obama era, Israeli security elites rallied Congress against the Iran deal by exaggerating Tehran’s nuclear threat and supporting sanctions. They exploited partisan divides to turn Iran policy into a wedge issue that limited Obama’s regional strategy. Obama’s chaotic Syria policy was also influenced by conflicting pressures from America’s traditional Arab allies like Saudi Arabia and the hawkish views of Netanyahu and AIPAC, who insisted on no flexibility toward Iran and Assad.
Under Trump, the Israeli security complex cheered America’s withdrawal from the Iran deal and maximum pressure policy despite alienating European allies. Trump also granted controversial Israeli wishes like recognizing Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights and moving the US embassy to Jerusalem with encouragement from pro-Israel evangelicals and billionaire donors like Sheldon Adelson.
Across administrations, counter-terrorism and Iran nuclear containment have arguably crowded out other US regional interests due to the effectiveness of the Israeli security complex in propagating threat narratives fixated on Islamist groups and Tehran as malevolent actors. This has distracted from challenges like democratization, reform and conflict resolution that require nuanced engagement with complex regional realities.
It has also increased cynicism toward America in Arab eyes and complicated US ties with allies like Turkey, Qatar and Iraq. Some scholars argue America’s over-securitized Middle East policy centered around combating Islamism and containing Iran’s influence has been counterproductive for US interests and a source of strategic overextension. A more sustainable policy may require reorienting US threat perceptions by avoiding exaggerations by special interest groups like the Israeli security complex.
Limits of the Israeli Security Complex’s Influence
Despite its impressive influence, the Israeli security complex’s shaping of US policy is not without limitations. Israel lacks the ability to decisively alter American grand strategy or override US interests for extended periods. There are also countervailing forces that constrain its lobbying power like alternative think tanks, shifting public attitudes on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and debates within the American Jewish community.
For instance, the overwhelming US strategic focus on the Asia-Pacific under the Obama administration reflected a structural shift away from Middle East entanglements contrary to Israel’s interests. Faced with a strong White House disinclined to initiate major new military actions in the Middle East, the Israeli security complex lacked traction. Groups like J Street and Jewish Voice for Peace also emerged to advocate more balanced US polices and highlight occupation of Palestinian territories as undermining Israel’s democratic values.
There was also a clash with the Obama White House over the Iran nuclear deal despite vigorous lobbying by Netanyahu. The Israeli security complex failed to block the deal or insert poison pills like ratification as a treaty. Obama’s ability to frame the deal as serving US non-proliferation interests gave him sufficient political insulation against Israeli pressure.
Similarly, the Biden administration has clashed with the current right-wing Israeli government over policies like expanding settlements that undermine peace prospects. While unlikely to actively pressure Israel, Biden also appears disinclined to grant major concessions like allowing annexation of occupied territories. America’s moral leadership remains constrained by ties to Israel but not entirely captive to it.
Nevertheless, over the long term the Israeli security complex has shown a consistent ability to nudge US policy in directions that foreground threats prioritized by Israel and frame the US-Israel alliance as sacrosanct. Its influence is strong enough to prevent major policy shifts contrary to Israeli interests barring exceptional circumstances like the Obama presidency. It will likely continue molding US threat perceptions and limit America’s regional policy options in the Middle East for the foreseeable future.
The Israeli security complex composed of government security institutions, defense companies, lobby groups and advocacy organizations has played an historic role in framing America’s strategic view of Israel and the Middle East. It has successfully portrayed Israel’s security as an extension of US interests to make staunch American support an almost axiomatic pillar of US foreign policy.
Through narratives propagated to the US policymaking elite and pressure from domestic pro-Israel groups, over time the Israeli security complex has instilled and perpetuated certain premises about Israel’s irreplaceable strategic value in American minds. This has encouraged indulgence of Israeli security narratives and skewed US policies toward the Middle East in alignment with Israeli interests and threat perceptions.
However, the Israeli security complex is not omnipotent. Structural forces limit its ability to decisively override US grand strategy considerations and interests for long periods. But it will likely continue shaping America’s mental maps and policy calculus on the Middle East in future. Its deeply institutionalized influence has made support for Israel’s security and regional preeminence an enduring and rarely questioned aspect of US foreign policy.
Mearsheimer, J.J. and Walt, S.M. (2007) The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Zanotti, J., Sharp, J.M., and Kahn, C. (2016) U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel. Congressional Research Service.
Levy, P.I. (2014) The United States and Israel: Evolution of an Unwritten Alliance. Middle East Journal, 68(2), pp.364-378.
Ben-Zvi, A. (1993) The Strategic Logic of US Military Sales to Israel. Israel Affairs, 1(2), pp.292-309.
Duss, M. and John, J. (2015) The Israeli Military Complex and Its Impact on U.S. Middle East Policy. Middle East Progress Report, Foundation for Middle East Peace.
Zanotti, J. (2014) Israel: Background and U.S. Relations. Congressional Research Service.
Levitt, M. (2013) Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God. Georgetown University Press.
Quandt, W.B. (2005) Peace Process: American Diplomacy and the Arab-Israeli Conflict Since 1967. Brookings Institution Press.
Jones, C. and Temin, J. (2017) Constraining Iran’s Missile Capabilities. United States Institute of Peace.
Gerges, F.A. (2012) Obama and the Middle East: The End of America’s Moment? Palgrave Macmillan.