Up until the mid-1960s, State Department and Pentagon officials argued that Israel did not need American arms because it was strong enough to defend itself (as evidenced by the Suez campaign) and had access to arms elsewhere. Officials also worried that the Arabs would be alienated and provoked to ask the Soviets and Chinese for weapons that would stimulate a Middle East arms race.
U.S. policy first shifted with John Kennedy's 1962 sale of HAWK antiaircraft missiles to Israel, which was made over the objection of the State Department, but only after Egypt obtained long-range bombers from the Soviets. Lyndon Johnson subsequently provided Israel with tanks and aircraft, but these sales were balanced by transfers to Arab countries. U.S. policy was to avoid providing one state in the area a military advantage over the other. This changed in 1968 when Johnson announced the sale of Phantom jets to Israel. That sale established the United States as Israel's principal arms supplier. It also marked the beginning of the U.S. policy to give Israel a qualitative military edge over its neighbors.
Johnson's decision was based on Israel's perceived needs (and domestic political considerations) rather than its potential contribution to U.S. security interests. Up to this point, Israel was not viewed as having any role to play in Western defense, largely because it did not have the military might to contribute to the policy of containment. This perception began to change in 1970 when the United States asked Israel for help in bolstering King Hussein's regime. By the early 1970s, it became clear that no Arab state could or would contribute to Western defense in the Middle East. The Baghdad Pact had long before expired and the regimes friendly to the United States were weak reeds in the region compared to the anti-Western forces in Egypt, Syria and Iraq. Even after Egypt's reorientation, following the signing of the peace treaty with Israel, the United States could not count on any Arab government for military assistance.
The Carter Administration began to implement a form of strategic cooperation (it was not referred to as such) by making Israel eligible to sell military equipment to the United States and engaging in limited joint exercises. The relationship could have stagnated at this point, especially after the blow up between Ronald Reagan and Menachem Begin over the 1981 sale of AWACS to Saudi Arabia, but Reagan was the first President to see Israel as a potential contributor to the Cold War.
Prior to his election, Reagan had written: "Only by full appreciation of the critical role the State of Israel plays in our strategic calculus can we build the foundation for thwarting Moscow's designs on territories and resources vital to our security and our national well-being."
The Israelis wisely played up their capability to deter the Soviet Union, while the Arab states refused to join the "strategic consensus" that Alexander Haig tried to create to oppose Soviet expansionism in the region. The Arabs insisted the greatest threat to them was not Communism, but Zionism. The Israelis never considered the Soviets their principal threat either, but were prepared to say otherwise to win Reagan's favor.
They began to reap the benefits of this approach on November 31, 1981, when the two countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) termed "strategic cooperation." The agreement was diluted by opposition from the Pentagon and State Department and did not provide for joint exercises or a regular means of cooperation. Worse, it was used as a stick to beat Israel with a month later when the MOU was suspended because of American dissatisfaction with Israel's decision to annex the Golan Heights. Still, for the first time, Israel was formally recognized as a strategic ally.
Two years later, a new MOU was signed that created the Joint Political-Military Group (JPMG) and a group to oversee security assistance, the Joint Security Assistance Planning Group (JSAP). The JPMG was originally designed to discuss means of countering Soviet threats, but it almost immediately focused more on bilateral concerns. The JSAP was formed in response to Israel's economic crisis in the mid-1980s and focused primarily on Israel's military procurement needs.
In 1987, Congress designated Israel as a major non-NATO ally, which allowed Israeli industries to compete equally with NATO countries and other close U.S. allies for contracts to produce a significant number of defense items. Israel also began to receive $3 billion in grant economic and military assistance. The following year, a new MOU was signed encompassing all prior agreements. By the end of Reagan's term, the U.S. had prepositioned equipment in Israel, regularly held joint training exercises, began co-development of the Arrow Anti-Tactical Ballistic Missile and was engaged in a host of other cooperative military endeavors.
Today, these strategic ties are stronger than ever. To cite a few examples:
• In early 1997, Israel linked up to the U.S. missile warning satellite system, which will provide Israel with real-time warning if a missile is launched against it.
• Joint military exercises are regularly held. In November 1996, U.S. Marines held training exercises in the Negev.
• A Joint Anti-Terrorism Working Group was created.
• A hotline was established between the Pentagon and the Israeli Defense Ministry.
• The United States continues to fund the research and development of Israeli weapons systems and military equipment including the Arrow missile, the Nautilus Tactical High Energy Laser, the Barak ship self-defense missile system, Bradley Reactive Armor Tiles, Crash-Attenuating Seats, the Have-Nap missile and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.