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Washington, DC - March 7, 2014 8AM-5PM at the National Press Club

"..a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils."

-George Washington, Farewell Address


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  Are threats to Israel's security inflated to justify occupation and U.S. support?
(Video YouTube, Audio MP3)

by Paul Pillar retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community, in which his last position was National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia. Earlier he served in a variety of analytical and managerial positions, including as chief of analytic units at the CIA covering portions of the Near East, the Persian Gulf, and South Asia. Professor Pillar also served in the National Intelligence Council as one of the original members of its Analytic Group. He has been Executive Assistant to CIA's Deputy Director for Intelligence and Executive Assistant to Director of Central Intelligence William Webster. He has also headed the Assessments and Information Group of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and from 1997 to 1999 was deputy chief of the center. He was a Federal Executive Fellow at the Brookings Institution in 1999-2000. Professor Pillar is a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve and served on active duty in 1971-1973, including a tour of duty in Vietnam.

Let's consider the question of what is an ally? At a minimum, I'd say it involves a certain coincidence or congruence of interests between two countries. But more than that, it implies that the relationship itself has positive value in that one country is willing to do certain things that it would not otherwise have done on its own because the alliance exists and because the other country would like it to do that, with the implied quid pro quo that the other country is going to do some things it wouldn't otherwise do in favor of the interest of the first state. Mutual assistance, back scratching.


Now, if you look at the U.S. - Israeli relationship, with regards to coincidence of interests, there clearly are, first of all, some interests that we have in common with regard to our domestic social and political structure. For the dominant part of the population in those territories controlled by the Israeli government, liberal democracy, in general, prevails, and that is a significant statement in the Middle East where it generally does not prevail. And we do have some shared concerns with our Israeli friends with certain forms of violent extremism that consider both of us as enemies.


But the coincidence runs into some limitations. With regard to the internal political and social structure, the whole concept of a state being defined in terms of a particular dominant religion or ethnic group is, of course, foreign to the way we look at things here in the United States.


And as far as having common adversaries is concerned, I think here I would say, although we certainly share a lot of the same violent adversaries, some of the aspects of the Israeli approach for dealing with them are not ones that we would share and not ones in U.S. interest. For example, it is not in U.S. interest to have had a strangulating blockade of the Gaza Strip as a way of dealing with Hamas, which Israel has considered as a sworn enemy of itself, not to mention things like Operation Cast Lead and what that has done in the Strip.


And if you consider as one of the major objectives of the current Israeli government the continued control of the West Bank, as it clearly is, that also is something that is not in U.S. interests and has little to do with fending off the violent adversaries that we may share. So I think we have to look at that other aspect of alliances, the mutual assistance, what each side does for the other that they would not otherwise do.


Certainly, in one direction, that is to say what the United States does that it would not otherwise do on Israel's behalf, there's an awful lot. And we can start with the approximately $3.1 billion in assistance each year. I know this has been mentioned earlier in the day, but let's just review some of the bidding.


The total amount of U.S. aid provided to Israel through the years is $118 billion in uncorrected or unadjusted dollars or, adjusting for inflation, approximately $234 billion or about a little more than a quarter of a trillion. This is going to a country, the recipient country that has a per capita income of about $33,000 a year, which makes Israel one of the 25 richest countries in the world. That is a higher average income level than for the European Union as a whole.


As far as military strength is concerned, which is something we would immediately turn to when we talk about security issues, there's no question that Israel is the preeminent military power in the region. We are all aware of its nuclear arsenal. But at the conventional level, the qualitative edge that the Israelis have enjoyed and has accounted for their splendid victories in the past has, if anything, grown greater as Arab armies and their equipment have rusted, which I think is the appropriate description of something like the Egyptian army.


So if there were a new military contest between Israel and any of its neighbors, it would be, quite frankly, no contest. And it's hard to imagine any of its adversaries even getting so far as those first few days of the 1973 war when, by virtue of surprise, before things were reversed, the Egyptian army managed to score enough successes so that Anwar Sadat would have, could stand tall and with respect, start the peace process that he did.


Now, you know, this kind of aid has all kinds of opportunity costs for us, American taxpayers. Besides reducing the debt, which we always hear about, let me just throw out a couple of approximate equivalent opportunity costs that we could do with that $3.1 billion annually.


For example, the U.S. Army, which, as you've probably read about, is having to shrink quite a bit because of budgetary stringencies. It could field about six more combat brigades. That dispute we had a couple of weeks ago about the military pension cost-of-living thing that almost brought us again to another debt ceiling crisis, this money would pay the money involved for that five times over each year.


Or for those of you who don't like the military stuff, we could put 400,000 more American children into Head Start or, thinking about that infamously crumbling infrastructure we've got, probably repair an average of over 3,000 of the more than 140,000 bridges that are deemed to be in need of repair in this country. Well, you get the point.


And then, of course, beyond the material assistance, there are all the lonely votes in the United Nations and other providing political cover to Israel whenever its activities or policies have become the subject of international condemnation. And this is certainly something the United States would not have done were it not for the alliance or its half of the alliance. And they have resulted in substantial political and diplomatic costs for the United States.


If you look in the other direction, what assistance is being provided from Israel to the U.S., and it becomes far harder. In fact, it's hard to find much of anything at all that fits the description which I mentioned before of something that the ally would not otherwise be doing on its own behalf anyway.


One sometimes hears, when this question comes up, references to things like science and technology cooperation, especially with regard to military technology. And, clearly, we have had that with the Israelis. But almost all of this is either things that Israel would be doing on its own because it's in its own interest to do it with the United States not necessarily a factor, or it's something where the cooperation could take place and probably would take place without the extraordinary nature of the relationship that results in all of the material and diplomatic support going the other way.


The traditional kind of thing that we think of first of all when we think of allies in the security context is fighting on behalf of the interest of someone else, just like our American allies. Americans have fought alongside our allies from Britain and Canada in the world wars and that sort of thing. And here we don't get any benefit at all. It's been less damaging for the United States for Israel to stay out of our fights, and this was dramatically demonstrated in, for example, Operation Desert Storm back in 1991 when we made it absolutely clear we don't want the Israelis to get involved in that fight because it would be more politically damaging for us if they did. And that underscores the extent to which the relationship on security matters has been more of a liability than an asset.


I think probably the principal set of liabilities -- this is something Mike Scheuer would have talked about if he were here, so let me just say a couple of things about it -- is the extremist and terrorist reaction to what is widely seen, not just by extremists and terrorists, as the United States being the chief patron and facilitator of Israeli behavior and policies that are subjects of hatred and controversy, specifically the continued occupation of Palestinian land and such uses of force as Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip.


General Petraeus, a couple of years ago, made a statement about this when he was still wearing the uniform, I think, before he became the CIA director, which he quite pointedly expressed a judgment with which I agree that the United States has been paying a substantial price because of this particular association with the policies of another state and that the price we see comes up again and again in, say, interrogations of captured terrorists or would-be terrorists when they are describing their motives. And there have been a variety of gripes that we hear through the years, and this includes some of the people here in the United States, the Times Square bomber and people like that. But the one theme that comes up again and again and again and again is the unresolved Palestinian issue, the Israeli role in it, and the U.S. role in backing Israel.


The concept that Israel is an ally of the United States is, of course, firmly embedded in American political discourse. And this enables the government of Israel to use the relationship in another way that doesn't always benefit and more often is detrimental to U.S. interest. The security of one's ally, after all, is supposed to be a concern of oneself. That, again, goes back to the basic concept of an alliance.


And so any time the label of Israeli security gets applied to something, then the U.S. is induced to follow certain paths that it might not otherwise follow and might not be in its interest. And this is something that the Israeli government does repeatedly for other purposes, particularly ones having to do with those controversial issues about the occupation.


For example, in all the discussions about the West Bank and what might be done about that, we hear the Israeli demand, among many others, of course, to maintain a military presence indefinitely in the Jordan Valley with the rationale being that it has to be a form of protection against some sort of unspecified threats coming from the East. And if you start thinking that through and asking yourself, well, just what is the threat that would come from the East, you know, is King Abdullah in Jordan going to fire up his old tanks and go across? You know, are the Iraqis going to go across Jordan and are the Iranians going to go across Iraq and Jordan to, you know, launch some kind of invasion? Well, it's fanciful and, quite frankly, a bit ludicrous.


And, moreover, given the qualitative advantage, not to mention the intelligence prowess and so on of the Israelis, any Arab legion that started wading across the Jordan River would be crushed before it had a chance to dry its feet, even if the Israelis were not in occupation of the West Bank.


And another important dimension is, if we really are concerned about Israeli security, the occupation is a net minus, rather than a plus, for Israel insofar as it constitutes, number one, a major preoccupation and drain on resources for the Israeli defense forces who have to worry not just about fanciful things coming across the Jordan River but other things that might be real threats and also because of the hatred and the reaction that sometimes takes terrorists in violent forms because of the occupation.


Now, something somewhat similar is happening with a very salient issue today, and that's the Iranian nuclear question. Now, there is no doubt that there is a lot of genuine concern in Israel, and I'm talking about the population, not just about the government, about the specter of an Iranian nuclear weapon.


But if that were the only motivation here, then the government of Israel would be supporting the current negotiating effort, which is clearly the best chance that the world has had in the last 30 years to cap and control the Iranian nuclear program in a way that would give us the assurance that it's going to stay peaceful. Just look at what was achieved with the preliminary agreement, the so-called joint plan of action, that was negotiated with the Iranians and completed last November. That alone, even if it were just extended indefinitely, got most of what we need to get in terms of enhanced inspections, in terms of putting a cap on the low-enriched uranium, in terms of doing away with the medium-enriched uranium, having restrictions on any further advances that mean anything at their nuclear reactor and so on and so forth. And, yet, the government of Israel, far from supporting these negotiations, has been doing everything it can to sabotage and undermine them, including promoting legislation in this country that would have that effect.


And so one has to conclude that the Israeli policy here is not driven just by a concern about an Iranian nuke, it's driven by other objectives. The main objective, as I would describe it, is to keep in play the issue of a possible Iranian nuclear weapon because that immediately can be translated into Israeli security.


Now, never mind that, you know, if, contrary to the current policy, Iran ever were to build a nuke, this would be one nuke against the 200 or however it is that Israel has, we still are within reach very much of that objective of securing an agreement that gives us confidence that there never will be an Iranian nuke. And, yet, probably the single overriding theme in national and foreign and security policy that the current Israeli government has propounded is the anti-Iranian theme. And if you listen to the Israeli Prime Minister's speech that he gave a few blocks away at the Convention Center earlier this week, the first half of the speech was all about how awful Iran is.


Now, a lot of what he said, even if you believed it, still does not lead to the conclusion that we ought to undermine the negotiations aimed at making sure we don't have an Iranian nuke. If anything, if you believed it, that's all the more reason to hope that the negotiations succeed, rather than to sabotage them.


Oh, and let me just mention a couple of things that the Prime Minister said because he really has been straining to make the case. I mean, he refers to the Iranian nuclear weapons program. Well, according to the U.S. intelligence community, Iran has not decided to build a nuclear weapon and any of their weapons design work was ended over a decade ago.


He also said, I'm trying to get almost his exact words here, that Iran publically calls for the destruction of Israel. I'm pretty familiar with Iranian public government statements, and I have a hard time finding anything. There was one thing that the former President Ahmadinejad said a few years ago that got mistranslated into wiping Israel off the map or something like that.


If you ask the current Iranian government what their perspective on this is, well, the Iranian foreign minister, Mr. Zarif, said, if the Palestinian issue can be resolved, he foresees actually having full diplomatic relations between the Iranians and the Israelis. I'm not predicting that's going to happen anytime soon, but it certainly shows you how far from the truth is any statement that Iran publically calls for Israel's destruction.


And then the prime minister said, as another example, Iran continues to build ICBMs. I don't know how to put this, but the most charitable way is that's flat-right false insofar as anything we know. There's no indication they're doing anything with ICBMs or even IRBMs, the next lower range. They do have medium-range ballistic missiles, but even on those they haven't been doing much in the way of testing or development so far.


So what does this, all of this constant drumbeat of this Iranian specter do for Mr. Netanyahu's government? Well, it serves as the best kind of distraction you possibly could have from things that the prime minister perhaps would rather not talk about, some of which have been the subject of earlier presentations here today, such as the occupation.


It keeps Iran ostracized. It keeps it as an international pariah and, therefore, is not going to be a competitor for influence with Israel and the Middle East. And, in particular, it precludes any competition for U.S. attention as a partner in things where we might want to work with other governments and not just with the Israelis in this region to advance our interests.


And however much Iran may still be an adversary in other respects, the fact is we actually have some parallel interests with them with regard to things like stability in Afghanistan, where some of you may recall there was a brief window back in 2000 and 2001 in which we were actually working closely, our diplomats and Iranian diplomats, to bring about political change and transition in the installation of the Karzai government in Afghanistan. That lasted for just a few months before our president declared the axis of evil, and members of the neocon persuasion told Iran take a number, we're getting Iraq first, we'll get you next.


All of this runs very much counter to U.S. interests, both with regard to complicating the effort to get that agreement to make sure the Iranian nuclear program stays peaceful and also by constraining U.S. diplomacy throughout the region and preventing us from doing things like talking to the Iranians about how to keep Afghanistan stable.

My concluding thought about all this is that, not just with regard to the U.S. - Israeli relationship but, indeed, our relationship with any other countries, ones that we might call allies or ones that we might call adversaries, that we'd be better just to forget about those labels and look at specific interests and where a particular country can help us and where it doesn't help us with regard to things that are important to us. And U.S. foreign policy and national security would be much better served if we did that. Thank you very much.

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