U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is visiting Israel on Wednesday. It will be the first international trip by a senior American official since the COVID-19 pandemic began. During his visit, Pompeo will meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the man who will be his new defense minister and primary coalition partner, Benny Gantz, perhaps on the day they form their new unity government.
Before his last meeting with Pompeo in Lisbon, Netanyahu told reporters that he planned to discuss three topics: Iran, Iran, and Iran. His priorities have not changed. Netanyahu will undoubtedly want to discuss the Islamic Republic of Iran and its wide range of malign activity. Israel remains very concerned about Iran's nuclear advances but also Tehran's proliferation of dangerous weapons, including precision–guided munitions (PGMs), to proxies such as Shiite militias in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. The facilities that produce those weapons are a major Israeli concern, as are Iran's plans to remain in Syria for the long term.
In addition, Pompeo, Netanyahu, and Gantz are certain to discuss Israel's plans for annexing territory in the West Bank. Israeli business ties with China may also come up, particularly given recent tensions between Beijing and Washington over China's failure to contain the COVID-19 crisis.
Iran long ago crossed the threshold on low-enriched uranium, producing enough fissile material for more than one nuclear device. The U.S. policy of maximum sanctions pressure on Iran continues, imposed mostly on a unilateral basis. Finding international partners to constrain Iran remains a priority for both countries.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is working to resolve issues relating to Iranian nuclear violations, especially Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement violations revealed by documents Israel captured in a 2018 raid on an Iranian nuclear archive. IAEA inspectors subsequently visited some sites exposed by those documents. The IAEA is requesting immediate and unrestricted admission to three suspected nuclear sites, but Iran is stalling for time.
Israel continues to support Pompeo's 12 requirements that Iran must meet to demonstrate that it is a "normal country," ranging from halting terrorism sponsorship abroad to ceasing other malign behavior around the Middle East. The Israelis view the January 3 strike on Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Major General Qassem Soleimani as a boost for U.S. policy because it restored the credible threat of military force. But it is unclear to officials in Jerusalem whether the Trump administration is willing to strike Iran in the future in response to other attacks on America or its regional interests. Nor is it clear how the Trump administration will respond to Iranian violations of U.S. and Israeli "red lines" associated with Iran's nuclear program.
Israeli officials remain concerned that Iran's nuclear advances and other destabilizing activities could increase, particularly if Tehran is able to convince the international community to grant sanctions relief. The international arms embargo on Iran is set to lapse in October, only adding to these concerns.
Even without sanctions relief, Iran is pushing ahead with plans to provide its proxies with PGMs, which Israel deems to be "game changing weapons." Israel is concerned that Hezbollah or Iran's other proxies may acquire an independent capability to produce these weapons or to convert unguided missiles into an accurate ones. If Iran's proxies amass enough PGMs to pose a significant threat, Israel will need to act preemptively. Israel seeks to maintain total freedom to strike at these weapons.
Media reports suggest that Israel conducted five separate strikes on Iranian assets and proxies in Syria over the last two weeks. The Israelis do not always take credit for these attacks. But from the Israeli perspective, the goal is always the same: There can be no Iranian or Hezbollah forces on Syrian soil, including Shiite militias. Israel continues to strike targets involved in the transshipment of PMGs. Many, if not most, of them are destined for Hezbollah, which continues to grow its modest stockpile of these advanced weapons. Israel has also made it clear that it will neutralize terrorist threats on its northern border.
Netanyahu is expected to urge Pompeo to express full support for Israel's right to defend its citizens through military means and to reject any international agreement that allows Iran or its proxies to operate in Syria. This is consistent with longstanding U.S. policy.
U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman broke news last week on the timeline for Israel to apply sovereignty to roughly 30 percent of the West Bank. Pursuant to President Donald Trump's "Deal of the Century," a joint U.S.-Israeli commission is currently mapping out potential new borders that would include existing Israeli settlement blocs and the Jordan Valley. The work should be completed by July. But even after recommendations are submitted, annexation is no simple matter. The issue is a sensitive one given the potential challenges of sustaining diplomatic momentum with some of the regional states that seek to improve relations with Israel but oppose annexation. Moreover, should Trump lose the U.S. election in November, the next U.S. administration may not approve of the annexation. Bilateral discussions are now focused on Israeli steps that are sustainable. While Netanyahu frames the issue as cut and dry, the outcome is uncertain.
The Trump administration continues to urge Israel to decouple economically from China. Business ventures that involve Israeli technology have prompted particular American concern. Pompeo is expected to raise this issue again and ask Israel to reconsider its deals with China, including most recently a Chinese tender for the construction of a desalination plant that would produce 20 percent of Israel's water supply.
This U.S. request should not be viewed as inhibiting free trade. America is entering a global competition with China, and Washington wants reliable allies, especially when sensitive technologies such as artificial intelligence, quantum, hypersonic missiles, high power computing, and more are on the line. Even civilian technologies that appear innocuous could be exploited by China in deleterious ways. Israel understands this and thus created an advisory committee to review foreign investments. While the body has a long way to go before it meets the standards set by its American counterpart, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, Israel has taken other steps to address American concerns, such as blocking Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from taking part in Israel's 5G network.
The United States provides Israel with significant security and economic assistance. Israel should pay attention to America's needs, especially regarding next–generation technologies. But the United States must also consider the economic impact its requests will have on Israel. China accounts for roughly 10 to 15 percent of Israel's economy. America must begin to offer alternatives. Win-win solutions must be the focus.
Fortunately, Israel and the United States are already exploring ways to turn crisis into opportunity. Senators Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Gary Peters (D-MI) recently proposed the establishment of a U.S.-Israel Operations–Technology Working Group to institutionalize research and development (R&D) cooperation to address the capability gaps and needs faced by both militaries. This would ensure the two countries work together exclusively on key technologies and weapons. Israeli ingenuity and advanced R&D capabilities can help the United States, which in turn can benefit Israel.
Of course, U.S. funding has in the past supported cooperation between Israeli and American companies focused on developing cutting-edge systems, anti-terror technologies, and more. Both countries also continue to enjoy close cooperation in intelligence and cyber. One important example of the fruits of this cooperation is Israel's multi-layered missile defense, which comprises systems developed jointly and independently by the United States and Israel. The recent attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq only underscore how the Israeli Iron Dome or Israeli-U.S. David's Sling systems could help protect American troops on the battlefield.
Another opportunity for U.S.-Israel cooperation could come from leveraging Israeli technological innovations to bolster America's own efforts to combat COVID-19. Israeli biotechnology firms are renowned worldwide and recently announced some breakthroughs.
The U.S.-Israel relationship is anchored in decades of close coordination and strong bilateral ties. But amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the priorities and needs of both countries are shifting. Both sides will need to listen carefully and work to ensure that the U.S.-Israel strategic alliance and military partnership continues to serve the national security interests of both countries well into the future. And they will need to leave politics out of it, particularly as America enters an election cycle. The bipartisan nature of the U.S.-Israel relationship has served the national security interests of both countries for more than seven decades. It will be important to keep it that way.
Brigadier General (res.) Jacob Nagel is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a visiting professor at the Technion Faculty of Aerospace Engineering. He previously served as the head of Israel's National Security Council and as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's acting national security advisor. Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the U.S. Treasury Department, is senior vice president for research at FDD.