What is the definition of an American ally? On an ideological level, an ally is a country that shares America's values, reflects its founding spirit, and resonates with its people's beliefs. Tactically, an ally stands with the United States through multiple conflicts and promotes its global vision. From its location at one strategic crossroads, an ally enhances American intelligence and defense capabilities, and provides ports and training for U.S. forces. Its army is formidable and unequivocally loyal to its democratic government. An ally helps secure America's borders and assists in saving American lives on and off the battlefield. And an ally stimulates the U.S. economy through trade, technological innovation, and job creation.
Few countries fit this description, but Israel is certainly one of them. As U.S. President Barack Obama told a White House gathering, "The United States has no better friend in the world than Israel," a statement reflecting the positions of Democrats and Republicans alike. The importance of the U.S.-Israel alliance has been upheld by successive American administrations and consistently endorsed by lawmakers and military leaders. It should be unimpeachable. But for some it is not.
Rather than viewing Israel as a vital American asset, an increasingly vocal group of foreign-policy analysts insists that support for the Jewish state, including more than $3 billion in annual military aid, is a liability. Advocates of this "realist" school claim that the United States derives little strategic benefit from its association with Israel. The alliance, they assert, arises mainly from lobbyists who place Israel's interests before America's, rather than from a clearheaded assessment of national needs. Realists regard the relationship one-dimensionally -- America gives Israel aid and arms -- and view it as the primary source of Muslim anger at the United States. American and Israeli policies toward the peace process, the realists say, are irreconcilable and incompatible with relations between true allies.
By definition, realists seek a foreign policy immune to public sentiment and special interest groups. In this rarefied view, the preferences of the majority of the American people are immaterial or, worse, self-defeating. This would certainly be the case with the U.S.-Israel alliance, which remains outstandingly popular among Americans. Indeed, a Gallup survey this February showed that two out of three Americans sympathize with Israel. Overall, since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and in spite of Israel's responses to the second intifada and rocket attacks from Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008 -- support for Israel in the United States has risen, not declined.
The surveys prove that most Americans do not accept the argument that U.S. support for Israel provokes Islamic radicals or do not especially care even if it does. In a Senate hearing last year, Gen. David Petraeus, then head of U.S. Central Command, testified that the Arab-Israeli conflict "challenges … our ability to advance our interests." Critics of the U.S.-Israel relationship seized on the remark as evidence of the alliance's prohibitive costs -- an interpretation Petraeus strenuously rejected -- but the incident wrought no change in popular opinion. In fact, a CNN survey taken later that week showed that eight out of 10 Americans still regarded Israel as an allied or friendly state.
That kind of popular foundation for the Israeli-American alliance is all the more important at a time of great upheaval in the Middle East. As Iran's malign influence spreads and Turkey turns away from the West, Israel's strategic value in the region, both to the United States and to pro-Western Arab governments, will surely increase. Following Hezbollah's recent takeover of Lebanon and the political turmoil in Egypt, Jordan, and the Persian Gulf, Israel is the only Middle Eastern country that is certain to remain stable and unequivocally pro-American. In Israel alone, the United States will not have to choose between upholding its democratic principles and pursuing its vital interests.
And yet, for all their urgency, the close ties between the United States and Israel are hardly new. Their roots extend further than Israel's creation 63 years ago -- rather, they took hold with the Pilgrims' arrival in North America.