It didn’t make much of a media splash at the time but the recent groundbreaking of the first permanent American military base in Israel is a very big deal. The base is located within the IDF Air Defense School in southern Israel, near Beersheba, and is part of an effort to implement a new plan by both countries for a regular ongoing joint defense against the growing missile threats to Israel from Iran, Hizbullah, and Hamas. It will go beyond the past model of periodic joint planning, training, and military exercises to daily interactions.
Without doubt, Israel’s defensive capacity will be greatly enhanced – but we should be mindful, given President Trump’s pursuit of the “ultimate” Middle East peace deal, that the new order of things could cut both ways in terms of Israel’s ability to credibly claim what is needed to protect its security interests.
Aside from the symbolic effect of a permanent American base in Israel, the U.S. will locate an extraordinarily sophisticated radar system at the new base which will be operated by the U.S. and linked to both American and Israeli radar and anti-missile systems.
According to the proverbial “senior source” in the Israeli security establishment, “This is a radar system that consists of the best American technological capabilities…. It allows us to identify threats to the state even from the longest ranges. It allows us to identify rocket salvos precisely and quickly, and it can determine exactly where the ballistic threat would hit before it’s too late.”
Reportedly, the radar can identify a threat from a distance of 1,550 miles, providing Israel a relatively long – approximately eight minutes – response time and enabling the use of various means of interception.
U.S. personnel will transmit any threats detected in real time to the Israeli air force. Estimates are that it would take seconds between the identification of a threat and the triggering of countermeasures.
To be sure, the formidable missile threats to Israel posed by Iran, Hizbullah, and Hamas would be ameliorated by the new U.S.-Israel cooperative effort. Yet the animosity toward Israel on the part of its neighbors continues and is not addressed by the reality of the new U.S. base. Which means the issue of borders remains key to Israel’s legitimate security interests.
With all that in mind we note the reports that the Trump administration is drafting a Middle East peace plan. This comes at a time when some observers – including members of the Trump foreign policy team – are seeing encouraging signs of a possible resolution to the conflict between Israel and the Arab world, including the growing Arab sense that the Iranian threat overshadows the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Indeed, the growing cooperation between Israel and several Arab states is out there in plain sight. And the much ballyhooed “reconciliation” between Hamas and Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority has been touted as an indication that Hamas is prepared to mend its ways and allow a peace agreement to be reached.
But Hamas has not been shy about trumpeting its refusal to recognize the legitimacy of Israel or to disarm, as both Israel and the U.S. demand. It has not even been bashful about characterizing any possible political arrangement with Israel as simply a postponement of its goal of destroying Israel, not its abandonment.
Moreover, the incitement issue and, relatedly, subsidies to families of terrorists continue to give the lie to any genuine desire on Mr. Abbas’s part for peace. And then there’s the wholly unrealistic list of non-negotiable demands. Thus, Husam Zomlot, the PA’s envoy to the Trump administration, recently said that any peace plan must provide for a Palestinian state along the pre-June 1967 Arab-Israeli lines, with East Jerusalem as its capital. “This is not our maximum. This is our minimum. What everybody needs to understand is the historic compromise has already been made [by the Palestinians].”
For his part, Jason Greenblatt, President Trump’s chief negotiator recently said,
We have spent lot of time listening and engaging with the Israelis, Palestinians and key regional leaders over the past few months to help reach an enduring peace deal…. We are not going to put an artificial timeline on the development or presentation of any specific ideas and will also never impose a deal. Our goal is to facilitate, not dictate, a lasting peace agreement to improve the lives of Israelis and Palestinians and security across the region.
Basically, Mr. Greenblatt was reiterating what President Trump has said about limiting the American role in the negotiations to facilitation. And while we have no reason to question that formulation, we wonder how, if at all, the new American military base in Israel figures into the thinking of the dealmaker-in-chief.