There was a time, in the tortured history of Israel and the Arab world, when the United States was the unquestioned military superpower in the Middle East and drew obedient, if grudging, respect from all sides.
Now Israel is the region's superpower, and where it once looked to the United States not just for diplomatic support but for military rescue, now Israel can thumb its nose at Washington and go its own way.
Israel can field 19 divisions of ground troops, by some counts; the United States boasts 13 divisions worldwide and would need weeks to move any significant military force into the region.
Israel's air force, which flies souped-up U.S. F-15 and F-16 fighters, can generate nearly 3,000 sorties, or combat missions, per day. The United States can sustain about 1,600 sorties a day. That kind of combat punch has given Israel unprecedented freedom of action, not just against lightly armed Palestinian street fighters, but against its traditional enemies of Syria and Egypt as well.
"We have created an 800-pound gorilla," said Kenneth Brower, an independent military consultant in Washington, assessing decades of U.S. military aid to Israel.
Yesterday, the 11th day of its invasion of Palestinian territories, Israel appeared to respond to U.S. pressure by announcing it would begin withdrawing its troops from two of the six West Bank cities it had occupied, Qalqiliya and Tulkarem, but would maintain a cordon around them. The Israeli defense ministry gave no indication when it would pull out of the other four target cities, where fighting with Palestinian guerrillas continued yesterday.
The United States has given Israel about $3 billion a year for weapons purchases since the late 1970s, and has transferred new or used weapons and military technology for free or at deeply discounted prices under other government programs and commercial arrangements.
In addition, the United States has stored millions of dollars worth of ammunition, fuel, spare parts and even a field hospital in Israel, ostensibly for use by American forces. The agreements under which the equipment was stored in Israel are secret. But most analysts assume Israel has access to the storage sites.
"It's always been said there are 'tripwires' that would permit Israel to use that stuff," said Shoshana Bryen, an analyst for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, a think tank in Washington. "My guess is if Israel needed the stuff, they'd get it."
The increase in Israel's combat clout comes less from size than from other, intangible factors. For instance, Israeli technicians have added digital and other improvements to their F-16 fighters, making them even more capable than versions used by the U.S. Air Force, Brower said.
And Israel can fly so many combat sorties per day because it has a huge pool of seasoned combat pilots. That enables its air force to use one aircraft again and again during a 24-hour period while exchanging fatigued pilots for fresh ones. The United States does not maintain as many combat pilots per airplane as Israel.
Israel relies heavily on its reserve forces. There are almost 1 million Israelis under the age of 48 liable to be recalled to duty. All have done three years' active duty, as well as reserve training. Reserve troops are organized into units already matched up with vehicles and weapons.
"It's one of the most efficient military forces around," said Anthony Cordesman, a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "Can they thumb their nose at us? Well, for a while. But they don't have the technical or production base to sustain these capabilities without some resupply by us."
But Cordesman estimated it would take about two years of fighting before Israel needed some outside help.
It was a much closer thing in 1973, when Egypt and Syria attacked Israel on Yom Kippur, one of the Jewish high holy days. As Egyptian tanks swept across the Sinai Peninsula and plunged through Israeli defenses, a panicked Israeli government pleaded with the United States for help.
Then-President Nixon quickly stationed two aircraft carriers off the Israeli coast and put U.S. combat forces on alert. Eight days later, U.S. cargo planes began delivering what would be more than 22,000 tons of supplies to Israel, including tanks and jet fighters.
The deliveries tipped the military balance. Israel counter-attacked with its tank forces, under the leadership of then-Gen. Sharon, chasing Egyptian troops back across the Suez Canal and reclaiming the Sinai.
Out of that experience came the U.S. pledge that Israel would never lose its "qualitative edge" in military power to any of its Arab neighbors, and the U.S. military aid to Israel that backed up that pledge. U.S. military support to Egypt, which began after Egypt and Israel signed their 1979 peace treaty, is about two-thirds of U.S. aid to Israel.
Despite the images of violence broadcast from the Palestinian territories, very little of the Israeli military is being used in current operations, analysts said. Israeli officials declined to say how many tanks have been deployed in the current fighting, but analysts estimated that not more than a few dozen of Israel's 4,000 main battle tanks were on the streets.
In an all-out war where civilian casualties were not a concern, Israel "could roll up the West Bank in 36 hours," Bryen said.
As for igniting a wider Middle East war, most analysts said the Israelis are confident they can handle any contingency -- at least in the short run. Syria's military forces have atrophied badly since the collapse of the Soviet Union, its main benefactor. Egypt is said not to have the stomach for another wider war.
In any event, "The Israelis are not depending on us to come rescue them," Brower said. "We have to be realistic. We are the world's superpower in some respects, but we don't have a big capability in the Middle East, and the Israelis know that. They can count."
Copyright The Star-Ledger 2002. Reprinted for fair use only
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