Time Out for Some Good News About Israel

It may be hard to believe given the press coverage, but the U.S.-Israel relationship is not restricted to issues revolving around the Arab-Israeli conflict. Let’s take a breather from that depressing topic and, for a change, focus on some of the positive elements of the U.S.-Israel alliance.

The head of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) recently visited Israel to explore new avenues of cooperation. The Israel Space Agency (ISA) and NASA began to work together in 1985 on a variety of projects related to space research. In 1996, NASA and ISA signed an umbrella agreement "for cooperation in the peaceful use of space" and President Clinton created a joint committee to explore practical applications under this agreement. Most exciting of all for Israel is that NASA is currently training Israel’s first two astronauts - Ilan Ramon and Yitzhak May. Ramon is currently scheduled to fly on a space shuttle mission in 2002.

Although Israel is a tiny country, the size of New Jersey, it is the 20th leading trade partner with the United States. Last year, trade between the two countries totaled more than $20 billion. The story is even more dramatic at the state level. Three states, California, New Jersey and New York, exported more than $1 billion worth of goods to Israel. You’d expect those states to do well, but smaller states also have extensive trade relations with Israel. For example, exports to Israel from Delaware, Kansas and New Mexico increased by more than 100 percent from the prior year.

Because of the deep pool of talent, particularly in high-technology areas, Israel provides excellent investment opportunities for American companies. In fact, more than 10,000 U.S. firms do business in or with Israel, including giants such as IBM, Microsoft, Motorola, Intel and McDonald’s. They’re not in Israel because the shareholders are Zionists; they’re there because it’s profitable to do business in Israel.

In addition to trade ties, 22 states have formal agreements for broad cooperation with Israel and several have ongoing exchanges in education, culture and agriculture. It has now become routine for governors to lead delegations of business leaders, educators and cultural affairs officials to Israel and for state agencies and institutions to initiate joint projects. One of the most active states is North Carolina, which, for example, adopted an Israeli education program introduced to officials there by the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. The "Reading Together" peer tutoring program developed at Hebrew University helps second graders improve their reading skills. It proved so successful in North Carolina schools that it is now being used in 207 schools in 14 states.

Since the early 1980's, strategic cooperation between the two allies has grown exponentially. In March, for the first time ever, Israeli and American fighter planes flew in formation together at a training mission hosted by Israel. America and Israel often participate in joint training exercises, but this was the first time Israel's air force performed maneuvers like mid-air refueling, dogfighting and air-to-ground attacks with foreign planes. In addition, work continues on a variety of joint military projects such as the Arrow missile and the Tactical High Energy Laser.

Academics from both countries routinely collaborate on projects in virtually every discipline. Nearly 400 American institutions in 47 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have received funds from binational programs with Israel. Two binational foundations, the Binational Science Foundation (BSF) and the Binational Agricultural Research and Development Fund (BARD), provide grants for joint research that have produced advances in everything from animal production to physics to life sciences. BARD-sponsored research has led to new technologies in drip irrigation, pesticides, fish farming, livestock, poultry, disease control and farm equipment. BSF has documented no less than 75 new discoveries that probably would not have been possible without foundation-supported collaboration.

A third binational foundation, the Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation (BIRD), funds joint U.S.-Israeli teams in the development and commercialization of innovative, nondefense technological products. Since its inception in 1977, BIRD has funded more than 500 joint high-tech R&D projects.

These foundations were created with little fanfare and continue to operate independent of economic or political pressures. In the last two and a half decades, they have played an important role in creating networks between American and Israeli researchers in academia, government and the private sector. Of course, collaboration also continues outside the framework of these institutions.

Another unique institution is the International Arid Lands Consortium (IALC), an independent nonprofit organization formed to explore the problems and solutions of arid and semiarid regions. The Consortium consists of the universities of Arizona, Illinois, New Mexico State, South Dakota and Texas A&I, along with the U.S. Forest Service and the Jewish National Fund. The IALC also includes representatives from Egypt and Jordan.

The United States signed a variety of cooperative agreements with Israel dating back to the 1950s; however, Ronald Reagan dramatically expanded the number of areas for possible joint activities. Just as he institutionalized military to military relations through formal agreements and mutually beneficial projects, so too did he begin to make bureaucracy to bureaucracy relations routine. Today, nearly every U.S. government agency, from HUD to EPA to HHS has a cooperation agreement with their Israeli counterparts.

It's a shame so little information about these positive aspects of the U.S.-Israel relationship is disseminated to the general public. These "shared value initiatives," as I call them, reinforce the twin pillars on which the special U.S.-Israel friendship is based: shared values and mutual interests. It is this commonality of interests and beliefs that ensures the vitality of the friendship between Israelis and Americans, regardless of the state of the peace process.