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OpinionU.S.-Israel Relations

A US-Israeli defense treaty? A noble idea, but neither desirable nor practical

The need to assign American soldiers to fight with Israel might undermine Israel’s popularity in the United States and constrain Israel’s freedom of action.

The flags of Israel and the United States wave above a camp for U.S. service members supporting exercise Juniper Cobra at an Israeli Defense Forces site on Feb. 23, 2018. Credit: Sgt. Matthew Plew/U.S. Air Force.
The flags of Israel and the United States wave above a camp for U.S. service members supporting exercise Juniper Cobra at an Israeli Defense Forces site on Feb. 23, 2018. Credit: Sgt. Matthew Plew/U.S. Air Force.
Efriam Inbar and Eran Lerman

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) recently suggested that the United States should conclude a defense treaty with Israel. His objective was to signal to the world how important America’s relationship with Israel is. In his opinion such a pact would show the international community that “an attack against Israel would be considered an attack against the United States.”

This is not the first time the idea of a U.S.-Israel defense pact has been broached. House Resolution 700 in 2006 called for ever-closer relations between Israel and NATO, ultimately leading to full membership in the alliance. Such gestures should be appreciated for the noble sentiment they express, but from an Israeli perspective a defense treaty with the United States is not desirable; it might create more problems than it would solve.

A defense treaty entails a commitment to take military action in the case of aggression against one of the parties. Yet Israel has declared for decades that it does not want American soldiers to endanger their lives for Israel’s security. Jerusalem has adopted the famous Churchillian dictum “Give us the tools and we will finish the job.” (Churchill did not necessarily mean this; he did not hide his delight when the United States entered World War II. But Israel does mean it).

This principle, which is enshrined in Israel’s national-security thinking, has been an important component in Israel’s popularity in the United States. It is also an element of the unwritten but powerful understanding between Israel and American Jewry, alongside American Jewry’s commitment to help Israel secure American material and diplomatic support.

Israel has been a staunch supporter of the United States in the international arena since David Ben-Gurion lent his support to the U.S.-backed United Nations action in Korea in June 1950. The deep and broad security relations between the two nations are extremely useful to both sides. Israel is a security asset for the United States in many ways. It serves as America’s best ally in the region, occasionally ready to act militarily in conjunction with American interests. (This point was emphatically made during the Jordan crisis in 1970).

Today, close cooperation is also reflected in joint exercises—some of them bilateral, others multilateral—in the Eastern Mediterranean. Moreover, Israel supplies the United States with critical intelligence, and develops advanced technologies that are integrated into the American military. The U.S. Defense Department and the American military establishment, once hostile to Israel, have learned to appreciate the special relationship between the two countries. Yet, Israel never has demanded a U.S. security guarantee.

Israel wants to be independent. Any defense treaty would curtail its freedom of action. Noteworthy in this connection is that the European members of NATO, which is headed by the United States, need permission to deploy their forces from NATO headquarters in Brussels. During the Cold War no German plane could fly without approval from Brussels. Israel could not tolerate such restraints. It must use force almost without respite, in accordance with its own calculations. Israel’s rationale might not be always acceptable in the United States. Moreover, such frequent use of force could become a burden to the United States if Israel was its formal ally.

A defense treaty also entails obligations to act together with the United States. That is why NATO forces are currently deployed in Afghanistan. Israel refrained from sending a military contingent to Korea, Vietnam or Afghanistan, where U.S. forces were engaged in fighting wars. Israel is busy enough with its own wars. Sending Israeli troops to distant fronts is unlikely to receive domestic support.

Once the Senate is asked to ratify a binding treaty, complex questions may arise; and given current tendencies in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, ugly undertones may come to the surface. Thus, the point is likely to be made that the territorial scope of the defense treaty must be defined. And note: Israel’s borders are disputed even by America. It is not wise for Israel to try force this issue. In fact, a treaty that commits the United States to protect Israel in the pre-1967 lines (only) would generate the opposite result than that intended by its originators.

Moreover, the specific cases in which the treaty might be activated (the casus foederis) would need definition. Obviously, the United States will hardly agree to act together with Israel in response to every terrorist attack. However, if the trigger is left undefined, the treaty will not be useful and instead become a source of friction. Might the treaty be activated automatically? Even then, the United States would reserve the right to act in accordance with its constitutional processes, which might extend the length of time before security assistance could be delivered. Certain contingencies demand immediate action, and such legal niceties might turn a defense treaty into a useless mechanism.

To this may be added the familiar tendency of the U.S. government, and specifically the U.S. military, to take such commitments very seriously. Even if it is unlikely that the treaty will be activated, American military planners would still be required to point out what resources and forces would be needed at ready to respond to Israeli needs in an emergency. Given the current constraints on U.S. forces, such an allocation for Israeli contingencies would likely cause resentment, especially among the military echelons Israel had been careful to cultivate over recent decades.

Another problem arises from Washington’s firm preference that all its allies must ratify international treaties that deal with arms control. Israel is reluctant to sign such treaties because their verification mechanisms are far from perfect. The way the international community, including the United States, has dealt with the quest for nuclear weapons by North Korea and Iran is totally unsatisfactory from an Israeli point of view. For this and a multiplicity of other reasons, Israel has been reluctant to join the NPT, and has reached discreet understandings with consecutive U.S. administrations on this question. There is a real danger that an open debate on a defense treaty would bring into focus tensions on this issue that have been dormant for generations.

Moreover, a defense treaty that could be read as extending American nuclear deterrence to the Israeli theater may also be perceived, rightly or wrongly, as an alternative to preventive action when it comes to Iran’s bid for the bomb. Past administrations, including President Barack Obama’s, repeatedly asserted that they would not make do with “containment” of Iran (i.e., the deterring of Iran) on the military nuclear question; even if the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was ultimately meant to prepare the ground for such a policy down the road. Should the United States commit to offer Israel a nuclear “umbrella,” this would in practice open the question of whether either country is still truly committed to the principle of preventing Iran, at all costs, from achieving a nuclear arsenal.

Beyond the political imperatives on both sides, the decisive question regarding a U.S.-Israel defense treaty can be cast in terms of cost-benefit analysis. The various costs have been outlined above. As to the benefits, a formal alliance would not necessarily add to the key components vital to Israel’s national security.

U.S. military assistance, which indeed provides the Israel Defense Forces with key components of its build-up and maintenance, clearly constitutes an element in Israel’s deterrence equation. But this rests upon the existing long-term (10-year) commitments of the U.S. administration and upon annual congressional allocations—not upon any treaty. The weight and size of the assistance package is a function of U.S. determination to help an ally, and is not predicated upon the existence of a formal treaty document. Nor would such a document change hostile perceptions of Israel’s immense base of support in the United States as it is today.

A U.S.-Israel defense treaty would also pose some diplomatic difficulties. A degree of formal distance between Jerusalem and Washington is useful in Israel’s diplomatic interactions with the many countries that are suspicious of the superpower. In addition, under a defense treaty, Israel would be even less free to compete with U.S. military industries than it is today. As a formal ally, Jerusalem would also be less likely to conduct effective diplomacy with Moscow, let alone host a tripartite U.S.-Russia-Israel summit of national security advisers.

Thus, a defense treaty between Israel and the United States reflects a noble sentiment, but is neither desirable nor practical. Such a treaty may be a lofty idea, but one that works well only if it remains theoretical.

Professor Efraim Inbar is the founding director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University. He has been a visiting professor at Georgetown, Johns Hopkins and Boston universities; a visiting scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; a Manfred Warner NATO Fellow; and a visiting fellow at the (London-based) International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Colonel (res.) Dr. Eran Lerman was deputy director for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office. He held senior posts in IDF Military Intelligence for over 20 years. He also served for eight years as director of the Israel and Middle East office of the American Jewish Committee. He teaches in the Middle East studies program at Shalem College in Jerusalem, and in post-graduate programs at Tel Aviv University and the National Defense College.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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