OpinionU.S.-Israel Relations

Are US guarantees of the Israel-Lebanon maritime agreement a mirage?

Israel should be aware of the intrinsic flaws of all security guarantees, and rely on its own security capabilities.

The floating production, storage and offloading vessel at Israel's Karish gas reservoir off the coast of Haifa. Source: Twitter.
The floating production, storage and offloading vessel at Israel's Karish gas reservoir off the coast of Haifa. Source: Twitter.
Yoram Ettinger
Yoram Ettinger
Yoram Ettinger is a former ambassador and head of Second Thought: A U.S.-Israel Initiative.

The U.S.-engineered and brokered Israel-Lebanon maritime accord includes (in section 4) various U.S. guarantees. It aims to reassure both parties, especially Israel, saying, “The United States intends to exert its best efforts working with the Parties to help establish and maintain a positive and constructive atmosphere for conducting discussions and successfully resolving any differences as rapidly as possible.”

Is that a reassuring commitment?

Section 4 is a classic example of four features of all U.S. international guarantees, which—as should be expected—subordinate the implementation of the guarantees to the interests of the U.S. guarantor, not the interests of the guaranteed countries:

  1. Non-specificity
  2. Non-automaticity
  3. Open-ended interpretations
  4. Escape routes

For example, the NATO Treaty is perceived to be an ironclad commitment by all member states to the defense of an attacked NATO country. However, article 5 of the NATO Charter highlights the aforementioned four features:

“The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them … will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area,” it says. “Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.”

Furthermore, the seeds of the current devastation of Ukraine were planted in the December 5, 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances accorded Ukraine by the U.S., Britain and the USSR in return for Ukraine giving up its nuclear arsenal, which was the third largest in the world.

According to the Budapest Memorandum: “Taking into account the commitment of Ukraine to eliminate all nuclear weapons from its territory within a specified period of time … the United States of America, the Russian Federation and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine … to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.”

The Budapest Memorandum was exposed as useless in 2014, when Russia occupied the Crimean Peninsula. This was only compounded by the 2014-2022 Russia-Ukraine war in Donbas and in 2022, when Russia again invaded Ukraine with no implementation of the Memorandum.

Israel should be aware of the intrinsic flaws of all security guarantees, and rely only upon its own national security capabilities, rather than the mirage of international or U.S. assurances.

Moreover, the U.S. constitutional balance of power stipulates that no U.S. international commitment is binding unless ratified by a two-thirds Senate majority.

In 1999 and 2000, President Bill Clinton signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which prohibits international nuclear testing, and the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court in the Hague. However, Clinton did not submit the Rome Statute for Senate ratification—realizing that there was little support for it. Ratification of the Test Ban Treaty was defeated 48-51 in the Senate.

The open-ended nature of U.S. guarantees, and the paramount role of U.S. interests during the implementation phase, were demonstrated by the U.S. defense treaties concluded with Taiwan (1955), South Vietnam (1973) and New Zealand (1951), but terminated by the U.S. in 1979, 1975 and 1986 respectively. This was done in order to advance U.S. interests as perceived by U.S. presidents at the time.

Israeli reliance on U.S. guarantees in the context of the 2022 maritime accord also ignores past mistakes.

In 2000, Clinton pledged $800 million in emergency aid to fund Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon. It was never delivered, since Congress, not the president, possesses the power of the purse, and it did not agree to fund the withdrawal, which triggered an unprecedented wave of Palestinian terrorism.

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter attempted to insert a reference to a future Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights into the Israel-Egypt peace treaty. The Israeli team shared with Carter a September 1, 1975 assurance from President Gerald Ford to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. It sought to induce an Israeli withdrawal from the Gulf of Suez to the Mitla Pass in the Sinai. It said that the U.S. “will give great weight to Israel’s position that any peace agreement with Syria must be predicated on Israel remaining on the Golan Heights.” Carter’s response was that Ford’s non-ratified executive commitment did not bind any of Ford’s successors in the White House. This was technically correct.

In 1967, on the eve of the Six Day War, Israel shared well-documented evidence of Egypt, Syria and Jordan’s plan for war with President Lyndon Johnson. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol also submitted a 1957 assurance from President Dwight Eisenhower, which was a prerequisite for Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula. It implied U.S. willingness to deploy its military in the face of Egyptian violations of commitments made to the U.S. and Israel. Johnson responded that Eisenhower’s non-ratified executive commitment did not bind Eisenhower’s successors and “it ain’t worth a solitary dime.” He added, “I am a tall Texan, but a short president in the face of a Congress that opposes overseas military deployment.”

In conclusion, security agreements with the U.S. should enhance, not reduce Israel’s posture of deterrence and its independence of action. They should also advance Israel’s posture as a national security producer, which deters regional violence; rather than a national security consumer, which does the opposite. They should expand Israel’s posture as a unique force-multiplier for the U.S., making Israel a strategic asset, not a liability.

The maritime agreement suggests that U.S. and Israeli policymakers are determined to learn from history by repeating rather than avoiding past mistakes, thus undermining their own interests.

Yoram Ettinger is a former ambassador and head of Second Thought: A U.S.-Israel Initiative.

This article was originally published by The Ettinger Report.

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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