OpinionU.S.-Israel Relations

Are US international agreements carved in stone?

Israeli policy-makers be warned: History proves that U.S. commitments do not even bind the president who signed them.

U.S. President Donald Trump listens as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers remarks on the details of the Trump administration’s Mideast peace plan in the East Room of the White House on Jan. 28, 2020. Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead.
U.S. President Donald Trump listens as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers remarks on the details of the Trump administration’s Mideast peace plan in the East Room of the White House on Jan. 28, 2020. Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead.
Yoram Ettinger
Yoram Ettinger
Yoram Ettinger is a former ambassador and head of Second Thought: A U.S.-Israel Initiative.

Even when U.S. commitments are driven by the purest of intentions, one should recognize certain features—a derivative of the U.S. Constitution and the power struggle between the legislature and the executive—which have characterized all U.S. international agreements, pacts, memoranda of understanding and guarantees since 1776. These inherent features (thoroughly researched by Hebrew University professor Michla Pomerance) are designed to subordinate the implementation (or non-implementation) of all U.S. international commitments to the overriding U.S. interests, as defined by the implementing president, not necessarily the president who signed the commitments.

Take, for example, the feature of vagueness and non-specificity, as demonstrated by the Trump “Peace to Prosperity” plan. The plan stipulates Israeli security control in the entire area from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean. But who defines “control?” Will it be President Donald Trump and his team, or the more pro-Palestinian team of President Joe Biden? Obviously, each team will have a different interpretation, reflecting their different worldviews and ideology, minimizing or maximizing the scope of “control,” which could render Israeli “control” highly constrained and quite ineffective.

What constitutes “interpretation” for the promisor (U.S.) may be perceived as “breach” and “evasion” by the promisee (Israel).

Moreover, the plan’s list of preconditions for the establishment of a Palestinian state is subject to contradictory, subjective interpretations of the preconditions and compliance. The strict school of thought may insist that the Palestinians will have to become Canadians to comply with the preconditions (Trump), while the lenient school of thought may be satisfied with Palestinians remaining Palestinians (Biden).

Thus, in 1993, PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas supposedly accepted a list of preconditions in order to establish the Palestinian Authority in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. Notwithstanding their systematic and egregious violation of these preconditions, Arafat became the most-frequent visitor to President Bill Clinton’s White House and was awarded the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize.

Furthermore, Clinton, President Barack Obama and all Israeli prime ministers since 1993 vouched for the good behavior (compliance) of Arafat and Abbas. This facilitated the handover of Hebron to the Palestinian Authority (1997) and the transfer of the $400 million annual U.S. foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority, notwithstanding the unprecedented wave of Palestinian hate-education and terrorism.

Then, there is the feature of non-automaticity, which stipulates that the implementation of all U.S. agreements and guarantees is in the hands of the sitting U.S. president, and depends on the president’s worldview and assessment of U.S. interests.

The bottom line—and the third feature of U.S. international commitments—is that they are deliberately open-ended, in order to preserve U.S. interests, irrespective of other interpretations and reservations by the other parties to the agreement.

Anyone who assumes that a U.S. international commitment is carved in stone should examine the very important, yet non-specific, non-automatic and open-ended NATO treaty (Article 5): “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them shall be considered an attack against them all … . Each of them … will assist the Party of Parties so attacked by taking … such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force … .” (Emphasis added.)

Another feature of U.S. international commitments involves the balance of power between the country’s legislative and executive branches of government. Thus, the ratification of an agreement requires a two-thirds Senate majority (at least 67 senators)—currently an impossibility given the political climate on Capitol Hill, with a 53:47 Republican Senate majority and a vehemently anti-Trump Democratic Party.

As an example, in 1999 and 2000, Clinton signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, prohibiting international nuclear testing, and the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court in the Hague. However, he did not submit the Rome Statute for Senate ratification (realizing that there was no support for ratification), and the Test Ban Treaty was also not ratified—it was defeated 48:51 in the Senate.

The open-ended nature of U.S. international commitments, and the paramount role of U.S. interests during the implementation phase, were demonstrated in the U.S. defense treaty signed with New Zealand (in 1951), which was suspended in 1986 due to U.S. considerations. Likewise with the 1955 U.S.-Taiwan Defense Pact, which was terminated in 1979, when President Jimmy Carter decided that enhancing ties with China was much more important than abiding by a prior treaty with Taiwan.

The power of the president to suspend international treaties was reaffirmed in a Nov. 15, 2001 memorandum submitted by the U.S. Justice Department: “The President has broad constitutional powers with respect to treaties, including the powers to terminate and suspend them … .”

When it comes to Israel:

• In 2000, Clinton pledged to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak $800 million in emergency aid to fund Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon. However, it was never delivered, since Congress, which possesses the power of the purse, did not agree to fund the self-defeating withdrawal (which triggered an unprecedented wave of Palestinian terrorism).

• In 1967—on the eve of the Six-Day War—Israel became increasingly besieged by Egyptian violations of the demilitarization of the Sinai Peninsula, blockading the port of Eilat and forming the joint Egypt-Syria-Jordan anti-Israel military command. Therefore, Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol submitted to President Lyndon Johnson the assurance from President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued in 1957 in order to entice Israel to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula.

The Eisenhower assurance implied, but did not specify, a U.S. willingness to deploy its military in the face of Egyptian violations. The pro-Israel Johnson invoked constitutional and congressional non-compliance, stating that Eisenhower’s executive commitment did not bind Eisenhower’s successors, and “it ain’t worth a solitary dime.”

He added that “Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go alone,” and concluded by stating: “I am a tall Texan, but a short president in the face of a Congress that opposes overseas military deployment.”

• In 1979—during the final stages of the Israel-Egypt peace talks, when Carter attempted to insert a reference to a future Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, the Israeli team shared with Carter the Sept. 1, 1975 assurance of President Gerald Ford’s to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, geared to induce an Israeli withdraw from the Gulf of Suez to the Mitla Pass in mid-Sinai: “[The US] 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 correct response was that President Ford’s executive commitment did not bind any of Ford’s successors in the White House.

The aforementioned comments do not constitute a criticism of the United States, but rather advice to Israeli policy-makers to study precedents, and to realize the substantial vagueness and other limitations of any U.S. presidential commitment, guarantee or assurance, and avoid, rather than repeat, critical mistakes.

Moreover, Israel’s national security must be based on the worst-case scenario, especially in the increasingly unpredictable, turbulent political climate in the Middle East and the world at large, including the United States.

Finally, Israel must retain the independence of national security action, including the application of its laws to the Jordan Valley and Judea and Samaria, rather than await a “green light” from Washington, D.C.

This critical feature of leadership was demonstrated—in defiance of brutal U.S. and international pressure—by prime ministers Ben-Gurion (expanding Israel’s area by some 30 percent during the 1948-49 war), Eshkol (preempting an Arab war on Israel, reuniting Jerusalem and establishing the initial Israeli neighborhoods beyond the “Green Line”), Golda Meir (expanding Jewish presence beyond the “Green Line”), Menachem Begin (applying Israel’s law to the Golan Heights and bombing Iraq’s nuclear reactor) and Yitzkak Shamir (bolstering Israel’s presence in Judea and Samaria).

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

This article was first 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.
You have read 3 articles this month.
Register to receive full access to JNS.

Just before you scroll on...

Israel is at war. JNS is combating the stream of misinformation on Israel with real, honest and factual reporting. In order to deliver this in-depth, unbiased coverage of Israel and the Jewish world, we rely on readers like you. The support you provide allows our journalists to deliver the truth, free from bias and hidden agendas. Can we count on your support? Every contribution, big or small, helps JNS.org remain a trusted source of news you can rely on.

Become a part of our mission by donating today
Thank you. You are a loyal JNS Reader.
You have read more than 10 articles this month.
Please register for full access to continue reading and post comments.
Never miss a thing
Get the best stories faster with JNS breaking news updates