The cons of a US-Israel defense treaty

Such a treaty could curtail Israel's freedom of action and signal that it cannot defend itself by itself.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, March 9, 2010. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, March 9, 2010. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.
Jacob Nagel
Jacob Nagel
Brig.-Gen. (res.) Jacob Nagel is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

A “limited defense treaty” between the U.S. and Israel as part of a normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia and a trilateral agreement between the U.S., the Saudis and Israel, contains more cons than pros, especially when it might come at the expense of Israel’s top priority: Preventing a bad Iran nuclear deal (or understandings) that will lead Iran on a sure path to a bomb in a very short timeframe.

Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer is in Washington for meetings with senior White House officials, ahead of very critical decisions regarding the U.S., Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia. According to what was published and even approved by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during this round of talks, Dermer’s meetings will focus on moving forward on a “limited defense treaty” between the U.S. and Israel.

Reports about a potential treaty have been in the air many times in the past, as recently as 2019, when Israel was in election season. This issue died down only to resurface now, pushed by Dermer, who has not hidden his support for such a treaty for more than a decade.

But now the talks might become more serious, connected to a possible comprehensive U.S.-Saudi deal, involving a potential, very important, normalization between Israel and the kingdom.

According to various sources, Riyadh’s main demands are U.S. security guarantees that would be based on a mutual defense treaty like the one the U.S. has with Japan, mostly aimed at countering Iran’s aggression; advanced arms deals; a free-trade zone between the countries and more. Israel can live with all these demands, assuming its QME (qualitative military edge) will be kept.

Adding in the Saudis’ “civilian nuclear” demands, however, things become a little more complicated. The Saudis are requesting a fully independent nuclear fuel cycle capability that would enable them to commercially tap their natural resources, including mining uranium, turning it into a “yellowcake,” converting it to gas (UF6) and enriching it to the level required to produce nuclear fuel rods for power reactors (electricity generation), for domestic use and export purposes.

The Saudis demand that these capabilities be entirely on Saudi soil. They are willing to accept the monitoring, inspections and management requirements of the U.S. and the IAEA to prevent them from using enriched military-grade uranium. It will be very dangerous and difficult for Israel to accept these demands, but it looks like Israeli officials and experts, together with their American counterparts, are looking for ways to “square the circle.”

The Palestinian issue has not been forgotten. It is being pushed now mainly by the U.S., but the Saudis will probably add it in the end to their list and Israel will have to give something to the Palestinians in order to achieve normalization.

Israel must not be confused when it comes to its priorities. Israeli officials must prevent a potential misunderstanding, making sure the U.S. understands that preventing a bad agreement or “understandings” regarding the Iranian nuclear program has not been relegated to a lower priority even as it seeks a deal with Saudi Arabia or a defense treaty with the U.S. The potential damage is severe.

There is a clear link between some of the components of a Saudi deal and proper handling of the Iranian nuclear program, and the right way is to try and tie them together and reach a win-win situation.

The Saudi demands, of course, are based on the faulty precedent created by the JCPOA (the 2015 Iran nuclear deal), which gave Iran expansive independent enrichment capabilities and advanced centrifuge R&D on Iranian soil. It is, therefore, possible to understand where the Saudis are coming from, and why their nuclear demands are legitimate, even if one does not agree with them. In their view, the Iranians, who violated every treaty and agreement they signed and deceived the world, received the right to independent enrichment, so why shouldn’t they get the same?

The same argument will be used, for sure, by countries in the region like Egypt, the UAE, Turkey and others. Understanding the Saudi argument is key to finding a solution that might present a win-win situation.

Adding the Israeli request to sign a “limited defense treaty” with the U.S. complicates everything.

What are the cons of a U.S.-Israel treaty?

The main problem with a treaty is its existence. By raising a need for a treaty, Israel is conveying the message that it lacks confidence in its power and capability to defend itself by itself, regardless of the details of the treaty. The title itself causes most of the damage.

A hostile U.S. president in the future could exploit the treaty against Israel and there are many ways to do so without any particular problem.

No matter what wording will be used in the treaty, it will break the historical unwritten understanding that Israel does not want American soldiers coming to its rescue and dying on Israeli soil. The treaty will contain sentences indicating there will be certain cases, even if they are only in extreme situations like an existential threat, in which American forces will be called on to act on Israel’s behalf in the Middle East.

There is no such thing as a “half-treaty” or a “limited treaty.” In order to obtain the benefits of a treaty (and there are some), it will clearly include sentences like: “An attack on one of the treaty members shall be considered an attack on all the treaty members, with all implications.”

But the problem is much deeper. NATO’s Article 5 is the highest level of security guarantee that the U.S. can give to its allies. If the U.S., even according to Article 5, will not defend NATO allies if they launch a preemptive attack, then the U.S. for sure won’t defend anyone else who has a guarantee that falls below Article 5 levels—like Israel or Saudi Arabia if they attack Iran.

The U.S. wouldn’t defend Israel if it preemptively bombed Iran’s nuclear facilities, or more accurately, the U.S. wouldn’t be obligated to defend Israel even if it had Article 5-like provisions in a treaty. It is clear that under any defense treaty, Israel will get less than Article 5 guarantees, so presenting such a treaty as giving Israel better freedom of action against Iran is wrong.

Iran is going to behave aggressively in the region, with or without a treaty, and since Israel is not asking the U.S. to come to its aid in the event of an Iranian attack, by sending American forces, the treaty will be counterproductive and potentially inflict severe damage to Israeli deterrence, based on the indirect message that Israel does not trust its own independent capabilities and needs U.S. support.

Iran will be under the impression that Israel has decided to shift to containment of Iran, like the U.S., and that if Iran doesn’t cross an elusive, unimportant “red line,” it will remain immune. Claiming that with a treaty Israel will not lose its freedom of action against Iran and can decide to attack, knowing the U.S. will come to its rescue because of the treaty, is wrong and analysis shows the opposite. The treaty will unfortunately give the IDF another reason not to attack Iran or the dangerous infrastructure and facilities the Hezbollah has built on Lebanese soil, including the production facilities of precision-guided munitions.

As a practical matter, the U.S. might defend Israel, although probably not after an Israeli preemptive attack, but that depends on who is the president and what U.S. priorities are at that time. The U.S. will find a way out if it wants to.

It would be a grave mistake to bind the very important agreement with Saudi Arabia to the signing of a U.S.-Israel treaty. Israel will look very strange when asking the U.S. for a defense treaty to get things they want regardless of the treaty. Why should the U.S. “pay,” by signing a treaty, for Israel to agree to do something Israel wants anyway? On the other hand, the U.S. needs Israel’s support now more than ever before to pass the entire U.S.-Saudi deal in Congress. Israel can get all the goodies it wants without a treaty, so why give the U.S. the feeling that this is the “price” Israel wants in order to support and help the administration pass the Saudi deal?

American support for what Israel really needs exists without a treaty. Signing a treaty, even if it includes those issues inside the wording, can only undermine U.S. support for these issues, on the grounds that if there is a treaty they are no longer needed—at the least, they can be reduced and weakened: No need for a broader and longer new memorandum of understanding; no need for a better QME; no need for a wider and sophisticated deployment of U.S. weapons systems in Israel; no need for wider and much more sensitive R&D and technology cooperation, and so on.

There is also the danger of curtailing Israeli freedom of action in general, especially vis-à-vis Iran, Russia and China, regardless of what is written in the treaty. A treaty would motivate the U.S. to prevent escalation in order to prevent a confrontation that would require the U.S. to intervene, so they will put a lot of pressure on Israel not to escalate. It can be written in the treaty wording that Israel will not have to consult or obtain approvals from the U.S., but according to treaty drafts from the past, it is explicitly written that Israel will have to consult.

Of course, there are also treaty pros, most of them based on an interpretation that turns some disadvantages into an advantage: The treaty will send a clear message that the U.S. is behind Israel and that harming or attacking Israel will be considered an act of violence against the U.S. So, it might increase Israel’s deterrence and freedom of action against Iran, Russia and China.

Signing a treaty can upgrade U.S.-Israel relations for many years to come while bringing Congress on board as a partner to the deal by ratifying it, which may prevent the need to reapprove the deal arrangements every year.

The treaty motivates the U.S. to prevent escalation, so it will probably give Israel almost anything it needs to prevent a confrontation that would require the U.S. to intervene.

However, it is obvious that a treaty’s cons are much larger than its pros, so it would be best not to push for it at this stage, especially not as a part of a wider Saudi deal.

The correct and practically the only way to advance a Saudi deal that would help bring normalization with Israel, overcome Riyadh’s request for an independent nuclear fuel cycle, take the bad deal (or understandings) with Iran off the table and eliminate the need for a defense treaty is to insist on triggering the snapback sanctions to the fullest extent against Iran by reinstating all U.N. Security Council sanctions that were lifted when the JCPOA agreement was signed in 2015, including a total ban on uranium enrichment on Iranian soil.

Such an American demand, even if it is not enacted because of an Iranian objection, will pull the rug out from under the Saudis’ enrichment demands, and make it possible to move forward with a Saudi-American-Israeli deal without the nuclear threat from Saudi Arabia and without a need for a dangerous U.S.-Israel defense treaty. It will also open the door to a joint Israeli-American action against the Iranian nuclear program.

Originally published by Israel Hayom.

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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