The idea of a defense pact between Israel and the United States has been considered, and rejected, several times over the years. The main reason was always that both sides are cautious about making commitments that would limit their freedom of action and require them to act militarily in contexts not viewed as vital by their respective populations.
It was also felt that the level of security and diplomatic cooperation between the two sides is very high in any case, and that the advantages of such a pact would not justify the changes it would entail in Israel’s approach to security. Israel has reserved the right of non-intervention in conflicts that do not directly affect it, preserving its independent decision-making when it comes to using its power, and, above all, upholding the principle that it should be able to defend itself, by itself.
While the recent renewed interest in the subject undoubtedly stemmed from political considerations, the idea is worth considering again. Ultimately, God is in the details, and if it turns out to be possible to reap the advantages and minimize the risks entailed by such a measure, then it could be of benefit to Israel’s security.
The tight security cooperation between the two countries stems from ideological affinity, shared interests and a mutual commitment to each other’s security (while, of course, clearly distinguishing between their respective capabilities and status). The bilateral relationship is also grounded in official agreements and undertakings (such as the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which ensures U.S. military and other aid to Israel, and the agreement on setting up a joint Strategic Policy Planning Group [SPPG] between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1999).
Nevertheless, to date, Israel’s expectations of the United States in the security domain have gone unfulfilled in a large number of cases.
According to the unwritten understandings between the sides, Israel is supposed to deal with threats within its own immediate environment while relying on U.S. assistance in intelligence, equipment and resources, and the United States is supposed to prevent, with Israeli help, the emergence of strategic threats to Israel and to the United States.
Although these understandings have been implemented in a large number of cases, at several critical junctures the United States has decided to prefer other interests over Israel’s security needs, allowed the threats to Israel’s security to intensify and forced it to stretch its capabilities to the limit, with Israel devoting huge budgets and other resources to its defense at the expense of other important issues. (Some notable examples are the delay of the airlift in the Yom Kippur War, Israel’s attacks on the Iraqi and Syrian nuclear reactors, the lack of resolute U.S. action to thwart Iran’s missile project in the 1990s, and, above all, Washington’s support of the nuclear agreement with Iran).
Second, today’s political and security circumstances differ considerably from those in the context of which a defense pact was contemplated in the past.
The intensity and complexity of the threats have significantly increased, and in light of Iran’s frenetic activity throughout the region (Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and Yemen), the distinction between near and distant threats has eroded. At the same time, the degree to which the two leaderships see eye to eye with regard to identifying the threats, and determining objectives and ways of contending with them, is unprecedented.
That holds true both for the nuclear and regional threat posed by the Islamic regime in Iran and for the struggle against radical Sunni Islam in its various forms. It also holds true in the Palestinian context, as preparations are being completed to publicize the “Trump plan” and efforts continue to convince the Palestinians to adopt a narrative that is linked to reality, which would enable progress in the peace process.
The change that has occurred in the American perception and policy also makes it possible to create a regional framework for a U.S.-Israeli defense pact that would not have been feasible in the past.
Thus, a U.S.-Israeli defense pact could help promote the two states’ common goals—most of all, deterring Iran and curbing its activity by making it clear to Tehran that aggression against Israel is tantamount to aggression against the United States and would prompt harsh American countermeasures.
Such a pact could also further deepen the intelligence and operational cooperation between the sides. (It is indeed very extensive even today since the upgrading of Israel’s status in 2014 to that of a special strategic partner—a status held exclusively by Israel. Previously it was a non-NATO special ally, a status equal to that of several other countries, including Arab countries). A pact could also further improve the quality of the technologies and the military equipment that the United States provides to Israel. Israel, in any case, puts no limits on its security cooperation with the United States and would not have to alter its approach in that regard.
At the same time, the wording of such a pact would have to leave both sides room for decision-making and initiatives. It should require joint consultations, not necessarily automatic responses to aggression against either country or their common vital interests. Such a pact must preserve both sides’ independence of decision-making in case of disagreement about a joint action; reinforce the principle that Israel must continue to be capable of defending itself by itself, to the extent possible; and it must not put new limits on Israel’s ability to develop ties with other important states such as China and Russia. Incorporating such a pact into a regional framework could, as noted, add to its advantages.
In conclusion, the answer to the question of whether a defense pact with the United States is good for Israel depends more on its contents than on its name or immediate political context, and talks on the details are still before us (after a new Israeli government is in place). American goodwill could help in crafting a text that would justify such a pact, and at present, it appears that such goodwill exists in the White House. At the same time, a defense pact at any price should not be Israel’s goal.
Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser is director of the Project on Regional Middle East Developments at the Jerusalem Center. He formerly served as director general of the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs and head of the research division of IDF Military Intelligence.
This article first appeared on the website of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
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