The need to assign American soldiers to fight with Israel might undermine Israel’s popularity in the US and constrain its freedom of action.
South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham recently suggested that the United States should conclude a defense treaty with Israel. His objective was to signal to the world how important the American relationship with Israel is. In his opinion the 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 that the idea of a US-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 US 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 shall finish the job.” (Churchill did not necessarily mean this; he did not hide his delight when the US came into WWII. 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 US. 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 US in the international arena since David Ben-Gurion lent his support to the US-backed UN 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 US in many ways. It serves as America’s best ally in the region, occasionally ready to act militarily in conjunction with American interest. (The 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 US with critical intelligence, and it develops advanced technologies that are integrated into the American military. The Defense Department and the American military establishment, once hostile to Israel, have learned to appreciate the special relations. Yet, Israel never has demanded a US security guarantee.
Israel wants to be independent. Any defense treaty would curtail its freedom of action. Noteworthy, the European members of the NATO alliance, which is headed by the US, need permission to deploy their forces from the headquarters of the alliance 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 US. Moreover, such frequent use of force could become a burden for the US, if Israel is its formal ally.
A defense treaty also entails obligations to act together with the US. That is why NATO forces are currently deployed in Afghanistan. Israel refrained from sending a military contingent to Korea, Vietnam, or Afghanistan where US 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 to force this issue. In fact, a treaty that commits the US to protect Israel in the pre-1967 lines (only) would generate the opposite result than that intended by its originators.
Moreover, the specific case where the treaty might be activated (the casus foederis) would need definition. Obviously, the US will hardly agree to act together with Israel in response to every terrorist attack. If the trigger is left undefined, the treaty will not be useful and instead become a source for friction. Might the treaty be activated automatically? Even then, the US will reserve the right to act in accordance with its constitutional processes, which might extend the length of time until which security assistance is delivered. Certain contingencies demand immediate action, and such legal niceties might turn the defense treaty into a useless mechanism.
To this may be added the familiar tendency of the US government, and specifically the military, to take such commitments very seriously. Even if it is unlikely that the treaty will be activated, it would still require American military planners to point out what resources and forces would be needed at ready in order to respond to Israeli needs in an emergency. Given the current constraints on US forces, such an allocation for Israeli contingencies is likely to cause resentment; specifically, among military echelons that Israel has 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. Yet Israel is reluctant to sign such treaties because their verification mechanisms are far from perfect. The way the international community, including the US, 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 US 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 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 JCPOA ultimately was meant to prepare the ground for such a policy down the road. Should the US 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 US-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.
US military assistance, which indeed provides the IDF 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 (ten year) commitments of the Administration and upon annual congressional allocations – not upon any treaty. The weight and size of the assistance package is a function of US determination to help an ally, and 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 US as it is today.
A US-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 many of the Third World countries that are suspicious of a superpower. In addition, under a defense treaty, Israel will be even less free to compete with the US military industries than it is today. As a formal ally, Jerusalem would be less likely to conduct effective diplomacy with Moscow, let alone host a tripartite US-Russia-Israel summit of national security advisors.
Thus, a defense treaty between Israel and the US would reflect noble sentiment; but beyond the statement of friendship, it is neither desirable nor practical. The treaty may be a lofty idea, but one that works well only if it remains theoretical.
JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.