In an apparent attempt to underline the importance of American-Israeli relations, US Senator Lindsey Graham recently suggested that the two nations should conclude a defense treaty. According to Graham, such a pact 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. In 2006, House Resolution 700 called for ever-closer relations between Israel and NATO, ultimately leading to full membership in the Alliance. While such gestures should be appreciated for the noble sentiment they express, from an Israeli perspective, a defense treaty with the US is undesirable and might create more problems than it could possibly solve.
A defense treaty entails a commitment to take military action in the case of aggression against one of the parties to the agreement. Yet, for decades, Israel has made it clear that it does not want American soldiers to endanger their lives for Israel’s security. With this stance, Jerusalem has adopted the famous Churchill dictum “Give us the tools and we shall finish the job.” 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 ally of the US in the international arena since David Ben-Gurion lent his support to the US-backed UN action on the Korean peninsula in June 1950, and the strong 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 interests, a point that was illustrated emphatically during the 1970 Jordan crisis.
Today, close cooperation is also reflected in joint exercises, some 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 relationship. Despite this, Israel has never demanded a US security guarantee.
Israel needs to maintain its independence, and any defense treaty would curtail its freedom of action. It is worth noting that the European members of the NATO alliance, which is headed by the US, need permission from NATO headquarters in Brussels to deploy their forces, and that during the Cold War, no German aircraft 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, and 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 the two countries’ military relations were to become formalized.
A defense treaty also entails obligations to act together with the US. This is why NATO forces are currently deployed in Afghanistan. In the past, Israel refrained from sending a military contingent to American wars in Korea, Vietnam, or Afghanistan. Israel is busy enough with its own wars, and 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 the point is likely to be made that the territorial scope of any treaty must be clearly defined. Considering that 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 only along pre-1967 territorial lines 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 require definition. The US will hardly agree to act together with Israel in response to every terrorist attack, but if the trigger is left undefined, the usefulness of the treaty will be lessened and it will instead become a source of friction. Furthermore, even if the treaty were to be activated automatically, the US would be bound by its constitutional processes, which would inevitably delay the delivery of security assistance. Certain contingencies demand immediate action, and such legal niceties might render a defense treaty useless.
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 need to be at the 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 among military echelons whom Israel has been careful to cultivate over recent decades.
Another potential problem arises from Washington’s firm preference that all its allies must ratify international treaties that deal with arms control. Israel is reluctant to sign such treaties, arguing that 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 Non-Proliferation Treaty, 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 on the military nuclear question, even if the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action ultimately was meant to prepare the ground for such a policy. Should the US commit to offering 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 Israeli Defence Forces 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 (10-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 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 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 advisers.
The possibility of a defense treaty between Israel and the US may reflect noble sentiment, but beyond its value as a statement of friendship, it is neither desirable nor practical.
Colonel (retd.) Dr. Eran Lerman also contributed to this article.