The talk in Jerusalem these days is about a defense alliance with the United States (US). Considering Iran’s steering of its proxies in the Arab world against Israel and providing monetary incentives to Palestinian terrorists in Judea and Samaria to aggressively commit murderous terror attacks on Israeli civilians, the thought of such an alliance seems rather understandable. The thinking in Israel is that the US being a superpower, and allied with Israel in a defense pact, is enough to deter the Islamic Republic of Iran from launching a direct assault on Israel. Iran, though, might unleash Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Yemeni Houthis, and Shiite militias from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, already operating in Syria in the Golan vicinity, in a coordinated attack against Israel.
An attack on Israel from all sectors and directions, including the possibility that some Arab-Israelis would join Israel’s enemies by committing sabotaged and disrupting communications, is enough to create nightmarish scenarios. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has been preparing for such situations. Nevertheless, Israel’s resources may come short during a conflict, and a defense alliance with the US could save the day.
But above it all is the threat of a nuclearized Iran.
In the context of the normalization efforts with Saudi Arabia, Prime Minister Netanyahu has been busy conferring with his circle of advisors about the idea of a defense treaty between the US and Israel. Netanyahu has appointed his close confidant Ron Dermer, the former Israeli ambassador to Washington and currently the Minister for Strategic Affairs, to investigate the matter of a treaty with the US. Dermer has been leading the efforts for such an alliance. In Israel, the thinking is that such a Defense agreement will provide Israel with stronger security guarantees at a time when Iran is turning into a threshold nuclear state, capable of acquiring nuclear arms within a short period of time. Dermer already began his initiative for a ‘limited mutual defense treaty’ as ambassador to the US, believing that such a treaty would complete Israel’s defenses, and simultaneously serve as a deterrence to Israel’s enemies.
On July 14, 2022, the Biden White House issued a statement under the title “The Jerusalem US-Israel Strategic Partnership Joint Declaration.” It stated,
“Consistent with the longstanding security relationship between the United States and Israel and the unshakeable U.S. commitment to Israel’s security, and especially to the maintenance of its qualitative military edge, the United States reiterates its steadfast commitment to preserve and strengthen Israel’s capability to deter its enemies and to defend itself by itself against any threat or combination of threats. The United States further reiterates that these commitments are bipartisan and sacrosanct and that they are not only moral commitments but also strategic commitments that are vitally important to the national security of the United States itself.”
While the US commitments to Israel’s security are “moral and strategic,” without a legal document akin to a NATO-like defense commitment and approved by Congress, it is a rather vague commitment.
Meir Ben Shabbat, who was Israel’s National Security Adviser and Chief of Staff for the National Security Council, supported the Trump administration 2019 proposed outline for a mutual defense treaty. He thought that the idea of the treaty was positive but that the details of such a treaty must be scrutinized. At the top echelon of the Israeli defense establishment there were opposing opinions about such a treaty. Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s chief rival at the time believed that “it would tie Israel’s hands.” But the former IDF Chief-of-Staff Aviv Kochavi supported the 2019 proposal. Still, others questioned it.
Interviewed by PBS-TV, Dermer suggested that Israel could live with a Saudi civilian nuclear program. Dermer pointed out that the treaty with the US would protect Israel from a potential future Saudi nuclear bomb. Others, however, questioned what would happen in 10, 20, or 30 years from now.
The general idea of a defense treaty as it was conceived by the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) and its head Dr. Michael Makovsky, is of a limited defense alliance that would only deal with extreme situations such as the use of non-conventional arms by Iran, a war that engages Israel on several fronts, or a threat to Israel’s maritime or aerial supply lines that Jerusalem depends on. Such a treaty will not deal for instance, with routine rocket attacks on Israel or other conventional hostilities such as Hezbollah or Hamas’ rocket attacks.
The treaty, as Israel views it, won’t require sending American G.I.’s to Israel, nor Israeli soldiers to American conflicts. The mere fact that there is a contractual defense treaty between Israel and the US would deter a Middle East war. That would well serve American interests. Iran and its proxies would understand that a confrontation with Israel would also involve an American reaction. Most importantly for Israel, however, it would provide for fast resupply of arms in a war situation. Above all, in JINSA’s vision such a treaty won’t impinge upon Israel’s freedom of action.
Brig. General (Res.) Jacob Nagel is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a visiting professor at the Technion Aerospace Faculty in Haifa, Israel. In consideration of a “limited defense treaty,” Nagel argues that by raising a need for a treaty, Israel is sending out the message that it lacks confidence in its power and capability to defend itself by itself. According to Nagel, there is no such thing as a “limited treaty.” A meaningful treaty must include a phrase that says that an attack on one of the treaty members shall be considered an attack on all treaty members.” The problem Nagel sees is that even under NATO’s Article 5, the US will not defend a NATO ally if it launches a preemptive attack. The treaty with Israel will be somewhat less than the NATO treaty and its Article 5. And, if Israel should preemptively bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, the US won’t be obligated to Israel. Under the defense treaty with the US, Israel will get less than Article 5 guarantees, and the treaty might limit Israel’s freedom of action.
From a psychological point of view, a defense treaty with the US would be most beneficial for Israel. It would tell Israel’s enemies that Israel and the US are on the same page. Practically speaking, however, a treaty as proposed by JINSA may limit Israel’s options and won’t guarantee a US backing of Israel at a critical time, particularly if a hostile US president occupies the White House. Moreover, a limited defense treaty leaves the US commitment to Israel vague at best, since it won’t include something like NATO’s Article 5. Perhaps Meir Ben Shabbat was right, it is all about the small print in the treaty.