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A US-Israel defense treaty has benefits — and perils

A US-Israel defense treaty has benefits — and perils
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For years the Israeli security establishment has resisted calls for a defense pact with the United States, believing it would hinder its freedom of action, outsourcing Israeli security considerations to its best friend whose interests don’t always coincide with its own. The case of Iran makes the point clear. 

Will a treaty limit Israel’s ability to preemptively strike Iran, especially if the Biden administration, as promised, rejoins the Iran nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA? Israel has clearly stated that the JCPOA does not satisfy its long-term security needs. If there were a treaty, would America be able to veto its ally’s choice over what it considers its existential issue? A defense pact is very much on the minds of the Biden administration as a strategy to reassure Israel that, if it rejoins the JCPOA, an Israeli preventive strike will be unnecessary.

This all came to light when it was reported recently that the chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, has endorsed the idea of a treaty between the two nations. This is unprecedented. The security and military establishments of Israel have always been wary of such a formal obligation. Reports indicate this may have been at the request of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE. Israel’s previous chief of staff, Gadi Eizenkot, as well as “all three of the former chiefs of staff who ran against Netanyahu in the last election — Benny Gantz, Gabi Ashkenazi and Moshe Ya’alon — publicly opposed the idea” of a treaty.

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Could this mean that Netanyahu, who had favored a pact between the countries during the Trump administration, now has calculated that a preemptive attack against Iranian nuclear facilities is unlikely to succeed? Is he considering a treaty with America as the best course of action in light of the military difficulty of successfully striking fortified underground nuclear locations?

Perhaps Netanyahu now believes Israel cannot sustain tens of thousands of missiles directed by Iran from its proxies in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, Iraq and the Iranian homeland, if Israel did preemptively attack. Or, is it possible that Netanyahu sees a “Goldilocks scenario” in which a treaty would not obligate Israel to heed American warnings about a preemptive attack?

It is hard to believe any Israeli prime minister would hand over the choice of whether to preemptively attack Iran to any country, even one who cares so much about Israel’s future. What this indicates is that Israel has one idea for a treaty that does not tie its hands, and the Biden administration — or any future administration — will have a very different view of what America should obligate itself to.

America wants stability in the Middle East, and buying time by delaying but not stopping the Iranian nuclear weapons program would satisfy American needs for this administration. However, Israel’s compass is the Begin Doctrine, named after former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, which asserts that Israel can never countenance any enemy state with nuclear weapons. Begin acted in 1981 against the French-built Iraqi nuclear reactor, and former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert destroyed the North Korean-built Syrian reactor in 2007.

It should be noted that the United States was unaware of the Syrian reactor even with its advanced satellite imagery until Israel showed the evidence to the Bush administration. It is no wonder that Israel has no confidence in any international body to monitor the Iranian nuclear program, knowing that the JCPOA obligates Iran to be notified before any inspections can begin, and no inspections are allowed in military sites — the most likely location for the weaponization of a nuclear warhead, the last missing piece for an Iranian nuclear weapons program.

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On the surface, it makes sense that the U.S. and Israel should have a formal defense treaty. The United States counts on Israel for intelligence gathering, joint research and development of its munitions and weapons, forward placement of American weapons systems, and a deep-water port for America’s Sixth Fleet in Haifa Port. 

America is the indispensable ally for Israel, as evidenced by its generous congressionally approved defense packages that provide Israel with billions of dollars to spend within the United States for its military needs. A case could be made that Israel couldn’t increase its security any better than if the world’s superpower legally obligated itself to Israel’s defense by signing a defense treaty.  

Think tanks have weighed in on the merits of a treaty. Last year, a Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) report, chaired by former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Adm. (Ret.) Jim Stavridis, advocated for a joint defense pact: “By treating a major attack on one as an attack on both, an alliance would provide greater deterrence than either ally alone.” The report tries to thread the needle, limiting either country’s formal obligations; this may have been possible in the Trump era, but won’t cut it with the Biden administration. 

So, the real question is whether the United States would sign a defense treaty with Israel that still gives it autonomy to preventively attack Iran. Putting the Iran nuclear weapons issue aside, Israel does not want its attacks on the transfer of precision-guided weapons from Iran to Syria and Lebanon inhibited in any way. Think of the complications a treaty would create if, as reportedly has happened in the past, Israel kills Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps members in Lebanon, Iraq or Syria.

Would a treaty help? Would it change or obligate either nation to share more intelligence than they already share, or would it increase their cyber coordination against mutual enemies, the quiet and continuing digital war happening all the time?

Why rock the apple cart with a formal treaty when the relationship has thrived without a treaty? There is no lack of cooperation between the nations in anti-missile development, intelligence sharing, or counterterrorism. A formal defense pact may ruin the plausible deniability that the U.S. can claim when Israel acts in its interests in the Levant or in Iran. And politically, there will be strong resistance from both the right and left, obligating the United States to get involved in another endless Middle Eastern war. 

Once Iran crosses the threshold to become a nuclear weapons state — most likely by the U.S. rejoining the JCPOA and Iran waiting for the expiration of its sunset provisions — then Israel would be interested in a binding defense treaty. But by then America will be uninterested. That is assuming Israel does not preemptively attack Iran before it crosses the nuclear weapons threshold.

Even if the Biden administration wants a treaty to prevent Israel from acting against Iran, it is a good bet that Israel will resist signing a document that thwarts their freedom to act. That is because the Israeli credo is to defend themselves by themselves, not having to risk putting American soldiers in harm’s way to protect the Jewish state. At this time, a treaty to satisfy both nations’ interests is probably unrealistic — but stay tuned. Things always change in the Middle East.

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the U.S. Senate, House, and their foreign-policy advisers. He is the  senior editor for “Security” at the Jerusalem Report/The Jerusalem Post.