A U.S.-Israeli Mutual Defense Treaty: It Won’t Happen

Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu (Shealah D. Craighead)

by Robert E. Hunter

In the Middle East, there is an old admonition: be careful what you wish for. Winning the war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003 was a prime example, in that it created a continuing mess that does not promise to get better anytime soon. Now in the Levant, President Donald Trump has taken yet another step designed to help Benjamin Netanyahu win Israel’s elections on September 17. Trump will do whatever he can to help put Netanyahu over the top. In addition, Netanyahu has always wanted to make U.S. security guarantees even more rock solid than they have been for decades and to show that he is the Israeli leaders best able to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship. The result: Trump’s proposal for a Mutual Defense Treaty with Israel.

A prediction: if such a treaty is concluded, both the United States and Israel will end up wishing it had never happened.

The Depth of U.S. Security Commitments to Israel

The U.S. commitment to Israel’s security goes back a long way. Politically, it formally dates from May 14, 1948, when President Harry Truman beat the Soviet Union to the wire by minutes in recognizing, de facto, the new State of Israel. Following Israel’s invasion of Egypt in 1956, secretly worked out with Britain and France but stopped abruptly by President Dwight Eisenhower, it looked like the United States was opposing Israel. But it was really saving Israel from even more international isolation than it already faced. And something tangible came out of the war for Israel: a U.S. pledge that it would not permit Egypt or anyone else to close the Straits of Tiran, Israel’s access to the Red Sea. That the pledge was secret didn’t make any difference—just before the June 1967 Six-Day War, Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban presented Israel’s copy of the agreement to President Lyndon Johnson (the U.S. apparently couldn’t find its copy). During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, U.S. military aid to Israel proved vital. Later, President Jimmy Carter brokered the Camp David Accords between Israeli’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat. This was the most important security achievement for Israel in its history, because it meant that no coalition of (remaining) Arab states could take Israel on militarily.

This active U.S. commitment to Israel’s security has been complemented by massive amounts of military aid, although most U.S. economic aid to Israel has ended.  All told, U.S. aid to Israel has dwarfed that to any other country. Right now, the United States is committed to a ten-year military aid package to Israel that totals $38 billion. On top of this, some private contributions by U.S. citizens to Israel are tax-deductible in the United States.

And all this has been done without a formal defense treaty between the two countries. Indeed, given the depth of U.S. political and popular commitment to Israel’s security, it hasn’t been necessary. On that basis, it’s not needed now.

For Israel: Not Just U.S. Moral and Political Commitments

Israel’s leaders are nothing if not hard-headed about security. The fact that support among Americans for Israel goes far beyond the Jewish community and large groups of evangelical Christians is not sufficient for Israeli leaders who must make worst-case calculations, even though it is almost certain that U.S. public opinion is so strong that no American leader could permit Israel to come to harm.

The operative word is “almost.” For Israeli leaders, U.S. sentiment, as strong as it is—indeed, like the critical political and moral glue that more than anything else holds the transatlantic relationship together—is not enough. They have always needed to have significant strategic correspondence between U.S. and Israeli interests. This happened naturally during most of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union sided with some of Israel’s enemies, notably Egypt and Syria. As a result, Arab-Israeli relations were deeply imbedded in Cold War confrontation between the two superpowers. But when Egypt dropped out of the Arab military balance against Israel under the 1979 peace treaty, a successful Arab war against Israel became unthinkable, and thus the Arab-Israeli conflict’s role in Cold War confrontation also collapsed. 

For Israel, however, there needed to be a replacement for confrontation with the Soviet Union as the strategic basis for the U.S. security commitment to Israel. Evidence of this came almost immediately. During the visit of senior U.S. officials to the Sinai and then Jerusalem to begin implementing the peace treaty and to witness Israel’s return of the Sinai to Egypt, Prime Minister Begin confronted Secretary of State Cyrus Vance with his deep concern that the U.S. had just cancelled strategic cooperation with Israel. Vance was non-plussed, and those of us in the secretary’s party scrambled to discover what Begin was talking about. The upshot: The Pentagon’s long-time head of the Office of Net Assessment, Andrew Marshall, had initiated low-level strategic conversations with Israeli military officials—at the colonel level—but had found them to be of not much use and thus had called them off. But Begin used this tiny but symbolic event to underscore the need for there to be day-to-day U.S.-Israeli strategic cooperation, as more important than the deep-seated American people’s moral commitment to Israel’s safety. Such intense strategic cooperation has continued ever since.

A Mutual Defense Treaty—And its Problematic Implications

But now Trump has proposed, and Netanyahu has accepted, that this relationship be taken a step further, to become a formal mutual security treaty.. This is not the first time the subject has been broached. In 1970, then chairman of the Senator Foreign Relations Committee, J. William Fulbright, proposed such a treaty. Even before the U.S. administration could consider the idea, Israel rejected it. Fulbright was widely castigated both in Israel and among leading Israeli supporters in the United States, even being called an anti-Semite.

The reason: the “hook” in the proposal for a mutual defense treaty, both then and now: the meaning of the word “mutual.” In common practice, that doesn’t just mean Israel would come to U.S. aid if needed, just as the U.S. would come to Israel’s. It also means that there would be criteria, both spelled out and implicit, regarding the conditions under which a treaty commitment would be honored. In short, the United States would acquire the formal right to counsel Israel on the latter’s own actions that might trigger the commitment clause.

There is precedent for this, even in the North Atlantic Treaty (NATO). Thus to keep allies from using their security relationship with the United States to drag America into a conflict it would prefer to avoid, the scope of the treaty was limited to areas north of the Tropic of Cancer (Article 6)—i.e., no support for anything to do with allies’ then-colonial possessions. And in Article 5, the “all for one and one for all” provision, at U.S. insistence every ally reserved the right to decide what to do to honor that commitment. These provisions have had practical significance, as in informal understandings that potential “aggression” by NATO ally Greece against NATO ally Turkey (or vice versa) would not trigger Article 5. Even today, if Turkey provoked an attack against itself emanating from Syria, the other allies would not feel obliged to come to Ankara’s aid.

If there were a formal U.S.-Israel defense pact, it is unthinkable that the United States would remain silent as Israel, judging its own security requirements, responded militarily to threats it sees from Hamas (Gaza) or Hezbollah (Lebanon or Syria) that might risk a wider war and triggering of the U.S. treaty commitment, or that the United States would remain indifferent to potential Israeli use of military force against Iran. Put simply, a mutual defense treaty between the two countries would add nothing in practice to the current U.S. security commitment to Israel, but it would impose constraints on Israel’s judgments about its own security needs and would stimulate added caution in the United States about turning a blind eye to Israel’s use of military force, for whatever reason, in Gaza, Lebanon, or Syria—and, with stronger reason, in Iran. This was the calculation the Israeli government made in 1970 when Fulbright made his proposal. Indeed, he clearly designed it precisely to “rein in” Israel from what he believed (rightly or wrongly) were provocative actions that could drag the United States unwillingly into conflict where its own interests were not engaged. He also wanted to force Israel to accept UN Security Council Resolution 242, the basis for peacemaking with the Palestinians.

There are two added reasons for each side to think twice about a treaty.  While Arab public opinion already sees the United States as somehow behind Israeli military actions, a formal treaty would limit U.S. capacity for “plausible deniability.”  And if Israel had a signed and Senate-ratified security guarantee from the United States, that would undercut the argument made by many Israelis that Arab threats to the country make acceptance of a Palestinian state impossible.

Second Thoughts 

Thus, when the first blush of Trump’s proposal has faded, Israel will have second thoughts—even Netanyahu, who sees the short-term benefits for next week’s elections. And so will U.S. leaders, beginning in the Pentagon. Trump and Netanyahu have agreed to talk further about a mutual defense pact when they meet this month at the UN General Assembly, which will be after Israel’s elections. After that, we should expect that the idea will quietly disappear. And rightly so, as judged by both sides.

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.


One Comment

  1. With the recent meeting Putin, Erdogan, Rouhani, planning about Syria, in the middle of the Saudi oil facilities debacle, but centrally confirming the new Middle East Axis of Peace, we are witnessing the turning pale of that Israel / USA axis of war.

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