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Debate Heats Up Over Proposed US-Israeli Defense Treaty

Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer has been holding discussions with Israeli security chiefs to try and secure support for his proposal to establish a bilateral Israeli-United States defense treaty.

Dermer informed IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi and Mossad Director David Barnea that the suggested military alliance would exclusively address critical existential risks, Walla reported in recent days. These include Iran’s nuclear program, unconventional weaponry deployed by regional players, and situations involving extreme escalations.

The Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), a pro-Israel think tank based in Washington that has promoted the idea of the defense treaty publicly since 2019, said in a statement on Sept. 19 that the “U.S. is contractually committed to the defense of 52 allies on five continents, each of which also pledges to come to America’s aid in case of attack.

“As the war in Ukraine illustrates, these mutual defense pacts remain crucial to upholding stability and strengthening deterrence more than 70 years after they were first created, and no war has ever broken out that threatened the existence of any U.S. treaty ally.

“Yet the United States has no such treaty alliance in the Middle East, despite it being one of the world’s most volatile regions that is also home to one of America’s most capable and long standing partners anywhere: Israel,” the statement continued.

A working group run by JINSA under the leadership of former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Adm. (ret.) James Stavridis in July 2019 issued a report making the strategic case for a U.S.-Israel mutual defense pact—one that would be similar to but more narrowly defined than existing American arrangements with some 50 countries.

JINSA holds that “mutual defense pacts do not give allies a direct say in each other’s strategic decisions, nor do they obligate the parties to support or become involved in the others’ military activities.”

Professor Eytan Gilboa, an expert on U.S.-Israel relations at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan and a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS), told JNS that the issue has been circulating for years.

“[Benjamin] Netanyahu started talking about it in the previous election round,” he said, adding that “the idea has been floating around for decades” in various forms.

According to Gilboa, there are two main models that could be used as precedents for such a treaty: First, there is the Asian model featuring U.S. defense pacts with South Korea (signed in 1953 after the ceasefire that ended the Korean War) and the pact with Japan (signed in 1960).

These pacts saw tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers deployed to the territories of allies and the promise of military cooperation in case of an attack on either one of them, presumably by North Korea or China.

 

The NATO Model

“The second model is NATO and its Article 5 automatic activation clause,” said Gilboa. “But many often forget that there is Article 4, which mentions consultations around threats. I think the U.S.-Saudi model will be similar to the South Korean and Japanese precedents. A bilateral pact that is replicated.”

In Israel, Gilboa said, the defense establishment opposes the idea because it has concluded that the costs outweigh the benefits.

“I think this is the correct stance. In Israel, things are more complex. It lacks recognized borders, for example, so what kind of war would it be that activates American assistance? This is a complication,” the professor said.

He assessed that Prime Minister Netanyahu, who before 2019 opposed the idea of a pact and has since come to support it, changed his mind because Iran is approaching the nuclear threshold.

Gilboa noted that U.S. troops have been stationed in Israel in the past, during the 1991 First Gulf War, where they operated Patriot surface-to-air missile batteries, but that was a temporary arrangement.

Any such treaty must be preceded by a discussion in Israel on whether the presence of American troops in Israel, even if limited in scope, is desirable, he added.

“When it comes to restrictions, this also gets complicated. Israel took preemptive action to destroy the nuclear programs of enemies twice in the past: in Iraq in 1981 and in Syria in 2007. In 1981, it did not coordinate with the U.S., and President [Ronald] Reagan temporarily held up F-16 deliveries. In 2007, Israel did share information prior to the attack,” Gilboa said.

“The question is how a defense pact would fit into a potential Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear sites,” he said.

Gilboa identified three threat levels that might trigger a defense pact, though he said that only two of those are relevant to Israel: terrorism, conventional war and nuclear threats.

“Conventional war would include attacks by Iran’s proxies that could cause severe harm to Israel. Does this trigger the pact? That’s a good question. A lot of this discussion depends on what kind of threat the pact would be designed to meet,” he added.

“In an existential threat, the U.S. would assist in any case, so why do we need a pact that could restrict our own attack options?” Gilboa asked.

He believes Dermer sees a new opportunity to boost Israeli deterrence, with the U.S. needing Israel to be a major part of its agreement with Saudi Arabia in order to secure a majority vote in the Senate for the pact.

 

The U.S., Saudi Arabia and Israel

Brig. Gen. (res.) Professor Jacob Nagel, who served as acting national security adviser to Netanyahu, commented on the issue, stating, “Minister Dermer, who is one of the best people in the system, has believed in this issue since 2012. On this issue, I disagree with him.”

Nagel said that the costs would outweigh the benefits since the very request for such a pact would amount to a message by Israel about a lack of confidence in its ability to defend itself by itself—a core aspect of its defense doctrine.

Nagel, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a visiting professor at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology Faculty of Aerospace Engineering, thinks that the U.S. also does not want this arrangement.

“The push for the pact is, legitimately, seen by Dermer as an opportunity in the context of the three-way agreement emerging between the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Israel. The prime minister and his government have to support it [for it to go ahead],” he said.

Nagel cautioned that one of the undesirable possible effects of a treaty would be a reduction in U.S. assistance to Israel in the next defense assistance package.

“The U.S. could say Israel got a treaty, and hence it doesn’t need a MoU and so many weapons or cooperation in research and defense,” he said.


Yaakov Lappin is an Israel-based military affairs correspondent and analyst. He is the in-house analyst at the Miryam Institute, a research associate at the Alma Research and Education Center, and a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. He is a frequent guest commentator on international television news networks, including Sky News and I-24. Yaakov is the author of Virtual Caliphate – Exposing the Islamist state on the Internet. Follow Yaakov Lappin on his Patron page: https://www.patreon.com/yaakovlappin

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