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A U.S.-Israeli Defense Pact: How to Ensure That Its Advantages Outweigh Its Disadvantages

 
Filed under: Israel, Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Israeli Security, U.S. Policy
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

A U.S.-Israeli Defense Pact: How to Ensure That Its Advantages Outweigh Its Disadvantages
Lt. Gen. Richard Clark, left, U.S. Air Force 3rd Air Force commander, and Israel Defense Force (IDF) Commander of the Aerial Defense Array, Brig. Gen. Zvika Haimovich, shake hands during the combined missile defense exercise Juniper Cobra 2018 in Israel. (Wikimedia, U.S. Navy)

Institute for Contemporary Affairs

Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

Vol. 19, No. 15

  • The idea of a defense pact between Israel and the U.S. has already been considered several times and rejected. Both sides are cautious about making commitments that would limit their freedom of action and require them to act militarily in contexts that are not viewed as vital by their respective populations.
  • Israel has reserved the right of nonintervention in conflicts that do not directly affect Israel, preserving its independent decision-making when it comes to using its power, and, above all, upholding the principle that Israel should be able to defend itself by itself.
  • To date, Israel’s expectations of the U.S. in the security domain have gone unfulfilled in a number of cases. According to unwritten understandings, Israel is to deal with threats within its own immediate environment while relying on U.S. assistance in intelligence, equipment, and resources, and the U.S. is supposed to prevent, with Israeli help, the emergence of strategic threats to Israel and to the U.S. from the second and the third tier.
  • At several critical junctures the U.S. has decided to prefer other interests over Israel’s security needs, allowed the threats to its security to intensify, and forced it to stretch its capabilities to the limit, with Israel devoting huge budgets to its defense.
  • Nevertheless, a U.S.-Israeli defense pact could help promote the common goal of deterring Iran and curbing its activity by making it clear that aggression against Israel is tantamount to aggression against the U.S. and would prompt harsh American countermeasures.
  • Such a pact must preserve both sides’ independence of decision-making in case of disagreement about a joint action; reinforce the principle that Israel must continue to be capable of defending itself by itself, to the extent possible; and it must not put new limits on Israel’s ability to develop ties with other important states such as China and Russia.

The idea of a defense pact between Israel and the United States has already been considered several times in the past and rejected. Both sides are cautious about making undesirable commitments that would limit their freedom of action and require them to act militarily in contexts that are not viewed as vital by their respective populations. It was also felt that the level of security and diplomatic cooperation between the two sides is very high in any case, and the advantages of such a pact would not justify the changes it would entail in Israel’s approach to security. Israel has reserved the right of nonintervention in conflicts that do not directly affect Israel, preserving its independent decision-making when it comes to using its power, and, above all, upholding the principle that Israel should be able to defend itself by itself.

Undoubtedly, the renewed interest in the subject, which is seemingly pragmatic and more realistic than in the past, stemmed from political motives of helping Netanyahu and Trump muster domestic support. At the same time, the idea is worth considering. Ultimately, God is in the details, and if it turns out to be possible to reap the advantages and minimize the risks entailed by such a measure, then it could be of benefit to Israel’s security.   

U.S. and Israeli officers in a command post
U.S. and Israeli officers in a command post during a 2019 exercise. (U.S. military)

The tight security cooperation between the two countries stems from ideological affinity, shared interests, and their mutual commitments to each other’s security (while, of course, clearly distinguishing between their respective capabilities and status). The bilateral relationship is also grounded in official agreements and undertakings (such as the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which ensures U.S. military and other aid to Israel, and the agreement on setting up a joint Strategic Policy Planning Group [SPPG] between Barak and Clinton in 1999).

Nevertheless, to date, Israel’s expectations of the United States in the security domain have gone unfulfilled in a large number of cases. According to the unwritten understandings between the sides, Israel is supposed to deal with threats within its own immediate environment while relying on U.S. assistance in intelligence, equipment, and resources, and the United States is supposed to prevent, with Israeli help, the emergence of strategic threats to Israel and to the United States from the second and the third tier. Although these understandings have been implemented in a large number of cases, at several critical junctures the United States has decided to prefer other interests over Israel’s security needs, allowed the threats to its security to intensify, and forced it to stretch its capabilities to the limit, with Israel devoting huge budgets and other resources to its defense at the expense of other important issues. (Some notable examples out of many are the delay of the airlift in the Yom Kippur War, Israel’s attacks on the Iraqi and Syrian nuclear reactors, the lack of resolute U.S. action to thwart Iran’s missile project in the 1990s, and, above all, Washington’s support of the nuclear agreement with Iran).  

IDF tweet

Second, today’s political and security circumstances differ considerably from those in whose context the idea of a pact was contemplated in the past. The intensity and the complexity of the threats have significantly increased, and in light of Iran’s frenetic activity throughout the region (Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, and Yemen), the distinction between near and distant threats has eroded. At the same time, the degree to which the two leaderships see eye-to-eye with regard to identifying the threats, and determining objectives and ways of contending with them, is unprecedented. That holds true both for the nuclear and regional threat posed by the Islamic regime in Iran and for the struggle against radical Sunni Islam in its various forms. It also holds true in the Palestinian context, as preparations are being completed to publicize the “Trump plan” and efforts continue to convince the Palestinians to adopt a narrative that is linked to reality, which would enable progress in the peace process. The change that has occurred in the American perception and policy also makes it possible to create a regional framework for a U.S.-Israeli defense pact that would not have been feasible in the past. 

IDF and U.S. Army commanders
IDF and U.S. Army commanders during Juniper Cobra exercise (IDF)

Thus, a U.S.-Israeli defense pact could help promote the two states’ common goals – most of all, deterring Iran and curbing its activity by making it clear to Tehran that aggression against Israel is tantamount to aggression against the United States and would prompt harsh American countermeasures. Such a pact could also further deepen the intelligence and operational cooperation between the sides. (It is indeed very extensive even today since the upgrading of Israel’s status in 2014 to that of a special strategic partner – a status held exclusively by Israel. Previously it was a non-NATO special ally, a status equal to that of several other countries including Arab countries). A pact could also further improve the quality of the technologies and the military equipment that the United States provides to Israel. Israel, in any case, puts no limits on its security cooperation with the United States and would not have to alter its approach in that regard.

Juniper Falcon

At the same time, the proper wording of such a pact would have to leave both sides room for decision-making and initiatives. It should require joint consultations, not necessarily automatic responses to aggression against either country or their common vital interests. Such a pact must preserve both sides’ independence of decision-making in case of disagreement about a joint action; reinforce the principle that Israel must continue to be capable of defending itself by itself, to the extent possible; and it must not put new limits on Israel’s ability to develop ties with other important states such as China and Russia. Incorporating such a pact into a regional framework could, as noted, add to its advantages.

In conclusion, the answer to the question of whether a defense pact with the United States is good for Israel depends more on its contents than on its name or its immediate political context, and the talks on the details are still before us (after a new Israeli government is in place). American goodwill could help in crafting a text that would justify such a pact, and at present, it appears that such goodwill exists in the White House. At the same time, Israel should not opt for such a pact at any price.