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September 2, 2012 10:58 am

U.S. Security Commitments Should Enhance Israel’s Independence of Action

avatar by Yoram Ettinger


Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, during a trip to Israeli in 2011. Photo: wiki commons.

U.S. commitments to the security of Israel should enhance, not constrain, Israel’s independence of action. U.S. commitments to the security of Israel should upgrade Israel’s role as a national security producer for the U.S. — a major strategic ally. They should not relegate Israel to a national security-consumer — a client state.

Allowing U.S. security commitments to supersede Israel’s independence of action could subject Israel to a lethal cost, as experienced in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Then Prime Minister Golda Meir was overly concerned about the White House attitude toward Israel. She refrained from pre-empting the Egypt-Syria military assault, thus afflicting Israel with near destruction, a trauma that still haunts the Jewish state.

Preferring U.S. security commitments over Israel’s independence of action would deny the U.S. major strategic benefits such as the destruction of Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981. Israel’s defiant unilateral action relieved Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other pro-U.S. Persian Gulf States of Saddam’s deadly threat. It spared the U.S. a nuclear confrontation with Iraq in 1991.

Subordinating Israel’s independence of action to U.S. security commitments would ignore recent lessons; would disregard the inherent limitations to U.S. security commitments; and could lead to an erosion of Israeli sovereignty and posture of deterrence and to Israel’s eventual destruction.

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For example, in 1954, the U.S. and Taiwan signed a mutual defense pact, which was ratified by the U.S. Senate. However, on Dec. 15, 1978, President Jimmy Carter announced that the treaty would be terminated unilaterally by the U.S. on Jan. 1, 1980. Carter was not challenged by the Senate. In 1973, the U.S. signed the Paris Peace Accord with South Vietnam and North Vietnam. However, in 1975, the U.S. refused to assist the collapsing South Vietnamese, thus dooming South Vietnam to oblivion.

Once again, it was demonstrated that U.S. interests outplay international considerations, that U.S. international commitments are intentionally ambiguous, that they are non-specific and non-automatic, that the U.S. constitution facilitates unilateral reneging on — and nullification of — overseas commitments; and that U.S. compliance with international commitments is at its sole discretion, a function of unpredictable global, regional and domestic interests.

According to international law, international commitments and agreements are legally binding. However, the U.S. subordinates international commitments to the unique features of the U.S. Constitution: separation of powers, checks and balances and the co-determining power of the legislature.

The Senate is concerned that automatic adherence to international law could inflate the power of the executive. Therefore, treaties concluded by U.S. presidents are not binding unless ratified by two-thirds of the Senate. For example, the Senate rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which was signed by President Bill Clinton in 1999. Moreover, executive agreements with foreign countries that are negotiated by presidents hardly bind the sitting president, let alone his successors.

From 1950 to 1955, the U.S. promised Israel military systems to deter an Arab offensive. Failure to deliver emboldened Arab terrorism, which led to the 1956 Sinai Campaign.

On Feb. 27, 1957, Israel’s Abba Eban and the U.S.’s John Dulles reached an understanding on Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula, including Sharm el-Sheikh, if Israeli passage through the Straits of Tiran was assured. Jerusalem interpreted the understanding as a U.S. commitment to use force to keep the straits open. However, Washington’s interpretation was that it did not have the right to use force to protect vessels of other flags, which would require congressional action.

In May 1967, Egypt blockaded the Straits of Tiran, deployed its military toward Israel and formed a unified command with Syria and Jordan, proclaiming its intent to annihilate Israel. Israel requested U.S. compliance with the 1957 understanding. But “U.S. intelligence did not expect imminent Arab attack” and President Lyndon Johnson preferred a multilateral U.N.-led action, which was not realistic.

Johnson “emphasized the necessity for Israel not to make itself responsible for the initiation of hostilities. Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go alone.” Secretary of State Dean Rusk stated that “if Israel strikes first, it would have to forget the U.S. … Defense Secretary [Robert] McNamara said that the Israelis would stand alone if they initiated an attack.” The U.S. non-compliance further radicalized Egypt, forcing Israeli pre-emption — the 1967 Six Day War.

In 1970, the U.S. made a commitment to oppose the deployment of Egyptian missiles toward Sinai. The missiles were deployed, the U.S. reneged and the 1973 war erupted, causing 2,800 Israeli fatalities.

In 1991, Israel agreed to forgo retaliation to Iraqi missile launching. The U.S. promised to dedicate 30 percent of its air force bombing to missile launchers. However, only 3% was dedicated and no missile launchers were hit.

Israel’s abdication of its inalienable independence of military pre-emption would amount to learning from history by repeating — and not by avoiding — critical mistakes.

This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.

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