In Face of Growing Iran Threat, Debate Resurfaces Over US-Israel Mutual Defense Pact
JNS.org – Although proposals for a US-Israel mutual defense pact are not new, the concept has recently gained momentum and attracted growing media attention in Israel.
On Sept. 14, US President Donald Trump took to Twitter to say that he spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu by phone to “discuss the possibility of moving forward with a Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States and Israel that would further anchor the tremendous alliance.”
Netanyahu, for his part, told Israeli media that he is looking forward to speaking with Trump at the UN General Assembly meeting, “when we will promote the historical defense pact between the United States and Israel.”
Yet Netanyahu’s political opponents have criticized the idea, with senior Blue and White Party member and former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon telling Army Radio last week that “if such a pact had existed in the past, the [nuclear] reactor in Syria would not have been bombed.” Ya’alon was referring to the 2007 Israeli Air Force strike on the Bashar Assad regime’s secret, undeclared plutonium reactor.
Former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. (ret.) Gabi Ashkenazi, also of Blue and White, said, “We always insisted that the fate and security of the State of Israel remain in its hands. Do we want to see the Golani Brigade fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan? That is the significance of the treaty.”
Yet those who have been involved in exploring and promoting the idea say they envision a significantly narrower pact.
Speaking to JNS on Sept. 11, Michael Makovsky, president and CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), noted that his organization released a May 2018 report urging consideration of a mutual defense treaty that would be similar to, but more narrowly defined, than the existing US treaties with 50 countries around the world.
“The primary purpose of a US-Israel mutual defense pact is to add an extra layer of deterrence to Israel’s strategic position and to America’s position in the Middle East, and ultimately, a last line of defense,” JINSA stated on its website. The organization is dedicated to educating congressional, military and civilian national security decision-makers on US defense interests in the Middle East.
“This really originated with [US retired Navy] Admiral Jim Stavridis,” said Makovsky. Together with a JINSA task force made up of retired generals, Stavridis has been central in promoting the idea in recent years.
“The main motivator is the strategic threat. Israel always faced them, of course, but we worry that the Iranian threat is really growing, and the chances of a significant war have grown,” explained Makovsky. “Therefore, we think that a mutual defense pact would add another layer of deterrence for Israel.”
Mitigation would be a second benefit, he added. “Even if there is a conflict, a mutual defense pact could help mitigate the severity of the threat—not just from Iran, though obviously, Iran is the main one. The Iranian threat is growing at the regional and nuclear levels.”
Makovsky said that while the idea is not new, “it hasn’t really been discussed seriously in a long time. The US has a mutual defense with about 50 other countries. Mutual defense pacts with the US generally contribute to more stability.”
Should Israel and Iran enter into a broad armed conflict, Tehran could be expected to activate its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, a non-state terror actor armed with some 130,000 rockets and missiles. A war on that scale would very likely impact American assets in the Middle East, said Makovsky. “This would certainly spill over, not only to Syria, but also to Iraq and perhaps to the Persian Gulf States. The US would be affected by an Iranian-Israeli conflict. So we think a mutual defense pact could be an element that prevents such a conflict from starting out, and if it does start out, it could mitigate the scope and intensity of it. We actually see it as a source for stability, which mutual defense pacts generally have been for countries around the world.”
Conflicts with smaller adversaries, like Gazan terror groups, would not, for example, activate such a treaty, and neither country would want to see that happen, he said, adding that “only exceptional threats would activate it.”
Makovsky acknowledged concerns among some Israelis, who have argued that such a pact would harm Israel’s independent freedom of action. He said, “We don’t want any restrictions on Israel’s freedom of movement. We anticipate this to be a more limited defense pact. Our view is if Israel is going to do something very significant that could seriously impact US assets in the region, we expect that Israel would be consulting with the US on that anyway, given the close relations that they have. Without having a pact, there is already a sense of a need to consult on more serious action that Israel would consider. But we think that with a mutual defense pact, there at least would be an added a level of deterrence.”
He also stressed that the proposal has nothing to do with the Israeli elections, adding that work has been invested into developing the idea for the past year-and-a-half.
During a July 30 conference call organized by JINSA, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), affirmed that Israel intends to defend itself “through their capabilities. Nothing in this agreement would suggest restricting the IDF’s ability to do that. However there are certain threats that Israel could face that would be existential to the Jewish state, and in those limited narrow circumstances, we want all adversaries of Israel to know that in your efforts to destroy them, you have to come through us.”
‘Potentially dangerous to the health of bilateral ties’
The proposal is meeting with its share of criticism on the American side as well. Ilan Berman, senior vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, and an expert on regional security in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Russian Federation, told JNS that calls for a formal defense pact have been a recurring theme in bilateral relations.
“The motivation on both sides is understandable; the US wants to demonstrate its commitment to Israeli security, while the Israeli government is eager to capitalize on the pro-Israeli attitudes of the Trump administration. But it nevertheless is misguided, and potentially dangerous to the health of bilateral ties,” cautioned Berman.
“First, in defense terms, if an agreement is signed, America will naturally need to know what, exactly, it has committed to defending. That puts issues like the true status of Israel’s nuclear program—about which the Israeli government remains coy—on the table for public discussion,” said Berman. “It will also force Israel to much more definitively articulate where it thinks its final borders vis-à-vis the Palestinians will be since presumably, US troops will now be required to defend them in the event of a conflict. Given the importance of nuclear ambiguity to Israel’s deterrent posture and the volatility of present-day relations with the Palestinians, Israeli officials shouldn’t be eager to discuss either of those things.”
In addition, Berman said, a defense pact carries with it the risk of aggravating anti-Israeli sentiments within the United States. He noted a “growing isolationist streak” on the American political right in recent years, while the American left has, of late, “tolerated mounting anti-Israel and antisemitic sentiments from its progressive wing.”
“Both factions are likely to react negatively to any further formalization of the US-Israeli relationship, with conservatives seeing it as an unwelcome commitment that forces the United States to remain in a volatile Middle East, and liberals chafing at the perception that the United States is in some way beholden to Israel,” noted Berman. “At a time when the relationship between Israel and American Jewry is already under significant strain, this would be an added stressor—and perhaps a significant one.”
Finally, he said, a formal defense pact would undermine the intrinsic nature of the “special relationship,” since “the strength of US-Israeli ties has always rested on their informal nature. The two countries are drawn together by common values, outlook and strategic interests. Both Washington and Jerusalem need to continue to work diligently to reinforce this closeness, but they also need to be careful not to inadvertently take steps that alter the historic dynamism, fluidity and adaptability that has made the relationship a success so far.”
Former Pentagon official Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, told JNS that “a defense pact would absolutely tie Israel’s hands, and give America’s slow and cautious defense bureaucracy a veto.”
He said that “Israel would no longer be able to act proactively, nor could it act without imply[ing a] US buy-in.”
Even if the pact were to be limited, Rubin said that “In the age of proxy conflicts, it would never be cut-and-dried. Best to address the ambiguity without hands tied.”