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© Mitchell Bard 2016

It’s Time for a U.S.-Israel Defense Treaty

Israeli-Syrian negotiations drag on, but the result is already predictable, Israel will withdraw from some or all of the Golan Heights in exchange for a peace treaty that requires Syria to normalize relations with the Jewish State. An agreement to engage in trade and tourism, and to exchange ambassadors is a necessary condition for Israel to make territorial concessions, but the sine qua non is security guarantees. Thus, much of the discussion revolves around water rights, early warning stations and troop deployments. One contribution the United States has made to the negotiations has been to suggest the deployment of U.S. troops as “peacekeepers” on the Golan Heights. Since that proposal emerged, however, the idea of a broader U.S. commitment has been raised by the Israeli side, specifically, the possibility of a formal defense pact. This would, in fact, be a far more effective deterrent not only to Syria but other potentially hostile forces.

Though the Clinton Administration has not publicly approved the idea, the sense in Washington is that the most pro-Israel President in history would be receptive. Moreover, President Clinton’s main rival for the presidency, a man not noted for his sympathy toward Israel, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, said in a speech last year to the National Jewish Coalition that the United States and Israel should jointly explore a full-fledged alliance.

The reaction of most Israelis, on the other hand, has been decidedly negative. Abba Eban said the maxim, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” applied to the idea of a defense treaty. He and most other critics argue that a treaty would compromise Israel’s independence and undermine its self-reliant image in the United States.

Early Flirtation With A Treaty

The idea of a U.S.-Israel alliance is hardly new. It dates back almost to Israel’s birth. Ironically, Eban was Ambassador to the United States in 1954 when Israel requested membership in NATO and was turned down. Israel also sought a mutual defense treaty to counterbalance the Western-Arab alliance that eventually became the Baghdad Pact. According to Eban, it was the U.S. that raised the idea of a defense treaty as a lever to persuade Ben-Gurion to accept territorial concessions in the Negev. Nevertheless, it was Eban, again, three years later, who suggested institutionalizing the American Doctrine in the Middle East and considering some informal relationship with NATO, similar to what Turkey and Greece enjoyed before formally joining the alliance. Other discussions that year involved more subtle hints that NATO’s security umbrella be extended to the Middle East. Usually, broad references were made to countries in the region rather than specifically to Israel, such as Ben-Gurion’s suggestion of “a need for concrete discussions with Middle East countries of various security contingencies, with the view to reassuring those countries that if they were attacked there would be help available.”

Two decades later, Moshe Dayan proposed a defense treaty. In a memo to Prime Minister Begin in 1977, the Foreign Minister said he doubted the United States was ready to enter into a firm, long-term agreement, but, “if she were, I would regard it as an achievement of the utmost importance for the State of Israel.” Later, however, he says he thought Israel, like the nations of Europe, only needed a guarantee against Soviet aggression. “We could manage with the Arabs ourselves.” As was the case in 1954, Dayan understood that American hints of the possibility of a defense pact were related to the Carter Administration’s hopes of winning territorial concessions from Israel.

It is not surprising that the treaty idea would resurface at this time. Once again the State Department is in a rush to achieve a foreign policy success, specifically a peace agreement with Syria. After failing to play more than a token role in the agreements Israel achieved with Jordan and the Palestinians, the Clinton Administration would like the opportunity to take credit for an accord with Syria, which is viewed as the last step in the long sought comprehensive Middle East peace (never mind that Iraq and Iran remain belligerent). Consistent with longstanding State Department attitudes, the prevailing view is that the impediment to this achievement is Israel’s reluctance to yield territory. By dangling the prospect of an American troop deployment, the Administration hopes to make an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, Hafez Assad’s prerequisite for an agreement, saleable to the Israeli public. Perhaps in deference to the vocal, though weak, opposition by some Americans to a U.S. troop deployment, Peres floated the treaty idea, which could accomplish the primary objective of deterring the Syrians without forcing President Clinton to place more GIs in a foreign, possibly dangerous, environment.

Motivations aside, the question is whether a formal defense treaty would be good for either Israel or the United States. Clearly, both sides have something to gain, but not without some risks.

From Israel’s point of view, the primary benefits of a treaty would be to significantly enhance its deterrent capability and to upgrade its level of cooperation with the United States. The costs would be some reduction in its freedom to take preemptive or retaliatory action and the possible erosion of its image as self-reliant.

The United States would primarily enhance its dominance in the region, improve its overall defense of vital Middle East interests, gain greater leverage over Israeli behavior and facilitate the finalization of something approaching a comprehensive peace. The costs would likely be increased financial support for Israel, possible introduction of troops in harm’s way and angering Arab allies.

Enhancing Israel’s Deterrent

In a speech to the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council February 11, Foreign Minister Ehud Barak, a former Chief of Staff, said Israel’s goal in talks with Syria is to devise security arrangements that will “render a surprise attack practically impossible, significantly reduce the temptation to launch a full-scale war and prevent daily border clashes from deteriorating into full-scale collision.” These objectives might be accomplished with U.S. troops stationed on the Golan; however, a defense treaty with the United States would strengthen the deterrent and reduce, if not eliminate, the need for an American deployment.

One of the keys to Israeli security after any withdrawal from the Golan will be early-warning. In addition to any arrangements Israel directly negotiates with Syria, as a treaty partner Jerusalem could count on American warnings of aggressive Syrian movements. This can be done with satellites and other technology.

Israel might still want the United States to deploy troops as a monitoring force because they can provide additional, immediate information about Syrian activities. An American presence would also raise the stakes of a Syrian attack. Before any deployment on the Golan, the Syrians should be told that a direct attack on American forces would be considered an act of war and merit certain retaliation. This would exponentially increase the cost to Syria of any aggression. From Israel’s perspective, no other nation or combination of countries could provide as reliable a peacekeeping force.

Critics argue that neither U.S. troops stationed on the Golan nor a treaty would deter a Syrian attack. It is difficult to think of a recent instance where American interests have been challenged when our response has been clearly articulated. The U.S. commitment to its NATO partners has served as an effective deterrent for half a century. And, despite claims by some that a massive troop commitment would be required to protect Israel, the U.S. has proven quite capable of deterring attacks without large deployments. In fact, for most places in the world, the mere threat of U.S. intervention is sufficient. This is perhaps best exemplified in the Persian Gulf, where the sheikdoms refuse to allow large deployments of U.S. troops and yet their neighbors understand the consequences of an attack. Iraq invaded Kuwait mistakenly believing the U.S. did not consider its interests to be vital in that country. It did not attack Saudi Arabia, however, despite having no American military opposition (prior to the buildup).

The argument above assumed that a treaty and troop deployment was tied to a peace agreement between Israel and Syria. A treaty would be even more valuable for Israel if the negotiations fail. Israeli defense strategists have long feared that Syria might be tempted to make a lightning thrust to retake the Golan Heights and then sit on them expecting international opposition to prevent Israel from mounting the war that would be required to recapture the territory. A U.S. treaty commitment, however, would make such a move far more dangerous for Syria. Hafez Assad undoubtedly learned a lesson from the Gulf War and knows the U.S. can quickly put more than enough troops in the theater to bring ruin to his country. Moreover, by formally committing itself to support Israel against aggression, the United States would send a powerful message that it would not allow Assad to achieve any “political victories.” Thus, a treaty should encourage Assad to pursue negotiations as the one avenue to regain the Golan.

Dore Gold, of Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, asks why an effort should be made to persuade Syria to redeploy its army if the U.S. is committed to come to Israel’s rescue. Well, Israel still does not want anyone to have to rescue it and therefore, defense treaty or not, it will try to negotiate the most secure border possible and that is likely to require a Syrian redeployment. No treaty will be a substitute for defensible borders and security arrangements; however, the U.S. commitment will give Israel more flexibility in the negotiations to take greater risks for peace.

Syria alone could not defeat Israel; however, a combination of Arab states would pose a formidable threat. In the worst-case where Syria, Iran, Iraq or some other coalition of forces attacks Israel, the conventional wisdom holds that Israeli forces are superior and could ultimately repel the aggressors. Nevertheless, given Israel’s small population, any conflict would be extremely costly and a modern war, potentially waged with nonconventional weapons, could impose such a high price that a victory on the battlefield might still be viewed as a defeat (as was the case in 1973). A defense treaty with the United States would be a powerful deterrent to the creation of any such coalition. Even with Soviet backing, the Arabs were reluctant to take on Israel. Now, lacking that superpower support, they would have no chance of winning a military or political victory against a U.S.-backed Israel.

Some might argue the United States has an unspoken commitment to defend Israel. The precedents from 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973 illustrate that U.S. support has ranged from nonexistent to grudging. Even under a treaty, the U.S. might be reluctant to be drawn into a conflict (e.g., Lebanon) that does not threaten Israel’s existence. For reasons I will elaborate below, this may actually be in Israel’s interest because it means Israel would have the opportunity to defend itself first. A treaty is not a guarantee of assistance, but it is the closest one can get in foreign affairs.

Given such a commitment, Gold asks, why shouldn’t Israel depend on United States for its deterrent and reduce its own capability?

Why not, indeed?

Israel will want to maintain its own deterrent, just as NATO countries have retained their own, but a treaty should allow Israel to reduce its defense spending and put the funds to more productive use. The bigger concern Gold has is that the United States would try to eliminate Israel’s nuclear deterrent by forcing it to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It is not clear this would be a condition for a treaty; nevertheless, it raises interesting questions on both sides.

For Israel, the nuclear card has been of dubious value. On one hand, the Arabs know that Israel could play it if its existence was seriously threatened. On the other hand, this has not been much of a deterrent. Israel may have had a bomb as early as 1967, and certainly had it by 1973; nevertheless, her Arab enemies have attacked or threatened her on numerous occasions in the last three decades. Like the United States, and other nuclear powers, Israel is constrained from using its capability by domestic and international opinion. Furthermore, Arab states like Libya, Iraq and Syria have used Israel’s nuclear arsenal as a pretext for their own nonconventional weapons programs. I don’t believe for a minute those states would terminate their programs if Israel destroyed its weapons of mass destruction, but their existence increases the incentive for Israel’s enemies to pursue their own counter threat. Given American reluctance to employ nuclear weapons, it is unlikely rogue states would be any more inhibited by the U.S. arsenal. In addition, the U.S. cannot prevent a nonconventional attack. That being the case, Israel may deem it necessary to maintain a nuclear deterrent and refuse to give that up even for a treaty.

It is possible, and I believe likely, that the United States, under a pro-Israel President like Bill Clinton, would not force Israel to make this choice. Nonproliferation advocates within the Administration, the type who periodically leak allegations that Israel is “illegally” transferring U.S. technology to third countries, will certainly try to use a treaty as a lever to curtail Israel’s nuclear program. Successive administrations have looked the other way, however, and this one would probably do the same. After all, officials should recognize placing constraints on Israel will have no impact on its enemies’ weapons programs. Moreover, Israel’s nuclear deterrent has some value in maintaining stability in the region and inhibiting Iran or one of the Arab states from deploying nonconventional weapons (e.g., the possibility of a nuclear response may have prevented Saddam Hussein from using chemical or biological weapons against Israel in the Gulf War).

The Image of Self-Reliance

The premise of a treaty would be that any attack against Israel would trigger a U.S. response. This, critics argue, is dangerous because it represents a dramatic break with the tradition of Israel defending itself. Abba Eban asserts, for example, that “an additional factor in Israel’s exceptional popularity in America is still the fact that we do not seek a contingent presence of American troops. This situation contrasts vividly with the burdensome need to send thousands of young American men and women to the inhospitable Balkans.”

It is true that American friends of Israel have always used the fact that Israelis don’t ask Americans to fight their battles for them as a talking point, and have assumed it is appreciated by the U.S. public, but I don’t believe the issue has ever been put to a test in a public opinion poll. My reading of public opinion suggests that Americans do admire Israeli self-reliance, but do not believe Israelis really can go it alone without the help of the United States. On the contrary, given the disproportionate amount of foreign aid given to Israel, the favorable treatment with regard to military sales, the U.S. government’s political backing and the charity of American Jews, the greater sense is that Israel is heavily dependent on the United States for its survival.

Furthermore, Eban’s notion of Israeli self-reliance is greatly exaggerated. While American GIs have not fought for Israelis, U.S. backing has played a critical role in most of Israel’s wars. Throughout the Cold War, the threat of U.S. intervention insured the Soviet Union would not directly intervene on the side of the Arabs. Since the mid-1960’s, the U.S. has been Israel’s principal arms supplier and the 1973 airlift helped prevent Israel from losing the Yom Kippur War. During the Gulf War, Israel accepted U.S.-manned Patriot missile batteries. In that case, when U.S. troops did “defend” Israel, no public outcry was heard and no one began to compare Israelis to the Vietnamese or Somalis.

It is somewhat odd that Israelis are concerned that a defense pact would undermine their self-image or the American public’s view of them. After all, the British do not seem to suffer any such problems because of their alliance with the United States. Is it the case that world power Great Britain needs U.S. protection more than flyspeck Israel?

In all likelihood, a treaty would require the U.S. to come to Israel’s aid, if asked. Should an attack occur, the Israelis could take the position the U.S. did in the Gulf, namely, that they can handle the conflict on their own and don't need help. If Israel is willing and able to go it alone, despite a clear U.S. treaty commitment, then its image would undoubtedly be enhanced.

One way of increasing the probability of U.S. involvement, and American public support for engagement, would be to station troops in Israel. If, for example, Syria attacked a peacekeeping force on the Golan Heights, Washington would view this as an attack on the United States, not just Israel. If U.S. personnel are threatened, the American public would back defending them.

This raises the obvious downside of a treaty from the American perspective. By extending our defense umbrella to cover Israel, the risks of being drawn into a war increase. The U.S. already assumes some risk of war in defending Israel. The 1973 War demonstrated the possibility that the U.S. military could be needed to bail Israel out in emergency. Troops were put at risk when they were diverted from primary missions in Iraq to “SCUD-busting” to try to prevent missile attacks on Israel during the Gulf War, and in the deployment of Patriot crews in Israel. Given the peace process, however, the threat of war is lower than it has ever been in the Middle East, and, given Israel’s current strength, the probability of needing direct U.S. assistance has significantly declined.

The Terrorist Threat

A more immediate danger would be terrorist attacks against U.S. forces, such as those that led the Reagan Administration to withdraw American peacekeepers from Lebanon. If U.S. troops are on the ground, they would make tempting targets for terrorists, but the threat has been exaggerated. The only place where personnel are likely to be deployed is the Golan Heights and the Syrians have been very careful to keep their border quiet to avoid provoking Israeli retaliation. Even before 1967, it was the regular army shelling the valley that threatened Israel, not terrorists. Since one of the major reasons for Assad to enter the peace process in the first place is to curry favor with the United States, it would make little sense for him to allow any provocations. Moreover, the bombing of the World Trade Center illustrated that Americans are not immune to terrorist threats, regardless of our defense relationship with Israel.

And what about Lebanon? A peace treaty with Syria would require the pacification of Lebanon. Israel now appears prepared to assent to Syrian hegemony in Lebanon, but the price is the cessation of terrorism. The expectation is that an Israeli agreement with Syria would quickly be followed by one with Lebanon. Southern Lebanon would then come under the direct control of the Lebanese army with the full backing of Syria. Logistical support for terrorists should dry up, and even the most determined attackers would have to risk Assad’s wrath and penetrate both Israeli and American defenses.

Enhancing Israel’s Capability

The simplest way to describe how a treaty would increase Israel’s capability is that it would receive more of everything it already gets from the United States and, perhaps, a few new things. In truth, Israel already receives an impressive amount of U.S. weaponry, regularly engages in joint exercises, shares intelligence, is involved in cooperative research and development of new weapons systems and has the status of a Major Non-NATO Ally. The most recent Foreign Operations Bill passed by Congress, for example, requires that defense contractors charge Israel no more than the amount the Pentagon pays for similar military items and legislated that Israel receive “equal-to-NATO” status for the stockpiling of U.S. weapons.

Still, as one former Pentagon official put it, being near the top of the pyramid is not the same as being at the top. As a full treaty partner, Israel would get the latest and greatest technology and participate in black programs that are still beyond its reach. It would likely also get more favorable financial terms on items it purchases and greater access to excess goods.

The most important enhancement would probably be in the amount of real-time intelligence Israel would receive. Much of Israel’s intelligence, particularly satellite imagery, already comes from the United States. Under a treaty, Israel would expect greater access to this material.

The Pentagon might not want to increase Israel’s capability. There is already resistance to providing intelligence. Moshe Arens wrote in his recent book that during the Gulf crisis the United States refused to coordinate its actions with Israel, consistently withheld vital intelligence and made it virtually impossible for Israel to defend itself against the SCUD attacks. It is possible the United States would take a similar position under a treaty; that is, “don’t worry, we’ll take care of you.” Israel might also worry that the Pentagon would still withhold intelligence on America’s Arab allies, some of which may be of great value to Jerusalem. This should be less of a problem in the future, however, because a “comprehensive peace” would mean Israel no longer would be threatened by America’s Arab friends. Even today, the principal threats to Israel come from America’s enemies, Iraq and Iran.

U.S. officials might also prefer to withhold other advanced technologies. In some quarters, Israel is distrusted, and has on occasion been accused of illegally transferring American technology to countries like China. To give one specific example of Pentagon resistance to increasing cooperation with Israel, pro-Israel members of Congress have for the last several years been pushing for the enhancement of Haifa port and suggesting it as a home port for the Sixth Fleet. The Navy has consistently opposed the idea (though Haifa is one of the most popular ports of call) because it is too expensive, would divert funds from higher priority programs and the creation of “home ports” has generally not been considered successful elsewhere.

Gold has suggested that a defense pact might lead to a reduction in military assistance for Israel. He says American Jews will be asked: “Why should the United States continue to pay for new F-15s for the Israeli Air Force if Israel’s security is protected by a treaty?”

A couple of answers are possible. First, since Israel will want, and the U.S. will agree, to defend itself first, it will still be in America’s interest to provide weapons to maintain its qualitative edge and deterrent. A treaty might actually make it easier to justify assistance, since it can be viewed as an extension of U.S. capability in the region. Israel’s military aid might then be shifted from the foreign aid budget to the defense budget. One advantage of that would be that aid to Israel would no longer appear disproportionate. Instead of receiving more than 20 percent of all foreign aid, the ratio would drop (assuming Congress didn’t then cut the entire account by a similar amount) to about 9 percent. Meanwhile, defense assistance to Israel would be a fraction of 1 percent of the total defense budget. As such a small proportion, the prospect for an increase would be far greater than it is now. Such a shift would have repercussions for the pro-Israel lobby, which would have to lobby different members and compete for attention with all the defense interests rather than be the dominant group as it is now in foreign aid deliberations; nevertheless, the net impact would probably benefit Israel.

Shackling Israel

Perhaps the most serious argument against a treaty is the impediment it could create to Israel’s desire to launch preemptive or retaliatory strikes against its enemies. From the American perspective (certainly the State Department’s), inhibiting Israel’s ability to preempt could be a positive development. The United States has frequently opposed Israeli military actions and might use the treaty to try to insure it was at least informed of its partner’s plans, if not given an outright veto. More important, the treaty would, in theory, improve coordination to protect the interests of both nations.

The constraint on Israel’s freedom of action should be a concern in Jerusalem. Still, it is not clear how seriously Israel’s defense strategy would be affected. Even today, Israeli leaders know they risk the opprobrium of the United States if they act without consultation or in a manner viewed as harmful to American interests. Israel’s best friend in the White House, Ronald Reagan, did not hesitate to suspend the delivery of arms to Israel when he was angered by its actions in Lebanon. Still, if the threat to Israel were deemed sufficiently serious, it is likely an Israeli Prime Minister would risk angering the United States, as Ben-Gurion did in 1956, Levi Eshkol did in 1967 and Begin did in 1981.


The United States does not, and should not, make defense commitments unless it has vital interests at stake. In the post-Cold War era, nowhere are those interests at greater risk than in the Middle East. One of America’s principal concerns in the region is insuring the security of Israel. A treaty commitment will enhance the Jewish State’s capability and deterrent and can also strengthen the U.S. capacity to protect its broader interests in the region. For Israel, the possible limitations placed on its freedom to take military action are more than compensated by having a formal guarantee of protection from the greatest power on earth.