Why doesn’t America have a treaty pledging collective defense of Israel?
Here’s a quick pop quiz: Which of the following nations do not enjoy the protection of a mutual military defense treaty — a formal alliance, if you will — with the United States. (You know this type of treaty, right? It is one that requires our nation, by force of treaty, to come to the defense of another nation if it is attacked.) So which nation are we not sworn to defend:
Very few U.S. citizens would get this one right. We are sworn by treaty to defend the Philippines (Philippine bilateral treaty of 1951). We are likewise sworn to defend NATO members Albania and Slovenia (North Atlantic Treaty of 1949). But we have never executed a formal treaty with Israel, though successive U.S. presidents throughout the history of Israel have pledged American support, which few in the world would doubt.
Given the new agreement with Iran — the awkwardly named Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — it seems high time to consider a formal alliance with Israel.
First, let’s dispense of the debate over the Iran deal. Is it a good deal? A bad deal? At this point, what matters is that it is a done deal. There is a great deal to dislike about the agreement, beginning with the weak verification regime, the shower of gold descending on Iran as sanctions are lifted, and the 10-year shelf life; but at this point — given international support, especially from our co-negotiators, and the inability of the Republican Senate to force a veto and then override it — the game is over. The agreement will move forward.
So we have to think through the execution of the agreement and what steps we can take to mitigate the ill effects of the plan. At the top of the list should be seriously considering a formal alliance with Israel.
There is certainly broad consensus on the need to assuage Israeli insecurities. A wide variety of observers have opined on the need to do so, including most recently Michèle Flournoy and Richard Fontaine, both well-regarded defense analysts at the Center for a New American Security. Their prescription includes bolstering allies in the region, maintaining the ability to keep sanctions in the face of other Iranian illicit behavior, increasing the ability verify and “snap back” in the case of cheating, and reducing Iran’s regional influence. Many others have made similar sets of recommendations. But now may well be the time to look again at a decades-old idea: a treaty for Israel.
This conversation goes back to the founding of Israel. The Israelis, perhaps surprisingly, have been cool to the idea, with Abba Eban famously saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” about the extant relationship and whether there is a legitimate need for a treaty. The general argument in Israel against such an agreement has been that the independence of Israel in the eyes of the American public might be compromised by such a treaty. Likewise, some in Washington worry about perceptions in the Arab world of a United States that is “taking sides” even more firmly than we already do. Israel applied for membership in NATO in the 1950s and was turned down for a variety of reasons. But the discussion about a possible treaty has continued with ups and downs over the decades.
Of course, the United States has been very generous with aid of all kinds to Israel, particularly in the military dimension — over $100 billion in defense over the years. Perhaps the closest we have come to a treaty was in 1975, when Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Foreign Minister Yigal Allon signed a memorandum that stated: “The United States Government will view with particular gravity threats to Israel’s security or sovereignty by a world power.”
That memo is a pretty good overview of the level and status of commitment; and there is, of course, a strong and vibrant military relationship between the two nations today. When I was commander of U.S. European Command, I often visited Israel to review our military-to-military cooperation, participate in high-level talks with Israeli leadership (including then-President Shimon Peres), exchange high-level intelligence, compare views on the regional situation, and witness the execution of the enormous military aid package to Israel from the United States. The subject of a treaty did not come up, and most Israelis seem content with the pledges from every U.S. president about the sanctity of the security of the state of Israel.
But things have changed. Iran’s supreme leader recently offered his opinion that Israel will “not exist in 25 years.” The level of acrimony and hostility directed against Israel is not abating with this agreement. Indeed, given the rise of Iranian influence in the region in the wake of the JCPOA and the additional resources Iran will have to devote to its stated goal of destroying Israel, now is the moment to begin a dialogue with Israel about whether the need exists for a formal defensive treaty, similar to the ones we have with Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and our 27 NATO allies, among many others. We do have with Israel a series of several dozen memorandums of understanding about defense matters from intelligence to terrorism — but not the gold standard of a treaty.
Were Washington to consider such a treaty, it should be done working closely with Sunni allies in the region — Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states. The rise of Iran will require much work with them and may even offer some opportunities to push for cooperation between them and Israel. A regional cooperation organization is not inconceivable.
Negotiating such a treaty with Israel will be complicated on both sides, with many insisting there is no need given the strong relations between the nations. But if we can put the right level of energy into such talks, and find willing interlocutors on the Israeli side, what better symbol of the lasting special relationship between our nations than a treaty?
It’s a dangerous region, and Israel is our strongest ally in it. Now is the time to explore the outlines of such a deal.
Photo credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
Corrections, Sept. 25, 2015: The name of the defense analyst from the Center for a New American Security is Richard Fontaine. A previous version of this article misspelled his last name. Also, the United States has 27 NATO allies. A previous version of this article said that it has 28 NATO allies.