Should the United States and Israel Make It Official?
The United States and Israel call themselves allies, but they don’t have a formal defense treaty governing their relationship. Here’s why.
In the long-running melodrama of the U.S.-Israel relationship, certain plot devices have a way of periodically reappearing. For example, successive U.S. administrations have gently insisted that settlement construction be frozen or otherwise limited. No White House was ever willing to go to the mat over settlement activity, as two of the architects of the peace process recently wrote, but expressions of concern were nonetheless a recurring motif.
Another example might be the perennial agitation, usually by Israeli officials, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or members of Congress, in favor of moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Such demands used to be linked automatically to a ritual waiver of U.S. legislation, enacted in 1995, requiring the State Department to carry out the move. But President Donald Trump’s administration departed from tradition last year and actually made the move, amid a lot of wailing and breast-beating by skeptics who expected the sky to fall as a result.
Yet another of these leitmotifs has been the periodic flirtation by U.S. and Israeli observers with idea of a U.S.-Israel defense treaty. Most recently it has been raised by Israel’s embattled prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to boost public support for his effort to keep his job.
It is odd indeed that the United States and Israel are not parties to a defense treaty. The relationship has long been dubbed an alliance, and Israel is often characterized in U.S. discourse as an ally, in the way that the sea is always wine-dark and Achilles is always fleet-footed in Homeric myth. Yet, strictly speaking, allies are states that have entered a treaty relationship with each other. And there is no such treaty between the United States and Israel.
Still, the idea of alliance keeps popping up, in part because the level of bilateral security cooperation and long-standing emotional ties seem to comprise the logical basis for a formalized and institutionalized relationship. It’s also reappeared now and then as a desirable thing for Israelis nervous about the reliability of U.S. pledges to defend the Jewish state should it find itself imperiled by an assault it cannot repel on its own.
But it is Israelis who have most resisted the idea of a formalized arrangement, despite these virtues. Even though David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, insisted that Israel have a great-power backer, he and his successors did not want to depend on foreigners fighting their country’s battles. They were also unenthusiastic about the central principle of such treaties: that the parties agree to reciprocal obligations under the terms of the pact.
Israel’s attitude was determined by a couple of factors. One was that in the wake of the Camp David Accords of 1978, Israel was already the recipient in perpetuity of the sort of materiel that its founders might otherwise have been tempted to accrue through a treaty with the United States. The other related factor was Israel’s natural reluctance to accept any constraints or obligations that a treaty might stipulate. Why pay for something you’re getting anyway?
The context in which a treaty was contemplated most seriously was the run-up to the 2000 Camp David Summit, as a way to alleviate Israeli anxieties about the risks they believed were inherent in a final accord with a Palestinian state. It was assumed that an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank would expose the country to a range of threats that Palestinian sovereignty would make it hard to counter, let alone preempt. A U.S. security guarantee in the form of a treaty was thought to offset these risks, making it possible for Israel to contemplate the sacrifice of strategic depth that would result from the transfer of the West Bank to Palestinian control.
A U.S.-Israel treaty in 2000, if it had come to pass, would have been the 1978 Camp David agreement “on steroids,” according a former official involved in the negotiations. What he meant was that the $3 billion per year awarded to Israel for signing a peace treaty with Egypt in the late 1970s would be dwarfed by the sums discussed within the framework of negotiations held two decades later. The 1978 aid package had been sized to offset the loss of the strategic depth afforded by the Sinai Peninsula and with an eye on Iraq, which in those days was still a formidable enemy, and capable, at least in theory, of moving large armored formations across Jordan and into the West Bank.
In the event, there was no treaty signed in 2000 because the ill-prepared administration of then U.S. President Bill Clinton, at the end of its tether, could not bridge the gap between the parties, neither of which was capable of delivering on the compromises that an agreement would have required. Thus, the notion that a final-status accord between Israel and the Palestinians would be crowned by a peace treaty showering Israel with security guarantees, cash, and advanced weapons receded from public discourse, disappearing into dusty safes and filing cabinets in Washington and Jerusalem. Until now.
As Israel heads toward its third general election in a year—with a prime minister indicted on charges of bribery and breach of public trust—the United States and Israel are once again discussing a security treaty. Rather than as an inducement to, and reward for, an Israeli decision to sign a final-status accord, the agreement would be intended to secure the political futures of an insecure U.S. president and a beleaguered Israeli prime minister.
Netanyahu’s political survival strategy has been to forge a unity government with his archrival, former Israeli military chief Benny Gantz. This ploy is probably doomed to fail. Gantz, who heads the Blue and White centrist alliance, has declined repeatedly to collaborate because it would be intolerable to join a government headed by an indicted prime minister; he probably also calculates that, at some point, the Likud party will defenestrate Netanyahu and crown a successor, perhaps veteran politician Gideon Sa’ar, with whom Gantz might actually be able to work.
Despite his darkening prospects, or perhaps on account of them, Netanyahu has tried to keep up the pressure on Gantz, upping the ante by telling audiences that there is an overriding national-security rationale for a unity government, which will be able to accomplish two things that only a unity government can do: annex the Jordan Valley and sign a defense treaty with the United States. (For his part, Gantz has already endorsed the annexation of the strip of land running north to south along the western bank of the Jordan River.) Netanyahu has apparently discussed his plans with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is thought to have agreed that a treaty would be a good thing.
Netanyahu also seems to have raised the idea with Trump himself. And there is little doubt that the president would see a U.S.-Israeli defense treaty as a useful political initiative, along the lines of his moves endorsing annexation, announcing that settlements are legal, moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, shuttering the U.S. mission to the Palestinian Authority, and defunding the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which delivers humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugee camps in several countries. In his deranged impeachment letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Trump showcased both annexation and relocation of the U.S. embassy as evidence of his unassailable virtue. It is possible that this idea could take wing even if Netanyahu loses the fight to stay in power.
The United States has defense agreements of one kind or another with scores of countries around the world. Very few of these are treaty alliances, which require the consent of the Senate by a two-thirds vote upon submission of the treaty by the White House. The last such agreement was with Japan in 1960. Treaties approved by the Senate become domestic law. They are very much unlike executive agreements, which, according to the Constitution, do not require Senate ratification. The alacrity and carelessness with which Trump repudiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran illustrates the difference nicely. Indeed, Trump himself expressed incredulity at the very notion that Iran would have been stupid enough to rely on an executive agreement.
Treaties, unlike the Iran deal, are solemn commitments to come to another nation’s defense if it is attacked. Although it is obviously true that the United States could violate the law and disregard its defense commitment under the terms of a treaty, the bar would be a high one, given the political and reputational costs of reneging on such a commitment. Hence the long blank space on the timeline of U.S. defense treaties between 1960 and today. It is why there is no such pact with Georgia or Ukraine. A defense treaty is no joke.
There are, however, compelling reasons for the United States and Israel to enter into such a treaty, if it is structured to appeal to both sides. Israel’s security situation today is more or less favorable, but the shadow of a nuclear Iran raises questions about the long term. Moreover, Israel’s economy and educational system are not well positioned to develop and finance sophisticated weaponry—of the kind the country would need to defend itself with a high level of confidence in the future—without significant help from the United States. Under the terms of a treaty, Israel could have greater confidence in its future with the United States committed to playing the role of ultimate guarantor and providing the resources Israel will need to equip a state-of-the-art military.
Why would the United States encumber itself in this way? First, Israel has substantial support in Congress and the White House, so there would be at least a predisposition to extend treaty benefits without deeper thought to the U.S. strategic interest in such an arrangement. But typically a defense treaty includes reciprocal obligations, the very reason Israel has never pursued a treaty with the United States in the past. In this case, the United States might stipulate, for example, that Israel would have to forego annexation for the length of the treaty, facilitate a presumably bounded Palestinian sovereignty, and, most important, agree to support a diplomatic resolution to the problem posed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Under current circumstances it seems unlikely that Israel would agree to these conditions. But the government would do well to give them serious thought. Despite continuing support for Israel in the United States, trend lines are unfavorable, not just among Jewish Americans, but among younger evangelicals and the many Americans who don’t remember or care about the Holocaust, the wars of 1967 and 1973, or, for that matter, the days when both political parties had tacitly agreed that support for Israel would be bipartisan and not a political football. The polling suggests not so much that Americans have turned against Israel, only that many just don’t care very much one way or the other. As in other policy domains, political elites are more extreme than ordinary voters. But even political elites are looking different nowadays; Rep. Alexandra Ocasio Cortez and “the squad” might look like outliers now, but in 2024, they could be closer to the center. This evolution will be a product of demographic change and reflect more than just the infiltration of saboteurs into an otherwise healthy political process. These members will represent real constituents.
Among party activists, they already do. The 2016 Democratic National Convention fight between Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over platform language regarding Israel reflected these dynamics. Although Sanders’ wing did not get everything it wanted, in particular a reference to Israel’s occupation, it did prevail on Clinton’s team to accept the first-ever reference to Palestinian rights in the party platform, stipulating that in addition to securing Israel, a two-state solution must provide the Palestinians with “independence, sovereignty, and dignity.” Trump’s strategy is to drive this wedge deeper, as he is doing currently by pitting Democrats—and Jewish Democrats in particular—who prioritize civil liberties against those who are rightfully concerned about anti-Semitism of the kind Trump has stoked.
Given Israel’s longer-term needs, it makes strategic sense to lock in strong U.S. support in the form of a treaty before the creeping indifference to Israel’s security becomes politically salient. A “memorandum of understanding,” the informal commitment that currently regulates the two countries’ security relationship, is fine for now. But surely Israel would not want to run the risk of a future U.S. president, a pharaoh who knew not Joseph, who feels free to tear up the memorandum of understanding in pursuit of some tactical political advantage because it’s a “bad deal.”
Unfortunately for the United States, Netanyahu’s sudden interest in a treaty to save his political skin comes at a moment when the U.S. leadership is equally and similarly motivated to do a deal, and therefore highly unlikely to seek reciprocal commitments from Israel. The United States would in effect acquire a profound security commitment without due consideration of its own strategic interest. And in the process, it would lose the last remaining card it has to play in the two-state solution game. Playing this card now would eliminate any remaining leverage the United States might bring to bear.
A U.S.-Israeli treaty, properly balanced, could prove useful to both countries. The timing, however, is wrong from a U.S. strategic perspective. It is quite possible that Netanyahu’s stratagem will die with his political demise or that the Trump White House will be too distracted to follow through. One way or the other, it would be far better to wait until a new administration sits in the White House and, in Israel, there is a government willing and able to explore the options for a treaty on their merits and with an open mind to obligations it might accept in order to be counted as a treaty ally of the United States. The tactical political interests of two politicians, one facing impeachment and the other under indictment, cannot be a durable basis for this rare and weighty status.
Steven Simon is professor in the practice of international relations at Colby College. He served at the State Department and as National Security Council staff and is co-author of The Pragmatic Superpower: Winning the Cold War in the Middle East. His new book, The Long Goodbye: The United States and the Middle East From the Islamic Revolution to the Arab Spring, is forthcoming.