DC Report: Does Israel need a defense treaty with U.S.?

Donald Trump gestures during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House, March 5, 2018. (Olivier Douliery/Pool/Getty Images)

DC Report
By Douglas Bloomfield
During a recent visit to Israel and in a meeting with Jewish Republicans, Sen. Lindsey Graham brought up the idea of a mutual defense treaty between Israel and the United States. Graham, one of Israel’s strongest Senate supporters, said it would leave potential adversaries with no doubts about America’s commitment to the security of the Jewish state.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is said to be “exploring” the idea, less for its strategic value than its political benefits to his re-election campaign.

Opportunity
Donald Trump has tweeted his strong support for Netanyahu and his desire to “make the alliance between America and Israel stronger than ever.”

Among those pressing the idea are U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Sheldon Adelson, casino billionaire who have the ears of both leaders.

Their message is this is the best opportunity for such a deal. The Trump administration has shown a willingness to give Israel just about everything it asks for, and with both leaders facing tough elections opportunity is knocking.

Political Bonuses
A treaty will let Trump boast — mostly to evangelicals but also to right-wing Jewish voters and donors —that he is Israel’s best friend ever and wants to defend it, and Netanyahu will swear to that. Trump will accuse any critics of the arrangement of being anti-Israel, even borderline anti-Semitic. That will fit nicely into his attempts to drive a wedge between Democratic progressives and moderates. He’ll boast that this is something no Democrat would do.

Netanyahu will welcome any agreement as another historic achievement that burnishes his credentials as the self-proclaimed “Mr. Security.”

In a practical sense a mutual defense pact would give Israel greater access to U.S. strategic stockpiles already pre-positioned in the country.  In reality, it has been tapping into those reserves for some time, a former State Department official told me, but Congress and the public are not being told.

The United States has collective defense arrangements with a number of countries, the largest being NATO, and others with Central American neighbors, Australia and New Zealand, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines.

Israel Would be Limited
In the 1980s some neo-cons at AIPAC and conservative think tanks began pushing for a US-Israel defense treaty but they ran into vigorous opposition from two Israeli defense ministers, retired generals who went on to be prime ministers, Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon.

The disagreements led to their personal distrust of AIPAC because both ministers privately felt the organization’s neocons had their own agenda that was more U.S.-centric than Israel-centric.

Rabin, Sharon and other Israeli leaders were convinced such a pact would greatly limit Israel’s freedom of action, notably inhibiting its ability to make pre-emptive strikes on urgent threats, as it did with the Iraqi and Syrian nuclear reactors.

In fact, when Israel destroyed Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor in 1981, the Reagan Administration backed Iraq, not Israel, and joined forces with the Baghdad government to unanimously condemn Israel in the UN Security Council and then embargoed some arms shipments to the Jewish state.

The George W. Bush administration gave an amber light when informed of plans to destroy the Syrian reactor in 2007 but didn’t want anything to do with the operation.

More recently Netanyahu has threatened a pre-emptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. In the summer of 2012, he was reportedly restrained by his military and intelligent leaders who warned Israel alone did not have the ability to destroy all the targets and would face massive retaliation.

Those favoring the strike argued that Barack Obama, in the midst of an election, could not refuse to back Israel.

Observers say Netanyahu feels his friend Trump would not be so reluctant to come to Israel’s aid, but after seeing the president call off any retaliation for Iran shooting down a $100-million drone, he may be having second thoughts.

Forever War With Iran?
There is no evidence that Iran, despite some increased uranium enrichment, has begun the dash to the bomb. Trump likes to talk tough about tightening the economic screws on Tehran, but he knows his isolationist constituency doesn’t want another forever war in the Middle East.  Let him toss all the verbal bombs he wants, they say, but not the other kind.

There are signs that Trump may be softening on Iran — as he did after his full verbal assault on North Korea before backing down in exchange for a grip-and-grin photo op. So far, the Iranians, unlike Kim Jung Un, are holding out for more than a handshake and some love letters.

Obstacles
A U.S.-Israel defense treaty would restrict Israel’s freedom of action and it will “find itself constrained in its own exercise of self-defense,” said a longtime Washington defense analyst.  “Israel has to be free to decide when and how it acts.”

There are many other obstacles to a formal treaty.

Two are Netanyahu and Trump.  Bibi’s close alliance with the Israeli extreme religious and nationalist right that wants to annex the West Bank plus his embrace of Trump have created a deep schism between Israel and much of the American Jewish community as well as with the non-Jewish American center and left.

A former senior Israeli diplomat said a defense treaty might not be possible “as long as we don’t have recognized borders. The Senate will ask if a rocket launched from Syria targeting Ariel, a West Bank settlement, is an attack on Israel. Trump may ignore this but not two thirds of the Senate.”

The two countries already have an effective network of formal agreements on strategic cooperation, intelligence sharing and more. Instead of a formal treaty, it is more likely that if Trump wants something to affix his flamboyant signature to, it could be an upgraded Memorandum of Agreement.

“It looks like a treaty while not committing either side to what it doesn’t want to be committed to,” said a defense expert. It also gives Trump and Netanyahu something they want most, a glitzy White House signing ceremony, lots of chest thumping and no bothersome Senate debate.

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