This past weekend, President Trump tweeted that he would be open to a mutual defense pact that would “further anchor the tremendous alliance” between the United States and Israel. In the series of tweets, Trump mentions both that he discussed the potential arrangement with current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and that he “look[s] forward” to continuing the discussions after the Israeli elections.
The mention of the mutual defense pact just days before the Israeli elections has created a stir in what Trump critics declare to be interference in Israeli politics. However, this assumption, although convenient, is incorrect. Trump may have announced his interest in the pact prior to the Israeli elections, but this policy idea was not birthed impulsively.
The idea for a pact has been floating around Washington for several months. The Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) released a report and draft of the potential pact for consumption on the Hill months ago. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) took a particular interest in JINSA’s proposal, noting his adamant support for a mutual defense pact in a July 30 conference call with the organization.
“It is in our [the U.S’] national security interests that Israel survive and thrive because of our relationship in the intelligence arena and common values and common enemies,” he said. Graham also believes a proposal of this nature would gain widespread support in the political arena. If the United States and Israel do decide to go forward with the pact, it’s unclear how the final result would look.
Regardless, the media has done its best to chalk up the suggestion of a pact as some unfortunate “political stunt,” ultimately performing a disservice to the merits of the suggestion, which go far deeper than Trump’s tweets.
Admittedly, Trump’s tweet didn’t provide much of a window regarding the particulars of what such a pact might look like, leading to a litany of speculation. Mike Makovsky, JINSA’s president and a former special assistant in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, spoke about what such an arrangement might look like and why it would be unique from other mutual defense treaties in which the United States is a party.
Currently, the United States has 50 mutual defense treaties, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization being the most well-known. But Makovsky states that the arrangement with Israel would be different, as it would be “narrowly tailored and specifically worded” to ensure that the treaty would not be triggered except in exceptional circumstances.”
“If England got hit by missile attacks, well that would be a big deal and that could activate a mutual defense pact with the United States,” explained Makovsky, “But Israel, unfortunately, as you know, gets hit by missile attacks all the time, so that [pact] would not get triggered.” Thus, the agreement would be tailored with a recognition of the unique neighborhood in which Israel is situated and likely would not require American or Israeli “boots on the ground” in most cases.
As the JINSA report noted, an ideal agreement between Israel and the United States would define the limited circumstances or “extraordinary conditions” under which the United States would be expected to come to Israel’s aid and vice versa. The examples provided in the report include, but aren’t limited to, the use of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons; a major attack by a regional or global powerhouse, such as Iran; or an assault threatening major air or sea lines of communication. For Israel, the threats of its anti-Semitic, genocidal neighbors are quite real.
Concerns have been expressed that a mutual defense pact would drag the United States into proxy wars, and that is a legitimate concern. In an era where the United States has become increasingly skeptical of its own continued presence in the Middle East, questions about future embroilment are valid. Makovsky explained that the ultimate hope of such a pact would be overall deterrence in the region and staving off conflict as much as possible that might otherwise involve the United States. “The closer that Israel and United States are seen, the more it offers a deterrent for conflicts involving Israel. It also offers a chance to mitigate the scope and intensity of conflicts with Israel and an adversary.” Makovsky continued, “If Israel got into a significant conflict with Iran, for example, then it is very likely to spill over into other parts of the region and impact U.S. assets.”
He argues a pact of this nature would help mitigate potential damage to U.S. interests in the Middle East, should Iran in particular decide to engage in rash, domineering behavior. Given the United States’ continued presence there, the ability to deter violence or, in the very least, lessen the severity and scope of regional conflicts, gives the pact more political appeal.
Any mutual defense treaty the United States enters will feature the United States as the “heavyweight” by sheer world power metrics. From an objective standpoint, the United States gains more from its relationship with Israel (in terms of intelligence sharing, military collaboration, and research and development gains) than it does with many other countries with whom we already have a treaty in place. As Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig stated some 40 years ago, “Israel is the largest American aircraft carrier in the world that cannot be sunk, does not carry even one American soldier, and is located in a critical region for American national security.”
Given the recent suspected Iranian bombing of Saudi oil fields, the likelihood of the United States entering conflict with Iran continues to increase, either directly or indirectly, as Iran becomes more reckless. Iran is the world’s largest state sponsor of terror. Its attempts to assert hegemony in the region have resulted in the Iranian regime funneling billions to Islamist groups with genocidal aims, such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
President Trump’s decision to exit the Iran Deal resulted in a reinstatement of sanctions economically crippling for the Iranian regime. Those in favor of a mutual defense pact with Israel argue that the instrument would reassert U.S. opposition to Iranian attempts to destabilize the region.
But about entering a possible pact, just as in the States, not everyone in Israel is convinced. Those within the Blue and White Party, the main opposition party to Netanyahu, have expressed disapproval of the potential pact. High-ranking Blue and White member and former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon took to Twitter to outline his criticisms (courtesy of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency for translating): “Netanyahu is using the American government for a new spin: ‘The U.S.-Israel Defense Treaty,’” Ya’alon wrote. “Up to now, Israeli prime ministers have rejected the idea because of its flaws: 1) loss of freedom of action (must every Israeli operation be approved by Washington?) 2) Do we want our troops fighting in Afghanistan or Iraq, or U.S. troops fighting in Gaza?” Thus, it’s possible that if Netanyahu is not re-elected today, there will be no mutual defense pact in the near future.
Ya’alon’s critiques present a valuable point. As Ilan Berman, senior vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, reported to the Jewish News Syndicate, an unspoken flexibility within the U.S.-Israeli alliance makes it unique and particularly impactful.
“The two countries are drawn together by common values, outlook and strategic interests,” he said. “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.”
It seems formalizing the U.S.-Israeli alliance runs the risk of ossifying what has relied upon flexibility to run smoothly. The takeaway from Ya’alon and Berman’s criticism is “don’t fix what isn’t broken.”
If Trump and Israel’s future PM do decide to go forward with the mutual defense pact, it will require a two-thirds superamajority from the Senate, per Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution. Forcing the question of the U.S.-Israel alliance in the Senate would introduce a new frontier for the Democrats, who have continued to battle over Israel in the House, some farther-left representatives calling for a boycott of Israel entirely. While House Democrats have remained divided about U.S. support for Israel, there is greater indication of bipartisan support for Israel in the Senate—though voting on the pact may provide a window into whether the anti-Israel caucus of the House Democrats has permeated the Senate, as well.
Ultimately, the post-Iran Deal landscape is a constant reminder that containing Iranian hegemony in the region is an ongoing battle. For those who see Iran’s brand of Islamism as a threat to widespread stability in the region, a potential mutual defense pact of this nature could help to contain the threat of Iranian dominance.
The recent migrant crisis in North Africa and the Middle East, stemming from the Syrian Civil War, provides a window into the devastating effects that regional battles in the Middle East can have. As Makovsky noted, “Historically, where you have mutual defense pacts, they’ve usually been elements of stability and peace.”
Given the complexity and intensity of the already existing U.S.-Israeli alliance, it seems unlikely that a pact of this nature would alter the dynamic between the United States and Israel tremendously. It could, however, alter the behavior of Israel’s neighbors, which, in the post-Iran Deal environment, is absolutely critical, but predicting the degree of this impact and its genuine effectiveness would be somewhat of a guessing game.