Despite the fact that my daughter once had one of those T-shirts with a picture of an F-16 and the words “Don’t worry, America, Israel is behind you,” a mutual defense pact with the US is a terrible idea.
Don’t do it, Bibi.
With all due appreciation for my former country, which I still love and care about, increasing Israel’s dependence on the US is not in Israel’s interest.
Treaties are pieces of paper; countries act in ways that advance their perceived national interests regardless of what’s on the paper. In 1956, President Eisenhower promised (or appeared to promise) that the US would defend the right of passage through the Strait of Tiran, which was critical for Israel’s import of oil (in those days, we bought it from Iran!) But by 1967, President Johnson, embroiled in Vietnam, felt that he could not afford the risk that keeping Ike’s promise would involve the US in another conflict. When Egypt expelled UN troops and closed the straits to Israeli shipping, Israel was on her own.
In 2004, President Bush wrote a letter to PM Ariel Sharon encouraging him to continue with his plan to “disengage” (read: withdraw) from Gaza and northern Samaria. It included the statement that “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations [sic] centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.” This was understood by Israeli officials, and confirmed by Elliott Abrams, a member of Bush’s National Security Council involved in the negotiations, to imply that construction in the large existing settlement blocs such as Betar Illit could continue. Sharon went ahead with the withdrawal. But in 2009, Obama’s new Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, reneged on Bush’s promise, saying “there were no informal or oral enforceable agreements” about construction in any settlements. “These settlements must stop,” said Obama.
So much for Bush’s letter – and so much for American credibility.
Even if there were no worries about whether a future administration would live up to commitments made by a prior one, there is the question of how fast the US could come to Israel’s aid. Israel is a tiny country, with little strategic depth. Our response to an attack must be as close to immediate as possible, or it could be too late – as was almost the case in 1973. And although our politicians would deny it, the existence of a treaty would lead to complacency and the erosion of our own deterrent power. We not only ought to defend ourselves, we must.
One of the false accusations made against Israel by its opponents in the US is that “American boys have died for Israel,” in Lebanon or Iraq. A mutual defense treaty would be read as a commitment for Americans to become casualties in service of Israel, something that Israel doesn’t need or want.
I’ve argued that we would be best served by phasing out American military aid almost entirely, for multiple reasons. Israel can afford it: her state budget in 2019 is $116 billion, of which $17.5 billion goes for defense. The 10-year Memorandum of Understanding on aid negotiated with the Obama Administration calls for it to be spent entirely in the US. This weakens our own military industry. Even boots, which used to be made in Israel, are imported from America. And if we had a thriving military industry, sales of weapons to other countries might offset some of the loss in American aid.
Aid also distorts our purchase decisions. If the Americans are offering something for “free,” why build our own or buy something else that might be better?
Further, the existing aid arrangement gives the US too much leverage over Israeli policy. Perhaps we are happy with the Trump Administration’s recent actions on Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, UNRWA, and so on, but have we forgotten how the Obama Administration cut off the supply of Hellfire missiles during the 2014 war with Hamas in Gaza?
In 2012, PM Netanyahu and then Defense Minister Ehud Barak wanted to preemptively attack Iranian nuclear facilities, but were prevented from doing so by massive American pressure, including leaks about Israeli intentions. Perhaps Obama would have stopped Israel in any event, but the leverage of military aid on Israeli defense officials made it easier. I can’t prove it, but couldn’t then Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi – who strongly opposed bombing Iran – have been influenced by the folks that provided almost a quarter of his budget?
Trump will not be president forever, and some of his opponents today make Obama and Kerry look like Zionists. Shouldn’t we prepare for the worst case, rather than the best?
There are some things that we do want from the US. Continued diplomatic support in international forums, continued security and intelligence cooperation (which often greatly benefits the US), and continued sharing of defense technology, as we had with Iron Dome and other systems. We want to be treated as an ally, not as a target of diplomatic warfare and espionage, as we are by many European governments – and as we were for the Obama Administration.
We would like to be able to buy the weapons that we need with our own money, and would like to see the policy of helping us maintain a qualitative edge over our enemies continue. We would appreciate non-interference in our internal affairs, and also in our economic relations with other nations. These things would cost the US nothing – indeed, they would pay dividends – and save $3.8 billion in annual military aid.
One of the lessons the Jewish people learned from the Holocaust was that we could not rely on the non-Jewish world to come to our aid in times of danger. Today as antisemitism is growing throughout the world, even in the US, and when our regional enemies are putting strategies into place that they believe will be our undoing, it is more important than ever that we stay as strong – and as independent – as possible.