Although they are taking place under the radar, the ongoing discussions about whether the U.S. and Israel should enter into a formal mutual defense treaty are nonetheless of great significance. The steady growth of Iranian and Hezbollah power in the Middle East – in great measure the result of continuing advances in rocket technology – is fast changing the context of Israel’s national defense doctrines.
At first blush, an enhanced American commitment to Israel’s defense would seem to be a no-brainer – from Israel’s perspective. But there really are two reasonable sides to the story, and while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu staunchly supports it, Blue and White’s Benny Gantz adamantly opposes it.
Under a mutual defense arrangement, allies generally agree to join each other’s military efforts when one side comes under attack. And therein lies the rub. Nations typically make decisions based upon their perceptions of national interest. So even a firm commitment to come to the aid of a formal ally will be tested when the call for assistance is made. That is, the question of whether violating a treaty should outweigh sacrifices that would be required – or vice versa – is always on the table.
But that is the general case. Of particular interest is the case of American refusal to support Israel’s desire to take preemptive action against the Arab states arrayed against it in the run-up to the Six-Day War in 1967. President Lyndon Johnson said flatly at the time that if Israel struck first, it would stand alone.
To be sure, there was no formal treaty in place, but the point is the same. A world power like the United States always has many fish to fry and must try to balance its many concerns.
In 1967, the U.S. relationship with the Soviet Union provided its own set of international issues. And, of course, the critical benefits of a pre-emptive strike for Israel were readily apparent. As it turned out, preemption worked for Israel and changed the course of history. But President Johnson had to deal with outraged Soviet leaders who threatened to attack Israel and American interests across the globe. In particular, the U.S. was worried about driving the Arabs and other Third World countries deeper into the Soviet orbit.
A mutual treaty could thus foster misplaced reliance on a potentially unreliable ally. Of course, on the other hand, the retaliatory effect of an alliance with the U.S. is obviously enormous.
The discussions between the U.S. and Israel are in their early stages and are certainly impacted by the political disarray in Israel. But a decision one way or the other becomes increasingly important as Iran and Hezbollah continue to do their thing – for Israel’s security interests and the U.S. interest in having Israel as a potent contributor to stability in the Middle East.