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A U.S.-Israeli Mutual Defense Pact Is a Terrible Idea

Zev Chafets

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- “There is no possibility of defeating Israel militarily,” Gadi Eisenkot, the recently retired chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, told an interviewer on the eve of the Jewish New Year.

This is an unusually blunt and optimistic assessment. Israeli politicians customarily frighten the public by citing enemy threats to wipe their country off the map. But Eisenkot is not a politician. He is one of Israel’s most experienced and respected military thinkers. He isn’t afraid of Iran or any combination of enemies. What worries him, instead, is Donald Trump’s suggestion that the U.S. is exploring a “mutual defense pact” with Israel.

Eisenkot is concerned that the pact would cost Israel its freedom of action, cede control of the Israeli Defense Forces for American use and cost it bipartisan support in the U.S. There’s a deeper issue: It could lead to the loss of Israeli self-sufficiency.

In the early days of the state, when Israel faced a genuine existential threat, successive governments tried and failed to make a mutual defense pact with the U.S. But Israel had little to offer. Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War increased its prestige and its value, however. The U.S. did not offer a mutual security pact, but it steadily built an informal military alliance that features the sharing of intelligence, financial aid the supply of advanced weapons systems. 

This modus operandi has worked very well over the years. But in mid-September, just days before the Israeli election, Donald Trump tweeted that he is now exploring a mutual defense pact “that would further anchor the tremendous alliance,” between the two countries.  This did not come out of the blue. Bibi has been working Trump on this issue for some time and boasted his efforts had finally born fruit.

Problem is, the fruit is potentially poisonous. Mutual defense pacts are worthless if they are based on nothing more than mutual affection and hot air. Trump is famously fickle. Even if Trump stays true to Bibi, the Israeli prime minister might not be around much longer. He is in serious political and legal trouble and it is unclear that he can form the next Israeli government. If not, his likely successor will be Benny Gantz, a bland fellow not given to political back-scratching or emotional gestures. Like Eisenkot, Gantz is a former Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff and he spent time in Washington as Israel’s military attaché. He knows that a mutual security pact is not only unnecessary but more trouble than it is worth.

A formal mutual security treaty would likely require Congressional approval. In the current climate in Washington, anything Trump sends to Congress would inspire fierce Democratic resistance, even by normally pro-Israeli Democrats. This is a fight to be avoided at all costs. Bipartisan support in Washington is of much greater strategic value to Israel than a largely symbolic declaration of mutual aid.

Another drawback is the American propensity for getting itself into Middle Eastern conflicts that it can’t win. If Trump, or some future president, invokes the principle of mutual defense and asks for Israeli troops or air power in Yemen or Afghanistan (or even farther afield) it would be very difficult for Jerusalem to resist.  

Such a pact would also inhibit Israel’s freedom of action by giving the U.S. a veto over secret military initiatives. America is a good friend, but it doesn’t always know best. In 1981, Israel destroyed Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor over the objections of the very pro-Israel Ronald Reagan.    

Beyond these practical and political objections lies a more profound reason to resist a mutual security pact. For 20 centuries Jews were dispersed and disarmed. They practiced an enforced pacifism that guaranteed endless humiliation, expulsions, pogroms, religious persecution and, eventually, genocide.    

The state of Israel came into being as a reaction to such helplessness. The nation’s best and brightest compose a people’s army; soldiering is arduous and sometimes dangerous work, but it is accepted by Israelis as a cost of survival and safety.  

A mutual-security pact with America could vitiate this motivation. Why waste years in uniform when the world’s strongest superpower has got your back? It’s remarkably short-sighted that Prime Minister Netanyahu, Mr Security himself, has blessed the deal.    

Eisenkot calls such a scenario “catastrophic.” He is right to say so. Turning over Israel’s strategic responsibility to a foreign country, no matter how friendly, would be a return to the historically catastrophic policy of counting on the kindness of others. 

To contact the author of this story: Zev Chafets at zchafets@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.

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