Should America and Israel Sign a Defense Treaty? Depends on the Saudi Deal

by August 2023
US President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo credit: REUTERS/Debbie Hill/Pool/File Photo

A defense treaty with the US sounds attractive to many in Israel. In 1986-1987, I chaired discussions on the issue in the foreign affairs and defense committee of the Knesset, and we produced a document with pros and cons. The idea came up again in the Sharon government of 2004-2005, and we concluded then that Israel should not ask for it.  

My concerns start with the proposed treaty’s scope. Israel’s borders are not agreed upon between Israel and the US nor are they settled under international law or even Israeli law. A defense treaty means that each side must protect the territorial integrity of the other. If we assume that there will be an attack on Ramat Eshkol [a neighborhood in East Jerusalem] or Maale Adumim [a settlement just outside Jerusalem in the West Bank] – will the US agree to defend it? Israel knows that its sovereignty is not recognized there. This is a detail – but a critical detail. I don’t think Israel can accept an alliance that says that if there is an attack on East Jerusalem, the mutual defense provisions of the treaty do not apply. 

The second concern is deterrence. It is true that such a treaty would magnify the power of deterrence. But Israel’s ability to operate unilaterally and to use its power could become problematic and complicated. In many cases in the past, starting from the Suez crisis of 1956 and till this day, we in Israel thought differently than the Americans. 

And my third concern is: what is the advantage of such a treaty for Israel? It’s not a secret that in the eyes of our enemies that Israel and America are already well-coordinated. Since the Yom Kippur war of 1973, the USA has shown readiness to send us weapons when we experienced shortages; we still get some of our inventories refilled today. We conduct joint exercises, there is vast security cooperation. Basically, we already have the advantage of a mutual defense treaty without paying its price. Do Israel’s enemies think that the US will not come to Israel’s aid if Israel is attacked and faces existential danger? No. 

Adding to my concerns is the recent erosion in Israel’s public image owing to internal dissension, which affects perceptions of competence and cohesion. Also there is potential damage to the Israeli-American relationship, which is built on shared values and the image of Israel as a strong country. In this situation, would a defense treaty with the US provide deterrence or will it actually project weakness? We didn’t need it in the past, so why do we need it today? Also, it could be fine if the Americans offered, but since an Israeli government is seeking, so it might be perceived as weakness.

On the other hand, if the big deal being discussed between Saudi Arabia, the US and Israel comes to fruition, Israel may have to re-examine all these concerns. If Saudi Arabia signs a defense treaty with the US, from which it would benefit tremendously, then it doesn’t make sense for Israel not to enter a similar arrangement and benefit in the same way as Saudi Arabia. 

Dan Meridor
Dan Meridor, a member of Knesset from the Likud Party 1984-1999 and 2009-2013, has served as chair of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and at various times as minister of finance, minister of justice, minister of intelligence and strategic affairs and deputy prime minister.  
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