What happened: US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed on Saturday that they have discussed the idea of signing a mutual defence treaty between the US and Israel.
- No timeframe or details were revealed, with Trump tweeting that discussions would continue only after tomorrow’s Israeli election, when the two leaders meet at the United Nations General Assembly later this month in New York.
- Netanyahu in a statement and subsequent interviews described the treaty as “historic” and thanked the US president, saying Israel had: “Never had a greater friend in the White House.”
- Most analysts viewed the move as a pre-election show of support by Trump to Netanyahu. The Israeli Prime Minister has been using the future prospect of a defence treaty in his campaign messaging, blasting his political opponents in Blue and White (including three former IDF chiefs of staff) and other security experts for expressing reservations about such a move.
Context: The idea of a defence pact between Israel and the US had been discussed as far back as the 1990s. The US is already committed to providing Israel with $38bn of military aid (from 2018-2028) in an agreement completed by President Obama which amounts to $3.8bn a year. But despite the close military and intelligence ties between the two countries, Israeli security experts have historically been against a formal treaty for a variety of reasons.
- Freedom of action: Israel is loath to let another country – even its closest ally – hold veto power over any future military action. A guiding principle of Israeli military doctrine is that it defends itself, by itself.
- Intelligence opacity: Israel may need to be completely transparent about all of its military capabilities, including its nuclear arsenal (which it has never officially acknowledged possessing).
- Political sensitivities: Any defence pact would likely necessitate demarcating clear borders of operations, including ostensibly with respect to the Palestinian Territories. It’s unclear if Israel would be willing to do this openly in front of the US Senate, the political body that would have to ratify any formal treaty via a two-thirds majority.
Israel to fight overseas: Another question is what the defence pact would demand of Israel, including (potentially) the prospect of sending IDF personnel to fight alongside the US military across the world. “Are we going to send the Golani Brigade to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan?” former IDF chief of Staff and current Blue and White official Gabi Ashkenazi wondered.
Netanyahu rejected all such criticisms and repeatedly drew the comparison of the United Kingdom (in the Falklands) and France (in Mali) as examples of states who entered into a defence pact with the US – in both cases NATO – and who still had the freedom to launch military operations independently.
Looking ahead: Both in its timing and its lack of content, the talk of a mutual defence treaty was clearly an election gift by Trump to Netanyahu. Future talks would last months and have to delve into exacting strategic, operational and intelligence details.
- Yet the announcement of intent does emphasise the close ties between the US and Israel, and between Trump and Netanyahu. Having a formal treaty with the world’s strongest military power would undoubtedly increase Israel’s deterrent capability, but the future prospects of realising such a move are unclear at best.