Text size

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres has recently refloated the idea of a defense pact with the United States as part of a peace treaty with the Palestinians.

A U.S.-Israel defense pact has been a high-priority item on Peres's personal agenda ever since he served as the disciple of his great teacher and Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. As prime minister following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Peres tried to extract the promise of a defense pact from then American president Bill Clinton, but Clinton's response was chilly. In light of this experience, Peres states in his new diplomatic plan that Israel is only "requesting" the much-desired pact.

A defense pact between Israel and America is a worthy idea that would strengthen Israel's strategic and regional standing, especially if Israel manages to thwart similar pacts between the U.S. and the Arabs. The advantages of a U.S.-Israel defense pact have become more evident in the new reality created by the September 11 terror attack on America. The international community tends to operate within the context of coalitions and is showing diminished patience for countries that are not part of a coalition. Defense pacts require mutual consultation, and the U.S. would find it hard to keep Israel out of the "inner circle."

Opposition in Israel to a defense pact with the U.S. emanates primarily from Israel's defense establishment. Two chiefs of staff of the Israel Defense Forces who later became prime ministers - Rabin and Ehud Barak - were vehemently opposed to the idea. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's position on the subject is so far a question mark. The opponents of a defense pact have traditionally argued that Israel must defend itself by itself - though receiving American assistance and weaponry in plentiful supply - so as to prevent, one, Israel's hands from being tied, and two, the possibility of American troops being stationed on Israeli soil. However, the arguments raised by the opponents in the past have been proven to hold no water.

Protecting Dimona - A formal defense pact could raise the question of why Israel still needs an independent nuclear deterrent force. At the same time, however, it seems unreasonable to assume that the U.S. would suddenly reverse its policy of recognizing Israel's deterrent capability as long as Israel maintains a cloud of vagueness around that policy. Even the new world order is favorable to Israel. After the events of September 11, Washington recognized India and Pakistan de facto as nuclear powers, lifted the sanctions it had imposed on the two nations and even made the unprecedented move of offering Islamabad assistance in securing its nuclear bombs.

Maintenance of "freedom of action" - The opponents of a defense pact argue that it would eliminate the IDF's freedom of action and freedom of response, because the U.S. would demand the right to veto any movement of Israeli tanks and planes beyond Israel's borders. However, "freedom of action" is really only an optical illusion. Even today, Washington demands explanations from Israel on every assassination, on every hill the IDF seizes and on every house demolished in the territories. Furthermore, the American State Department issues public guidelines on the deployment of IDF troops.

Israel's bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, which is always presented as an example of Israel's "freedom of action," belongs solely to the history books. Israel today would never dare mount an offensive against distant countries, both because it is exposed to the threat of their Scud missiles and because it is dependent on alerts from American satellites. When Iraqi missiles landed in Tel Aviv, Israel swallowed its pride and allowed its "military independence" to be undermined by the stationing of American Patriot missile batteries on Israeli soil. If the current war in Afghanistan spills into Iraq, Israel will once more make frenzied appeals to Washington to provide it with real-time alerts and with methods of defense.

Maintenance of American assistance - Israel's defense establishment has become addicted to generous military assistance and advanced weapons systems from the American arsenal, and it fears that, under the pretext of a defense pact, the U.S. might seek to reduce its assistance to Israel or even to block the transfer of advanced technologies to the IDF. However, America will never stop arming Israel, because, if it did, American troops would have to be sent here - and neither the U.S. nor Israel is interested in the deployment of American military personnel in Israel. Nor are there any grounds for fear regarding the transfer of technologies. America's partners in its various defense pacts - Japan, South Korea and, of course, its allies in Europe - enjoy access to the cream of the crop in American weapons systems.

Israel's problem is that, before any defense pact with the U.S. can be signed, Israel must first pay up. America will not commit itself to defending an ally whose borders are fuzzy and that occupies territories belonging to neighboring countries. Where would the defense pact be applicable? In Katzrin? In Al-Hama? In Ariel and Beit El? The U.S. will commit itself to a defense pact that could involve it in a war only if the danger of a war breaking out is negligible. For this reason, a defense pact between Israel and the U.S. will be signed only after Israel has already signed peace treaties with the Palestinians and the Syrians, only after Israel has withdrawn from the territories and only after the settlements have been dismantled. Perhaps this is precisely what Peres is aiming at.