An Umbrella or Handcuffs?

Bush's statement U.S. would come to Israel's aid in the event of an Iranian attack is the expression of a strategic change in relations between the two countries.

President George W. Bush's declaration, during his meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, that in the event of an Iranian attack on Israel the U.S. would come to Israel's aid is the expression of a strategic change in relations between the two countries. It is a presidential commitment, stronger than ever, to bring Israel under the American defense umbrella. Bush had already made such a statement a few months ago, in an interview with a journalist, but this time, the statement was made during a state visit by an Israeli prime minister to the White House, a far more auspicious moment for such a pronouncement.

Until now, Washington and Jerusalem preferred to avoid an explicit American commitment to the defense of Israel, preferring a formula in which the U.S. provided financing and tools, and Israel did the work. A series of presidential statements promised to protect and strengthen Israel's ability "to deter and defend itself, by itself, against any threat or possible combination of threats." That formula was included in Bush's famous April 2004 letter to Ariel Sharon, and the former prime minister regarded it as a guarantee of Israel's nuclear capability and its military's freedom of movement.

This time, standing beside Olmert, Bush avoided repeating promises of the past, and sufficed with a statement that America would come to Israel's aid. Israeli officials interpreted the statement as granting American "second strike" capabilities in the event that Iran attacks Israel with nuclear weapons. There is nothing to back that up in the president's comments, which, while they were made after the "Iranian clause" in his speech, were intended against any aggressor and not only against Mahmoud Ahadminejad and his friends in Tehran. As far as is known, Olmert did not conduct any orderly discussion about the meaning of the president's promise. Such a discussion should take place, since the Bush text is subject to contradictory interpretations.

There are two opposing attitudes in Israel toward the strategic relationship with the U.S. One has sought since the 1950s to institutionalize a formal defense alliance. Such an arrangement would position Israel alongside NATO countries, Japan, South Korea and Australia, in the ranks of those allies that benefit from American defense. The second approach is vehemently opposed to American soldiers fighting on behalf of Israel. Reality created a compromise between the two approaches: generous American aid to strengthen the Israel Defense Forces, alongside direct involvement, including symbolic detachments of forces during crises - for example, the air convoys of 1973, the Patriot batteries during the Gulf War, and the operational coordination around the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Bush's statement seemingly is a step in the direction of the defense alliance, even if it is a verbal promise that is not enough to send a military force. For it to be translated into practical steps, a common definition of the threats that would justify American intervention on behalf of Israel, and the start of an orderly process of operational planning for an emergency are required. Otherwise, it is only a statement with moral authority that expresses friendship and support, but not much beyond that.

In the absence of a definitive interpretation, one can understand the Bush statement in a different way - as shackles on Israeli freedom of operations. If America is ready to defend Israel, why give it billions a year in military aid? And why does Israel need an independent nuclear capability if it is under the American umbrella? And if Israel is attacked, should it wait for approval from Washington before it responds, or act according to its own best judgment?

The answers to those questions will be decisive in shaping Israel's defense policy in the upcoming years, so it cannot make do with vague phrases and statements that everything will work out for the best. The Bush statement deserves a deep governmental and public discussion.