In Foreign Policy, James Stavridis outlines his support for a formal alliance with Israel.
There is certainly broad consensus on the need to assuage Israeli insecurities. A wide variety of observers have opined on the need to do so, including most recently Michèle Flournoy and Richard Fontaine, both well-regarded defense analysts at the Center for a New American Security. Their prescription includes bolstering allies in the region, maintaining the ability to keep sanctions in the face of other Iranian illicit behavior, increasing the ability verify and “snap back” in the case of cheating, and reducing Iran’s regional influence. Many others have made similar sets of recommendations. But now may well be the time to look again at a decades-old idea: a treaty for Israel.
This conversation goes back to the founding of Israel. The Israelis, perhaps surprisingly, have been cool to the idea, with Abba Eban famously saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” about the extant relationship and whether there is a legitimate need for a treaty. The general argument in Israel against such an agreement has been that the independence of Israel in the eyes of the American public might be compromised by such a treaty. Likewise, some in Washington worry about perceptions in the Arab world of a United States that is “taking sides” even more firmly than we already do. Israel applied for membership in NATO in the 1950s and was turned down for a variety of reasons. But the discussion about a possible treaty has continued with ups and downs over the decades.
Of course, the United States has been very generous with aid of all kinds to Israel, particularly in the military dimension — over $100 billion in defense over the years. Perhaps the closest we have come to a treaty was in 1975, when Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Foreign Minister Yigal Allon signed a memorandum that stated: “The United States Government will view with particular gravity threats to Israel’s security or sovereignty by a world power.”
That memo is a pretty good overview of the level and status of commitment; and there is, of course, a strong and vibrant military relationship between the two nations today. When I was commander of U.S. European Command, I often visited Israel to review our military-to-military cooperation, participate in high-level talks with Israeli leadership (including then-President Shimon Peres), exchange high-level intelligence, compare views on the regional situation, and witness the execution of the enormous military aid package to Israel from the United States. The subject of a treaty did not come up, and most Israelis seem content with the pledges from every U.S. president about the sanctity of the security of the state of Israel.
But things have changed. Iran’s supreme leader recently offered his opinion that Israel will “not exist in 25 years.” The level of acrimony and hostility directed against Israel is not abating with this agreement. Indeed, given the rise of Iranian influence in the region in the wake of the JCPOA and the additional resources Iran will have to devote to its stated goal of destroying Israel, now is the moment to begin a dialogue with Israel about whether the need exists for a formal defensive treaty, similar to the ones we have with Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and our 27 NATO allies, among many others. We do have with Israel a series of several dozen memorandums of understanding about defense matters from intelligence to terrorism — but not the gold standard of a treaty.
Were Washington to consider such a treaty, it should be done working closely with Sunni allies in the region — Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states. The rise of Iran will require much work with them and may even offer some opportunities to push for cooperation between them and Israel. A regional cooperation organization is not inconceivable.
Negotiating such a treaty with Israel will be complicated on both sides, with many insisting there is no need given the strong relations between the nations. But if we can put the right level of energy into such talks, and find willing interlocutors on the Israeli side, what better symbol of the lasting special relationship between our nations than a treaty?
It’s a dangerous region, and Israel is our strongest ally in it. Now is the time to explore the outlines of such a deal.