It has been nearly 70 years since Israel first asked the U.S. to sign a bilateral defense treaty. Ever since then, the idea of a formal security agreement, which requires congressional approval, has resurfaced from time to time, usually around major political or diplomatic events. It has been struck down repeatedly by one side or the other (and, at times, by both), due to an understanding that it does not serve their actual needs.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is currently floating the idea once again, this time in the context of a possible Israeli-American-Saudi mega-deal to normalize relations between the two Middle Eastern states, and as a response to a similar Saudi demand from the U.S. He raised the issue in July, in a phone call with President Joe Biden, and sent Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer to Washington, D.C. in August, to reportedly present Israel's request in more detail.
But, as with previous attempts to advance such a treaty, Netanyahu's latest effort seems like more of a gimmick designed to assuage public concern — this time over the possible concessions that a Saudi normalization deal might require — than an actual necessity to safeguard Israel's security.
In the mid-1950s, when Israel first sought a defense treaty with the U.S., the goal was to secure great power patronage and thereby ensure the existence of the young state. Since then, the motivations for discussing a treaty have changed over time. In the years immediately after the 1967 war, it was seen by some in the U.S. as a way of pressuring Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories and as a means to put formal limitations on the evolving Israel-U.S. special relationship. In the early and mid-1990s, it was discussed as a possible American incentive that would enable Israel to make concessions in the peace process (mostly in the negotiations with Syria, which required territorial withdrawal from strategic assets). In the late 1990s and 2000s, it was suggested at times of political necessity by either an American president or an Israeli prime minister.
The Israeli security establishment has been generally opposed to the idea of a defense treaty with the U.S. Its position, best reflected in comments made over the years by Yitzhak Rabin, was based on a desire to safeguard Israel's self-reliance and freedom of action — both security pillars that a defense treaty would likely jeopardize, and which are still central to Israel's national security doctrine. It was also argued that Israel-U.S. security cooperation was working well and further formalization might only complicate things.
In the mid-1990s, Shimon Peres advocated for a public American offer to sign a defense treaty with Israel, in return for successfully completing peace talks with its neighbors. Peres envisioned this as a first step toward a regional security pact, but also believed that a bilateral treaty would address the Israeli public’s security concerns, and thus help to mobilize them to support peace. At the time, President Bill Clinton refused to promise it publicly, also due to concerns over probable Arab opposition, but indicated to Peres privately that the U.S. was open to delivering it. Later, the U.S. administration offered Prime Minister Ehud Barak a defense treaty in return for peace, but it was rejected once again on security grounds.
Finally, the idea of a defense treaty was used as a political tool by several leaders facing difficult domestic circumstances: Peres, before his election defeat to Netanyahu in 1996; Clinton, who suddenly offered to sign a treaty with Netanyahu in return for a minor move on the Palestinian front, on the eve of the Monica Lewinsky scandal in January 1998; and Netanyahu and President Donald Trump, to boost their mutual re-election prospects in 2019, amid other steps taken by Trump to cater to Israeli demands, including relocating the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
It makes sense for Israel to seek security-related assurances from the U.S. in the event that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia reach a deal in the coming months. But a defense treaty is not the right way to go about it. Before seeking to upgrade security ties, Netanyahu must first address the growing discourse in the U.S. that seeks to reassess the current level of security cooperation, given Israel’s democratic backsliding under his leadership. Talks about renewing the 10-year bilateral security assistance memorandum of understanding, signed in 2016, are set to begin in the coming years, and its automatic renewal cannot be taken for granted anymore. Upgrading the U.S. commitment to Israel in such a context, to a level that was not possible during decades of strong ties and shared values, does not seem feasible.
But the U.S. can make use of Netanyahu's interest in a security upgrade to revive a different idea instead: the decade-old security plan for the two-state solution, known as the Allen Plan, introduced during the Obama administration. The plan, developed by retired U.S. Gen. John Allen as part of Secretary of State John Kerry's peace initiative, was based on security talks with both Israelis and Palestinians. It introduced a series of practical measures aimed at ensuring that a two-state reality would enhance Israeli and Palestinian security, rather than jeopardize it. The plan, which was never made public, was flatly rejected by Israel's right-wing coalition at the time, but has not lost relevance for those seeking Israeli-Palestinian peace who are concerned about the security consequences of an Israeli territorial withdrawal.
The Biden administration should leverage Israel-Saudi normalization efforts to advance Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. Last year, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, Saudi Arabia indicated an interest in relaunching the Arab Peace Initiative (API). The EU supports that and has expressed a willingness to revamp its own peace incentive — the 2013 offer to Israel and the Palestinians for a Special Privileged Partnership — and to link it to the API. With another peace process-related meeting being planned on the sidelines of this year's U.N. General Assembly in September, the timing is right for a parallel move by the U.S.
By reintroducing and updating the Allen Plan in light of current realities, the U.S. can add a security component to a possible international package of incentives for peace that may be in the making. This will not only help make international peacemaking efforts more effective, but will also deliver a decisive and important message to the Israeli leadership and public: Safeguarding democracy and advancing peace are the path for Israel to get additional security guarantees from the U.S., not overhauling the judiciary or attempting to avoid the Palestinian quest for statehood by pursuing normalization with the Saudis.
Dr. Nimrod Goren is the Senior Fellow for Israeli Affairs at the Middle East Institute, President of Mitvim - The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, and Co-Founder of Diplomeds - The Council for Mediterranean Diplomacy.
Photo by DEBBIE HILL/AFP via Getty Images
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