Paul R. Pillar
The Biden administration appears to be moving the United States into an ever-closer de facto military alliance with Israel, even though the two countries have never had a mutual security treaty.
This development continues a trend that became especially marked during Donald Trump’s administration, in the closing days of which the Department of Defense placed Israel in the area of responsibility of U.S. Central Command. the unified command covering the Middle East. The Pentagon’s announcement of that switch described Israel as a “leading strategic partner of the United States.”
Sources in the Biden ad-ministration told News-week’s William Arkin that the bureaucratic realignm-ent of unified commands w-as “the most profound ch-ange” for the U.S. military regarding relations with Isr-ael since that state’s founding. The expressed hope was that this would eventually lead to a NATO-like alliance in the Middle East that would be directed agai-nst Iran, Russia, and China.
Entering a military alliance with any foreign state is a major step that carries major risks, especially the risk of being dragged into someone else’s war. The step ought not to be taken without careful consideration that the alliance is needed to fulfill a significant security requirement and that the benefits will outweigh the costs and risks.
There is no public indication that the drift into a close military partnership with Israel has been given any such consideration. This situation contrasts with, for example, the recent issue of admitting Finland and Sweden to NATO. Although admission of the two northern European countries enjoyed broad support against the backdrop of Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine, there at least was some debate and consideration of the pros and cons of this expansion of the Atlantic alliance, including in Congress. One looks in vain for comparable debate about commitments to Israel.
The conditions that would justify making the commitments that any security alliance—either formal or de facto—entails include a genuine and significant military threat from a hostile power. It must be a threat that the prospective members of the alliance cannot meet alone. And the threat must be one that, if it materialized and was not met, the geopolitical outcome would seriously harm U.S. interests.
Extending a security commitment to a would-be ally should not be charity, to borrow a formulation that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky used in his recent appeal to Congress for continued assistance. The alliance should benefit the United States and not just benefit other parties to the arrangement. Commitments should be two-way, preferably with other parties to the alliance willing and able to assist the United States in ways that, absent those commitments, they might not undertake.
Finally, although external circumstances may bring into alliance countries with markedly different domestic politics and societies, the conditions to justify an alliance are more likely to be present when fundamental values are shared. Common values make clear the blow to U.S. interests if a partner should succumb to a foreign threat, and common values make the partner more willing to assist the United States.
NATO provides useful comparisons and contrasts. Expansion of the alliance in the 1990s and some of its use in out-of-area operations are highly questionable, as is whether NATO should have continued to exist at all after the Cold War. But when NATO was established in 1949, the conditions justifying such an alliance did seem to be present. These included a major military threat in the form of the Red Army occupying Eastern Europe, the inability of European democracies—still working their way out of the destruction of World War II—to meet that threat alone, and the obvious blow to U.S. interests that a Soviet take-over of Western Europe wo-uld have meant. The two-way nature of the commitment was underscored whe-n the sole invocation of the critical Article 5 of the No-rth Atlantic Treaty—in whi-ch an attack on one member is to be considered an attack on all—was in response to an attack on the United States in September 2001.
Underlying all this were the shared values of liberal democracy. Later straying from that sharing by Poland and especially Hungary, which have become sore points in the European Union and not just in NATO, are exceptions that highlight the rule.
The conditions involving present-day Israel are much different from any of this. There is no hostile threat in the Middle East remotely comparable to the Red Army in Europe in the 1940s. No hostile power is capable of achieving hegemony over the region. Israel itself is the pre-eminent military power in the region, thanks to its technologically superior conventional forces and its generally assumed possession of the only nuclear weapons in the region. Israel does not need a military alliance with the United States to be secure against foreign threats.
No conceivable scenario would see a foreign power crossing the Jordan River or Mount Hermon to attack Israel. Israel’s chief security problem—and a major drain on the resources and attention of the Israel Defense Forces—is of its own making: the occupation of Palestinian territory and the suppression of violent reactions of the subjugated indigenous population that lives there. The occupation and related suppression are not in U.S. interests. Instead, they are contrary to U.S. interests, by perpetuating a conflict and source of instability and by associating the United States with an often lethal denial of human rights—a denial that exacerbates U.S. security problems by fueling terrorism and anti-Americanism in the region.
Common values do not unite the United States and Israel in the way that liberal democratic values united America with Western Europe. Israel’s legal system and sense of nationhood are based on favored treatment of one ethnic/religious group and its institutionalized supremacy over other groups. Israel uses democratic methods within the favored group, but no state that denies political rights to millions of inhabitants of land it rules, and that Israel treats for other purposes as an integral part of its own territory, is a democracy. The incoming Israeli government—the m-ost extreme yet—will wid-en the values gap even further, as Israel sinks ever de-eper into racism and apart-heid.
The lack of value to the United States of Israel as a military ally was underscored during Operation Desert Storm, the campaign to eject Iraq from Kuwait in 1991. The United States pressed Israel not to join the fight against the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, despite that regime’s effort to bring Israel into the fight with missile attacks on Israeli territory. Israeli involvement would have undercut the U.S. administration’s effort to hold together an Arab coalition in opposition to Iraq.
Some commentators — including the Pentagon in its announcement about the reshuffling of unified commands —contend that the upgrading of Israel’s relations with a few Arab states (the so-called “Abraham Accords”) makes closer military cooperation with Israel safer today than previously. But drawing in Arab autocracies such as the UAE and Bahrain, which deviate even more sharply from American values and are parties to local rivalries that do not coincide with U.S. interests, only multiplies the chances of the United States being sucked into someone else’s quarrels. Moreover, Israel’s upgrading of relations with a few autocratic regimes—made possible only through side-payments by the Tru-mp administration—did not remove the resonance that the unresolved Palestinian issue retains throughout the Arab world and much of the Muslim world beyond, and that gives Israel negative value as an ally. This resonance was demonstrated by the many expressions at the recent World Cup tournament in Qatar of support for Palestinians.
Other commentary has for many years contended that the United States gains advantage from Israel’s prowess in security matters such as counterterrorism and the development of military technology. But the relevant question is how much more, if anything, Israel would do in these areas, with some collateral benefit to the United States, than it would be doing anyway even without the voluminous financial and diplomatic support it receives or the kind of military alliance to which the United States is gravitating. Israel has its own strong reasons, even without such U.S. favors, to sell its military technology and to cooperate on counterterrorism.
When the narrow Israeli objectives involved in its military activity collide with U.S. interests, it is U.S. interests that have suffered—despite the U.S. financial and diplomatic favors bestowed on Israel. This has ranged from the killing of an individual U.S. citizen to a larger-scale attack on a U.S. ship and its crew in time of war.
The risks of a closer military relationship with Israel center on Israel’s tendency to get involved in deadly scrapes. Israel is the Middle Eastern state that has thrown its military weight around, with multiple attacks on the territories of other nations, more than any other state in the region. Israel has repeatedly initiated wars, including the big one in 1967, which began with an Israeli attack on Egypt. Later came repeated Israeli invasions of Lebanon, multiple devastating military attacks on the Palestinian-inhabited Gaza Strip, an attack on an Iraqi nuclear reactor (an attack that revived and accelerated a covert Iraqi nuclear weapons program), and a later similar attack in Syria.
Currently, Israel continues a sustained aerial campaign against targets in Syria, which has been going on for years and has included scores of raids. So far, the firing in anger between Israel and Syria has been almost all in that one direction, but the chance of escalation involving either Syria or its Iranian or Russian allies is significant.
Today, the chances of Israel instigating a new war involving Iran are substantial.
Threatening military attack on Iran has been a leitmotif of Israeli leaders, part of a strategy of stoking maximum hostility toward Iran as a way of serving other Israeli objectives. When Benjamin Netanyahu earlier led the Israeli government, avoiding an Israeli attack on Iran was one of the motivations for Barack Obama’s administration to use intense diplomacy to block all possible paths to an Iranian nuclear weapon.
With Netanyahu now back in power at the head of his radical coalition, and with Iran having expanded its nuclear program in response to Donald Trump’s foolish abandonment of the agreement that had severely restricted that program, the danger of Israel instigating a war with Iran is as great as ever. For Netanyahu, the preferred scenario would have the United States, rather than Israel, assume the main burdens and costs of such a war. Especially given Israel’s long record of covert operations against Iran, the ability of Netan-yahu’s government to mani-pulate events and bring ab-out such a scenario is substantial.
In sum, a military alli-ance with Israel brings little or no benefit to the United States but entails major costs and risks, especially the risk of being dragged into a war waged not because of U.S. interests but because of the objectives of a foreign regime.