Editor’s note: With President Trump apparently confident that he can broker a “deal” between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs (and seeing this as the ultimate feather-in-the-cap for his art of the deal skills) the subject of guarantees—which would presumably be part of any deal–warrants a closer look once again. It needs sober assessment all the more because Prime Minister Netanyahu is wobbly on the crucial issue of statehood—he has not abandoned his formal allegiance to “the two state solution.” In his press conference with President Trump Netanyahu focused on the supposed “substance” of maintaining Israel’s security responsibility in the area from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean as against the lesser importance to be attached to the “label” of statehood. But as Aaron Lerner points out, in this case the label is all important because sovereignty trumps whatever “terms” might be agreed upon. To quote Lerner: “The day that a sovereign Palestinian state manipulates and/or exploits local, regional and international conditions to end Israeli security control, Israel security control will end. And the sovereign Palestinian state will continue to be a sovereign Palestinian state. That’s not a ‘label,’ that’s an entity with all kinds of rights and abilities to pursue the destruction of Israel in ways that an autonomy simply can’t.” Of course there’s also the awkward matter of Hamas-controlled Gaza which is simply ignored in all the two-state solution blather.
[Let us assume that] Israel is urged to concede the historically and militarily most critical mountain ridges of Judea and Samaria in return for a U.S., or a multinational peacekeeping force, as well as U.S. security guarantees or a defense pact.
In order to be effective, defense pacts, and security guarantees – including peacekeeping monitoring or combat forces – must be reliable, durable, specific and politically/militarily sustainable. It must serve the interests of the foreign entity which dispatches the force, lest it be ignored or summarily withdrawn.
However, the litany of U.S. commitments, guarantees and defense pacts are characterized by four critical attributes – escape routes – designed to shield U.S. interests in a way which undermines the effectiveness of the commitments: 1. non-specificity, vagueness and ambiguity, facilitating non-implementation 2. Non-automaticity, facilitating delay, suspension and non-implementation 3. Non-implementation if it is deemed harmful to U.S. interests 4. Subordination to the U.S. Constitution, including the limits of presidential power.
For example, the NATO treaty–the tightest U.S. defense pact–as ratified by the U.S. Senate, commits the U.S. to consider steps on behalf of an attacked NATO member, “as it deems necessary.” Moreover, in 1954, President Eisenhower signed a defense treaty with Taiwan, but in 1979, President Carter annulled the treaty unilaterally, with the support of Congress and the Supreme Court.
The May 25, 1950 Tripartite Declaration, by the U.S., Britain and France, included a commitment to maintain a military balance between Israel and the Arab states. However, on October 18, 1955, Secretary of State Dulles refused Israel’s request to buy military systems – to offset Soviet Bloc arm shipments to Egypt – insisting that the facts were still obscure. In 1957, President Eisenhower issued an executive agreement – to compensate for Israel’s full withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula – committing U.S. troops should Egypt violate the ceasefire and Sinai’s demilitarization. But in 1967 President Johnson claimed that “[the commitment] ain’t worth a solitary dime,” while the UN peacekeepers fled upon the Egyptian invasion of the Sinai, the blockade of Israel’s port of Eilat, and the establishment of intra-Arab military force to annihilate Israel. In 1975, President Ford sent a letter to Prime Minister Rabin, stating that the U.S. “will give great weight to Israel’s position that any peace agreement with Syria must be predicated on Israel remaining on the Golan Heights.” But, in 1979, President Carter contended that Ford’s letter hardly committed Ford and certainly none of the succeeding presidents.
In an April 1975 AIPAC Conference speech, the late Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson dismissed security guarantees as harmful delusion: “Detente did not save Cambodia and it will not save Vietnam, despite the fact that we and the Soviets are co-guarantors of the Paris Accords. And that is something to keep in mind when one hears that we and the Soviets should play the international guarantee game in the Middle East.”
According to UCLA Political Science Professor Noah Pelcovits: “[In the context of security arrangements] there is only one chance in three that the protector will come to the aid of its ally in wartime, and then only at the discretion of the protector…. What counts is the protector’s perception of self-interest. Otherwise, the commitment is not honored….”
Professor of International Relations at Hebrew University Michla Pomerance stated that U.S. defense commitments, including the NATO Treaty, “are uniformly characterized by vagueness, non-specificity… and the explicit denial of any automatic obligation to use force… [in] accordance with the desire of the U.S., as promisor, to keep its options open…. Evasion by means of interpretation would not be a difficult task….”
The stationing of foreign peacekeeping troops on Israel’s border would cripple Israel’s defense capabilities, requiring Israel to seek prior approval in preempting or countering belligerence, which would also strain U.S.-Israel ties. At the same time, appearing to have enabled Israel to act freely would damage U.S.-Arab ties.
The assumption that inherently tenuous, intangible, open-ended and reversible U.S. security commitments constitute an effective compensation for critical Israeli land, tangible, irreversible concessions – such as a retreat from the strategically and historically critical mountain ridges of Judea and Samaria – reflects detachment from the Washington constitutional labyrinth and recent precedents, engendering a false sense of security, thus compromising the existence of the Jewish state. It transforms Israel from a robust national security producing asset to a frail national security consuming liability, undermining U.S. interests and U.S.-Israel relations.
Yoram Ettinger served as Minister for Congressional Affairs – with the rank of Ambassador – at Israel’s Embassy in Washington, DC. This essay appeared as a video on his YouTube channel on February 13.