Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Ambassador David Friedman on Sunday unveiled an impressive sign on a patch of synthetic grass in the northern Golan Heights for a future community there to be called Ramat Trump, or Trump Heights.
So far, there is neither final approval – that needs to be done by the next government – nor a single structure at the site, only a cabinet decision to start the bureaucratic ball rolling on the establishment of the settlement... and a lovely sign.
At the sign-unveiling ceremony, Netanyahu explained the reasons Israel will honor a sitting US president by naming a community after him, something not done since Moshav Bnei Harel near Ben-Gurion Airport was renamed Kfar Truman in 1950 to honor US president Harry S. Truman, who immediately recognized the State of Israel in 1948.
President Donald Trump, Netanyahu said, is a “very big friend of our state,” who has done things that other presidents have not dared to do, but which they should have.
Among the steps Netanyahu mentioned were Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights in March, his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017 and transfer of the US Embassy there in May 2018, and his withdrawal from the Iran deal that same month.
Which has led some to ask: What next?
At a gala dinner last week in Washington hosted by the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), US Sen. Lindsey Graham – a staunch Israel supporter – proffered a possible answer.
“We have treaty obligations with a lot of countries,” he said. “We have a commitment to NATO nations that we will be there for them because it is important to us. We have commitments to Taiwan. I can give you a long list of countries that we have security agreements with. My goal is to add Israel to that long list.”
“Here’s the next thing,” he continued. “Here’s our marching orders. I’m going to Israel in July, and we are going to sit down and talk about what a security agreement would look like....
“I think it is important to send a signal in the 21st century: If you are intending to destroy Israel, you have to go through us. And it will not turn out well for you.
“So all the things we’ve done to reinforce the US-Israel relationship: moving the embassy to the capital, recognizing the Golan, now and forever – this, to me, is the last big thing to do in the immediate future,” he continued. “To go ahead sometime next year and have the Senate vote on a treaty that will let everyone in the world know that to get to Israel, they will have to get through us.”
Graham’s words should not be dismissed as the empty promises of a staunchly pro-Israel senator to a staunchly pro-Israel audience. Graham, a powerful, veteran senator and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has the ear of the president on Mideast matters.
It is no coincidence that just 10 days after Netanyahu took Graham on a tour of the Golan Heights in March, and Graham spoke there of the plateau’s strategic importance to Israel, Trump tweeted America’s recognition of Israeli control over the area.
Graham’s words about the need for a treaty alliance with Israel may be a very clear indication of where the administration is headed – something that, as a side effect, could help both Netanyahu and Trump in their upcoming electoral battles: Netanyahu in securing yet another diplomatic gift from a friendly administration, and Trump in giving something to Israel that will go down well with his Evangelical base.
But is it good for Israel?
RON PROSOR, Israel’s former ambassador to the UN and the UK, has been talking about the issue with US policy-makers for years.
“The whole issue of a strategic alliance between Israel and the United States is not new,” said Prosor, who today is chairman of the Abba Eban Institute of International Diplomacy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. “Israel has always tried to position itself in Washington in a way that would allow it in essence to maintain its qualitative military edge.”
Israel’s first premier, David Ben-Gurion, would have loved to have the Jewish state either join NATO or develop a special partnership with it in the early 1950s, but this was not to be, as the US was concerned that this would infuriate the Arabs and drive them right into the arms of Moscow – Washington’s Cold War rival at the time.
In 1989, however, Israel’s relationship with the US was upgraded by Washington to what is called a major non-NATO ally. This, Prosor said, basically allowed Israel to have upgraded access in terms of procurement and intelligence, and afforded military-to-military cooperation in a way that gave Israel nearly NATO status.
The idea, he said, was to “create the structures that put you in a certain swimming pool of countries, and in essence what they receive, you are also eligible to receive.”
In the beginning this pool was small, only five countries. But then it gradually expanded to 18, and as Eran Lerman, a former deputy head of the National Security Council and now the vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, said, “it started to fill up with everyone’s cousin” and lost some of its luster.
As a result, in 2013, the US Congress passed a law upgrading Israel’s status even higher, to that of a strategic partner.
This enabled the greater stockpiling and pre-positioning of US weapons in Israel for American needs and, in times of emergency, for Israel’s use as well, and also mandated closer cooperation across a whole range of fields: energy, water, homeland security, cybersecurity, agriculture and energy.
It moved the Israeli-US relationship up a notch, but still did not obligate the US to come to Israel’s aid if it would come under attack.
On the surface, having a commitment by the US to view an attack on Israel as an attack on itself seems a tremendous achievement. Yet it comes with a price, and that price might limit Israel’s operational abilities.
Danny Ayalon, who dealt with this issue both as ambassador to the US from 2002 to 2006 and later as deputy foreign minister from 2009 to 2013, said such a pact would be a “double-edged sword.”
On the one hand it would represent a much stronger alliance with the US, which is a major deterrent to Israel’s enemies, but at the same time it might tie Israel’s hands and mandate that before carrying out any military operation, Jerusalem would have to clear it with Washington first.
The idea is to ensure stability in the region by increasing deterrence, he said, “but to increase deterrence you have to keep Israel’s hands free.”
Acknowledging that, Prosor said there is still something to be said about creating a new structure as a framework for Israel-US relations.
“The cooperation between Israel and the US has to go into structures,” he said. “Knowing the US, when the president changes, you might have changes in the State Department, Pentagon, CIA. The minute you create structures, it is very hard to destroy or change them, especially if they are ratified by the US Congress and the American people.”
A treaty with Israel would need to be ratified by 67 senators.
Two reasons have been given to move forward with this now. One is that it would lock in and formalize Israel’s relationship with the US at a time where there is a very friendly administration in Washington.
The other reason is that it would send a powerful message to Iran at a time of heightened regional tension.
Lerman, however, said he is doubtful about the utility of such a pact, and gave four reasons.
The first, he said, goes to the core of Israel’s identity, and that is that “we never want to be in a position that anyone else is obligated to defend us.” He said that there has even been a sort of “unwritten commitment” with American Jewry over the years, whereby they help Israel secure American political support, but that Israel “would never ask for American men and women to put their lives on the line for us.”
His second hesitation, he said, has to do with doubts that a defense pact could be reached without revealing certain aspects of Israel’s capabilities that it does not want to reveal.
“A treaty necessitates a vote in the Senate, and that is likely to be complex and in some respects a messy debate – and not everyone is going to be friendly. So I am not sure that is in our interests,” he said.
The third element, he asserted, has to do with “what would actually be deliverable.”
The US, he said, is a serious country that does not take its treaty obligations lightly.
“This would require the US military, which is now quite friendly to us and our interests, to basically ensure that they have the capacity to give us ground troops for our support in certain scenarios beyond what is already in existing protocols.”
Lerman wondered where those troops would come from, and “at the expense of what. I think this would actually be counterproductive in terms of our relationship – which has become good, intimate and mutually supportive – with the Defense Department and the US military.” Taking resources from some other arena to give them to Israel could create unnecessary friction, he indicated, with the US defense establishment.
And finally, he said there is another aspect that is problematic, especially with regard to Iran.
“A US alliance, their extending a nuclear umbrella to Israel, could be offered as an alternative to action designed to prevent Iran from ever getting a bomb.”
While Lerman said that the sentiments behind the idea of a US-Israel formal pact are “noble and important,” the utility of such a treaty is “dubious.”
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