Middle Israel: Against a U.S.-Israel defense pact

Alliances should be sought as long as they enhance national power, and avoided once they replace it.

PRIME MINISTER David Ben-Gurion meets with US envoy to Israel James McDonald in 1948. The IDF had hardly been in Sinai a week when Ben-Gurion ordered a full retreat (photo credit: US HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM)
PRIME MINISTER David Ben-Gurion meets with US envoy to Israel James McDonald in 1948. The IDF had hardly been in Sinai a week when Ben-Gurion ordered a full retreat
Having blocked Egypt’s invasion in May, shifted to the offensive in July, and by November trapped an Egyptian army in the northern Negev, the young IDF turned in December ’48 to the invaders’ rear, by crossing the international border and outflanking the expedition force from its deep south.
The most ambitious Israeli offensive of the Independence War was also the IDF’s first-ever divisional maneuver, and the first of many times in which Israel would invade a sovereign country.
It also sparked a diplomatic crisis that now comes to mind, as reports claim Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump are concocting an American-Israeli defense pact.
BACK IN ’48, the emergence of Israeli troops in El Arish, 50 kilometers southwest of Egyptian forces in Gaza; and in Bir Hama, more than 80 kilometers west of the international border, stunned the Egyptians militarily, but then humbled the Israelis diplomatically.
The enthusiastic Israeli troops were mostly unaware of this, but Egypt had a defense agreement with Britain which Israel’s counter-invasion now activated.
Back in 1936, with London alarmed by Hitler’s rise in Germany and Cairo unnerved by Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, Britain secured from King Farouk agreement to deploy 10,000 British troops along the Suez Canal. In return for that, Britain would retreat from the rest of Egypt, train and supply the Egyptian military, and help defend Egypt in case it is attacked.
Both sides got what they wanted: the Egyptians obtained protection from Italy, and the British secured their grip on the path to India. No one in his right mind thought at the time of an attack waged by thousands of Jews, led by one Yigal Allon, who in 1936 was an 18-year-old Galilean farmer.
Now, with Israeli invaders deep in its land, Egypt demanded that Britain fulfill its signed agreement, a demand Britain duly heeded, both diplomatically and militarily.
Diplomatically, London warned Israel of British action in behalf of Egypt if the IDF did not immediately retreat to the international border. London then got Washington to add a warning of its own, delivered personally to David Ben-Gurion by Ambassador James McDonald.
The IDF had hardly been in Sinai a week when Ben-Gurion ordered a full retreat.
This is what happened diplomatically. Militarily, the British sent fighter planes to verify the IDF’s retreat. Subsequent circumstances remain unclear: the British pilots may have entered Israeli airspace mistakenly and the Israeli pilots they soon faced may have mistaken the unmarked Mosquitos and Spitfires for the Egyptian Air Force’s. What is clear is that the intrusion ended with five RAF aircraft downed.
The military drama to which all this added up, and the Israeli military success that was its bottom line, only served to underscore the power of the defense agreement. Recalling this while Washington is possibly open to delivering it, one might conclude Jerusalem should rush to sign an American-Israeli defense pact.
It shouldn’t.
THE WEAKER reason to avoid a defense agreement is the history of international commitments, which is less impressive than the British-Egyptian precedent suggests.
Czechoslovakia had signed in 1924 a friendship treaty with France, whose Article 1 said the two would “concert their action in all matters of foreign policy which may threaten their security.” It did nothing to prevent Czechoslovakia’s betrayal in 1938.
Poland had a signed British guarantee of its independence. It did not prevent the USSR’s invasion in 1939. Israel had signed arms deals with France that Paris froze when Israel needed them most, in May 1967, the days of anxiety when president Charles de Gaulle ignored his vow to Ben-Gurion, while hosting him in 1960, that France would never allow Israel’s destruction.
True, such precedents are poor analogies because none of the powers behind them was as strong as today’s United States, and none of the alliances to which they committed represented a bond nearly as intimate and intense as the relationship between the American and Israeli peoples.
Even so, these precedents do loom as reminders that international commitments have a tendency to melt with the passage of time.
Moreover, defense pacts demand an element of mutuality. What will ours be? That we will send Golani and Givati to help fend off a Canadian invasion of North Dakota? There can be no symmetry in an American-Israeli defense pact, not even of the nominal sort that defined NATO when it was established. Back then, the USSR really threatened all of NATO’s founders, and even small US allies like Belgium, Denmark and Norway were expected, and willing, to join a war with the Reds.
An Israeli-American pact would lack such reciprocity. Instead, it would be an act of benevolence whereby Uncle Sam’s already generous commitment to the Jewish state climbs from money to blood, thus steadily annoying Americans while putting Israelis to strategic sleep.
THE ZIONIST enterprise rightly searched for foreign alliances from its inception, when Theodor Herzl approached the sultan, the kaiser and the pope. What eventually produced the Balfour Declaration and later the alliance with the US wisely parted with our forebears’ hostility to any foreign alliance (Hosea 12:2, Isaiah 30:1-3, Jeremiah 2:18).
Still, alliances’ necessity does not mean they should have no limits. They should have limits, whose guiding principle should be that alliances should be sought as long as they enhance national power, and avoided once they replace it.
In the worst-case scenario, the assumption that a foreign power is ready to fight for us will create psychological overconfidence which will then feed military degeneration and political decay. That is what happened to South Vietnam.
In the less extreme scenario the army will remain strong and the politicians patriotic, but the statesmen will become sedated, and when they wake up they will learn the country had been lost. That is what happened to Czechoslovakia.
The writer’s best-selling Mitz’ad Ha’ivelet Hayehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sfarim, 2019), is an interpretation of the Jewish people’s political history.