Lantos’s legacy: A defense alliance with the US

The main security threats facing Israel today and in the future are quite different from those which concerned us in the past – and which we overcame thanks to the IDF’s superiority.

Tom Lantos  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Tom Lantos
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The perhaps single most important wish of Tom Lantos, a Holocaust survivor and intermittently either chairman or ranking member of the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs and a consistent dedicated supporter of Israel, whose memory of the Holocaust never left him, was the establishment of a defense alliance between Israel and the US.
However, in the many conversations I had with him during my two terms as Israel’s ambassador to the US, I had to reluctantly tell him that though his intention was praiseworthy, most people involved in defense issues in Israel believed that such an agreement would not serve our interests – on the contrary, that it might curb our freedom of military action and strategic decisions – while the productive security and intelligence cooperation between the US and Israel, including the founding of joint committees on several levels, already satisfied most of the requirements of a defense alliance. Furthermore, and no less importantly, there is the principle formally agreed to by US consecutive administrations, to wit that Israel has the right to “defend itself by itself,” the significance of which goes beyond the text of its words.
Alas, No longer.
The main security threats facing Israel today and in the future are quite different from those which concerned us in the past – and which we overcame thanks to the IDF’s superiority and the staunch stance of the home front. However, now it is not a singular Arab country, or even a coalition of countries, but Iran – a mini-superpower with regional hegemonic ambitions and not insignificant technological and scientific capabilities – brandishing a fanatical religious ideology, whose threat to destroy Israel is not just empty rhetoric, and which is approaching the capability to produce nuclear weapons. The Iranian missile attack on the Saudi oil installations was an example of sophisticated planning and execution.
The fact that the Saudis did not have appropriate means of defense, or did not know how to use them, does not detract from Iran’s operational achievement. Israel is certainly not inferior compared to Iran with regard to any of its capabilities in the above as well as other matters – on the contrary, it is superior to Iran, including in the quality of its missiles. Moreover, the decisions which David Ben-Gurion took 60 years ago (over the opposition of a few narrow-minded politicians) provide Israel with a deterrent “iron wall” and significant retaliation capabilities. All this is surely not lost on Tehran.
However, Israel has an Achilles’ heel: the home front. Though intrinsically no less staunch than before, the country’s small geographical area and the concentration of its population and economy in the central region potentially might create an added factor of vulnerability to missiles launched by Iran or its proxies. While Israel has advanced and sophisticated means of protection against missiles, and the Iron Dome is not the only element in this, there are financial limitations, despite the American aid, in terms of quantity and deployment options. Iran also has means that the Arab countries did not have: acting through proxies – Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and the Shi’ite militias positioned in Syria and Iraq. In recent years, Israel has acted with marked success against the Iranian and Shi’ite forces subservient to Tehran in various places in the Middle East – the military actions attributed to it were combined generally with successful diplomatic and political activities, vis-à-vis both the US and Russia. Still, despite the effectiveness of these actions, they will not necessarily deter Iran from continuing its direct and indirect aggressive intentions against Israel even if considerably weakened by the Trump administration’s punitive economic steps. Thus, a careful examination of this reality should perhaps bring us to a review of our previous stance with regard to the option of an Israel-US defense alliance. JINSA, an organization of former senior American military people, most of them not Jewish, and whose proven importance goes beyond the public’s awareness of it, has been working for more than a year on formulating a draft for such an agreement. As JINSA head Michael Makovsky recently declared, this is an agreement that will clearly establish that Israel’s freedom of action is not limited, i.e. it would still have a free hand to act militarily while not contradicting the strategic interests of the US elsewhere. Leading senator Lindsey Graham has already announced that he supports the JINSA draft as a possible basis for an agreement (there may also be others), while the Trump administration’s close relations with Israel indicate that the idea of an agreement would also win White House support. But in order to ensure the validity and longevity of such an agreement once a different president will be in the White House, it is important that such an agreement be bi-partisan, i.e. enjoy the support of both sides of Congress.
Even today, there are those in Israel who are still opposed to the idea of a defense alliance, perhaps because they don’t understand the new strategic and geopolitical reality in the Middle East. But Tom Lantos, who passed away 11 years ago, may have had the foresight to see things as they are, or could eventually become.


Tags Tom Lantos