September 16, 2019

To buttress Iran deal, a NATO-like treaty with Israel

When America faced fears of a nuclear attack during the Cuban Missile Crisis more than 50 years ago, President John Kennedy offered a strong statement to the Soviet Union: “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”

While President Barack Obama has repeatedly said he stands behind Israel, he should now issue a statement similar to Kennedy’s to make it crystal clear to the Iranians that, whether or not the nuclear accord is ratified by Congress, the United States will consider an attack on Israel as an attack against the U.S. and “a full retaliatory response” will follow. Congress should then endorse that statement.

There is more the president can and should do to deter Iran and allay Israel’s fears concerning the agreement with Iran.

His Aug. 19 letter to Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), published by The New York Times, is a good step. In it, he made further security assurances, pledging, among other guarantees, to increase missile defense systems and boost tunnel detection. Additionally, Obama wrote, “I have proposed to Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu that we begin a process aimed at further strengthening our efforts to confront conventional and asymmetric threats” and is prepared to enhance information sharing.

That Israel is the country most threatened by the agreement with Iran is indeed a realistic assessment, one offered by Israel’s prime minister as the reason for his taking controversial and rare steps to interfere in the domestic American process of foreign policy-making. He spoke intensely on the floor of Congress in March to urge American legislators to oppose the agreement. He is now directly lobbying American Jews to pressure their representatives in Congress to vote against the accord.

Thus, Netanyahu not only publicly and forcefully opposes the president of the world’s greatest power — Israel’s only reliable ally; he asks others to do the same. It is not surprising that Obama answered in kind, noting that if Israel continues to fight against the deal, it will be further isolated and more vulnerable if the agreement is rejected.

This regrettable breach in the Israeli-American relationship need never have occurred. Israel was not a participant in the negotiations, and its defense needs could have been, and still should be, handled by means other than getting mired in bitter arguments over whether Congress should disapprove the accord. This battle served only to seriously erode U.S.-Israeli relations.

There is a far better and more direct way for Netanyahu to ensure Israel’s safety, and the U.S. has other ways to protect Israel: a U.S.-Israel bilateral treaty analogous to the Rio Pact in Latin America, the NATO treaty in Europe, and U.S.-bilateral treaties with such countries as Japan and Australia.

It was Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who began the move toward a U.S.-Israel defense treaty. Obama has come closer than any other president to implementing these ideas by his comments in the wake of the Iran deal that America will protect Israel.

Now the president must take the next step: a specific treaty. But with or without one, the U.S. needs to put in writing that any weapons of mass destruction threat to Israel will be treated as an attack against the territory of the U.S., perhaps backed by a vote of Congress. This kind of deterrence would offer a far more effective means of ensuring Israel’s security and allaying its fears arising from the nuclear agreement than the Israeli prime minister’s staunch opposition to the Iran nuclear deal or by the U.S. trying to
defend Israel without dramatic, practical
actions.

This is what Netanyahu and Israel’s supporters should have been lobbying for throughout these many months of heated debate over the deal. Unfortunately, they didn’t. Hopefully, their efforts in the U.S. to scuttle the nuclear agreement have not damaged the U.S.-Israel relationship to such an extent that it is too late to ask Obama to unveil an effective deterrent to Iran’s ever attacking Israel: unequivocal statements similar to Kennedy’s and a defense pact. 

Steven L. Spiegel is a professor of political science and the director of the Center for Middle East Development at UCLA and a scholar at the Israel Policy Forum