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The US and Israel Should Agree on a Mutual Defense Pact

It won’t surprise readers of this paper that major war between Israel and Iran is increasingly likely. This directly threatens enduring U.S. interests, yet America’s abrupt drawback in Syria and general inaction against Tehran’s months of provocations only compound the risks of conflict. With Israel bearing more of the brunt to maintain regional stability than ever before, American policymakers need bold new ideas to strengthen Israel and the bilateral security partnership.

Our policy project at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), chaired by former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Adm. (ret.) Jim Stavridis, just issued several reports laying out concrete proposals to prevent or mitigate major war by bolstering Israel’s military capabilities and deterrence against Iran.

The United States and Israel should agree a mutual defense pact. While Israel has always been exceptionally capable and insistent in defending itself, Iran’s growing regional aggression and revived nuclear program create the potential for higher-level conflict threatening Israel’s strategic viability and even its existence.

By treating a major attack on one as an attack on both, an alliance would provide greater deterrence than either ally alone. This could prevent Iran or others from initiating or escalating to large-scale action against Israel or U.S. vital interests in the Middle East – and others from joining in – or curb the scope of enemy action. Indeed, no war has broken out threatening a treaty ally’s existence since the United States first formed such partnerships in the late 1940s, which now number fifty allies on five continents.

While these alliances are careful to limit members’ formal obligations, our proposed treaty would be even more narrow to protect each country’s freedom of action. It would be activated only under exceptional circumstances in the Middle East, chiefly a major attack by Iran and proxies like Hezbollah. The United States would not be expected to defend Israel every time a rocket is fired from Gaza, for instance, nor would Israel seek such assistance.

Even with the extra layer of deterrence from a mutual defense pact, Israel will still shoulder the burdens of upholding its own and U.S. interests in an increasingly dangerous Middle East. America has not retaliated against repeated Iranian attacks in the Persian Gulf, and it withdrew from much of northeast Syria, yet regional stability remains a major U.S. foreign policy goal.

Israel has effectively been doing the hard work of defending this objective, conducting a concerted military campaign to forestall Iran’s entrenchment in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. At the same time, Israel is caught in the middle of a regionwide arms race among Iran, Arab states and an increasingly hostile Turkey. This will only worsen with the looming expiration of a U.N. arms embargo on Iran and further Iranian nuclear progress.

All these trends combine to present Israel with much more urgent and intensive threats than even a few years ago, when the Obama Administration and Israel finalized the current memorandum of understanding (MoU) on U.S. defense assistance. This $38 billion agreement forms the centerpiece of America’s commitment under U.S. law to support Israel’s self-defense, and it benefits the U.S. economy. However, it also locked in Israel’s procurement of U.S. weapons at a constant annual level through 2027 by dividing the total evenly over ten years.

The United States should accelerate much-needed weapons deliveries to Israel by shifting forward, or “frontloading,” funds set forth in the Obama MoU, without adding any cost to the American taxpayer or altering the overall agreement.

There are several financing options. Israel could borrow commercially against the MoU and pay interest however it chooses. As it has done before, Washington could enable Israel to borrow at a lower rate by guaranteeing this loan. Congress would need to authorize funds for the highly unlikely contingency of Israeli default, but otherwise no actual U.S. expenditures would be entailed. A separate option is to appropriate new U.S. funds upfront. This would be more politically challenging, since this would have to be offset by reducing other outlays or by U.S. government borrowing.

As with a mutual defense pact, frontloading would send a clear signal that America is willing to address growing Middle East security challenges. It also would give Israel a jumpstart onboarding F-35 combat aircraft, KC-46 refueling tankers, CH-53K transport helicopters and missile defenses.

Israel also needs precision munitions immediately, but U.S. production capacity faces constraints. Frontloading could enable Israel to offer more attractive contracts to acquire GBU-39, GBU-53/B and Hellfire munitions, plus JDAM kits to upgrade unguided bombs. The United States should also replenish its prepositioned stockpiles in Israel with these munitions, and consider loaning Israel these and other weapons to compensate for U.S. production shortfalls.

None of these recommended options to bolster the bilateral relationship will come easy, but unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures. With Israel increasingly indispensable to U.S. interests in the Middle East, a mutual defense pact and frontloaded MoU are vital for promoting stability in a region that still matters dearly to America.

Michael Makovsky, a former Pentagon official in the George W. Bush administration, is president and CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA). Gen Charles Wald, USAF (ret.), former deputy commander of U.S. European Command, is a Distinguished Fellow at JINSA’s Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy.

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post