by Mitchell Plitnick
The staunchly militaristic Jewish Institute for the National Security of America (JINSA) has proposed a mutual defense pact between the United States and Israel. JINSA frequently publishes papers and analyses around strategies that it would like to see pursued by the United States, Israel, or both, but this one is a little different. In this case, JINSA has enlisted Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) to help them sell the idea in both Israel and the United States.
Graham is a long-time member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and one of the most consistently outspoken hawks in the Senate, especially on the Middle East. His foreign policy voice is influential even when his party is in the minority, and it is particularly impactful now, because of his close relationship with President Donald Trump. Although Graham has had a hot-and-cold relationship with the mercurial president, in recent months he has largely remained in Trump’s good graces by duly fawning over him, and has gained access to Trump’s ear as a result.
Graham is also very connected in Israel, where his staunch support for every Israeli policy and action—the more draconian, the better—has made him many friends in the government of Benjamin Netanyahu. All of this comes together to make Graham the perfect salesman for JINSA’s proposed agreement. And Graham seems like a very eager helper.
Speaking on a JINSA conference call Tuesday, Graham said the proposed agreement would be a treaty that would protect Israel in case of an attack that constituted an “existential threat” that was more than Israel could confidently handle. An “existential threat” is defined as the use of weapons of mass destruction, a surprisingly overwhelming attack, an attack that threatens to cut off Israel’s air or sea communication and travel, an attack that threatens to alter the balance of power in the region against Israel, or any other incident “that gives rise to an urgent request from the Government of Israel.”
While that’s a fairly broad definition, it is intended to exclude the sorts of attacks from militant groups or even other countries that Israel has always been able to handle. Indeed, Graham and JINSA president Michael Makovsky both stressed that the treaty was designed to be a deterrent and would not apply to the sorts of rocket attacks Israel is equipped to deal with from Hezbollah, Hamas, and similar groups.
They stressed that point because they understand very well that in the United States, there has long been concern about overreach in committing to a defense pact with Israel, due to its perpetual state of conflict. As a result, Graham pointed out, “We have mutual defense pacts with 50 countries, but people may not know we don’t have one with Israel.” Israel has also never pushed hard for such a pact because it does not want to limit its options or give the United States more leverage over its actions, even though the U.S. has always been notoriously reluctant to use the considerable leverage it already has.
The decision to make the agreement a treaty was doubtless inspired by the relative ease with which the Trump administration scrapped the Iran nuclear deal, something that would be much more difficult to do with a treaty. It is also an acknowledgment that the agreement is one that would be unlikely to find favor with most presidents, but the Trump administration, which has already taken drastic steps in support of Israeli desires such as moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, is much more likely to be amenable.
The pact would define any of the qualifying events directed at Israel as an attack on the U.S. as well. The arrangement is reciprocal, but it is hard to imagine a scenario where Israel’s help would be needed or even useful if the U.S. was attacked in a manner that constituted an “existential threat.” Indeed, the language of the treaty refers to the Middle East, so it’s clear that this is really a one-way security agreement.
The treaty commits the U.S. to choose from a range of responses, a feature which will also make the idea more palatable for Trump. This could be anything from sharing intelligence, issuing threatening statements, censure, sanctions, sending additional arms and supplies to Israel, providing air or sea support, or anything up to and including actual military action.
According to Graham, the treaty would be an attempt to deter bad actors who might use weapons of mass destruction against Israel. “One of the chief audiences would be Iran,” he added, in an obvious understatement.
Makovsky elaborated on this, saying, “A mutual defense pact has a value in not only deterring but might also mitigate a retaliatory strike by an adversary of Israel, so it might mitigate an Iranian response (to an attack on its nuclear facilities).”
JINSA director of foreign policy Jonathan Ruhe added that “An Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear program would not activate this pact, but a major Iranian retaliation might. It’s important to remember that all the times [Israel has] taken unilateral military action on their own, the U.S. was not committed to take part.” An Israeli unilateral attack is not what the treaty covers, “but rather massive Iranian retaliation is what we are addressing,” Ruhle said.
Clearly, the primary purpose of this treaty is to pave the way for an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, should they decide to pursue that action. It’s not clear whether the threat of U.S. involvement would really deter Iranian retaliation in such an event, but there is a good chance that it would at least encourage Iran to launch a more limited retaliatory strike.
The treaty would also commit the United States to sharing with Israel any applicable intelligence that is cleared to be shared with the “Five Eyes Alliance,” a security alliance between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. Israel works with Five Eyes and is already informally granted access to some of the group’s intelligence, but this would create a formal requirement for the United States to share any information deemed relevant to Israel’s security—a decidedly vague standard—with the Israeli intelligence community.
The usefulness of that intelligence in preparation for a strike on Iran is obvious.
Graham was very clear that he felt this treaty was important to the United States only because it enhanced Israel’s security, although the unspoken implication that it also opens a path for Trump to attack Iran through Israel hovers over every aspect of it. It’s also clear that, while the treaty provides for the possibility of actually using U.S. troops, the strategy behind it is that the deterrent factor will be enough. Thus, Graham can sell it to Trump and to members of Congress as a measure to protect Israel, allow Israel greater freedom of action, and do it with minimal risk of dragging the U.S. into another Middle East war, something Trump has made it clear he does not want to do. Graham’s and Makovsky’s confidence in the treaty’s power of deterrence, however, may not be entirely justified should the treaty actually come into play.
Graham also expressed confidence that he could get bipartisan support for such a treaty, and if he can successfully sell Israel on the idea, he is probably right about that, although there would likely be some notable resistance in both the House and Senate to the idea.
The treaty would commit the U.S. to refrain from using the agreement as leverage to influence Israeli actions, and U.S. involvement would only be activated at Israel’s request. The U.S. would only have options regarding what its involvement would entail. It’s therefore difficult to see why Israel would not be enthusiastic about the idea, since it would hold all the proverbial cards. And if Graham gets their agreement, he will have the tools he needs to sell it to the White House and on Capitol Hill.
Such an agreement would surely raise the level of tension in the Persian Gulf. Iran would correctly see the United States as taking a big step toward setting up an Israeli attack on its territory. It would surely find a way to respond, and the Islamic Republic will still have a wide range of actions that would be impactful but would be well short of anything that could trigger the treaty.
It’s an idea certain to make a volatile situation even more explosive and dangerous. It will be important that more rational forces, particularly in the Senate, be prepared to take Graham on over this very perilous course of action.
by Mitchell Plitnick