Is mutual defense treaty between Israel, U.S. needed — Proceed with caution

On the face of it, upgrading the long-standing strategic relationship between Israel and the United States into an actual alliance treaty — an idea Prime Minister Peres is considering — shouldn't be controversial.

From the Korean War onward, Israel and the United States were on the same side of the fence in the global struggle against the Soviet Union — indeed, in 1970 Israeli pilots shot down Soviet aircraft over the Suez Canal. Israel and the United States have years of experience with "strategic cooperation" that has included visits from Sixth Fleet warships, joint military exercises and research. This relationship was first codified in written understandings back in 1983, between the Shamir government and the Reagan administration.

In short, Israel and the United States have already been allies without an alliance. But taking the relationship one stage further to a formal treaty? That raises several serious questions.

First, why now? In 1975, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Foreign Minister Yigal Allon signed a memorandum that stated: "The United States Government will view with particular gravity threats to Israel's security or sovereignty by a world power."

When the USSR threatened the Middle East, Israel was in particular need of a defense commitment against a superpower it couldn't counter on its own. But these circumstances changed after the breakup of the Soviet Union. The main development on the horizon that might justify a change in Israeli-U.S. strategic ties would be further developments in the peace process, particularly in negotiations with Syria.

This is one of the key problems with a new defense pact.

True, if the Peres government has to market a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights to a wary Israeli public, having a new Israeli-American treaty of alliance ahead of time could help. But the treaty could also affect the negotiations' progress.

Yitzhak Rabin wanted first to know what sort of "security arrangements" he could obtain for a Golan withdrawal before agreement was secured in other areas. In certain respects, this followed the pattern set in 1978 by the Begin government, which hammered out most of the details of Sinai's "security arrangements" before the parties went to Camp David.

With the Peres peace team considering a broader format of negotiations, agreement on security arrangements might be put off until some later time. And if it became clear that these hard security issues were blocking a peace treaty, it would be tempting for negotiators to make security concessions, since Israel, in any case, has an American guarantee.

Why go through the arduous task of getting the Syrians to redeploy their army on the Turkish border, or cut their armor, if the United States is committed to defending Israel?

In the past, Israel had no pretensions of being able to defend itself against the Soviet Union; thus U.S.-Israeli ties complemented the Israel Defense Force's independent military power. But in the context of an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty, a new strategic relationship could evolve into a substitute for Israel's self-defense capability, with enormous implications beyond the peace process itself.

With Israel negotiating hard territorial concessions, the United States has eased pressure in the sensitive area of nuclear arms control. But pressures in this field will resume; an effective worldwide regime for nuclear non-proliferation will remain a vital security concern of the United States in the post-Cold War era.

The essence of a formal Israeli-U.S. alliance is the recognition that an attack on Israel is an attack on the United States itself. And if that is the case, it can be argued that a treaty reduces the need for an independent Israeli deterrent capability. Why not depend on the retaliatory power of American submarines in the Mediterranean? The alliance could thus become a useful instrument to get Israel to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

A formal U.S.-Israeli alliance also touches on intangibles in the two countries' relationship. Much of Americans' secret admiration for Israel stems from the fact that Israel has taken care of itself. It didn't need U.S. protection, as Vietnam or Korea did. This image could easily be eroded after a formal treaty is signed and debated.

In his clash with the American Jewish community over loan guarantees for Israel in 1991, a hostile President Bush pointed to Israeli dependence during the Gulf War on American-manned missile defense crews. In 1996, Americans will be asked: Why does the United States continue to pay for new F-15s for the Israeli Air Force if Israel's security is protected by a treaty?

In 1981, Moshe Dayan declared: "I don't recommend that any one of us accept as a substitute [for Israel's positions in the territories] even entering NATO, international guarantees or American soldiers." Allon wrote of military guarantees as an addition "to … defensible borders, and in no way as a substitute for them." Finally, Rabin warned in his memoirs: "No army is a substitute for the IDF in protecting Israel's security."

Before proposing a new Israeli-U.S. alliance, the Peres peace team should emulate the caution shown by the founding fathers of Israel's national security doctrine.