In years past, a formal visit by an Israeli minister to Saudi Arabia would have been huge news – front-page news in all the local media.
Although Tourism Minister Haim Katz’s arrival in Riyadh on Wednesday to participate in the UN World Tourism Organization conference was the lead story in Wednesday’s Jerusalem Post, it was relegated to page 10 in Yediot Aharonot and page 6 in Maariv.
How to explain the relative apathy to a major diplomatic event? Simple, there has been so much talk recently of normalization of ties with Saudi Arabia that the steps leading up to that peak are not considered that dramatic.
Yet they are.
That one minister visited this week, that the deputy director-general of the Health Ministry reportedly visited there last week, and that Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi is scheduled to attend a conference in Saudi Arabia is significant. As US President Joe Biden said last week during his meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York, “If you and I 10 years ago were talking about normalization with Saudi Arabia, I think we’d look at each other, like, Who’s been drinking what?”
The deal being negotiated between the US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel stands to transform the region fundamentally, and part of the transformation will be in the construction of a new regional security architecture. One element of this architecture is expected to be a US-Saudi Arabia mutual defense pact.
Since the Saudis are keen on such a defense treaty, a US-Israel mutual defense treaty, an idea that has been discussed since the early 1950s, is also very much on the table, reportedly being pushed strongly by Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer.
A US-Israel defense treaty is something that Israel’s first premier, David Ben-Gurion, was very interested in during the early 1950s, but which Washington dismissed primarily out of concern that – at the height of the Cold War – such a treaty would push the Arabs firmly into the Soviet orbit.
The last time the issue was in the headlines was in September 2019, when – just days before the second Israeli election that year – then US president Donald Trump tweeted, “I had a call today with Prime Minister Netanyahu to discuss the possibility of moving forward with a Mutual Defense Treaty, between the United States and Israel, that would further anchor the tremendous alliance between our two countries.”
In July of that year, the Washington-based Jewish Institute for National Security (JINSA) think tank issued a paper promoting the issue, and a month before that, the idea was enthusiastically endorsed by US Sen. Lindsey Graham.At a gala dinner in Washington for a pro-Israel organization, Graham said of a proposed defense pact: “I think it is important to send a signal in the 21st century: If you are intending to destroy Israel, you have to go through us. And it will not turn out well for you.”
Trump’s raising the issue then was widely seen as an effort to give Netanyahu an electoral boost in the September 2019 elections and as a way for the president to boost his own credentials with his Evangelical base on the eve of the 2020 presidential campaign.
In short, just raising the issue of formalizing the US-Israeli partnership into a treaty-based alliance was widely seen as having political dividends for both men.Amos Yadlin, the former head of Military Intelligence, who at the time led the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv, tweeted that raising the issue was “clearly election propaganda that has not matured into a coherent policy,” either in Washington or Jerusalem.
While such a pact would strengthen Israel’s deterrence, “its costs outweigh the benefits,” he said.
In the past, Yadlin wrote, the issue was raised and then dropped from the agenda for several reasons. These included preserving the IDF’s freedom of action without needing US permission to act; preserving ambiguity about “special [nuclear] capabilities” attributed to Israel; and harming Israel’s basic defense principle that it will “defend itself by itself,” keeping the IDF as a force that protects the homeland and does not engage in expeditionary wars around the world.
“In conclusion,” Yadlin tweeted, “this is a very serious issue that needs deep discussion, and not something pulled out on the eve of elections without the public understanding in detail its significance.”
After the elections in both countries, the issue largely faded from public view. Until now. Now it has returned front and center, and on Wednesday, the think tank Yadlin formerly headed came out in favor of such a defense treaty, something significant since INSS has close links to Israel’s security establishment, which has traditionally been opposed to such a treaty.
The security establishment’s opposition in the past was based on a number of considerations.
First, it was concerned that the treaty could potentially reduce Israel’s freedom of action, since it would mean that Israel would need US permission to act militarily so as not to entangle the US.
Why should Israel act in Iran if the US has its back?
There was particular concern that this would limit Israel’s options regarding Iran, with the security establishment fearful that there would be those in Washington who, as a result of the treaty, would ask why Israel should act on its own if the US has its back?
There was also concern that the pact could lead to a reduction in the $3.8 billion in annual military assistance that the US gives to Israel under a 10-year memorandum of understanding, with the argument being that if the US is committed to Israel’s security, there is no reason to provide it with billions of dollars in military aid.
There was also concern that this could draw Israel into faraway conflicts that the US is involved in, since a mutual defense pact runs both ways. Furthermore, the security establishment expressed concern in the past that such a treaty would erode a central tenet of Zionism: that Israel will defend itself by itself and not rely on other powers to fight for it.
In addition to the INSS recommendation of Israel entering into such a treaty agreement, JINSA earlier this month updated its paper from 2019, including a draft of a proposed treaty.
Both reports deal with the traditional objections by saying that the treaty should be limited to extreme and existential threats, that its applicability should be limited to the Middle East, and that there are ways to construct the treaty so that Israel will be free to act in self-defense.
The burgeoning agreement with the Saudis is going to force Israel to deal with some weighty issues, such as whether normalization with Saudi Arabia is worth hefty concessions to the Palestinians; whether it is worth green-lighting giving the Saudis civilian nuclear capabilities, thereby possibly triggering a nuclear arms race in the region; and whether as a result of the Saudis entering a defense pact with the US, Israel should do so as well.
If the INSS report Wednesday is any indication, when it comes to that final issue, the security establishment is beginning to change its tune and favor such a mutual defense pact.