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"For Zion's sake I shall not hold my peace, And for Jerusalem's sake I shall not rest."

US Security Commitments – Intentional Ambiguity

By Ambassador (ret.) Yoram Ettinger

"Second Thought”

Israel Hayom

2 September, 2012



US commitments to the security of Israel should enhance – not constrain – Israel's independence of action. US commitments to the security of Israel should upgrade Israel's role as a national security producer for the US - a major strategic ally. They should not relegate Israel to a national security-consumer - a client state. 

Allowing US security commitments to supersede Israel's independence of action could subject Israel to lethal cost, as experienced in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Then Prime Minister Golda Meir was overly concerned about the White House attitude towards Israel. Therefore, she refrained from preempting the Egypt-Syria military assault, thus afflicting Israel with near destruction - a trauma that still haunts the Jewish State.

Preferring US security commitments over Israel's independence of action, would deny the US major strategic benefits such as the destruction of Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981. Israel's defiant unilateral action relieved Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other pro-US Gulf States from the deadly Saddam-threat. It spared the US a nuclear confrontation with Iraq in 1991.

Subordinating Israel's independence of action to US security commitments would ignore recent lessons; would disregard the inherent limitations to US security commitments; and could lead to Israel's erosion of sovereignty and posture of deterrence and to its eventual destruction.

For example, in 1954, the US and Taiwan signed a mutual defense pact, which was ratified by the US Senate. However, on December 15, 1978, President Carter announced that the treaty would be terminated, unilaterally by the US, on January 1, 1980. Carter was not challenged by the Senate. In 1973, the US signed the Paris Peace Accord with South Vietnam and North Vietnam. However, in 1975, the US refused to assist the collapsing South Vietnamese, thus dooming South Vietnam to oblivion.

Once again it was demonstrated that US interests outplay international considerations; that US international commitments are intentionally ambiguous; that they are non-specific and non-automatic; that the US constitution facilitates unilateral reneging on – and nullification of - overseas commitments; and that US compliance with international commitments is at its sole discretion, a function of unpredictable global, regional and domestic interests.

According to international law, international commitments and agreements are legally binding.However, the US subordinates international commitments to the unique features of the US Constitution: separation of powers, checks and balances and the co-determining power of the Legislature. For instance, the Senate is concerned that automatic adherence to international law could inflate the power of the Executive.

Therefore, treaties concluded by US Presidents are not binding unless ratified by two thirds of the Senate. For example, the Senate rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which was signed by President Clinton in 1999. Moreover, executive agreements with foreign countries which are negotiated by presidents, hardly bind the sitting president and certainly not his successors.

From 1950 to 1955, the US promised Israel military systems to deter an Arab offensive. Failure to deliver emboldened Arab terrorism, which led to the 1956 Sinai Campaign.

On February 27, 1957, Israel's Eban and the US' Dulles reached an understanding on Israel'swithdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula, including Sharm al-Sheikh, if Israeli passage through the Straits of Tiran was assured. Jerusalem interpreted the understanding as a US commitment to use force to keep the Straits open. However, Washington's interpretation was that it did not have the right to use force to protect vessels of other flags, which would require Congressional action.

In May, 1967, Egypt blockaded the Straits of Tiran, deployed its military toward Israel and formed a unified command with Syria and Jordan, proclaiming its intent to annihilate Israel. Israel requested US compliance with the 1957 understanding. But, "US intelligence did not expect imminent Arab attack” and President Johnson preferred a multilateral UN-led action, which was not realistic.

President Johnson "emphasized the necessity for Israel not to make itself responsible for the initiation of hostilities. Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go alone.” Secretary of State, Rusk, stated that "if Israel strikes first, it would have to forget the U.S….. Defense Secretary McNamara said that the Israelis would stand alone if they initiated an attack.” The US non-compliance further radicalized Egypt, forcing Israeli preemption - the 1967 Six Day War.

In 1970, the US made a commitment to oppose the deployment of Egyptian missiles towards Sinai. The missiles were deployed, the US reneged and the 1973 war erupted, causing 2,800 Israeli fatalities.

In 1991, Israel agreed to forgo retaliation to Iraqi missile launching. The US promised to dedicate 30% of its air force bombing to missile launchers. However, only 3% was dedicated and no missile launchers were hit.

Israel's abdication of its inalienable independence of military preemption would amount to learning from history by repeating – and not by avoiding – critical mistakes.

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Yoram Ettinger, "Second Thought: US-Israel Initiative"