Is mutual defense treaty between Israel, U.S. needed — Its time to take action

Every flutter of diplomatic activity on the Syrian track sparks another round of the debate about security arrangements on the Golan.

Ordinarily, that means going over familiar ground, but a suggestion by Senate majority leader and possible Republican presidential candidate Robert Dole indicates that more consideration will now be given to the old idea of a U.S.-Israel defense treaty. It is an idea whose time has come.

The fundamental purpose of security arrangements should be to maximize the likelihood that any land-for-peace bargain is kept by the other side. Peace ultimately rests on political relationships, but the military component of the relationship with Syria will be essential for a long time to come, and it is in this context that guarantees — as a form of security arrangement — must be understood.

Security arrangements cannot compel Syria to maintain a "warm peace." But they can, by ensuring the application of superior counterforce, deter Syria from using the Golan as a platform from which to attack Israel or damage its vital interests. International guarantees should not be substitutes for superior Israeli force — but by supplementing that force they should ensure that it will not be tested.

A guarantee will work only if it is both adequate and reliable. This is why every serious discussion of the issue proceeds from the assumption that the United States will be directly involved and formally committed. Otherwise, the guarantee won't be seen as substantial and worthy of respect.

But most proposals posit the stationing of American forces on the Golan as part of some multinational peacekeeping force, an idea that fails two other critical tests of reliability:

*That the United States alone be responsible for activating the guarantee in the event of a challenge, because any multilateral mechanism implies international consultation — an almost certain prescription for paralysis.

*That the nature of the contingency and the response be explicitly defined, because ambiguity would invite testing and precipitate domestic consultation in the United States (and disagreements between the United States and Israel).

The effectiveness of specific, easily recognizable contingencies cannot be overstated. Since World War II, the United States has been drawn into hostilities on many occasions, including in Korea and Kuwait, precisely because of vaguely defined commitments that projected uncertainty about whether and how they would be honored. The embarrassments of Lebanon and Somalia are not examples of American inconstancy, but simply demonstrations of the time-worn truth about the need for clarity. The United States has never fought a war in defense of formal treaty obligations, because it never had to.

Thus what is needed is not a general U.S. guarantee of "the peace" nor an amorphous commitment to "peacekeeping." That mission should be left to others — perhaps the United Nations — who will either enforce agreements with respect to the Golan, or at least not inhibit an Israeli response to Syrian violations.

Instead, the American guarantee should be to Israel, and its purpose should be to compensate Israel for the loss of the Golan by directly reinforcing Israel's deterrent power through a high-resolution, high-visibility obligation to act militarily in the event of a military attack on Israel.

In short, the most effective security arrangement would be a formal mutual defense treaty, enshrined in U.S. law through Senate ratification, and made manifest by the presence of U.S. forces, not on the Golan but inside Israel itself. The American force need not be large, but its permanent presence would ensure that an attack on Israel automatically engages the United States.

Despite the power inequalities that exist and will persist in the U.S.-Israel relationship, a mutual defense treaty would not reduce Israel to the role of supplicant. A formal alliance may slightly constrain Israel's freedom to act without regard to U.S. concerns, but it would also enhance the strategic cooperation that already exists. It would encourage more intensive joint planning and permit access to development and procurement programs for which only allies are eligible, while preserving the role of Israeli strength in the maintenance of peace.

Most important, a mutual defense treaty would ensure that any attack on Israel immediately trigger implementation of the treaty, and that an attack would therefore fail, politically as well as militarily. In this way, a U.S.-Israel mutual defense treaty promises what peace and other security arrangements cannot: not just that Israel will win the next war, but that it will not have to fight it.