Blue and White leader says treaty would break with decades of defense policy, questions whether Netanyahu can be trusted to formulate such a deal amid legal woes
Blue and White party chairman MK Benny Gantz during a faction meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on December 2, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Blue and White party chairman MK Benny Gantz on Monday criticized the prospect of an Israel-US mutual defense pact, warning it would endanger Israel’s freedom of military action and breaks with decades of defense policy.
He also cast concerns on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ability to properly negotiate such a deal while plagued by legal worries, as the premier faces charges in three corruption cases.
“Blue and White under my leadership will not support an international agreement that will limit Israel’s actions and the IDF’s ability to protect the country from the threats it faces,” tweeted Gantz, who is a former IDF chief of staff.
“I have deep respect for the strategic relationship with the US, our ally, with whom we share identical values and joint interests,” Gantz wrote. “But there is a serious concern that a prime minister who is busy with himself will allow the hands of security forces to be tied, as opposed to the position expressed by the security establishment for decades.”
Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump briefly broached the subject of a mutual defense pact between Jerusalem and Washington ahead of Israeli elections in September.
The prime minister said the issue was raised again on Sunday, during a phone call between the leaders.
Gantz and Netanyahu, the leaders of the two largest Knesset parties, both failed to establish a ruling coalition or a unity government between their factions, despite two rounds elections in April and then September. A major obstacle to unity is reportedly which of the two would be prime minister first, if the position is rotated between them.
According to Hebrew media reports, Netanyahu, in closed talks, said he offered Gantz a premiership rotation agreement, under which he would continue to serve as prime minister for up to six months before vacating the position for the Blue and White leader.
Netanyahu said he wants to remain in power for “expected diplomatic developments,” Channel 13 reported.
On Monday, he made it clear that one of the those developments is his push to annex the Jordan Valley, with tacit approval from the Trump administration. Another is believed to be a mutual defense pact with the US.
Blue and White has stuck to its promise not to join a government led by a prime minister under indictment.
Last month, Israel’s ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer said that the idea of a pact has the backing of senior Israeli defense officials, including IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat.
Dermer said “senior members” of the Trump administration are also “positively inclined,” as are some “senior senators.”
Any potential defense pact is seen as highly controversial with the Israeli defense establishment, with officials concerned an accord on tighter defense cooperation could tie the hands of the Israeli military in certain undertakings, or at the very least limit its freedom to act independently.
Given the already robust US-Israel defense cooperation, formalizing it in a mutual defense treaty would bring little to no additional benefit, say many experts, including former top diplomats and defense officials. Instead, these critics warn, it may hamper Israel’s freedom to act militarily and would likely include an obligation to send troops on overseas missions to fight America’s wars.
Days before Israel’s September 17 elections, Trump tweeted that he had spoken with Netanyahu on the phone about a potential pact and that he hoped to continue such talks after the vote. Trump tweeted that such a treaty “would further anchor the tremendous alliance between our two countries.”
The elections failed to produce a government and the country seems headed towards a third vote early next year if Knesset members are unable to come together by a December 11 deadline.
Late last month, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced that Netanyahu would be charged with criminal wrongdoing in three cases against him, including bribery in one of the cases. However, due to the current political deadlock it will probably take several months before Mandelblit can even formally file the charges in court.