Ukraine, NATO: the ‘Israel Model’? (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- July 17, 2023)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. Last week, NATO postponed Ukrainian membership yet again. President Biden instead offered the ‘Israel model’ for Ukraine. What is this? Is it good for Israel? Would it be good for Ukraine?

A. Biden last week offered to provide Ukraine “the security we provide for Israel.” I do not recall previous US presidential use of the term ‘Israel model’. Israel certainly does not refer to its strategic link with the US this way. Biden is presumably referring to a decades-long relationship under which the United States provides Israel with the weaponry it needs to maintain military superiority against its enemies--a designation increasingly reserved for Iran and its proxies.

President Biden has proven a faithful supporter of Israel’s security, like his predecessors. All told, Washington has provided Israel with around $158 billion worth of military assistance to date within the framework of a strategic partnership.

The US and Israel also increasingly engage in joint military exercises. And the two countries are bound by memorandums of understanding that include a “long-standing commitment to the survival and security of Israel” and that define Israel as a “major non-NATO ally” of the United States with a “special relationship”.

All this is rhetoric, not binding under international law. There are no mutual defense obligations between the US and Israel as there are within the NATO alliance. In military terms, beyond emergency supply of spares, jet fuel and replacement weapons (as in the Yom Kippur War 50 years ago), the US has never been asked to come to Israel’s aid at time of war, and has not had to offer to.

Israelis generally know that Israel can depend on American military backing in both peace and war. But by and large the Israeli ethos of ‘give us the tools and we will defend ourselves and fight our own wars’ prevails. With a few notable but relatively marginal exceptions--anti-missile defense during the First Gulf War (in order to prevent active Israeli intervention against Iraq) and US emergency ordnance stocks on Israeli soil--the US has not in any way fought Israel’s wars and no one expects it too.

Israelis are also aware of precedents established when the United States delayed weapons shipments as a means of pressuring Israel to bend to American diplomatic initiatives that were taken in the context of Israel-Arab wars, e.g., following the Yom Kippur War and during the First Lebanon War in 1982-83.

Q. So is this a workable model for Ukraine today?

A. Not if you ask the Ukrainians. They sought to join NATO--indeed, believe they were promised membership--before their current war with Russia. Note, too, that some 30 years ago, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine agreed to give up nuclear weapons on its territory in return for Wester] security guarantees. Understandably, Kiev feels betrayed.

Today, Ukraine is told that as a country at war with Russia, with part of its territory occupied, bringing it into NATO would mean war between Russia and the US and Europe. In other words, this would start World War III.

It is too late to deter Russia from attacking Ukraine. Hence Kiev is being asked to accept an ‘Israel model’ or something like it. Ukrainian President Zelensky reportedly agrees that Ukraine cannot formally join NATO as long as the current war with Russia is ‘hot’.

Q. Has NATO membership for Israel ever been discussed?

A. Yes, informally, at Israel’s instigation. This is a non-starter because throughout Israel’s 75 years of existence it has been at war with one or more of its neighbors and its borders have not been entirely finalized. For the past 56 years it has occupied lands universally recognized as Arab territory.

Nor is Israel geographically part of a contiguous NATO-defended European territory. Besides, NATO was designed to defend against the Soviet Union, and now against Russia. Israel’s enemies are Arab/Iranian. (True, NATO fought against Islamist al-Qaeda in Afghanistan after 9/11 when the US was attacked.)

Then too, were Israel to join NATO or enter into a formal military alliance with the United States, it would be expected to ‘bare all’ with regard to its own military nuclear capabilities--virtually a red flag from a sovereign Israeli standpoint.

So this is a non-starter. The closest Israel has come is to explore European Union membership (note: the EU is an economic and political union, not military). Back in the heady days of progress under the Oslo Accords, it was suggested that in the event of a successful two-state solution with the Palestinians, the EU would entertain membership requests from both states. Note that the EU is already in Cyprus, which geographically is practically a Middle Eastern country.

Q. Has Israel been a party to any military alliance?

A. From 1958 until the 1979 fall of the regime of the Shah of Iran, Israel, Iran and Turkey were bound by the Trident alliance, which had military aspects such as intelligence exchange, arms supply and joint military planning. Trident was directed against the Soviet-backed forces of Arab nationalism (Nasserism, the Baath regimes in Iraq and Syria) which threatened the three alliance partners.

Trident was never invoked as a military alliance against hostile Arabs. The closest it came was a Turkish proposal, never acted upon, that Israel and Turkey jointly invade Syria from its southern and northern borders. Trident did have a deterrent effect on the Arabs, as did close Israeli military cooperation with Ethiopia and military aid to the Anya Nya South Sudan liberation movement and to the Kurds of northern Iraq.

Q. Israel has independently bombed Arab nuclear reactors. In 1967 it preempted against both Egyptian and Syrian enemies. The Israel Defense Forces respond regularly to Palestinian provocations from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Would the IDF have this degree of freedom of military action if it were in NATO or even party to a binding bilateral alliance with the US?

A. No. And while Israel consults closely on military matters with the United States, it is not treaty-bound to do so.

Paradoxically, Israel currently coordinates with Russia its air attacks against Iranian targets in Syria. Obviously, Israel and Russia are not parties to a military alliance. Incidentally, the Israel Air Force and the Soviet Air Force did once clash, above the Suez Canal in July 1970. The IAF shot down five Soviet MiGs. The US was not involved.

Basically, Israelis of all persuasions accept that Israel will ultimately fight its wars alone. The notion of a joint Israel-US strategic operation against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure may be bandied about by Israeli columnists, but it is unlikely. Israel may be a “strategic ally’ of the United States, but that definition has never been tested in war beyond the US resupply operation during the Yom Kippur War. Meanwhile, Israel receives from the United States armaments like the F-35 stealth fighter that have not yet been supplied even to NATO partners.

Q. So perhaps Israel enjoys the best of all possible worlds in terms of military freedom of action. Could this then indeed be a model for Ukraine?

A. Ukraine is fighting a Russian enemy that is much stronger and that occupies Ukrainian sovereign territory and even has threatened to use nuclear weapons. However courageous the Ukrainian effort to defend itself, Kiev lacks the necessary ordnance to do so. As matters stand, it is unable to win this war, if winning means recapturing all Russian-occupied territories.

Israel would be in dire straits strategically were it in Ukraine’s situation, facing a superior enemy that occupies its territory, against which it is incapable of scoring a decisive victory, and fielding a military that is denied some of the weapons it needs to attack Russian forces.

Q. Bottom line?

A. Israel’s and Ukraine’s strategic situations are different enough that the ‘Israel model’ is under present circumstances really not suitable for Ukraine’s needs. Moreover, the Biden administration’s current acute (and understandable) dissatisfaction with the Netanyahu government’s behavior--both in the West Bank and in terms of democratic standards of governance--could conceivably soon call into question even aspects of the American commitment to the model.

Would the US come to Israel’s aid in the not-so-unlikely event of a clash between the IAF and the Russian Air Force in Syrian skies? I doubt it. Nor, hopefully, would Israel need the help.

Will the United States, confronting the Netanyahu government’s ongoing settlement-based annexation of the West Bank with its grounding in the IDF occupation, always continue to supply any and all basic Israeli military needs? According to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, the US is currently engaged, not for the first time, in a “reassessment” of its strategic relationship with Israel. Recall that Henry Kissinger’s 1975 “reassessment” involved the delay of military supplies as a means of pressuring Israel.

In this regard, it is actually encouraging for Netanyahu that Biden can still refer to an ‘Israel model’. But how long will that designation remain accurate?

Israel is in danger of becoming an ‘illiberal democracy’ along the lines of Hungary, Poland and Turkey. The NATO pact obliges the US to come to the aid of these countries if any are attacked. Israel has no such guarantee.

P.S. I mourn the passing of Professor Everett Mendelsohn of Harvard. For years, Everett brought together Palestinians and Israelis, myself among them, seeking peaceful solutions, particularly in the security field. His NYTimes obituary states that he considered the dearth of progress on that front “his greatest life failure.”

It was not entirely a failure. He was in very good company. Besides, we learned from his integrity, and remember him fondly.