Trump’s actions fuel Israeli concerns about US staying power
US President Donald Trump’s precipitous decision to retreat from Syria upended the calculations of friend and foe in the United States and around the world. Israel is perhaps foremost among those with the most to gain or lose from the president’s mercurial and ill-considered actions.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has invested a lot of political capital in wooing the US president and the payoff has been considerable: The US campaign against the Palestine Liberation Organisation; its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the decision to move the US Embassy there; and Washington’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty on the Syrian Golan Heights — a declaration Israel itself has refrained from making — can be counted among Netanyahu’s signature achievements during Trump’s presidency. Those triumphs have disarmed Netanyahu’s domestic critics on the right and left alike.
For decades, Israel’s leaders cultivated broad and unusually intimate relations with sources of power in Washington across the American political divide. Israel has been the most successful foreign player among both Democrats and Republicans, laying a political foundation for wide-ranging diplomatic and economic support and supplementing this with broad relationships throughout the US foreign policy, intelligence and security bureaucracies unmatched by any other state.
This foundation enabled Israel to withstand for three generations the demands of the international community to stop its settlement policies and enable the creation of a Palestinian state.
Menachem Begin took the first steps in another direction in the 1970s by establishing the foundation for flourishing ties with the evangelical Christian Zionist right wing of the Republican Party.
Netanyahu moved a giant step further in that direction with an unprecedented public campaign against US President Barack Obama’s signature nuclear agreement with Iran. Netanyahu’s battle was capped with a 2015 appearance before the US Congress during which he publicly incited against Obama’s efforts to reach a deal with Tehran.
It was an extraordinarily partisan intrusion that precipitated a lasting and deepening estrangement between Netanyahu, and more broadly Israel itself, and the US Democratic Party.
Netanyahu offset Israel’s estrangement among Democrats by doubling down on his ties with Trump and the evangelicals who comprise the activist core of Netanyahu’s American support.
He has been the foremost cheerleader for Trump’s view that Obama’s deal with Iran was a disaster that needed to be repudiated by a campaign of “maximum pressure” directed at Tehran’s surrender.
Netanyahu can also count on the fact that the Trump team has long-standing ties to the Israeli settler right wing, who share an antipathy to diplomacy based on Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank and the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Netanyahu has exploited Trump’s outsized weaknesses — his vanity and penchant for praise, his belief that he is the smartest person in the room and his disdain for the policymaking process — to make tangible gains. For Netanyahu, like leaders as far afield as Pyongyang, Ankara and Moscow, his main challenge was not to mistake his ability to exploit Trump’s evident shortcomings for freedom of action.
So far, he has kept himself and Israel out of the line of Trump’s feared Twitter fire.
However, all is not roses with the White House. Netanyahu had a taste of Trump’s distemper during Israel’s inconclusive elections in April and again in September. In the first contest, Trump openly supported Netanyahu’s candidacy. “The United States is with him and the People of Israel all the way!” Trump tweeted at the time.
After the second election failed to produce a victory, Trump, who disdains “losers,” went cold. “Our relations are with Israel,” he commented dryly, “so we’ll see what happens.”
While Trump’s spectacular shortcomings have benefited Israel, they can also threaten it, exposing Israel to perils of a strategic alliance with a volatile, isolated and weakened US president.
The precipitous firing of John Bolton removed a key pro-Israel ally on Iran from Trump’s inner circle. Netanyahu was then blindsided by reports of a possible meeting between Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rohani during the UN General Assembly in September.
The proposed meeting, warned former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, “is a red light for all of us, which warns against Netanyahu’s overdependence on President Trump and the sharp turnarounds in his stances. In North Korea, we saw war threats that ended in hugs, a dead end in negotiations, hugs again and then the story repeats all over again. The same could happen with Iran.
“If the Trump administration continues to implement its plan to withdraw from the Middle East, Israel will face more complex challenges.”
Netanyahu, too, fears a repeat of the North Korea scenario — lots of pomp but little substance — that would leave him barking as the Iran caravan passes. Trump refused to let Netanyahu make his case against a meeting with Rohani rejecting his frantic calls before passing on the offer.
Israelis are cheering the fact that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar Assad are facing off against each other, recalling Begin’s salutations to Baghdad and Tehran after the outbreak of war in 1980 — “We wish them both success.”
However, a win-win outcome in Syria that includes US support for a total Kurdish military evacuation of a “safe zone” in Syria and an end to Assad’s ostracisation is in the works, gaining Trump’s support and posing a new set of challenges for Jerusalem. Even if Washington’s abandonment of the Kurds is not the “nightmare for Israel” declared by Trump’s critics in the US Congress, his retreat from Syria highlights existential fears among Israelis of being abandoned by their American ally.
Speaking at the memorial service marking the October 1973 War, Netanyahu’s remarks could only be taken in this context.
“We do not aspire to be ‘a nation that dwells alone’ but that is how we were forced to stand at the beginning of the Yom Kippur War,” he said. “As in 1973, also we very much appreciate the United States’ important support, which has greatly increased over the years, and also the United States’ enormous economic pressure it is exerting on Iran.”
However, Netanyahu added: “We always remember and apply the basic principle that guides us: Israel will defend itself, by itself against any threat.”