Netanyahu Is Optimistic About Iran Exit From Syria. Top Brass in Israel Are Less Convinced

Israel is the only country explicitly mentioned at the Putin-Trump Helsinki summit. But Trump's conduct casts a shadow on the understandings

An old military vehicle can be seen positioned on the Israeli side of the border with Syria, near the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel February 11, 2018.
REUTERS/Ammar Awad

Israel was the only country mentioned by U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at their joint press conference after their peculiar summit in Helsinki Monday.

In interviews afterward, both cited the Israeli interest in reviving the Separation of Forces agreement on the Golan Heights. The respect and admiration Netanyahu receives from both Washington and Moscow is undeniable. Can this be translated, long-term, into coordinated interests?

That’s an entirely different question. A large shadow hovers over the American president, who behaved at the press conference like a Russian intelligence asset and has since been tying himself in knots with more conflicting statements about Russian interference in the U.S. election. It’s quite conceivable that the warmth Trump shows for Israel could, if circumstances were to change, be replaced by the kind of hostility that he demonstrates towards other allies, like NATO countries and the European Union.

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Mickiy Aharonson, a Russia expert who headed the foreign policy division of the National Security Council, watched the broadcasts from the summit and then the interview that Putin gave to his home audience on Russian television’s Channel 1. She says Putin’s choice of words and his body language, as well as his marked tardiness in arriving at the press conference, reflected the position of advantage he sought to cement with the meeting. The Russian president looked amused and brimming with self-confidence, as if he were quite enjoying himself.

In the television interview, says Aharonson, Putin specifically talked about the understandings about the buffer zone in the Golan Heights and the discussions between the Russians and Iranians about the Iranian presence in Syria. But there was another point he wished to emphasize: The two superpowers are expected to reach a broader arrangement that encompasses other areas in addition to Syria. This is a hint at Moscow’s desire to pull Washington into agreements concerning Eastern Europe as well, primarily to lift the sanctions put in place by the Obama administration following the invasion of Ukraine and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.

The day after the summit, a different Russian TV station reported that the two countries would soon begin implementing the understandings reached between their leaders. Pentagon officials were at a loss to respond to reporters’ questions about this, since they had no idea just what was agreed to there. The reason is obvious: Only four people were present — Putin, Trump and each man’s interpreter — at the main meeting, which lasted over two hours. And as Trump proved once more at the press conference, he isn’t the most reliable source as to what was said and decided.