The only indication that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recognizes the enormity of his strategic failure is his renewed emphasis in recent days on the traditional motto that “Israel will defend itself by itself.” In a speech at Thursday’s annual ceremony commemorating the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Netanyahu continued to pay lip service to “staunch” U.S. support but refrained from boasting of Washington’s ability to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Instead, he said, the onus will fall on Israel and its army.
Netanyahu has known since June that U.S. President Donald Trump’s last-minute decision to cancel a planned U.S. retaliation against Iran for the downing of its intelligence drone diluted America’s ability to deter Tehran from pursuing its nuclear ambitions. In terms of its reverberations across the Middle East, Trump’s nixing of the operation was the equivalent of Barack Obama’s ill-fated 2013 decision to refrain from retaliating against Syria for killing hundreds of its own civilians in a chemical weapons attack near Damascus.
Whatever doubts lingered, however, evaporated this week in the wake of Trump’s unconscionable announcement of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria’s northern border, which amounted to a green light for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to launch his long-awaited offensive against the Kurds. Trump not only abandoned a loyal ally, which paid for the U.S. campaign against Islamic State with the blood of its valiant soldiers, to a gruesome fate; he also proclaimed his desire to abandon the Middle East as a whole to the sinister designs of the forces that are in it and surrounding it.
But even when Trump is being viewed by both allies and enemies of Israel as a paper tiger, Netanyahu has no choice but to continue riding it, because, as the original Chinese saying goes, the alternative of getting off is far more daunting. It would mean confessing to his own abysmal failure.
Netanyahu bet the house on Trump, lauded him as Israel’s lord and savior and even used him as a central prop in two election campaigns this year. If, as many expect, Israelis are doomed to go to the ballot for the third time, it is unlikely that Netanyahu and his Likud Party will put up the same gigantic posters that featured a smiling Trump as Netanyahu’s best friend forever.
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Netanyahu’s folly is compounded by the fact that he surely knew who and what he was dealing with. The writing was on the wall from the outset, and the headlines from Washington reinforced the message on a daily basis: The president is as unstable as he is unreliable.
But Netanyahu’s burning desire to reverse eight years of stormy relations with Barack Obama, his obsessive negation of the Iran nuclear deal and his corrupt adulation for a president who fought the same media and rule of law that Netanyahu detests, obscured the warning signals that should have led the prime minister to take a more cautious line. He threw caution to the wind and plunged head first into Trump’s turbulent world.
Netanyahu persuaded himself and convinced most Israelis that there were, in fact, two Trumps in the White House: One was the “stable genius” who supports Israel to the hilt and the other was the unstable megalomaniac who is bent on undermining U.S. allies and on giving aid and succor to its worst enemies. Trump’s decision to stick a knife in the back of the Kurds dispelled the illusion. It painted Netanyahu’s policy as a reckless gamble that could render Israel alone to fend for itself.
Netanyahu also succeeded in convincing public opinion that Israel resides on its own separate planet, its fate unmoored to that of the free world as a whole. He behaved as if the poison that Trump was injecting into Washington’s ties with democratic capitals and his support for authoritarian tyrants had nothing to do with the future of a free and democratic Israel.
Netanyahu’s ability to extract symbolic gestures from Trump, such as recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and the transfer of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, blinded him to the wider negative impact of Trump’s Middle East approach. His sick identification with Trump’s wars against the free press and the rule of law obscured his view of the harm that Trump was inflicting on America’s international stature as well as its own internal strength and cohesion.
Trump, after all, is dismantling the very foundations of the world order that has been in place since the end of the World War II, the same order that has seen Israel survive and flourish. U.S. presidents, for better and worse, acted on the basis of the belief that American leadership was essential for safeguarding democracy and for warding off its enemies. The U.S. has been the anchor of the Western democratic world, but Trump has raised it and sailed America off into his wild blue yonder – with Netanyahu and Israel in tow.
Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds, however, cannot be painted in a positive light. There is no spin that can cast it as something other than what it is: One of the most shameful betrayals in U.S. history. Even hitherto supportive Republicans, including the uber-loyal evangelicals, were compelled to denounce the president. Netanyahu, however, could not join them: He has attached his fate to Trump’s so hermetically that even a hint of disagreement would undermine his claim to fame.
Netanyahu did publish a statement expressing support for the Kurds and promising undefined Israeli assistance. He did so because he knows that there is no way to whitewash Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds: The beleaguered descendants of the biblical Medes tribes have long been seen in Israel as a natural ally against the Arabs, which spawned years of actual military collaboration during the 1970s and 1980s. Trump’s treachery hit too close to home just as his promise to leave the Middle East altogether left no room for ambiguity. Perhaps he didn’t know that Israel was in the Middle East, some consoled themselves.
Netanyahu’s predicament is made worse by Trump’s declining political fortunes and exacerbated by the Ukraine scandal and its ensuing impeachment proceedings. With only year left before the 2020 elections, the president is like a cornered animal, striking out blindly against his hunters. He may decide that continuing to support Israel at every turn works in his favor, but he could very well reach the opposite conclusion and abandon Israel to its fate. Netanyahu, for all his bluster, has no idea which way the president will eventually turn.
Netanyahu’s assertion that “Trump is good for Israel” is being sorely tested, unlike Russian President Vladimir Putin who can validly claim that “Trump is good for Russia,” North Korean leader Kim Jong Un who can boast that he’s great for North Korea, Erdogan who can now cite Trump’s benefits for Turkey and even the ayatollahs in Tehran who are beginning to digest that the U.S. president may be good for them as well.
Netanyahu may have inflicted on Israel greater long-term damage by virtue of his corrupt undermining of Israeli norms and democratic values, but in terms of national security, his total surrender to Trump and concurrent detachment from potential alternatives, from Democrats to the European Union, is nothing less than gross malpractice.
In normal times and in a normal country, the fate of a prime minister whose main policy has been exposed as a sham would be sealed. His career would be over. If Israel goes to the polls again, Netanyahu may find that his citizens prefer normalcy without him to Trump-style lunacy with him continuing at the helm.