Analysis

Trump's Syria Withdrawal Is a Strategic Disaster for Netanyahu

If anything is left of the 'defense alliance' between Washington and Israel, it's on paper only

U.S. President Donald Trump embraces Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as Vice President Mike Pence looks on, in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House in Washington, March 25, 2019.
Susan Walsh,AP

For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the developments in the Kurdish crisis are another woe in a series of events that is looking increasingly like a serious strategic crisis. From the moment that U.S. President Donald Trump was elected president in November 2016, Netanyahu confidently marketed an image by which the president, surrounded by Jewish family members and advisers, is a true friend of Israel. Netanyahu’s close ties with Trump, compared to his palpable mutual loathing with Obama, would make it possible to enlist Trump for the benefit of Israel’s needs.

Netanyahu’s ambitions, which were communicated to the Americans regularly in his conversations with the president and in meetings between Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, and Trump’s team, were quite far-reaching. Netanyahu sought to persuade Trump to withdraw from the nuclear agreement with Iran, which Obama signed in 2015, and to exert maximum pressure on Tehran; to provide a diplomatic-strategic umbrella for Israel’s cozying up to the Gulf states; and eventually to secure a defense pact between the United States and Israel.

When Trump insisted also on presenting the “deal of the century” for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, Netanyahu got the most out of the Americans. The administration’s plan, which even after two-and-a-half years has no clear target date for its officially release, largely dovetails with Likud’s positions on settlement. Moreover, Israeli right-wing leaders, and even Trump’s people, hinted that the expected Palestinian rejection of the plan could become a prelude to the application of Israeli sovereignty in parts of the West Bank. Jerusalem would utilize the propitious moment, it was said, with Washington backing the move or looking the other way.

May 2018 was a particularly turbulent month for Israel and the region. Netanyahu revealed to the world the Mossad’s successful operation to steal archival documents about the Iranian nuclear project from Tehran. A few days later, Trump officially announced the United States’ withdrawal from the nuclear agreement. The Israeli military thwarted an attempt by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to take revenge for a series of attacks on Iranian targets in Syria by firing rockets into the Golan Heights. Jerusalem celebrated the moving of the American embassy to the city. In the Gaza Strip, the protests along the border fence peaked on the day the embassy was officially relocated. Israeli snipers shot to death 60 Palestinians within 24 hours, but the international response was relatively muted.

Netanyahu, it seemed at the time, had successfully come through all the tests. His admirers heaped praises on him as a strategic magician who, with his connections and skills, was able to persuade both Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin to work for Israel’s benefit.

A year and five months later, things look very different. The U.S. administration responded almost indifferently to the series of Iranian attacks on the petroleum industry in the Gulf, which was intended to induce Trump to lift the economic sanctions he imposed on Tehran and to bring about renewed talks on a return to the nuclear agreement. Trump is declaring from every possible platform that he wants talks, not war, with Iran. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are sending Tehran messages about the need to reduce the military friction between the sides and to supersede it with diplomatic dialogue.

In the midst of all this, Trump is abandoning the Kurds and leaving the Syrian arena open to Putin, who has yet to fulfill his pledge to Netanyahu to distance the Iranians and their proxies from the border with Israel in the Golan Heights. Looming in the background is the danger that Iran will ramp up its revenge efforts against Israel, following another series of Israeli air force attacks over the past few months.

The recent Iranian attack on Saudi Arabia demonstrated high-level operational capability for long-range strikes, which compels Israel to redeploy defensively. One question arises almost inevitably: What will the United States do should Iran launch a barrage of missiles at Israel?

If anyone was counting on a defense pact with Washington, it remains on paper for now. “I brought you a defense pact,” Netanyahu boasted in his interview blitz on the eve of September’s election, accusing the media of ignoring the achievement. (“That means Israel will never be destroyed!” the prime minister’s son tweeted enthusiastically.) Trump made do at the time with a general comment about his readiness to examine a defense pact somewhere down the line.

And three-and-a-half weeks after the election, we haven’t yet had a report of a phone conversation between the two leaders – not the traditional Rosh Hashana conversation, not even a good luck message ahead of the prime minister’s hearing before the attorney general. Maybe there’s truth to the rumors that Trump likes to see winners by his side, and not someone who’s so far been unable to cobble together a coalition even after two elections within a span of five months.

On Thursday, Netanyahu spoke at the annual memorial ceremony for the fallen of the Yom Kippur War on Jerusalem’s Mt. Herzl. As usual, he concentrated his remarks on Iran, calling it “the focal point of the present aggression in the Middle East.” He noted: “Iran is striving to strengthen its hold in Lebanon, in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen and in the Gaza Strip. It is arming itself incessantly, crossing its boldness bar time and again. Iran is threatening to wipe us off the map. It is saying explicitly: Israel will disappear.”

From that point, Netanyahu’s tone was very different: “We do not aspire to be a people that dwells alone, but that is how we were compelled to be at the start of the Yom Kippur War, with the American aid arriving only toward its end. Today, too, we are very appreciative of the important support of the United States… At the same time, we always remember and apply the basic rule that guides us: Israel will defend itself, with its own forces, in the face of every threat.”

Netanyahu is too experienced and too cautious to attack Trump directly for his recent moves. However, the final section of his remarks on Mt. Herzl shows that his assessment, too, is that the times they are a changin’.