Analysis

Why Netanyahu Has to Stay Silent About Trump’s Abandonment of the Kurds

Israeli premier has more in common than ever with Republican senators who have blindly supported Trump in the name of political self-preservation

A woman walking by a campaign billboard for Likud that shows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump, Tel Aviv, September 15, 2019. The slogan reads "Netanyahu: Another league."
Oded Balilty,AP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has frequently been referred to as the “Republican senator from the State of Israel.” The nickname is only partly a joke.

There has never been another Israeli leader with as clear an affinity for one particular American political party. While he may pay lip service to pro-Israel Democrats, to placate American Jews committed to their mantra of promoting bipartisan support for Israel, he has done more to tie Israel’s fortunes to one party than any of his predecessors.

At first, it was quietly: The ties linking Netanyahu to Republicans were clear mainly to those who took a close look at their donors. But there was no way to hide the events of March 2015, when Netanyahu strategized with then-House Speaker John Boehner so he could address Congress — against the White House’s express wishes — in his unsuccessful campaign to lobby against the Iran nuclear deal.

It grew exponentially during the Trump era when the divisive U.S. president made it clear that Israel would benefit from absolute loyalty, and delivered on that promise. Netanyahu indicated time and again that he would stick to the bargain. Refusing to allow Democratic congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar into Israel at Trump’s tweeted behest this summer was the most recent example of his willingness to put all of Israel’s eggs in the GOP basket.

As the prospect of Trump’s impeachment looms under the fast-moving Ukraine scandal and worries mount over his decision to green light Turkey’s invasion of Syria, these are dark and challenging days for Republicans.

In response to recent events, Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick observed Tuesday, most Republican congressional leaders are either “doing their best to keep their heads down on the merits, or pretend it’s all hilarious, or resort to full Alex Jones deep state talk,” pushing out outlandish conspiracy theories. But the tide could turn at any moment.

The cracks are already showing within the party. There is growing evidence that Trump used the powers of his office and the U.S. foreign policy infrastructure in a quest to force Ukraine and China to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden. And now there are increasing accusations of obstruction of congressional investigation into the case.

Sen. Mitt Romney dared to tweet out that “by all appearances, the President’s brazen and unprecedented appeal to China and to Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden is wrong and appalling.”

Unlike Netanyahu’s transactional buddy performances with Trump, Romney has been an actual close personal friend and conservative ideological comrade with Bibi in the past. The two men worked together at the Boston Consulting Group as corporate advisers in 1976 and stayed connected as they scaled the political heights — including during Romney’s 2012 presidential election campaign, when he traveled to Jerusalem to hold a fundraiser.

Romney isn’t alone among Republicans. Ohio Sen. Rob Portman told the Columbus Dispatch, “It’s not appropriate for a president to engage a foreign government in an investigation of a political opponent.” And other senators, including Iowa’s Joni Ernst, Nebraska’s Ben Sasse and Maine’s Susan Collins have expressed displeasure. Alaska’s Sen. Lisa Murkowski, meanwhile, called Trump’s behavior “very concerning.”

Republican Sen. Mitt Romney taking questions from reporters as he arrives at the Capitol in Washington, September 11, 2019.
J. Scott Applewhite,AP

Criticism is likely to build as the White House digs into a strategy of obstruction — refusing to allow key officials involved in the matter to testify in front of Congress, thus alienating Republicans who are strict on following constitutional procedure.

An even greater number of Senate Republicans, including those considered close to Trump, have been even bolder in their condemnation of his move to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria without adequate coordination with the Pentagon. That decision has been attacked by his base: Evangelicals and their advocates in Congress have distanced themselves, costing Trump Republican support when he needs it most. One of his most reliable defenders, Sen. Lindsey Graham, slammed him for “shamelessly” abandoning Kurdish forces who had been fighting ISIS alongside American forces, saying it will be “the biggest mistake of his presidency” unless he reverses course.

If Netanyahu was an actual Republican senator, he would no doubt be counted among the majority of GOP lawmakers who have remained quiet on both matters, keeping their heads down to avoid Trump’s Twitter wrath. While understandably refusing to comment on the matter of Ukraine and impeachment, which is an internal U.S. political matter, the Israeli prime minister’s silence on Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds is deafening.

For four long days last week, Netanyahu said nothing on the matter. Finally, as the week drew to a close, he finally tweeted: “Israel strongly condemns the Turkish invasion of the Kurdish areas in Syria and warns against the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds by Turkey and its proxies,” and that “Israel is prepared to extend humanitarian assistance to the gallant Kurdish people.”

Utterly absent from his declaration: Any mention that it was the American president who set these events in motion.

Netanyahu is too trapped in a Trump bear hug to do so. He centered both of this year’s election campaigns around the benefits of his close relationship with the U.S. president, and a third campaign may be looming — the old election billboards of the two leaders smiling and shaking hands continue to hover over Israeli highways. He is less capable of taking the step of openly criticizing Trump than Graham or his old friend Romney. In response, Trump has lashed out at Romney, calling him a “pompous ass” and suggesting that Romney himself should be impeached.

In Netanyahu’s current precarious political position, he can’t afford the slightest negative word from the US president, let alone an angry tweetstorm. And so he keeps his mouth shut, unable to express the strong misgivings he surely feels at seeing Trump casually abandon a Middle East ally and increase Turkish, Russian and Iranian influence in the region.

As my colleague Chemi Shalev wrote Thursday: “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,” after Netanyahu “bet the house on Trump, lauded him as Israel’s lord and savior.”

Now one wonders whether that was a safe bet, with a Washington Post-Schar School survey released Tuesday showing that 58 percent of Americans are supportive of the House decision to open an inquiry, and with 49 percent saying it should also take the next step of recommending that Trump be removed from office.

And the next day, a Fox News poll found that 51 percent of Americans say Trump should be impeached and removed from office — up from 42 percent in July. 

Nobody has polled the Israeli public as to how it feels about Trump and impeachment, but the country clearly has the jitters as it watches what is playing out in Syria, and identifying more closely than ever with the Kurds.

Local pundits are calling it a “strategic disaster,” a “knife in the back” and a warning that Trump’s warm words at the White House may mean nothing when the chips are down for Israel. As Dan Shapiro, Obama’s former ambassador to Israel and a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, wrote Friday: “Trump’s total reversal of the U.S. position in Syria is unnerving Israelis.”

Former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren, no fan of former President Barack Obama, indicated to the New York Times that he had less faith in Trump’s willingness to step in if Israel were to be involved in a “serious war” than his predecessor. One can presume that if Oren were still Netanyahu’s deputy minister, he would be under orders to follow his boss’ lead and keep his feelings to himself. 

Today, Netanyahu has more in common than ever with his “fellow” Republican senators who must weigh whether they can continue to stand steadfastly by Trump in the name of political self-preservation as growing numbers of their constituents are losing faith in him.