Opinion

Would Trump Save Israel in the Next War?

Given his complex relationship with Putin - for all that anyone knows, given his debtor relationship with Putin - would Trump even be capable of intervening in a meaningful way?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump at their White House summit in March 2018.
Olivier Douliery/Pool via Bloomberg

President Donald Trump's garden of political curses - extending and at times intertwining from the Russia probes to the possible exits and entrances of Rod Rosenstein, Brett Kavanaugh and perhaps others – is expanding at a particularly unwelcome time for Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom he's scheduled to hold talks this week as both leaders address the United Nations.

Just as Netanyahu's military freedom of movement has suffered a telling blow in the north, opening the door to new fears of a possible war there, Trump's freedom of political and policy movement appears increasingly constricted, a situation which may only worsen for the president amid the November midterm elections.

For Israel, one question which needs to be asked - although, for government officials, one which will not be asked out loud – is this:

Would Trump save Israel in a coming war? Would he act to prevent it? Or, given his complex relationship with Vladimir Putin - for all that anyone knows, his debtor relationship with Putin - would Trump even be capable of intervening in a meaningful way?

Moreover, for someone as mercurial as Trump, someone so bound to isolationist America First sloganeering, and someone as vindictive as Trump, who can translate perceived offense as intolerable, permanently unforgivable personal disloyalty or ingratitude, can Trump be counted on to come through even for those Israelis who lionize him?

This month, the question has taken on an abrupt urgency.

For Netanyahu, a leader obsessed with the concept and the components of military deterrence, the mistaken downing of a Russian intelligence plane following an Israeli air strike in Syria last week, sparked a sudden and extremely unwelcome new form of counter-deterrence.

The crash of the Ilyushin 20 spy plane, shot down in error  by Syrian anti-aircraft fire, cost the lives of 15 Russian airmen. It also may have put an end, for some time at least, to Israel's effective freedom of movement in airstrikes against Iranian arms shipments to Hezbollah in Syria, and against Iran's construction of new military installations there.

Russian condemnations of the attack – accusing Israel of "criminal negligence," callousness and responsibility for the deaths, have been unusually public and strikingly harsh.

Concern in Israel has risen dramatically amid reports that Moscow intends to send as many as eight sophisticated S-300 air defense systems to Syria within the next two weeks, and that Russia is already beefing up its electronic warfare systems in Syria, a process which will include technology to prevent the activation of satellite tracking systems along Syria’s coast – in all, hampering Israel's capability to conduct airstrikes.

Netanyahu aides have long pointed to his deepening relationship with Putin as a key to a multifaceted treatment plan for a range of security ills across Israel's northern borders. Russia's withholding supply of the S-300s to Syria has long functioned as the marker for a balance of power favored by Israel.

Now, however, in the aftermath of the downing of the Russian spy plane, military analysts agree that the long-accepted rules of the game in Syria are no more.

What are Israel's best options at this point?

"Netanyahu has no alternative but to try to enlist Trump," commentator Nadav Eyal wrote in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper Tuesday. According to Eyal, Israel would ideally prefer to see a grand bargain between Trump and Putin which would cause Iran to leave Syria. Realistically, though, Israel would like Trump to offer the Russians something which would restore to Israel the ability to act against Iran in Syria.

Eyal, noting that the Russian leader has left the door open to negotiations, cautions that "the  problem is not only Putin, but also Trump, and the unpredictable way in which he conducts his dealings with Moscow, veering from severe crisis to sycophantic news conference, and back to severe crisis."

Does Trump, in fact, have a coherent policy on Syria? He has spoken of a full pullout of U.S. troops from Syria and American non-involvement in Mideast wars. But in the recently published "Fear: Trump in the White House," journalist Bob Woodward writes that Trump responded to the April 2017 chemical weapons attack on Idlib, Syria, with a demand to assassinate Syrian President Bashar Assad, reportedly he called U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis and said "Let’s fucking kill him! Let’s go in. Let’s kill the fucking lot of them."

Still firmly open is the question of how much sway Putin may secretly hold over Trump. Should the Russian president feel that Israel is harming his nation's interests in Syria, Putin may be able to moderate or choke off entirely a potential response by Trump.

"At the moment, more than ever, Israel is in need of an America which is strong in the Middle East, with respect to Russia as well," Eyal concludes, but adds, regarding Trump's America: "It's doubtful that it's there."