In 2016, near the end of U.S. President Barack Obama’s term, there was a strong, almost unanimous feeling in Israel’s security-diplomatic community that “it couldn’t get any worse.” Because anyone who could be elected would certainly be more amenable to the State of Israel in terms of strategy. This feeling was caused by the almost unconcealed hostility and scorn between Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as the disputes between Washington and Jerusalem over the Iranian nuclear treaty, and Israel’s accusations of U.S. “abandonment” of Iraq in 2011, which enabled the Islamic Sate to establish the “Islamic Caliphate” there.
The list of disputes also includes the ceding of Syria to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the absence of a sufficient response to the use of chemical weapons by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and in general the soft power approach, which Jerusalem perceived as unsuited to the Middle East, a place where, according to Israel’s government, reality is shaped through force.
The election of President Donald Trump and his early view of Benjamin Netanyahu as a strategic mentor, the abandonment of the nuclear treaty, the transfer of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and the recognition of Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights – all these created a feeling at the start of Trump’s term that this was the beginning of a Golden Age, and that Israel and its prime minister had almost unlimited strategic influence on Washington.
Most of all, it seemed the two leaders were acting in coordination to bring Iran to its knees and to institute a new, more restrictive nuclear agreement that would preclude any possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons down the road. There were even hints that in the wake of the paralyzing sanctions on Tehran, the two leaders would work to replace the regime of the ayatollahs with a pragmatic, reasonable government.
However, in recent months, and especially in recent weeks, it looks as though the Golden Age was short-lived, and that a new Trump policy is developing, one that involves a 180-degree reversal and that is opposed to Israel’s interests. At first glance it seems based on the adage “If you can’t beat them, join them.” The first sign of the sharp turnaround was the revelation of the U.S. president’s attempts, not to say pleas, to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rohani, while sending signals – which were denied – that the administration was willing to lift the sanctions as a confidence-building measure in advance of negotiations for a new nuclear treaty.
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Next came the American weakness in response to the attack against the oilfields of Saudi Arabia, Washington’s most important ally in the Gulf. In the past few days it turns out that not only is the Trump administration at least as soft as the Obama administration, but that the president decided to turn his back on the Kurds in northeastern Syria, and to allow Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to attack them, even though the Kurds until recently played an important role in the U.S. operations against the Islamic State in this region.
Added to these is Trump’s failure to achieve an agreement with North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un, whom he wooed frantically. Kim announced that he is freezing negotiations with the United States, after his army fired two ballistic missiles into the waters off Japan, another ostensible Washington ally.
The reversal in the U.S. administration’s approach presents a complex, almost unprecedented security dilemma for Israel right during the period of a transition government, which is headed by a man whose main concern is his legal predicament. This dilemma has several components that should be taken into account.
In terms of deterrence, Iran’s operation in Saudi Arabia demonstrated its ability to strike accurately while obscuring its responsibility. That means it is capable of carrying out a similar operation against Israel. It could do so, for example, from Iraqi territory and claim, of course, that the act was carried out by local militias in response to attacks against them attributed to Israel.
Such a scenario also exacerbates the dilemma regarding prevention of enemy attack. From now on Israel must take into account that the present situation, namely the absence of an Iranian response to the campaign Israel has been conducting for several years – dubbed “the campaign between the wars” – to prevent Iran’s strategic entrenchment in Syria, and now apparently in Iraq as well, is likely to change. This is particularly true in light of the change in Trump’s partnerships and Iran’s ability to operate accurately and covertly.
The question is: What means does Israel have at its disposal to counter Iran in the event that it acts to change the rules of the game, given its present domestic weakness and its clear interest not to be dragged into an all-out war that is not fought on its terms. Naturally, the question now arises over what Israel is doing to prevent additional Iranian progress towards nuclear capability. This comes both in the absence of the nuclear treaty initiated by Obama, which was revoked with Israel’s encouragement, and in light of the significant weakening of America’s levers of influence in particular and international influence in general.
The writer is former chief of intelligence and operations in the Mossad.