Let’s say that U.S. President Donald Trump took Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into a closed room and asked him which he preferred: that the U.S. would transfer its embassy to Jerusalem or that it would maintain its military presence in Syria. What would Netanyahu choose? Would he pick the unimportant act of moving the embassy to the country’s capital or the strategic move of creating a united front against the problematic Iran-Russia-Turkey axis, which could unfold in any direction given the demonstrative lack of U.S. interest in what happens with our northern neighbor?
One should not let the joint American, British and French missile attack on Syria last weekend blur a basic fact: The U.S. under Trump, and under his predecessor Barack Obama as well, has no real interest in Syria. Its dependence on Middle Eastern oil has dwindled, along with its interest in the region’s fate. The billions of dollars spent on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since the 9/11 attacks have cooled America’s desire to be the world’s policeman. It began under Obama, who turned his back on Libya and Syria while reducing American presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. This trend is now being reinforced under Trump.
The friendship between Netanyahu and Trump led to the willingness to transfer the embassy to Jerusalem, but the gesture is mainly symbolic. Even if a few more states follow suit, this won’t change Israel’s situation. If anything, it might stoke tension with the Palestinians – some hints of this may be visible in the rise in terror attacks as well as the incidents along the Gaza border since Trump’s declaration.
Trump’s decision to pull American troops out of Syria is much more dramatic. It is an unambiguous declaration of his intent to abandon the country to Russia and Iran. This is bad news for Israel. According to the Associated Press, Netanyahu and Trump held a tense conversation last week over this move. Netanyahu urged Trump to leave the forces but the president remained noncommittal.
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The U.S. soldiers were originally placed in Syria as part of the war against the Islamic State; with that over, Trump has no interest in them remaining there. This is a new situation for Israel: Syria is no longer in a free-for-all war, with Israel as the main beneficiary. It is now a Russian-Iranian protégé, which poses new and delicate security challenges.
The main ones lies in maintaining our security while not getting entangled with Syria’s sponsor states. In this, Netanyahu remains alone – his friendship with Trump is of no help. Both sides have no interest in highlighting this strategic dispute, unlike the embassy move, which is repeatedly celebrated. This raises questions about the slogans touting Netanyahu’s relationship with Trump and makes one wonder about the importance ascribed to the embassy move, in comparison to Israel’s worsening strategic situation in the Syrian arena.
In some way this is connected to the Independence Day torch-lighting ceremony, which recently received coverage that was totally disproportionate to its real importance. It was a lot of noise over matters that don’t affect our lives but relative quiet over dramatic events that have a bearing on our future: hours spent discussing whether Netanyahu will speak, what he will say and what it means for the dignity of the Knesset and its speaker, dozens of talks about the embassy transfer and which country will be next.
The impression is that political and public attention to ceremonies and symbols is more important in our lives than critical issues such as the investigation of the prime minister, the impact of the events in the Gaza Strip and the situation in Syria. Under these circumstances, Israel would be better served by an American presence in Syria rather than in some offices in Jerusalem.