Trump’s Urgent Test in the Middle East

America’s response to Israel's crisis with Russia and its implications for Israel’s security interests is the first real test of the special relationship between Netanyahu and Trump

Trump forced to pause amid laughter at the 2018 UN General Assembly address

The UN General Assembly, which opened Tuesday in New York with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in attendance, is being held this year on the background of the crisis with Russia, which sees Israel as “exclusively responsible” for the downing of a Russian air force plane in Syria and the death of its 15 crew members. Sometime this morning, Netanyahu is scheduled to meet U.S. President Donald Trump and the two are expected to address this crisis, among other issues.

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The lack of U.S. involvement in the Syrian arena and in the recent dust-up between Israel and Russia stands out, given the intimate relationship between Netanyahu and Trump, the great interest America has in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the common front on the Iranian issue. There are only small American forces in Syria now – in the east of the country and on the border between Jordan and Iraq – leaving Israel’s security interests at the mercy of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the “landlord” in Syria.

Netanyahu has been cultivating a relationship with Putin over the years, and during the past three years there has been a coordination mechanism between Israel and Russia enabling Israel to carry out hundreds of attacks on Syrian soil. According to the Russian Defense Ministry, relations between the two countries did not merely involve security coordination, but included various other things done for Israel.

But though Netanyahu enjoys bragging about his relationship with the Russian president, it is clear from this incident that the rapport has its limits. The speed at which Russia began to issue threats (including the announcement that it was transferring advanced S-300 missile systems to the Assad regime) on the one hand, and the submissive Israeli behavior on the other – culminating in the flight of Israel Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin to meet his Russian counterpart and make a personal presentation of the findings of the IDF investigation – indicate this is not a relationship based on trust and is potentially dangerous.

This will make America’s response to the crisis with Russia and its implications for Israel’s security interests in Syria the first real test of the special relationship between Netanyahu and Trump. The expectation is that the United States will make its strength and presence known to serve as a counterweight to Putin, who sees himself as capable of dictating Israel’s moves.

During his meeting with Trump, Netanyahu must strive to advance Israeli interests, which are aimed at curbing Iran’s consolidation in Syria and preventing the transfer of sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah. American support for Israel on these issues could strengthen Israel’s bargaining position vis-à-vis the Kremlin.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.