WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Syria has, for the first time since he entered the White House, led him to face strong criticism from leading pro-Israel groups in Washington.
The shift comes after two years in which those same groups mostly endorsed his administration’s Middle East policies, with some even claiming that his support for Israel was important enough to justify ignoring aspects of his presidency deemed less than palatable by many in the American Jewish community.
Trump won praise from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobby group, and from other groups supportive of the Israeli government, for his decision to relocate the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He won similar accolades for his decision to withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear deal. His administration’s voting record on issues related to Israel and the Middle East in the United Nations also won praise.
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However, AIPAC took to Twitter last week to retweet a number of senators – both Democrats and Republicans – who severely criticized Trump’s decision on Syria. One tweet, by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, described the withdrawal as a “huge mistake.” Another, by Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, called the decision “ill-informed and hasty,” and warned that it will “breathe new life into ISIS and other terrorist groups.”
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It was the first time that AIPAC even tacitly endorsed such strong-worded criticism against Trump since he became president in January 2017. The organization also published its own statement, which, though less critical than those voiced by the senators, still made it clear that the organization saw reasons for concern in Trump’s decision.
The statement focused on the “damage control” that would be necessary after the U.S. withdrawal, explaining that it is “imperative that Iran and Hezbollah are prevented from exploiting this development to further destabilize the region and threaten our allies. The administration should work with our regional allies and take steps to counter the mounting aggression of Iran and its terrorist proxy Hezbollah.
“Iran must not be allowed to have a permanent military presence in Syria, which is counter to U.S. interests and threatens the peace and security of the region,” AIPAC said, echoing one of the Netanyahu government’s main talking points from the past year.
The American Jewish Committee, which also supported the embassy move to Jerusalem as well as some of the administration's Middle East policies, called on Trump last week to rethink pulling out of Syria. “We urge President Trump to reconsider withdrawing all U.S. troops from Syria,” the organization said in a statement. “They have performed heroic service, but their job isn’t over. The only winners will be Russia and Iran – and a resurgent Islamic State. Why would we possibly cede ground to them? Stay the course!”
Some of the harshest criticism directed at Trump’s decision came from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank that played a key role in opposing the Middle East policies of President Barack Obama – especially the landmark nuclear accord with Iran. Now, however, the organization’s chief executive, Mark Dubowitz, has accused Trump of gutting his own Iran policy by ceding Syria to the Iranians.
“Trump’s withdrawal has severely weakened his own Iran policy, signaling boredom, fickleness, fatigue, and fear,” Dubowitz wrote last week. He also wrote in a tweet addressed to Trump: “You just gutted your Iran policy and screwed so many of our allies and emboldened so many of our enemies, that I’ve lost count.”
Jonathan Schanzer, the organization’s vice president for research, also criticized Trump for trusting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to handle ISIS after the U.S. withdrawal. “Most leaders in the Arab world loathe Erdogan, and it’s painful for them to see him gain this reward after he allowed terrorists for years to go into Syria and Iraq through his country’s borders,” Schanzer told Haaretz. He added he was disappointed by Trump’s embrace of Erdogan, who just this week once again accused Israel of “murdering babies” and being a “terrorist state.”
One senior official at a pro-Israel organization, who asked not to be named in order to discuss the issue freely, told Haaretz that “for these people to come out so strongly against Trump is not an easy decision. Trump is very unpopular among the broader Jewish community, but older Jews who donate to pro-Israel causes are usually supportive of his Middle East policies. And many of them think his sins should be forgiven because he’s been such a great friend to the state of Israel. So when prominent voices in the pro-Israel community speak out against him like that, they risk losing some supporters, and also their own influence and ties within the administration.”
The same official added, however, that the damage caused to Trump by the Syria decision is repairable. “I think this has definitely been a bad week for him among supporters of Israel, but he will find ways to get back some of the lost support,” the official said.
“He could promise Israel a green light for more daring military operations against Hezbollah. He could announce new sanctions against Iran. His peace plan could bring Israel closer to Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. This Syria withdrawal is a bad decision, but it’s not taking place in a vacuum,” he said.
The approval Trump has received from supporters of the Israeli government since he entered the White House makes it hard to remember that three years ago, during the Republican presidential primary, Trump was constantly attacked by his rivals within the party for not being sufficiently supportive of Israel, according to the standards of the pro-settlements, anti-Palestinian right-wing worldview. He was criticized for refusing to commit to move the embassy to Jerusalem and for hinting that Israel – and not just the Palestinians – was to blame for the failure of past peace efforts.
Many of those who criticized him back then have, over time, become supporters of his regional policies, mainly because Trump as president has turned his back on many of his own campaign statements. Back then, he promised that he would be “neutral” and “fair” when conducting negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. But ever since taking office, he has put immense pressure on the Palestinians while ignoring the Netanyahu government’s policy of empowering the settlements in the occupied West Bank and weakening the Palestinian Authority.
For many conservative critics of Trump, the Syria withdrawal proves they were right all along: For example, Bill Kristol, the former editor of the Weekly Standard and one of Trump’s most vocal detractors, told Haaretz this week: “I’ve always thought that even if he is good for Israel in certain ways, his ‘America first’ worldview of retreat and withdrawal from the world will ultimately be bad for Israel.”
Kristol added that “Trump’s kind of pro-Israel policy is not sustainable. He happens to like this one country, but his entire worldview is that America should not be involved in world affairs – and that’s not good for Israel. A strong Israel comes with a strong America. You can’t give up American influence in key parts of the world and expect our allies, including Israel, to not be affected by that decision.”