Analysis

Trump’s Syria Withdrawal and Mattis’ Resignation Startle Israel – and Undercut Netanyahu

Officials have tried to downplay the damage to Israel’s national security – but the defense establishment is up in arms

FILE: U.S. President Donald Trump and James Mattis, U.S. secretary of defense at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., June 21, 2018
Bloomberg

The resignation of U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, 24 hours after Donald Trump’s surprise decision to withdraw American troops from Syria, has startled and alarmed much of the Western world. It is seen as an unraveling of Trump’s relatively restrained national security policies and as a harbinger of potentially dangerous instability in the months to come.

But the shock waves may be reverberating loudest in Israel, which has staked its entire national security policy on Trump’s friendship and is one of a handful of countries in which the U.S. president was widely admired. The upheaval in Washington threatens to undermine the Israeli public’s trust in the American leader and, by extension, to undercut political support for Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump’s foremost advocate and defender.

The official reaction in Jerusalem to the Syria pullout has been generally muted so far. Netanyahu and his ministers have struck to the refrain “We will know how to defend ourselves” without commenting directly on the ramifications of Trump’s abrupt decision. Private briefings to journalists have exposed a sharp split, however, between the political and defense establishments: The former have tried to diminish the impact of the U.S. withdrawal on Israeli security, while the latter have described it as an unmitigated disaster.

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Mattis’ resignation, amplified by his unusually frank and critical letter of resignation, is likely to further exacerbate the apprehensions of Israeli generals and security officials. As in much of the Western world, the former commander of NATO and U.S. Central Command was seen as the last responsible adult in Trump’s inner circle and as someone who spoke the same pragmatic lingua franca as most Israeli officers. Senior officials dismayed by Netanyahu’s unchecked embrace of the U.S. president were consoled by the presence of old and trusted hands such as Mattis, outgoing Chief of Staff John Kelly and even former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster in Trump’s inner circle. With Mattis’ departure, all three are gone.

And while the Israeli public has hitherto ignored Trump’s questionable handling of relations with NATO, Russia and North Korea – never mind his legal entanglements and nationalistic incitement - the withdrawal of troops from Syria hits far closer to home. Netanyahu’s description of Trump as the best friend that Israel has ever had in the White House does not square with his unilateral retreat from Syria, which is widely seen as abandoning Israel to fend for itself against Russia and Iran. It raises suspicions, hitherto brushed off as well, that Trump is, as his critics have alleged, a stooge of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands as they meet in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018.
\ KEVIN LAMARQUE/ REUTERS

The Syrian disappointment may not have much of an impact on right wing ideologues and religious-Zionist messianics, whose only concern is the perpetuation of Israeli control of Judea and Samaria and the concurrent sidelining of the Palestinians. But for a large and rational chunk of Israeli public opinion, convinced by Netanyahu that Trump has Israel’s back, the U.S. withdrawal from Syria and Afghanistan, along with Mattis’ resignation, provides a nasty wake up call. With friends like Trump, some may wonder, who needs Barack Obama? 

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It was an improbable fantasy from the outset. The thought that Donald Trump could be a pugnacious, ignorant, erratic, shoot-from-the-hip president everywhere else but a steady, rational and determined statesman in the Middle East, as Netanyahu has portrayed him, was nothing less than delusional. The past 48 hours have made it clear there is only one Trump, not two, and that he can be just as disruptive to Israel’s national security interests as he’s been to U.S. relations with its other close allies, from Canada and Mexico through France and Germany to NATO and the WTO.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu stand for photographs outside the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, March 5, 2018.
Bloomberg

The realization by Israel’s rational right and center-right that it may have been living in a fool’s paradise could prove most damaging, perhaps even fatal, for Netanyahu’s political prospects. His prestige as Israel’s ultimate Mr. Security has already been tarnished in recent months by his restraint in Gaza, by the constriction of Israel’s freedom of action over Syria after the September downing of a Russian spy plane over Syria and, among the cognoscenti, by the potential collapse of his gamble on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the wake of the murder of dissident Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The reliance on the alliance with Trump, however, was the most crucial of Netanyahu’s credentials, his jewel in the crown. It proved him wiser, supposedly, than critics who had bemoaned his belligerent attitude to Obama and warned of dire days to come.

The timing of the disruption in the Trump administration could not have been worse, as far as Netanyahu is concerned. With elections looming in eleven months at the very latest, but probably sooner, Netanyahu’s image as Israel’s ultimate maven in foreign affairs and defense matters was supposed to offset his mounting legal problems and the growing public disgruntlement over Israel’s high cost of living. If Trump will now be seen as a fair weather friend whose administration is going off the rails, Netanyahu’s main claim to fame will be eroded, if not demolished completely.

When Barack Obama repeatedly declared that the U.S. is not the world’s policeman, it was taken in Israel as further proof of the liberal president’s ill-advised view of the world and malevolent attitude towards Israel. When Trump says the same thing, the isolationist statement supposedly flies in the face of everything Israelis have come to expect from the president. They may have heard of Trump’s America First credo, but convinced themselves that Israel would always be the exception that proves the rule.

Netanyahu often boasts that with Trump’s backing, Israel is stronger than ever, militarily as well as diplomatically. After the Syria pullout, Mattis’ departure and the ensuing prospects of a rogue Trump presidency, Israel suddenly seems weaker and potentially more isolated than ever before.