Washington Watch: Start worrying, details to follow

Trump, the most inconsistent and uninformed president in recent history, may be much more of a threat to the Jewish state than its embattled prime minister realizes.

November 29, 2017 20:06
Washington Watch: Start worrying, details to follow

US President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin talk as Vietnam's President Tran Dai Quang (R) looks on, during the family photo session at the APEC Summit in Danang, Vietnam November 11, 2017. (photo credit: REUTERS/JORGE SILVA)

The headline in the Israeli paper said, “Netanyahu seems unfazed by Trump’s looming Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.” And why not? He knows it’s going nowhere; he’ll make sure of that. His only worry is avoiding blame for its failure. He has more immediate problems to deal with.

Most urgent for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the high likelihood he will be indicted on assorted corruption charges in several different cases.

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Most serious for Israel are growing doubts about the reliability of its American ally and the intentions of its Iranian enemy. Early incidents in the relationship do not bode well for a well-planned, fair administration effort at Middle East peacemaking, and Iran’s rapidly expanding presence in Syria has many Israeli defense and foreign policy experts worried.

The question is whether Netanyahu, fighting for his political life and trying to keep out of jail, has abandoned his starry eyed view of the American president.

A Vanity Fair article provides more details about US President Donald Trump’s leak of a highly classified and sensitive Israeli intelligence operation to two top Russian diplomats he was trying to impress in a May 10 Oval Office meeting that barred American media but included a Russian reporter.

American intelligence officials had earlier – and subsequently – warned their Israeli counterparts about sharing sensitive information with Trump. His penchant for boasting and his lack of understanding of the importance of protecting national secrets are a dangerous mixture.

Trump’s mishandling of Israeli secrets “keeps me up at night,” an Israeli “spymaster” told Vanity Fair. “Trump betrayed us,” said a senior Israeli military official, explaining that if the president hands Israeli secrets to Russia they’re going to Iran and Hezbollah as well.

Israel appreciates Trump’s warm words of friendship, but actions speak louder than words, and his “unclear and disjointed” America First theme has “unnerved key allies like Israel while giving the emerging coalition of Russia, Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah a free pass,” according to a Foreign Policy magazine analysis.

Trump thought he cut a deal on a cease-fire in Syria and the removal of Iranian-backed forces when he and Putin met two weeks ago in Vietnam, but once again he was snookered by the Russian leader he admires to a fault.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov afterwards declared Iran’s presence in Syria along with Hezbollah and Shi’ite militias to be “legitimate” and said they would not be forced to withdraw from positions near Israel’s border. America’s presence, however, is “illegitimate,” Lavrov declared, echoing Iran’s demands for withdrawal.

Russia’s veto last month of an extension of the UN investigation of Syrian chemical weapons attacks in Syria should be a warning to Israel.

When Bashar Assad agreed to turn over his unconventional weapons arsenal – under a 2013 deal brokered by Russia – the Syrian president confessed that he had been stockpiling them for use against Israel. Now that Syria’s seven-year civil war is winding down and he is apparently rebuilding that arsenal, why is Russia protecting him?

Why are Trump and Netanyahu so silent about Russian actions in Israel’s neighborhood? It’s no secret that Putin laments the demise of the Soviet Union and wants to rebuild Russian influence in a region where it was once a major player.

Putin flew Assad to Sochi, Russia, last week for a public embrace and to let the Syrian dictator know who saved his ass. Putin then called Trump, Netanyahu and others to debrief them about his plans to begin a “political process” shaping the future of the region. The next day he met personally with the presidents of Turkey and Iran.

Putin’s message for Trump and the others was, I’m in charge. It was a “great call,” the hapless Trump gushed.

The overwhelming mystery is what hold Russia has on Trump. Many believe the answer may be found in Trump’s tax returns and his Russian business ties.

The leadership vacuum opened by president Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia and his decision to play a back seat role in Syria has expanded under Trump’s go-it-alone approach.

The United States is standing by as Iran builds a Shi’ite crescent from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. Actually it probably should be called the George W. Bush Highway because he made it possible by replacing the Sunni regime of Saddam Hussein with a pro-Iranian Shi’ite government in Iraq.

Instead of leaving Syria, Iran will be expanding its footprint and its influence in ways that directly threaten Israel. That is one more factor leading many in Israel to wonder whether Washington has a Middle East strategy or just talking points.

Photos published by the BBC show construction of a permanent Iranian base south of Damascus about 50 km. from Israel’s border. Israel is concerned it could be used for training Hezbollah fighters and as a factory for manufacturing missiles, drones and other weapons for attacking the Jewish state.

Russia already has bases in Syria, its longstanding client whose air defenses it is upgrading, and now Iran reportedly wants to build facilities for its own air force, navy and Revolutionary Guards. How long will it take for Iranian submarines to begin prowling the Mediterranean off Israel’s coast?

Israel has bombed Iranian targets in Syria on numerous occasions, particularly weapons depots and convoys bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Netanyahu has said Israel will continue to “operate in Syria... in accordance with our security needs.”

Israel has been investing heavily in missile defense systems due to a growing land-based threat from Iran, Syria and their allies, said Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who is asking for a $1.4 billion hike in defense spending.

“Israel’s superiority on the battlefield is no longer quite as absolute as it once was,” according to Israeli analyst Ben Caspit in Al-Monitor.

While Trump’s admiration of Putin continues unabated, it is far from clear whether he realizes that Russia’s real allies in the area are Israel’s and America’s dangerous enemies – Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. As a president who has already revealed some of Israel’s most valuable secrets to Russia – which were very likely shared with its Syrian and Iranian allies – Trump, the most inconsistent and uninformed president in recent history, may be much more of a threat to the Jewish state than its embattled prime minister realizes.

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