President Donald Trump – characteristically – took to Twitter on Monday to explain his abrupt decision to withdraw US troops from northeastern Syria and abandon his Kurdish allies there to the mercy of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“The two most unhappy countries at this move are Russia & China, because they love seeing us bogged down, watching over a quagmire, & spending big dollars to do so,” he wrote.
Trump could very well have added Israel to this list of countries unhappy with the move, not – of course – because it wants to see the US bogged down in the Syrian quagmire. On the contrary, Israel’s interest is for the US to remain strong and powerful and internationally respected and able to project power abroad. It has no interest in seeing a weakened US mired in the mud anywhere in the Mideast, or elsewhere.
No, Israel is unhappy – even fearful – of this move for other reasons. First, it is fearful because of the vacuum that is created when the US pulls out. Vacuums in the Middle East are always filled, and generally – as was the case when Russia became militarily involved in the Syrian civil war in 2015, a move facilitated by Washington’s own hesitance to get involved – not by actors for whom Israel’s interests are their concerns.
Second, it is concerned that the abandonment of the Kurds will lead other US allies in the region – like Saudi Arabia and Egypt – to look elsewhere for protection. Saudi Arabia is already reportedly in clandestine talks with its archrival, Iran; and Egypt, as it has done in the past, may cast its eyes increasingly toward Moscow. One thing that Moscow’s involvement in Syria shows – including its willingness to sacrifice men and invest billions of dollars there – is that it backs its allies to the hilt, come what may.
Third, Israel is concerned that abandoning the northeastern corridor of Syria will pave the way for Iran’s long-desired land corridor and supply route from Tehran to Beirut, as the Kurdish presence there thwarted that supply line. Many of Israel’s reported actions in Syria over the last few years have been to block the transfer of game-changing weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. A Syria-to-Lebanon land route will now make that even more difficult.
Fourth, Israel is concerned that the abandonment of the Kurds will push them into the arms of Syrian President Bashar Assad, further strengthening him. A strong Assad at this point is not in Israel’s interest, because of his alliance with Iran. A strong Assad means it will be easier for Iran to entrench itself there.
BUT JERUSALEM is not only fearful of the move, it is also internalizing the message it sends.
As Eran Lerman, a former deputy head of the National Security Council, put it: “What this means for us is that it is a good thing that we can defend ourselves when we need to, because to rely on anyone – including our dear and devoted friends in Washington – is to risk ending up like the Yazidis and the Kurds.”
The message Jerusalem is taking from this decision – one made by a very friendly and understanding administration – is that Washington may support it at the UN, may continue to give it considerable financial assistance for weaponry, may not push it on the Palestinian issue, and may give it diplomatic backing when it takes military action to protect itself, but when it comes to the actual use of military force – say, for example, against Iran – Israel is on its own.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking at a Yom Kippur War memorial ceremony on Thursday, made clear that this message was received in Jerusalem loud and clear.
“We do not aspire to be ‘a nation that dwells alone,’ but that is how we were forced to stand at the beginning of the Yom Kippur War,” he said, noting that American assistance arrived only toward the end of the war.
“As in 1973, we also very much appreciate the United States’ important support, which has greatly increased over the years, and also the United States’ enormous economic pressure it is exerting on Iran,” he said. But, he added, “we always remember and apply the basic principle that guides us: Israel will defend itself, by itself, against any threat.”
Netanyahu, who has said repeatedly over the last number of years that Trump is the most friendly US president Israel has ever worked with, was careful not to criticize the president. In fact, during his words at the ceremony, he did not even mention the US move, but the context of his comment was clear: the US withdrawal from Syria – and the abandonment of llies that fought alongside the US for years – just highlights the need for this country to be able to stand alone.
AND WHAT does this say about Trump’s relationship with Israel? Does this mean that he no longer is Israel’s “best friend,” and that critics of the Trump-Netanyahu relationship were right: that the unpredictable inhabitant of the Oval Office will turn on Israel on a dime?
One former senior official said that Trump likely does not connect his steps in northeastern Syria to Israel, and separates withdrawing the US forces – as well as Erdogan’s antisemitism and deep hostility toward Israel – from his own policies toward the Jewish state.
In other words, this decision – in Trump’s mind – has nothing to do with Israel. Rather, as Lerman – today vice president at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security – put it, this “has to do with America under Trump trying to farm out things to others that have long been America’s responsibility. And when the Europeans are not willing to take on northern Syria, then he thinks maybe the Turks will.”
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, when asked in a KAN Bet radio interview on Thursday whether Trump can still be considered Israel’s best friend, counseled humility, saying that it is not Israel’s role to “sit in the balcony and give him [Trump] grades every day and declare whether he has passed our test or not.”
Erdan said that Trump’s commitment to Israel and its security is evident in a number of unprecedented steps the president has taken. Though he didn’t spell them out, what government officials generally tick off in this regard is Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and decision to move the embassy there; recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights; withdrawing from the Iranian nuclear deal and clamping huge sanctions on Iran; and giving Israel unprecedented backing at the United Nations and in other international fora.
But, Erdan said, the West’s – and the United States’ – treatment of the Kurds leaves much to be desired.
“A situation needs to be created where they [the Kurds] do not feel abandoned,” he said, adding that he would certainly not want to see Erdogan – whom he described as an “antisemitic racist who supports terrorism” – slaughter the Kurds “without us making a moral voice heard and calling on the world to stop it. We can’t stay indifferent on this.”
And that, at this point, is as far as Israeli government officials will go in publicly criticizing a move by Trump that, privately, they view as a colossal and dangerous mistake. fire on October 24, when he has to return the mandate to form a government to Rivlin, who has indicated that he will not grant Netanyahu a two-week extension. Then, Rivlin has two likely choices: either to task Blue and White leader Benny Gantz with trying to form a government, or to punt the decision to the Knesset, which would have 21 days to find a candidate that the majority of lawmakers support. If they fail, an election would automatically be called. Rivlin faced criticism after hinting he would do the second, and it remains to be seen what he will decide.
Meanwhile, Blue and White has kept up its insistence that it will not sit in a government with Netanyahu as long as he is under a recommended or actual indictment. The Likud, of course, reserves the right to choose its own leader, and on Thursday night the Likud Central Committee was expected to reaffirm its commitment to him.
Netanyahu tried to hold a Likud leadership primary to show Blue and White that his party stands behind him and won’t be swayed by their inflexibility, but was deterred in part because of the timeline. Central committee chairman MK Haim Katz told him that at least one month would have to pass before the vote could be held, and that was cutting it too close to a possible Mandelblit decision. Netanyahu didn’t want to be the indicted candidate running against a not-indicted candidate – MK Gideon Sa’ar – so he dropped the idea.
If Netanyahu is not indicted, then his problems are solved and he could have a unity government and a rotation with Gantz. However, countless legal experts have said this is unlikely, based on the merits of the case or on the amount of work invested and reputations at stake in the State Attorney’s Office.
If Netanyahu is indicted – whether for bribery, breach of trust or both – that could be the final thing pushing him out of the Prime Minister’s Office. Not only will that likely cause Blue and White to further dig in its heels, but it’ll weaken his hold on the right-wing bloc and could bring about further insurrection in the Likud, even if the central committee votes to keep supporting him.
On Yom Kippur, when we asked who will be punished by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, Netanyahu may have been wondering who by coalition negotiations and who by indictment.