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US AMBASSADOR to Israel David Friedman speaks at the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem last year. Israel and America share common values and common interests, but the need for the US to be involved in the Middle East does not hinge on what is right or wrong for Israel; it is needed for America.(Photo by: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Editor's Notes: It’s not all about Israel
Using Israel as an excuse to keep US forces in Syria or Iraq has the potential to undermine and damage Israel’s alliance with the US.
Since its establishment in 1948, and even more so after its military alliance with the United States began to take shape in the 1960s, Israel has always taken pride in the fact that it never needed foreign soldiers to fight on its behalf.

US soldiers are stationed in South Korea to defend the peninsula from the North; they are deployed in large numbers in Germany to counter possible Russian aggression in a post-Cold War Europe; and for the last 15-plus years they have been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan to try and prevent these two countries from falling again into the hands of ruthless dictators.

Just Tuesday, the Pentagon announced that three American Special Forces soldiers had been killed when a roadside bomb went off near Ghanzi City, three months after they had been sent there to try and prevent a Taliban takeover.

In Israel, though, that has never happened. A number of American citizens have sadly been killed in terrorist attacks alongside Israelis, but never has the US military needed to send soldiers to fight in place of the IDF.

Instead, America supports Israel’s security interests with financial means, like the $38 billion, 10-year memorandum of understanding president Barack Obama approved toward the end of his presidency. Troops, no; money to be used to buy sophisticated fighter jets, helicopters and missiles, yes.

The aid has always had its opponents, people like Sen. Rand Paul, who this week placed a hold on the legislation, saying he wants time limits on assistance to the Jewish state. Proponents of the continued aid argue that the amount of money the US spends in Japan or Korea – where tens of thousands of its soldiers are deployed – is far more than the $3.8 billion Israel receives annually in foreign military financing from the US government. It is actually cheaper, they explain, for the US to send financial assistance than to send soldiers.

While they are correct, the issue is not one of quantity; it is of the quality of the assistance. Israel doesn’t want foreign forces to ensure its survival. The Jewish people haven’t made it this far to deposit their fate in the hands of others. That is a mission the IDF does for itself and by itself. It appreciates the financial support it receives from the US, but when it comes to the survival of the world’s only Jewish state, Israel can only truly rely on itself.

That is why two comments by President Donald Trump over the past week – according to which America’s Mideast policy is being set based on what is right for Israel – have rattled some Israelis. The first comment was a statement he made last week explaining why the US would not cut off ties with Saudi Arabia, despite the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

“The fact is that Saudi Arabia is tremendously helpful in the Middle East,” the president said. “If we didn’t have Saudi Arabia, we wouldn’t have a big base, we wouldn’t have any reason probably... I mean... if you look at Israel, Israel would be in big trouble without Saudi Arabia.”

Then, there was his interview on Tuesday with The Washington Post, during which he spoke about the need to keep US military forces in the region. “One reason to [leave troops] is Israel,” Trump said. “Oil is becoming less and less of a reason because we’re producing more oil now than we’ve ever produced. So, you know, all of a sudden it gets to a point where you don’t have to stay there.

On the one hand, there is something reassuring about this approach. Under Obama, the administration made a point of creating daylight between Washington and Jerusalem. This manifested itself in the unrealistic pressure Obama and his secretary of state John Kerry put on Israel to make concessions to an intransigent Palestinian Authority, but also in the secret contacts it held with Iran in pursuit of the controversial nuclear deal.

What Trump seems to be saying is that under his administration, Israel’s interests are a top priority. That means continuing to engage with Saudi Arabia even if Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman oversaw the gruesome murder of a journalist based in the United States. It also means keeping special forces in Syria, a source of legitimate security concerns for Israel.

On the other hand, there is something a bit unsettling with the way the president is speaking. First, while Israel is definitely enjoying the changes taking place in the region and the warming of ties that it sees now with various Gulf states, it might be more fair to say that Saudi Arabia needs Israel as opposed to what Trump said: that Israel needs the Saudis. That comment by the president seems more like an excuse to get the US media as well as some members of his own party to back down from demanding sanctions against Riyadh due to the Khashoggi affair.

The truth is that Israel is the real pillar of stability in the Middle East today, and the main force working to counter Iran’s efforts to spread its hegemony throughout the region. Oman and the United Arab Emirates know that, and for that reason recently hosted high-profile visits by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and three of his ministers.

Using Israel as an excuse to keep US forces in Syria or Iraq has the potential to undermine and damage Israel’s alliance with the US. It was bad enough when some American conspiracy theorists pushed the idea that the Iraq war was launched for Israel. Now the president has basically said the Jewish state is the reason he’s keeping troops in the Middle East. All we have to do is wait and see what happens the next time, God forbid, an American soldier is injured or killed in the Middle East. Now, thanks to Trump, it really is the Jews’ fault.

The US should be engaged in the region because it is a US interest for the Middle East to be stable and for Iran to be stopped in its attempts to advance its radical ideology and undermine moderate Arab Sunni states throughout the Gulf. Israel and America share common values and common interests, but the need for the US to be involved in the Middle East does not hinge on what is right or wrong for Israel; it is needed for America.

While it might seem nice today to be such a high priority for the US president, tomorrow political considerations could change and Israel could find itself being thrown to the side of the road. Interests are expendable and adapt as realities change. The president made this clear with the way he spoke about oil: Once upon a time America needed the Middle East for its oil; now it doesn’t.

Israel needs to be careful that it doesn’t end like oil, a forgotten interest. It is good when the president of the United States takes Israel into consideration on a wide-range of issues, but it shouldn’t be boasted as the reason America is engaged in the Middle East. That should be an American interest and Israel will need to work hard to ensure it stays that way.
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