President Donald Trump’s abrupt order to withdraw US troops there and abandon Kurdish forces, who have been stalwart US allies against the Islamic State, set off clanging alarm bells among officials in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Written by David M. Halbfinger
Israel’s national security does not immediately depend on who controls the border of Turkey and northern Syria, more than 500 miles from its own territory.
Yet President Donald Trump’s abrupt order to withdraw US troops there and abandon Kurdish forces, who have been stalwart US allies against the Islamic State, set off clanging alarm bells among officials in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
And for a simple reason: If such a betrayal could befall the Kurds, Israelis from across the political spectrum are suddenly asking, what prevents the same from befalling another staunch US ally?
“A knife in our back,” screamed the headline over a column by Shimon Shiffer in Yediot Ahronot, Israel’s biggest mainstream paper. “The conclusion we draw needs to be unequivocal: Trump has become unreliable for Israel. He can no longer be trusted,” the column read.
Trump has insisted that the withdrawal is not a betrayal. On Thursday morning, he tweeted, “We may be in the process of leaving Syria, but in no way have we Abandoned the Kurds, who are special people and wonderful fighters.”
But in Israel, many see America’s withdrawal, which could expose the Kurds to a Turkish attack, as desertion.
“I feel like a Kurd today,” Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and top foreign-policy official under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said in an interview.
Israeli fears have nothing to do with Turkey, and everything to do with Iran.
Israel under Netanyahu has depended heavily on the Trump administration’s support in confronting Tehran over its nuclear ambitions and over its expansionist moves in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Israel believes Iran’s long-term strategy is to base missiles in those countries that can threaten Israel, as a deterrent to a pre-emptive strike — whether by Israel or the United States — on an Iranian nuclear weapons project.
The White House came through for Netanyahu when Trump pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal, which President Barack Obama had negotiated over Netanyahu’s loud protests.
The White House appeared reliable as long as the United States was imposing economic sanctions on Iran, and threatening the country with retaliation if it resorted to violence in response.
But the White House has not been quite so dependable more recently, Israelis say.
The Trump administration’s failure to hit back at Iran after repeated strikes on oil tankers and Saudi oil fields that were widely, if not undeniably, attributed to Tehran has undermined the credibility of US military threats, Israeli analysts said.
Trump’s openness to talks with Iran has reinforced the idea that he is averse to a new conflict in the region. And his pullout of troops from Kurdish territory has only reinforced the broader perception among Israelis that he wants to withdraw from the Middle East, even at the expense of US influence.
“There’s a growing sense that Trump is backing away from his commitments to allies,” said Emily B. Landau, an arms-control expert at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “I’m not sure Israel’s in the same category as Saudi Arabia and the Kurds. At least I’m hoping that we’re not in the same category. But expectations were forged through Trump’s rhetoric and his behavior, and some of his policy decisions. And the question is, to what degree will he follow through with it, if Israel really needs the United States?”
That American dependability is even being questioned by Israelis could embolden Iran at a particularly dangerous time, Israeli analysts said.
“We are already in a highly volatile period, with Iran attacking US allies,” like Saudi Arabia, said Ofer Zalzberg, an Israeli analyst for International Crisis Group. “The Israelis are bracing against an Iranian attack. The defense establishment believes Iran will strike within two months. The Israeli reaction would be very different from the Saudi nonreaction, and Iran knows that. But it’s very dangerous to encourage Iran to feel safer and to give Iran more courage in its decisions.”
Beyond what lessons Iran might take from Trump’s actions, Israeli officials are also watching how they will be interpreted in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, which already has shown signs of interest in reducing tensions with Iran.
“The big concern in Israel,” Zalzberg said, “is that if the Saudis feel exposed to Iranian attacks, they will shift from the current camp” — that of Israel and the United States, which have sought to deny Iran nuclear weapons altogether — “to the camp that says the most we can do is to diplomatically contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, even if only partly.”
That has enormous potential implications for Israel, which has sought to leverage its opposition to Iran into a diplomatic breakthrough with countries in the Persian Gulf, said Michael B. Oren, a former deputy minister under Netanyahu and ambassador to the United States during the Obama administration.
“Take that away, and how amenable are the Gulf states going to be to do anything with Israel?” he said.
“Trump’s ability to even advance a peace process with the Palestinians was predicated on his ability to stand up to the Iranians,” Oren added. Unless he does, that process will be at risk, Oren said.
“Why would the Saudis be on board with a peace process? Why would the Emiratis?” he said. “Nobody’s connecting the dots. If you’re in favor of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, you’ve got to be in favor of a strong US policy toward Iran.”
As weighty as the stakes are, Netanyahu himself has kept quiet so far — highlighting a key limitation of his longstanding policy of bear-hugging Trump.
That practice produced political dividends like American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and helped persuade Trump to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. It was so central to Netanyahu’s domestic image as a diplomatic maestro that he ran huge billboards showing him grinning alongside Trump in two reelection campaigns this year.
Yet it has also constrained Netanyahu from applying public pressure when he believes the president is making bad decisions.
The result is that Netanyahu’s leverage with Trump has reached a new low — and yet, “He can’t admit it publicly,” Zalzberg said. “He’s given Trump a sense of immunity, in effect, from criticism by the Israeli prime minister — something that US presidents always took seriously. And with someone as unpredictable as Trump, this is really dangerous.”
The hand-wringing by Israelis over Trump’s decision on the Kurds was only intensified by the fact that Tuesday was the eve of Yom Kippur, when Israelis not only observe the somber Jewish Day of Atonement but recall the 1973 Yom Kippur war, a national trauma that nearly resulted in Israel’s defeat.
Oren, a historian before he became a diplomat, noted that when Israel turned to the United States for help in that war, President Richard Nixon was beleaguered by the Watergate scandal that led to his impeachment and resignation. “And Israel’s enemies knew it,” Oren said.
Now, pointing to the impeachment inquiry against Trump, and to Netanyahu’s likely indictment on corruption charges, he added, “It’s happening here.”
Oren recalled that in Obama’s last meeting with Netanyahu — despite their friction — the president said that “if Israel ever got into a serious war, of course the US would intervene, because that’s what the American people expect.”
“I don’t think Israel can bank on that today,” Oren said. “I don’t know now. And it’s enough to say I don’t know.”
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