Tel Aviv — As politicians and national security hands in the U.S. expressed shock at President Donald Trump for his embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday, Israeli leaders were hailing the meeting as an unqualified success for the interests of the Jewish state in the Middle East.
Looking past the consequences of Trump’s public break with U.S. national security, intelligence and law enforcement officials’ claims that Russia intervened in the 2016 presidential election, Israel sees the ties between Trump and Putin as an opportunity to advance its demands that Iranian forces be expelled from post-civil war Syria.
“I welcome the remarks that I heard in the press conference between President Trump and President Putin,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a video clip released Monday evening.
Jonathan Rynhold, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University and an expert on U.S.-Israel relations, explained the dissonance in the Israeli response and the criticism in the U.S. Israelis see the criticism of Trump as domestic American politics rather than a warning sign of a geostrategic shift of its most important ally.
“The reactions are different because they are responding to different things,” he said. “Israel is a small country. This is really not related to Bibi. A small country in the Middle East is more concerned with its border than what Trump says about U.S. security services.”
Netanyahu praised Putin for his commitment to the 1974 disengagement agreement between Syria and Israel following the Yom Kippur War that once preserved stability in the Golan Heights along the border with Syria.
Ever since it’s become clear that the Russian- and Iranian-backed regime of President Bashar Assad would win the civil war, Israel has been worried that he would allow Iranian forces to remain and build a forward base along the Golan Heights border.
Sheldon Adelson’s pro-Netanyahu and pro-Trump tabloid Israel Hayom dubbed the summit “historic” in a front-page sub-headline. The main headline stressed a quote from the Putin and Trump joint press conference: “We will work together to ensure the security of Israel.”
After the press conference, Trump boasted on Fox News that the summit yielded “really good conclusions” for Israel and added that Putin is a “big fan of Bibi.”
The summit was a “big achievement for Israel and its policies,” Gilad Erdan, Israel’s public security minister, told Israel Radio in an interview, because the two “most powerful leaders in the world” were discussing Israel’s security interests.
The online version of Israel Hayom declared that Israel was the main winner of the summit.
“According to the deal being hatched, Moscow will help Washington in the war on ISIS and al-Qaeda while maintaining calm in the Syrian theater. In Syria, Russia will aid Israel’s security by securing the border with Assad in the Golan Heights,” wrote Avraham Ben Zvi, a political science professor at Haifa University.
“In the view of the White House, not only is Moscow stabilizing a tense and violent region, and allowing the U.S. to pull back, this also serves America’s Middle East goal of protecting Israel’s security,” Ben Zvi continued. “This is Israel’s interest in the global bargain. In return, the U.S. will finally accept — even if not officially — the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and other territorial grabs Moscow has made in eastern Ukraine.”
Rynhold said Israel hopes that Trump’s rapprochement with Russia will weaken Iran in Syria. The Israeli policy is “yes” to a Russian role in post-civil-war Syria, and “no” to Iran.
“It’s not clear if this strategy has worked. The Americans and Russians had reached understanding about moving Iranian forces away from the border, and it hasn’t happened.”
Amos Gilead, a retired Israeli general and former top adviser to Israel’s defense minister, also said that it’s unclear whether the Trump entente with Russia will force Iran out of Syria.
“Will they disappear, or will they be allowed to stay and operate with other foreign forces,” he said in an interview with Israel Radio. “Until now, Russia has shown tolerance [toward] Iran. If the Americans were to retreat from Syria, the Iranians might view that as an incentive to widen their operations.” The details of the meeting, he said, would dictate the reality.
As if to highlight the complexity of Syrian-Israeli relations as the civil war winds down, a group of about 200 Syrians approached the Israeli border with white flags in the region near the Quneitra crossing. Enforcing Israel’s policy of not accepting Syria refugees, the Israeli army warned them not to cross the border.
Israeli security commentators were less upbeat about the Trump-Putin summit than the Israeli government.
“This will go down as a disgraceful milestone the history of the U.S. It was disgraceful to see a U.S. president attack the people who work for him, or people loyal to his country but not from party,” wrote Ron Ben Yishai, a security columnist for Yediot Achronot. “That was an incident of a president without respect for himself and the administration he heads.”
Ben Yishai said nothing new was said by either leader regarding U.S. or Russian commitments in Syria. The summit meeting came just a few days after Netanyahu traveled to Moscow to discuss the Middle East with Putin.
But Putin avoided speaking explicitly about the Iranian entrenchment in Syria, Ben Yishai wrote.
“Trump spoke a lot, and Putin said little, but except for an agreement to continue the military coordination between U.S. and Russian forces in Syria to prevent a collision, the two leaders didn’t agree to anything new. There are no good tidings for Israel.”