Tel Aviv — “Yalla, Bye.”
The political cartoon in Haaretz shows Donald Trump behind sandbags dispatching foot-soldier Benjamin Netanyahu toward Iranian rockets, while smoke billows from a downed U.S. drone and a destroyed Saudi oil installation.
In another cartoon, the Israeli prime minister looks nervously on as the U.S. president kicks allied Arabs and Kurds under the bus he is driving.
For years, the Israeli public and prime minister have worshipped Trump for moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights and cutting funding to the Palestinian Authority.
But after the U.S. president called last week for a withdrawal of U.S. troops working with Kurdish allies in northern Syria — indulging Turkey’s desire for a military incursion against its longtime foe — many experts are now wondering whether the U.S. has Israel’s back and whether Trump administration might hand Jerusalem a similar disappointment.
To be sure, the U.S. disengagement from the Middle East began during the Obama administration, which signaled a strategy to shift focus to China and the Far East. Obama resisted intervening in the Syrian civil war, leaving a vacuum for Russia and Iran to prop up Syrian President Bashar Assad.
But Trump’s impulsive pullback has already tilted the regional power balance further away from Israel and the U.S. and toward their common foes.
“Look at what happened in Syria after the attack of the Iranians on the Saudi oil installations. This is a weaker and less influential America,” said former Prime Minister Ehud Barak in an interview with Fox News. “Once you withdraw from such a fight, and use such strong rhetoric, and then the big stick of Teddy Roosevelt is replaced by chopsticks.”
Kobi Michael, a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former senior official in Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry, said that the current move risks reviving the Islamic State and weakening the “moderate” Sunni states in the region. At the same time, American withdrawal is a boost for Russia, Syria and Turkey — all of them rivals of Israel.
“The American decision can be understood in light of domestic considerations and Mr. Trump’s promises, and the natural tendency of the American public to remain at home, and not to interfere in remote places when energy isn’t the issue,” said Michael.
Yet it raises inevitable fears that “maybe Israel will be in the same place as the Kurds today.
“You can’t rely on America to intervene on behalf of its allies,” he continued. “Maybe at some point in the future, people in the U.S. from the camp of President Trump will say that ‘Israel is a liability, and why do we have to support them?’”
A rocky bromance
Domestically, the Trump moves have exposed Netanyahu to political fire for his Iran strategy and his bear hug of the American administration. Analysts doubted that, if Israel has to hold a third round of parliamentary elections, the campaign posters pairing Trump and Netanyahu will feature so prominently as they did in the two election cycles this year. Indeed, the election billboards featuring Netanyahu shaking hands with Trump started coming down this week.
As if to fend off the criticism and distance himself from Trump, Netanyahu declared at a Yom Kippur War memorial ceremony that while Israel appreciates the support that it gets from the U.S., it would never abandon the principle that Israel must always “defend itself by itself from any threat.”
While avoiding direct criticism of Trump, Israeli right-wing politicians have condemned the Turkish military offensive in Syria. Ayelet Shaked, the former justice minister and leader of the New Right party, even called for the creation of an independent Kurdish state.
The message implicit in the U.S. decision to leave the Kurds to fend for themselves is that the U.S. has devalued alliances in favor of Trump’s transactional politics, said experts.
“Trump is saying that, ‘We don’t have alliances, just quid pro quos. Everything comes down to what’s good for me,’” said Joel Parker, a research fellow at Tel Aviv’s Moshe Dayan Center for Near East and North African Studies. “That’s where Israeli leaders have to be afraid.”
The volatility of Trump’s decision-making should be another cause for worry among Israeli decision makers, wrote Amos Harel, the military affairs commentator for Haaretz.
“The clear evidence of the chaotic way the U.S. president conducts business is worrisome. He seems committed only to himself,” Harel wrote. “Against this backdrop, it’s almost amusing to note the shrinking number of Trump supporters in the Israeli media, who need to employ a little sophistry to justify the actions of the supposed lover of Israel currently occupying the White House.”
While the move may have embarrassed unsuspecting politicians, Israeli national security experts weren’t entirely surprised, said one political scientist. They were already worried about Trump’s vacillations.
“The decision was cruel and Trumpian, but the broad trend of the U.S. pulling back from the region has been taking place all the time,” said Ehud Eiran, a political science professor at Haifa University. “It touches a deeper vein in the Israeli psyche: that the Zionist project is about self-help — fundamentally that you are the only ones that can ensure your own security.”
Though the decision dredges up memories of how French President Charles De Gaulle abandoned his alliance with Israel after the 1967 Six-Day War, Eiran noted that Israel’s alliance with the U.S. goes much deeper.
“People feel that with the U.S., it’s different because of the large Jewish community, and the ties to Congress,” he said. “There’s this notion that we are close to America, that we are ingrained in the American economy. We are part of the American hemisphere in many ways.”
Michael of the INSS noted that Trump is still a staunch supporter of Israel, and that bilateral ties remain robust.
“But the interests of Israel are not just driven by the direct relations. It’s driven by the situation in the region. The decision might affect Israeli interests and security in the long term.”
And if President Trump’s calculations are always driven by political needs, Israel needs to be concerned.
“If everything is a slave to domestic considerations, the election, and his hardcore base, maybe tomorrow this base will not perceive Israel’s interest in the same way that they are perceived today.”