As US pulls out of Syria, Netanyahu insists Israel can defend itself on its own

PM avoids commenting directly on Trump decision, criticized by senior right-wing MKs as an abandonment of the Kurds, but says Jerusalem appreciates Washington’s assistance

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a memorial ceremony at Jerusalem's Mount Herzl for those killed in the Yom Kippur War, on October 10, 2019. (Screen capture/Youtube)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a memorial ceremony at Jerusalem's Mount Herzl for those killed in the Yom Kippur War, on October 10, 2019. (Screen capture/Youtube)

Against the backdrop of the US military’s withdrawal from Syria, criticized by some analysts who warn it will create a vacuum to be filled by powers that don’t share Israel’s interests, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared on Thursday that Israel will defend itself on its own against regional threats.

“As in 1973, today we also greatly appreciate the important support of the US… At the same time, we always remember and implement the basic rule that guides us: Israel will protect itself, on its own, against any threat,” said Netanyahu during a memorial ceremony at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl national cemetery for those killed in the Yom Kippur War.

The prime minister avoided directly mentioning the US decision to pull out from Syria, instead focusing on the “current source of aggression in the Middle East: the Iranian regime in Tehran.”

Netanyahu accused the Islamic Republic of “striving to tighten its grip” on countries throughout the region, referencing the downing of a US drone and the targeting of Saudi Arabian oil refineries.

A Syrian Kurdish woman flashes the v-sign during a demonstration against Turkish threats in Ras al-Ain town in Syria’s Hasakeh province near the Turkish border on October 9, 2019. Turkish warplanes were reported to be attacking the town hours later. (Photo by Delil SOULEIMAN / AFP)

“Iran threatens to wipe us off the map… Time and again, [the regime] tries to attack us, so we must stand ready to protect ourselves from the danger,” the premier added.

While they also refrained from specifically mentioning the US president, several prominent right-wing lawmakers spoke out against the Trump-ordered withdrawal for its “abandonment” of the Kurdish civilians and military forces in northern Syria.

New Right MK Ayelet Shaked. (Flash90)

On Wednesday evening, New Right MK Ayelet Shaked reissued a call for Kurdish statehood, urging the West to support the Kurds as Turkey launched a military campaign in northern Syria.

“Our national memory requires us to revolt against violence directed against another nation. Such is the Turkish violence directed against the Kurdish people in northern Syria,” the former justice minister wrote on Facebook.

“I have said this in the past: It is in the interest of both Israel and the United States, for the security and stability of the region, that a Kurdish state be established,” she wrote.

“The Kurds are the world’s largest nation without a country, with a population of about 35 million people. They are an ancient people that share a special historical connection to the Jewish people,” she went on.

In 2016, Shaked, then justice minister, openly endorsed the idea of an independent Kurdistan.

Smoke billows following Turkish bombardment on Syria’s northeastern town of Ras al-Ain in the Hasakeh province along the Turkish border on October 9, 2019 (Delil SOULEIMAN / AFP)

She was joined by other lawmakers, including New Right chairman Naftali Bennett, Netanyahu’s Likud rival Gideon Sa’ar and Blue and White MK Zvi Hauser.

On Wednesday, Turkey launched a broad assault on Kurdish-controlled areas in northeastern Syria, with intensive bombardment paving the way for a ground offensive made possible by the withdrawal of US troops.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the start of the attack on Twitter and soon after jets and artillery targeted Kurdish positions along the full width of the border, sending thousands of civilians fleeing their homes.

In 2014, Netanyahu expressed support for an independent Kurdistan. He praised the Kurds’ “political commitment and political moderation,” and said they were “worthy of their own political independence.”

Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s son, positioned himself as a supporter of Kurdish independence on Wednesday, tweeting a Kurdish flag together with the hashtag #freekurdistan.

Raphael Ahren and AFP contributed to this report.

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