Less than a month ago, on September 15, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touted the merits of a mutual US-Israel defense pact, which he vowed to advance after the upcoming elections.
“This is historic because it adds a powerful component of deterrence against our enemies,” he declared.
What a difference a few weeks make.
On Thursday, speaking at a memorial ceremony for the victims of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Netanyahu was keen to stress that Israel doesn’t need the help of any other nation to guarantee its security.
“Like in 1973, today we very much appreciate the important support of the US, which has greatly increased in recent years, as well as the major economic pressure that the US is using on Iran,” he said. “Even so, we will always remember and implement the basic rule that has guided us; Israel will defend itself, by itself, against any threat.”
Netanyahu didn’t explicitly mention it, but his comments were widely understood as a response to US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from northern Syria.
Israeli officials were said to have been shocked and dismayed by Trump’s sudden declaration. The move does not only mean that Kurds in the region are left defenseless in the face of a Turkish military offensive, they argued. Worse, America’s withdrawal would create a power vacuum which will likely be filled by Islamic State and other jihadist forces, and embolden Iran, Syria and Russia.
“Israelis are deeply unnerved by Trump’s decision to abandon our Syrian Kurdish partners to a Turkish invasion… But it’s worse than that,” tweeted Dan Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel under president Barack Obama, and now a visiting fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for Strategic Studies.
The costs to American and Israeli interests are obvious, Shapiro went on, listing the abandonment of a moderate Sunni partner — the Kurdish fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces; the victories handed to Ankara, Damascus, Moscow and Tehran, and the possible revival of the Islamic State.
“And, of course, the impression throughout the region that the US won’t stand with its allies as Iran grows more aggressive toward our partners in the Gulf and toward Israel from multiple fronts,” Shapiro added.
Israelis are said to fret not only about Trump’s withdrawal from Syria, but about his general isolationist tendencies.
“Fighting between various groups that has been going on for hundreds of years. USA should never have been in Middle East,” Trump tweeted this week. “The stupid endless wars, for us, are ending!”
Most alarming, from an Israeli perspective, is the president’s apparent unwillingness to use military force to respond to attacks on American assets and American allies in the region. He did not respond militarily when the Iranians shot down an expensive American drone, or after drones and cruise missiles hit an important Saudi oil facility on September 15 — in an attack widely blamed on Tehran.
“Israel should be quite worried,” agreed Chuck Freilich, a former Israeli deputy national security who today teaches at Tel Aviv and Columbia universities.
“Not just about Trump pulling out of Syria, which of course is very significant from an Israeli point of view,” he said, noting American troops’ role in preventing an uninterrupted Iranian line from Tehran to the Mediterranean.
Freilich was even more concerned about the question of whether Trump is still a reliable ally for Israel. “After all, his policies in the Middle East are failing in every way,” he said.
Any other US administration would have reacted to the various expressions of Iranian aggression with a declaration of war, Freilich went on, “but Trump, in his ‘unmatched wisdom,’ does nothing,” he scoffed.
New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman predicted that Trump’s Syria pullout “will make the Middle East more explosive.” US troops there were thwarting Tehran’s attempt to create a land bridge “to tighten a noose around Israel — and their removal could help bring the Iran-Israel shadow war out into the open,” he wrote on Tuesday. “This is the really big story in the Middle East today.”
But not everyone is profoundly troubled about Trump’s apparent exodus from the Middle East. Former Israeli national security adviser Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, for instance, argued that not much will change, in practical terms, for the security of the Jewish state.
“I don’t think Israel needs to be worried,” he told The Times of Israel in an interview Thursday. “There are regional groups like the Kurds that need the US to protect them. Israel, when it was founded, made the decision that it shall never depend on anyone for its security. We always had an ironclad motto: Israel will defend itself by itself. And we’re still very serious about it; we’re not just saying this.”
Israel’s insistence to always be able to provide for its own security is not always easy to implement; it requires a universal draft and enormous financial resources, noted Amidror, who served as Netanyahu’s security adviser from 2011-2013. On the other hand, it puts the Jewish state in a different league than many European states, Saudi Arabia and of course the Kurds, who all depend on America for their safety.
To be sure, Jerusalem requires Washington’s support in the diplomatic arena. American financial support and technological cooperation is also crucial. “But it’s clear that we don’t need American soldiers here to defend ourselves.”
According to foreign reports, we struck in Syria more than 200 times. The US didn’t strike the Iranians even once. Therefore, it’s on us, not on them
Amidror, today a fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, acknowledged that Trump’s recent actions, and lack thereof, make it clear to the entire region “that the Americans are out.” That, of course, is good news for the Iranians, the Syrians, the Turks and the Russians, he added.
“It’s very bad for the countries that have good relations with the US, including Israel,” he said. “Not because we can’t defend ourselves, but because we understand that the Middle East from now on will [have to manage] without influence, or with less influence, from the Americans.”
The US, of course, will continue to exert economic pressure, including crushing sanctions, on Iran, he stressed.
“According to foreign reports, we struck in Syria more than 200 times. The US didn’t strike the Iranians even once. Therefore, it’s on us, not on them. The job of fighting the Iranians and their influence was always done by us. Our ability to continue do to that will not be limited once the Americans are out,” Amidror said.
“We dealt with the Iranian aggression until now without the Americans, when they still were in the Middle East. We were alone in this ‘war between wars,’ as we call it. The fact that they are pulling out, does not mean any significant change. It’s more about psychology.”