Leaving Syria, abandoning Israel: 10 things to know for December 20
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Leaving Syria, abandoning Israel: 10 things to know for December 20

Trump’s decision to pull US troops out of the country will result in big gains for Iran and an even more complicated mission for Israel to stop Tehran and Hezbollah

A US soldier walks on a newly installed position, near the tense front line between the US-backed Syrian Manbij Military Council and the Turkish-backed fighters, in Manbij, north Syria, April 4, 2018. (AP/Hussein Malla)
A US soldier walks on a newly installed position, near the tense front line between the US-backed Syrian Manbij Military Council and the Turkish-backed fighters, in Manbij, north Syria, April 4, 2018. (AP/Hussein Malla)

1. America’s mission accomplished, Israel’s mission impossible: The White House decision to pull US troops out of Syria is almost universally derided in Israel as a move that will cede the war-torn country to Iran (to say nothing of the Kurds being abandoned to face Turkey, which is a much bigger danger).

  • While most troops are in northeastern Syria, it’s the departure of the smaller contingent in southeast Syria, near the borders with Iraq and Jordan near the city of al-Tanf, that is the biggest danger to Israel.
  • The US leaving “would mean that the Assad forces and the Iranians will have full control over Syria, and this would mean that they may try to deliver weapons from Iran through Iraq to Syria and then to Lebanon. And there’s not going to be anything in between to stop them,” says Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, a former director of Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry, tells ToI’s Raphael Ahren.
  • “In recent weeks senior Israeli defense officials have said that keeping the American soldiers [in al-Tanf] is of prime importance,” Haaretz’s Amos Harel reports.
  • “Israel’s ability to act in Syria was always complicated, was always carried out while eyeing the Russian bear, which moved into the region. Now it’s even more complicated,” Walla’s Oren Nahari writes.

2. But is it bad for the Jews? Yedioth Ahronoth cites Israeli diplomatic officials who call the decision a “blow” for the country.

  • Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a hard time hiding his disappointment, issuing a statement that signaled resignation and little else.
  • The Israel Hayom tabloid, which can normally be seen as a bellwether of the government’s attitude, takes a similarly resigned tack.
  • “At least this will end the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that Israel and Netanyahu are running the Trump administration,” the paper’s Ariel Kahane notes wryly.
  • Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon is more blunt, telling Army Radio Thursday morning that the US decision “is not good for Israel,” but adding that “Israel will pay nearly any price to ensure” no Iranian entrenchment in Syria.

3. Bibi busted: Trump took plenty of flak for the move, but in Israel, Netanyahu is also seen as part of the problem, with the opposition using the news to attack the prime/defense/foreign/health/absorption minister for a “foreign policy failure.”

  • “This is what happens to a country and a prime minister who have wagered all their chips on empty gestures, such as the embassy move, at the expense of the far greater and more immediate threat on its northern border,” Haaretz’s Chemi Shalev writes. “This is what awaits an Israeli leader who gets bogged down in the thick molasses of flattery and kowtowing to a US President, to the extent that he effectively loses any ability to challenge him or to enlist Congress and public opinion against his decisions. This is the destiny of a prime minister who is terrified that any direct public rebuke could make Trump blow his top and endanger the beautiful friendship he worked so hard to build.”
  • Yedioth’s Shimon Shaffir wonders “what happened to the ‘magic touch’ of Netanyahu, who tried to convince us that world leaders like Putin and Trump were dancing to his tune?”

4. A prize for Iran: The big winner, aside from Turkey, is Iran, which will not just be given access to Syria, but may also be able to link up its Shiite crescent to Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

  • “With the withdrawal, Iran will be left to maintain freely its presence there and more specifically a land route connecting Tehran to Lebanon,” says Mona Alami, a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
  • Trump “gutted his own declared policy on Syria as well as taking a whack at his Iran strategy, a major part of which is ostensibly aimed at blunting Tehran’s destabilizing activities in the Middle East,” Barbara Leaf, a former US ambassador and a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, tells The Washington Post.
  • But stopping Iran was apparently never even on the president’s radar. “In meetings with top advisers, Trump would ask: ‘What are we doing there? I know we’re there to fight ISIS, but we did it. Now what?’” Reuters reports, citing a former senior Trump official.
  • The juxtaposition of the US move, just as it chided the rest of the world at the UN Security Council for not dealing with Hezbollah sufficiently, was not lost on some.

5. Can you dig it: Israel Hayom, which somewhat plays down the Syrian retreat for obvious reasons, instead plays up the UN Security Council meeting, during which Israel accused Lebanon of passing its intel on the tunnels (which had been passed to UN peacekeepers) directly to the terror group.

  • Unfortunately for Israel, which has been trying to squeeze the affair for every point it can score against Hezbollah in the international arena, the accusations were quickly overshadowed by the Syria pullout.
  • Nonetheless, Israel Hayom’s Amnon Lord notes the anti-tunnel operation’s successes, including finding one on the very first day.
  • “Had the heavy work of the engineering vehicles and drills next to the wall continued for two or three or four days [without finding anything] it’s possible Hezbollah would have tried to challenge the IDF’s activities,” he writes
  • Instead, the area is stable enough that the army brought a gaggle of journalists to the site Wednesday, part of the same PR push.
  • “The tunnel shown to journalists appeared to extend around 40 meters inside Israeli territory. An exit point was not seen, only an access hole that had been dug above it,” AFP reports.
  • “We’ll stay here until we’ve finished. It took Hezbollah years to construct these tunnels. Our operation will set them back years,” a military official is quoted telling journalists.

6. Indict or elect: A statement Thursday by the attorney general that he will deliver a decision on indicting Netanyahu by March is seen as significantly affecting the early elections calculus (though three months ago, pundits swore that Israel would be heading to the polls by December-January).

  • Netanyahu would have to call elections in the next several days to schedule a vote ahead of the possible indictment.
  • On Wednesday, State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan indicated he had passed a recommendation to indict to AG Avichai Mandeblit to decide on. According to reports in Israel’s main television broadcasts, the decision includes definite bribery suspicions on Case 4000 — which involves allegations that Netanyahu traded political favors for positive press coverage.
  • Case 2000, which involves an alleged bid to reach a quid pro quo with another media baron, is described by Hadashot news as “bribery lite,” and Case 1000, involving gifts from businessmen, is seen as even shakier, at least when it comes to bribery, and may just result in a breach of trust charge.

7. Prison break: If Netanyahu is sent to jail, at least it might not be as crowded. On Thursday, Israel gave some thousand inmates early release to ease overcrowding, leading to consternation about bad guys roaming the streets.

  • Tracksuits are prominent in pictures of the inmates leaving prison, most of them with garbage bags filled with their belongings in hand.
  • According to officials, the number includes 47 sex offenders and other violent criminals.
  • “These guys who attacked women got less than a year for doing very harsh things and now they are shortening it by months, like a third of the sentence,” a social worker at a shelter for battered women tells Ynet. “The feeling here, beyond the fear and change of plans, is anger and bitterness.”
  • On the other side of the divide, released inmates express relief and make vows against recidivism, despite studies that show that many of them may return to criminal ways.
  • “I’m happy to get out and hope never to return again,” one ex-inmate tells Channel 10 news.

8. Danse macabre: David Elhayani, head of the Jordan Valley Regional Council, which is in the West Bank, tells ToI’s Jacob Magid that other settler leaders are “dancing on the blood of the murdered” by using a string of terror attack to make political demands.

  • “We have all the reasons during the rest of the year to protest the government’s neglect of Judea and Samaria [West Bank] residents, but to do so while people are still burying their loved ones is immoral,” he says.
  • “Are you going to ask for one shekel for every rock thrown, and 100 shekels for every murder?” he adds.
  • It’s worth noting that the Jordan Valley is somewhat more dovish than other settlement regions, and some settlements in the area vote for Labor more than Likud, though it has shifted to the right in recent years.

9. To infinity and beyond: Israelis were given a chance Wednesday to bid goodbye to Rona Ramon, wife of astronaut Ilan Ramon, as her body lay in repose at the Peres Center for Peace in Tel Aviv.

  • Many of the people there had a personal connection to the Ramons, including through the many science- or space-related educational programs dedicated in memory of Ilan and son Asaf, who died in a fighter jet crash in 2009.
  • “This is exactly what Rona would have wanted, to bring this young generation to space, and also to develop a way of thinking about their entire society,” Didi Leibovitz Azarar, a personal friend of Ramon’s, tells ToI’s Melanie Lidman.

10. Burning questions: Ramon is slated to be cremated instead of buried, an extreme rarity in Israel as it is forbidden by traditional Judaism.

  • Despite it being a personal decision to spare her kids from having to see another body put in the ground, the move has roiled some rabbis, including Beersheba municipal rabbi Yehuda Deri, who wrote a letter to the Ramon family that he said was on behalf of other rabbis as well.
  • “When I heard that she asked to be cremated so as not to upset her family members with another funeral, I didn’t sleep all night,” Deri tells the Hadashot television network. “I decided to act. She didn’t request her remains be cremated for ideological reasons, in which case I would not have intervened.”
  • Yet Rabbi Shlomo Avineri, a West Bank yeshiva head and religious Zionist leader not often regarded as especially progressive, says it’s not the religious leaders’ place to intervene.
  • “What is it to us if we weren’t asked about it?” he tells the Kikar Hashabbat website.
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