President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of US troops from a crucial area of the Turkey-Syria border, widely seen as an abandonment of America’s Kurdish allies there, has reinforced the resonance of a series of “emergency” warnings issued by Israeli leaders in the days leading up to Wednesday’s solemn Yom Kippur.
Israel’s concern, as Channel 13’s military analyst Or Heller put it on Wednesday night, is that “Trump’s isolationism” will encourage Iran to do what it did to Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities last month: attack.
When the new Knesset was sworn in last Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Israel was facing a dire challenge from an increasingly emboldened Iran. “This isn’t spin, it’s not a whim, this is not ‘Netanyahu trying to scare us,’” he insisted. “Anyone who knows the situation knows that Iran is getting stronger and is attacking around the world, saying clearly, ‘Israel will disappear.’ They believe it, they are working toward it, we need to take them seriously. That reality obligates us to act. Remember my words and heed them.”
More understatedly but along the same lines, President Reuven Rivlin warned that same day that Israel currently had security needs “the likes of which we have not known for many years.”
And Netanyahu’s former defense minister, now rival, Avigdor Liberman, on Saturday cited a “national emergency,” in today’s Israel, including “security threats from south, north and further away.”
Despite the prime minister’s insistence that “this isn’t spin,” the political leaders’ warnings were widely seen at first as part of the jockeying over Israel’s next government: Netanyahu has been unable to muster a majority; Liberman is urging a coalition compromising his own Yisrael Beytenu, Netanyahu’s Likud, and rival Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party; and Rivlin has been seeking to broker some form of power-sharing arrangement.
Even when Netanyahu convened Israel’s key decision-making security cabinet for the first time in two months on Sunday, with Iran at the top of the agenda, many opposition politicians and analysts still largely attributed the gathering to political motivations.
But then, later that day, Trump announced his planned troop withdrawal. By Wednesday, Turkish forces were targeting Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria, forces that had long been allied with the US in the battle against Islamic State.
Coming in the wake of the US president’s decision not to carry out or organize any kind of response to the major drone and cruise missile strike September 14 on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil processing plant, widely attributed to Iran, and other Iranian attacks on oil tankers and Saudi targets, Trump’s latest policies are increasingly being seen in Israel as boosting Iran and undermining US allies.
In terms of the practical consequence of Trump’s withdrawal, a US troop departure eases Iran’s path to growing control in Syria, and helps facilitate its relentless effort to establish a corridor of military control from Tehran to Beirut.
In a speech aired on Iranian television on Monday, Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the man responsible for the regime’s expansionist military activities overseas boasted that Iran has now created “territorial continuity” by connecting Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Despite efforts by “the Zionist regime” and the US to stop it, he said, Iran “has expanded the resistance from a geographical territory of 2,000 square kilometers in southern Lebanon to a territory of half a million square kilometers.”
In terms of the heightened military threat exposed by Iran’s drone and cruise missile strike at the Saudi Abqaiq facility, Israeli army chiefs have acknowledged that Iran’s evident success in penetrating Saudi defenses, which include the Patriot air defense system that Israel also uses, has prompted a fresh analysis of Iran’s capabilities to ensure that Israel is not vulnerable.
Defense officials have reportedly gone so far as to conclude that a similar assault by Iran on Israel, if it came, would likely be launched from western Iraq, where there is a strong presence of Iran-backed militias.
The concern in Israel, TV analyst Heller said Wednesday, is that the US president’s hands-off approach in the wake of the Abqaiq attack “will encourage the Iranians to act against Israel” in the same way, “with cruise missiles and drones.” Soleimani’s al-Quds force has “an account to settle with Israel,” because of Israeli strikes at Iranian targets in Syria and Lebanon, he noted.
Uzi Even, one of the founders of Israel’s Dimona nuclear facility, wrote in Haaretz on Sunday that work at Dimona should be halted in the light of Iran’s demonstrable capabilities. “The Iranians, or their proxies, showed that they can hit specific targets with great precision and from a distance of hundreds of kilometers. We have to accept the fact that we are now vulnerable to such a strike.”
Israel has missile defense systems and other capabilities that the Saudis do not, and the Israeli defense establishment is far less bleak than Even. A senior officer in the IDF’s Military Intelligence unit told Channel 13 TV on Monday that the Iranians “get a high mark, too high,” for the Abqaiq attack, but stressed that Tehran would “absolutely” not succeed if it attempted to launch a similar assault on Israel.
Still, the IDF’s chief of staff, Aviv Kohavi, felt moved to issue a warning Monday that any attack on Israel would be met with a “forceful” response. “We are keeping our eyes open, having daily situation assessments, and taking professional decisions that lead to attacks and the thwarting of threats.”
Finally, however, in terms of the dependability, or otherwise, of the Trump administration in an Israeli hour of need, the president’s latest policies — notably regarding what had been the US alliance with the Kurds — are causing overt dismay in some Israeli circles. Netanyahu has closely allied himself with Trump, hailing their friendship at the risk of alienating the president’s Democratic opponents, and being rewarded with presidential recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017, and of the Golan Heights as sovereign Israeli territory this past March.
Writing in Israel’s biggest-selling Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth on the eve of Yom Kippur, veteran diplomatic correspondent Shimon Shiffer warned that Trump’s decision on the Syrian withdrawal, and his “abandoning of the Kurdish allies, who believed that the US would stand with them… must set all our red lights flashing.” And the conclusion for Israel, Shiffer charged, “needs to be unequivocal: Trump has become unreliable for Israel. He can no longer be trusted.”
Shiffer, whose column was headlined “A knife in our backs,” noted that the president didn’t even tell Israel in advance of his Syrian withdrawal plans. He also noted pointedly, given the timing of his column, that the US strategic airlift of weapons and supplies during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Israel was facing defeat, was nothing short of decisive.
In less charged but no less significant terms, the former Israeli ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, until recently a deputy minister in Netanyahu’s government, told the New York Times on Tuesday he was no longer sure Israel could rely on the US, under Trump, to come to Israel’s aid at a time of serious war. Oren, who served in DC from 2009-2013, recalled that at Barack Obama’s last meeting with Netanyahu — who had a friction-filled relationship, especially over the 2015 Iran nuclear deal — the president assured the prime minister that “if Israel ever got into a serious war, of course the US would intervene, because that’s what the American people expect.” Said Oren: “I don’t think Israel can bank on that today… I don’t know now.”
For now, Channel 13’s Heller stressed, Israeli-American military coordination is unchanged. Next month, indeed, the Israeli Air Force will be hosting a joint Blue Flag drill with the US Air Force in the south of Israel.
On Tuesday, shortly before the start of Yom Kippur, Trump issued a presidential message to the Jewish people, saying that “Melania and I pray that He may seal you in the Book of Life for the coming year.”
The president’s words will have been warmly received in the Jewish state. He had very nice things to say about the Kurds, too, that same day: “In no way have we abandoned the Kurds, who are special people and wonderful fighters,” he tweeted.
But concern is mounting about the president’s deeds.