By the end of the Obama administration, U.S.-Israel relations were at a low point. The president refused to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel; the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action divided the two historical allies; and a Memorandum of Understanding for military aid was less than satisfactory, from Israel’s viewpoint.
Israel was understandably pleased to see the new administration vigorously defend it at the United Nations and move the embassy to Jerusalem. While the Israelis, like the Trump administration, lack a cogent plan to fix the infirmities in the JCPOA, there too Israel is pleased with a harder line. However, the administration is doing Israel no favors on a critical issue.
In allowing the Syrian civil war to rage on and permitting Iran and Russia to ensconce themselves, the Trump administration, like the Obama team before it, has increased the potential for another Middle East war. Dov Zakheim writes:
Israel’s downing of an armed drone, its loss of an F-16 fighter jet — the first such loss in years — and its strike on Iranian targets in Syria are only part of the challenge that confronts the United States in particular.
The Israeli-Russian relationship is becoming increasingly tense. The possibility that Iran might establish one or more bases in Syria, as Russia already has done, poses as much of a threat to Jordan as it does to Israel. And the possibility that Israel might face a three-front war with Hamas and Hezbollah, both of which receive Iranian support, and Syrian-based Iranian forces could well result in the United States being called in to Israel’s rescue, as it was during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. . . .
Iran has increasingly entrenched itself inside Syria and is not about to depart anytime soon. On the contrary, Iran may already be laying the groundwork for a permanent presence on its Syrian client’s territory. Moreover, the Israelis are increasingly concerned that the Russians, whom Israel previously — and perhaps quixotically — hoped would counterbalance and restrain Tehran, now appear either unwilling or unable to do so.
Trump’s declaration (later reversed, but maybe not) to bug out of Syria entirely alarmed Israel and raised the potential for escalating tensions in a region none too stable to begin with. (“Coupled with Hezbollah’s growing strength, and the weekly Hamas-inspired protests in Gaza, Israel faces the specter of a three-front war for the first time since 1967. Moreover, the immediate Iranian threat may not affect Israel at all. A powerful and permanent Iranian presence in Syria would actually be a far greater threat to Jordan. If an Iranian-inspired insurrection, along the lines of what Tehran has been attempting in Bahrain for some years, were to topple Jordan’s King Abdullah, Israel could then face a threat on four fronts.”)
Zakheim posits that a U.S. withdrawal risks either “an Israeli preemptive strike on all Iranian forces in Syria,” or “a preemptive strike on Israel by Hezbollah and the Iranians, in coordination with Hamas, with Moscow’s support.” While certain members of Trump’s national security team understand the danger, Trump plainly does not. “All he sees is an American presence in Syria that he wants to bring to an end, come what may,” Zakheim observes. “Unless his Defense Department advisors can bring him around, the United States may well come to rue the day that it found itself not only once again rushing to the aid of Israel but fully engaged in yet another war in the Middle East, this time with both Russia and Iran on the other side.”
The irony — or tragedy — is that a president who swore to reverse completely his predecessor’s approach to Israel has left Israel in as dangerous a security position as it has been in since the 1973 war — surrounded by Iran proxies and actual Iranian forces (in Syria). “In this sense, Trump is Obama in hyper drive,” writes Natan Sachs. “While he is anything but aloof, and indeed keen to pick sides—showering love on Saudi Arabia and Israel—his instinct on the Middle East is clear: He wants no part of that mess.” He argues:
Already among allies, notably Israel, there is deep concern over a potential U.S. withdrawal and over the U.S. strategy writ large. Israeli press reported a “tense conversation” between Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in recent days over Syria. While some in the Israeli security establishment are happy that Trump might walk away from the JCPOA, some privately voice concern that there’s no apparent strategy for what follows. With the JCPOA gone, does the United States have a plan for pushing back against Iranian regional activity, not least in Syria? A U.S. withdrawal would suggest the opposite: a desire to disengage further.
The potential for an Iranian-Israeli clash is the natural result of disregard for U.S. interests in Syria under two presidents. Convinced that we had no dog in the Syrian civil war and obsessed over the nuclear deal (Obama for and Trump against), we have left Israel in a precarious position. It doesn’t help that we have a fickle and ignorant U.S. president who considers foreign policy simply a base-pleasing exercise, be it on trade or Middle East wars.
Rather than demanding a Syria plan from the administration (that plainly has none), perhaps critics of Trump’s hands-off stance in Syria should start demanding an Iran plan. How does Trump plan to prevent an Iran-Israel war, possibly complicated by Russia, Hamas and/or Hezbollah? I suspect that Trump hasn’t thought of the question, let alone come up with an answer.