Israel Pulse

Israel needs to learn lesson from Turkish assault on Kurds

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Article Summary
After the Turkish attack on the Kurds, Israel must realize that when and if the time comes, US President Donald Trump might not stand by the Jewish state.

Sometimes, it is hard to determine what is more surprising — the steps US President Donald Trump takes in the Middle East, or the sweeping surprise with which his moves are met in Jerusalem. And what is more egregious: the Trump administration’s foreign policy in general, and Middle East policy in particular, or the policy Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sold his public (and himself) while burying his head in the sand. Netanyahu expects Israelis to believe in a profound friendship between leaders who overlook US national interests. Back in December 2018, Trump berated critics of his decision to pull the remaining US forces out of Syria and abandon the US allies in the war against the Islamic State to the mercies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “Does the USA want to be the policeman of the Middle East, getting nothing but spending precious lives and trillions of dollars protecting others who, in almost all cases, do not appreciate what we are doing?” he tweeted.  

True, Netanyahu greatly appreciates the man to whose name he is always careful to append the sobriquet, “the greatest friend Israel has ever had in the White House.” He even honored Trump with a large sign at the entrance to a tiny settlement in the Golan Heights — naming it “Trump Heights,” in appreciation of the US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the contested territory. Netanyahu also placed Trump at his side on giant election propaganda billboards. “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,” Netanyahu said at an Oct. 10 memorial ceremony for the fallen of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

With or without regard to Trump’s decision to abandon the Kurds to their fate, Netanyahu went on to say that Israel “will always remember and implement the basic rule that has guided us; Israel will defend itself, by itself, against any threat.” If Israel is capable of defending itself with its sophisticated military, why has Netanyahu been urging Trump to advance a US defense treaty with Israel?

Every student of international relations knows that Israel’s special relationship with the United States is a key component of Israel’s deterrence capacity and border stabilization. For years, Israel has enjoyed the prevailing view in the region that any declaration of war against it would be tantamount to declaring war on the United States. What, then, should people in the region make of the US decision to refrain from retaliating for the Iranian aggression against Saudi Arabia and the United States itself?

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“We have spent a tremendous amount of money helping the Kurds,” the president said in explaining the US troop pullout from Syria. In regard to US support for its Middle East allies in terms of spending, the aid to Israel, Egypt and Syria could also be considered an unnecessary expenditure. What's more, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed understanding for the massacre of the Kurds, arguing that Turkey has “legitimate security concerns.”

Every step that the United States takes away from the Middle East requires an Israeli move toward the Sunni Arab states — its natural partners in the battle to block Iran and its Shiite allies. The longer the delay in unveiling the “deal of the century” that Trump promised to engineer between Israelis and Palestinians, the more relevant become the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative and the idea of a regional defense treaty. Establishing such a strategic partnership would obviously require moving forward with resolving the Palestinian issue through diplomatic channels, not military ones. In his Oct. 10 speech, Netanyahu reiterated the cliche, “The IDF [Israel Defense Forces] is prepared to pre-empt any threat, defensively and offensively, with crushing strength …”

If that is the case, why is he now demanding billions in additional defense spending? The cause of the prime minister’s panic lies in a severe intelligence flaw. Mossad, headed by Netanyahu’s close associate Yossi Cohen, who excels in public relations, was apparently surprised by the precision and power of the Iranian rockets that struck the Saudi oil installations at Abqaiq and Khurais.

Professor Uzi Even, one of the founders of Israel’s nuclear reactor in Dimona, wrote in an Oct. 3 article in Haaretz, “We have to accept the fact that we are now vulnerable to such a strike.” Even suggested burying gas and fuel tanks underground and beefing up the defense of the country’s power stations against a direct hit. He reiterated the urgent need to shut down the Dimona reactor, the seat of Israel’s nuclear deterrence capability (according to foreign media reports). The direct hit on the Saudi refineries by Iranian precision cruise missiles proves that the Israeli reactor is also exposed and that its potential damage likely outweighs its benefit, he warned.

Even has been warning repeatedly that the reactor, in operation since 1963 and one of the oldest functioning reactors of its kind, is a ticking time bomb. Over 150 reactors of the same age, or even newer, have been shut down over security concerns or malfunctions. The Chernobyl disaster, and US abandonment of its Middle East allies, must both remind Israel that there are things — like nuclear capabilities — that do not last forever.

People might say that American presidents come and go, but US support of Israel is everlasting. Trump’s two Democratic predecessors, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, were not keen to engage in wars across the ocean and sought to curtail US involvement in the Middle East. Their Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives did not yield any fruit juicier than Trump’s unripe Middle East peace plan. There is nothing on the horizon to suggest that the next US president will send Israel a weapons airlift in case of war, as President Richard Nixon did in October 1973. There is also no basis for hope that he will follow in the footsteps of Jimmy Carter, the sponsor of Israel’s first peace treaty with an Arab state. True, surprises are always possible, but as the Syrians, Kurds and Palestinians are painfully learning, there is no guarantee they will work in our favor.

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Found in: syrian civil war, kurds, benjamin netanyahu, donald trump, us middle east policy, peace negotiations, deal of the century, israel-us relations

Akiva Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. His most recent book (with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements, was on the best-seller list in Israel and has been translated into English, French, German and Arabic.

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