As Trump abandons Kurds, Israel worries how dependable he is
JERUSALEM — For the past three years, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has bet heavily on President Donald Trump and been rewarded with major diplomatic gains in exchange for his warm embrace of the U.S. leader.
But the U.S. pullback from northeastern Syria, essentially abandoning its Kurdish allies, has called that strategy — and Trump's reliability as a friend — into question. In particular, there are growing fears that Israel's archenemy Iran could be emboldened by what appears to be an increasingly hands-off American policy in the region.
"The Israelis had thought of Trump as a special U.S. leader very much in tune with their view of the region," said Dan Shapiro, who was former U.S. President Barack Obama's ambassador to Israel. "Now they're coming to terms with the cold hard reality that his isolationist instincts and his chaotic, impulsive decision making can actually be very damaging to their interests."
It is a surprising turn of events for Netanyahu, who has been one of Trump's strongest supporters on the international stage.
That alliance yielded a wealth of dividends for Netanyahu during the first few years of the Trump administration — perhaps none so striking as Trump's decision to break with decades of U.S. policy and recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital. He moved the American Embassy to the contested holy city, enraging the Palestinians.
Trump also withdrew from the international nuclear deal with Iran — an agreement that Israel had derided as weak and ineffective. He defended Israel from its many critics at the United Nations, and, early this year, recognized Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war.
Netanyahu routinely boasts that Trump is the best friend that Israel has ever had in the White House. But things have begun to change since he failed to win reelection in April and was forced to hold a second, inconclusive vote last month.
During the first campaign for the April race, Trump embraced Netanyahu's candidacy and made little secret of his support, inviting the Israeli leader to the White House when he announced his recognition of the Golan Heights annexation.
But during the do-over race, Trump kept his distance. And after Netanyahu last month failed for a second time to win a parliamentary majority in national elections, Trump appeared to play down the friendship. "Our relations are with Israel, so we'll see what happens," he said.
Concerns have only deepened following a series of moves in which Trump backed away from possible military confrontations. In June, he called off a planned attack against Iran in response to the shooting down of an American drone. Trump also decided against military action in response to an alleged Iranian attack on Saudi oil facilities last month, saying he did not want war.
Then, this week, he abruptly withdrew U.S. troops from Kurdish areas in northeastern Syria, clearing the way for a Turkish invasion aimed at crushing the Kurds, America's allies in the fight against the Islamic State group. Trump has defended the move by saying the United States should not be "fighting and policing" in the Middle East. But it reportedly caught Israeli officials off guard.
The fear is that Trump's actions, or lack thereof, could encourage Iran to step up what Israel sees as aggressive and hostile activity in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.
"The main image is a very weak U.S. that does not help its allies. It deserts its allies," said Eytan Gilboa, an expert on U.S.-Israel relations at Israel's Bar-Ilan University.