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'Strategic failure': Why Trump can no longer make Netanyahu great again

Trump's change of policy in Syria has exposed Israeli prime minister's error in relying on friendship with the US President to protect country's foreign policy interests, analysts tell MEE
An Israeli election banner hanging on the facade of a building in Jerusalem ahead of September's rerun elections (AFP)
By in
Tel Aviv, Israel

A few days ago, Donald Trump sent Benjamin Netanyahu a nice letter for the Israeli prime minister’s 70th birthday and signed it, with his own hand, with the message: “You are great!”

The written attempt to make Netanyahu great again, however, cannot compensate for the damage the US president’s policy in the Middle East has caused to his ally - and was sent at the most sensitive moment for the Israeli prime minister, as he struggled - and twice failed - to form a government.

'First lesson: there is no Uncle Sam to keep our back. Second lesson: Russia is the sole constant and stabilising force in the Middle East'

- Yaakov Kedmi, former Nativ head

By courting Iranian leaders and pulling out of Syria, Trump announced to the Israelis and the rest of the world that the basic concepts that Netanyahu has relied on have failed miserably.

The words “failed concept”, often associated with Netanyahu these days, are loaded with meaning in Hebrew and in Israeli political culture.

The slogan dates back to the failed concept that led to the October 1973 war, the only one perceived as a real existential danger to the then-young Israeli state.

Today's failed notion, says Yaakov Kedmi, former head of Israel's Nativ intelligence services, bluntly, is the idea that with Trump being such a good friend of Israel, the country would be a key factor in his foreign policy and that the two countries would want the same outcome in Iran.

"We witness now a conceptual and strategic failure of magnitude similar to the one that led to the 1973 war. It does not mean that there is real danger to Israel. It just means that all Israeli policy is based on wrong assumptions and distorted concept," he tells MEE.

"Our political system as well as all intelligence agencies think [about] America, and base policy on American support. The recent pullout of American troops from Syria, just like misunderstanding of real American interest in Iran, mean a total collapse of the way they perceive the changing world," Kedmi explains.

"First lesson to learn: there is no Uncle Sam to keep our back. Second lesson: Russia is the sole constant and stabilising force in the Middle East," he says.

Relearning modesty

As the head of Nativ, Kedmi ran the prime minister’s liaison bureau which operated in the USSR before and after the Soviet Union’s collapse, and facilitated the immigration of Jews from there. 

Over the years, he earned the title of “the Israeli-Soviet statesman” - which he detests - and a reputation as a great expert on Russia with solid sources in Vladimir Putin’s administration.

Contrary to those who prophesise Russian domination of the Middle East, Kedmi claims Moscow’s aspirations are much more modest, void of ideology and basically pragmatic.

Russian military police near the northeastern Syrian town of Amuda this month (AFP)
Russian military police near the northeastern Syrian town of Amuda this month (AFP)

“Modesty” is something, he says, Israel will have to re-learn. He believes Syria will soon begin to recover with the help of Russia and, in a decade, will become a state of significance in the region.

Israel must take this development into consideration. Russia will not allow Damascus to take steps to destabilise the region or cause wars, but at the same time will not allow any entity to harm Syria.

“Israel will have to learn its new limits of power and freedom of action in the region,” he says. 

“No more kings of the Middle East, or at least of this region reliant on American power. It requires a total revision of the very basic Israeli concepts.”

The deeper problem

Professor Itamar Rabinovich, former Israeli ambassador to the US and one-time chief negotiator with Syria, is also concerned about the Trump administration’s lack of reliability.

“I don’t believe Trump when he says he is leaving some US troops in Syria after requests from Israel and Jordan,” Rabinovich, who currently serves as president of the Washington, DC-based Israel Institute think tank, tells MEE.

'When you’re busy chasing Iran and its leader, you do not accept phone calls from Bibi, as has happened over the last few weeks'

- Professor Itamar Rabinovich, former Israeli ambassador to the US

“I doubt Israel would ever utter such a request. Israeli policy was always cautious enough to abstain from steps that might endanger lives of American soldiers [so as] not to be held responsible for their death. He did it to appease domestic critical opinion."

Rabinovich believes Netanyahu’s long-term perceptions of Iran and his relations with the current US administration have collapsed in front of his eyes, and now the prime minister finds himself sidelined as Trump changes tack in the region.

“When you’re busy chasing Iran and its leader, you do not accept phone calls from Bibi, as has happened over the last few weeks," Rabinovich says, using a common nickname for the Israeli leader. “This is just a symbolic act of a much deeper problem.”

The deep problem Rabinovich is referring to is the strengthening of the Iran-Hezbollah-Syria axis. “This is the real significant impact on Israel,” he says.

In fact, that has been the topic of real controversy in Israel, as people discuss what is better for the country: Bashar al-Assad of Syria - gone, or in power.

Though Rabinovich sounds concerned about Russia’s future intentions in the Middle East, he seems confident about Moscow’s tactic coordination with Israel.

“There are enough mutual interests to preserve that level of coordination,” he says. “Anyway, Israel will have to learn to live with the new situation, though Russia will never become our friend.”

Confusion over complacency

Henry Kissinger’s famous statement that “Israel has no foreign policy, only a domestic policy” sounds truer now than ever.

Dramatic geopolitical changes are taking place while Israeli politicians fail to form a government, and while the option of a third round of elections in less than a year becomes more and more realistic.

These recent developments naturally become part of the domestic political game.

On the one hand, they allow all of Netanyahu’s opponents to portray him as a loser on all fronts. On the other, Netanyahu can easily manipulate the unrest and frame it as an imminent threat that requires his expertise.

It is also an opportunity for those who might be in a future government to face the new situation with fresh ideas.

'The new government should start immediate negotiations with the Palestinians and moderate Arab countries... to counterbalance the radical axis led by Iran'

- Amir Peretz, Labor party head

Talking to MEE, head of the opposition Labor party and former Defence Minister Amir Peretz suggests a two-way track: be prepared to cope alone with possible attack by Iran while creating an alternative axis.

“The new government should start immediate negotiations with the Palestinians and moderate Arab countries in a mutual attempt to counterbalance the radical axis led by Iran. This radical axis is now stronger than before,” he says.

“Since Israel’s ability to intervene is very limited, Israel’s real option is political and diplomatic pressure. I still believe America is our most important ally and we have to stick to this concept, regardless of who the president is or will be," Peretz says.

If nothing else, confusion has replaced complacency.

The huge billboards seen around Israel during the April elections showing Netanyahu with Putin and Trump, under the slogan “leader of another league”, already seem like posters of an old movie.