On Wednesday, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer stated that U.S.-Israel relations “have never been better than they are right now under President Trump.” This came shortly after Prime Minister Netanyahu called Trump’s decertification of the Iran nuclear deal “courageous.” While Israel’s leaders might be proud that there is less public daylight between the U.S. and Israel than under the Obama administration, they certainly cannot celebrate faults in the U.S.-Israel strategic partnership. On the contrary, events unfolding in the Middle East over the past week point to Israel’s growing desperation in the face of mounting threats and an increasingly neutralized or apathetic United States.
Far from being a show of strength, Israel’s Monday bombing of a Syrian anti-aircraft battery 50 kilometers east of Damascus was an act of distress. Feeling the pressure of Iran’s deepening presence in Syria and Iraq, Israel lashed out in order to demonstrate its red lines to Russia, southern Syria’s current sheriff, but also to communicate its fears to U.S. Central Command. America’s recent nods to Israeli security – Trump decertifying the Iran nuclear deal and US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley urging the UN to take up Trump’s aggressive anti-Iran position – are nominal. As of yet, the new administration in Washington has shown little tangible initiative to contain Iran’s presence on the ground through diplomatic or military means.
Over the summer, American negotiators failed to deliver on Israeli hopes of a significant buffer zone between Israel’s northern border and Iranian forces in southern Syria. Earlier this week, the United States condoned and may have even sat back as pro-Iran Iraqi forces reclaimed oil-rich Kirkuk from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), one of the few Israel-friendly entities in the region. Many reports are claiming that Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force commander Qassim Suleimani was actually in the KRG at the time and negotiated the Peshmerga withdrawal from the city with Kurdish opposition leaders there. Glaringly absent from this entire scenario is a coherent American diplomatic or military strategy for Iranian rollback. Trump and Haley can rattle their anti-Iran sabres at home and in the UN as much as they want, but the facts on the ground suggest that they are allowing the United States to be muscled out of the region as Tehran solidifies its land corridor to the Mediterranean Sea.
This negligence damages both U.S. and Israeli national security. Without a proactive American partner taking action against Iran on the ground, Israel is turning to Russia as the Middle East’s credible arbiter and urging Putin to limit Iran’s presence in Syria. After meeting with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Israel on Tuesday, Netanyahu spoke with Putin over the phone on Wednesday, conveying Israel’s concerns about the Iranian nuclear program, the pro-Iran threats to Israel from southern Syria and Lebanon, and the independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan. As the regional balance of power shifts and Iran ascends, Israel is not waiting for the United States in order to adapt to the Middle East’s new circumstances. Netanyahu and Dermer can say that U.S.-Israel relations are “better than ever before,” but they are avoiding the fact that U.S.-Israeli security leverage in the Trump era is either stagnant or more tenuous than before.