On its face, President Donald Trump’s announcement that he is pulling US forces out of Syria seems like an unfriendly act towards Israel. But it isn’t. Trump’s decision to pull US forces out of Syria is of a piece with outgoing US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley’s address on Tuesday to the UN Security Council regarding the Palestinian conflict with Israel. Both statements reflect the depths of the administration’s friendship and support for the State of Israel.
In Haley’s speech at the Security Council’s monthly meeting concerning the Palestinians’ conflict with Israel she decried the “UN’s obsession with Israel.”
Haley noted that the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians has failed for 50 years. And she said that it is time to try something new. She enjoined her “Arab and European brothers and sisters” to move beyond the “failed talking points” that formed the basis of the failed peace plans of the past half century.
Haley’s address intuited a key point that has never been raised by a senior US official. The “peace process” which has been ongoing between Israel and the PLO since 1993 is antithetical to actual peace.
Consequently, any effort to achieve actual peace between Israel and the Palestinians requires the abandonment of the “peace process.”
Haley made this clear by acknowledging that Israel has far less to gain and much more to lose from the peace process than the Palestinians do.
In her words, “Israel wants a peace agreement, but it doesn’t need one.”
“Both sides would benefit tremendously from a peace agreement. But the Palestinians would benefit more and the Israelis would risk more,” Haley said.
She added that if efforts to achieve peace were to fail, “Israel would continue to grow and prosper.”
The Palestinians on the other hand, “would continue to suffer.”
Haley’s insight puts paid the popular claim that Israel’s survival depends on the establishment of a Palestinian state in Judea, Samaria, Gaza and northern, eastern and southern Jerusalem. For years, pro-Palestinian forces have insisted that their demand that Israel surrender its capital and its heartland to the PLO is actually a pro-Israel position. Indeed, they say, anyone who rejects it is anti-Israel.
Haley exposed their conceit. “It would be foolish for [Israel] to make a deal that weakened its security,” she insisted.
The ambassador argued in favor of the administration’s still unpublished peace plan based on the plan’s rejection of the peace process’s “unspecific and unimaginative guidelines.” The administration’s plan is promising she said, because it is based on reality – or in her words, because it “recognizes [that] the realities on the ground in the Middle East have changed… in very powerful and important ways.”
HALEY ENCOURAGED the Europeans and Arabs to make a choice “between a hopeful future that sheds the tired, old and unrealistic demands of the past or a darker future that sticks with the proven-failed talking points of the past.”
That is, she told them to abandon the catechisms of the peace process in favor of a path that is based on the realities she outlined in her speech: Israel doesn’t need peace and it won’t sacrifice its security to achieve one. The Palestinians need peace more than Israel does and they should be willing to make sacrifices to achieve it.
The European response to Haley’s speech showed just how stark a departure her speech – and the Trump administration’s general vision for resolving the Palestinian conflict with Israel – is from everything we have experienced since 1993.
The eight European members of the Security Council – France, Britain, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, Belgium, Germany and Italy – issued a joint statement rebuking her. They warned the administration that any peace plan that would disregard “internationally agreed parameters… would risk being condemned to failure.”
The European statement continued, “The EU is truly convinced that the achievement of the two-state solution based on the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as the capital of both States – that meets Israeli and Palestinian security needs and Palestinian aspirations for statehood and sovereignty, ends the occupation and resolves all final status issues in accordance with Security Council Resolution 2234 and previous agreements – is the only viable and realistic way to end the conflict and to achieve a just and lasting peace.”
They then enjoined the US to get back to the business of putting the screws on Israel to agree to these “parameters,” stating that the EU “will continue to work towards that end with both parties and its regional and international partners.”
Trump and his advisers are unlikely to be swayed by the European threats. After all, if they had been trying to make the Europeans like them, they would have just continued the foreign policy of their predecessors. The EU’s rebuke of Haley was important not because it impacted the administration’s determination to abandon a quarter century of failure in favor of reality-based success – it was important because it showed just how far away the Trump administration has walked from the failures of its predecessors.
THIS BRINGS us to Syria and Trump’s sudden announcement that he is pulling all US forces out of the embattled country. How are we to understand a move that seems to advance the interests of all of the US’s worst enemies at the expense of its closest allies?
US forces were first deployed to Syria in 2014 as part of an international anti-Islamic-State coalition. At the time, then president Barack Obama was engaged in negotiations with the Iranian regime toward the nuclear deal.
Obama’s embrace of Iran was part of an overall strategic realignment of the US away from its traditional Sunni Arab allies and Israel toward Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. As Obama’s deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told an audience of pro-Obama activists at the time, Obama viewed his embrace of Iran through nuclear talks as the central policy of his second term.
Since Sunni ISIS was perceived as hostile to Shi’ite Iran, by fighting ISIS, Obama was achieving two goals: He was helping Iran by getting rid of a powerful adversary in Iraq and Syria, and he was selling the idea to the American public that Iran was their ally in a common war against ISIS.
US forces in Syria were given a very narrow mandate. They were prohibited from taking any action against Iran or Iranian-backed forces.
For the past two years, the Trump administration has continued implementing Obama’s pro-Iran policy in Syria. Efforts to change the US mission have failed, largely due to Pentagon opposition. During his visit to Israel in August, National Security Advisor John Bolton said that the mission of US forces had been expanded to block Iran from asserting control over Syria. But since the administration didn’t request a new mandate from Congress, the mission remained officially what it has been since 2014.
It is true that on the ground, the US forces in Syria do far more than fight ISIS. They block Iran from controlling the Syrian border with Iraq and so prevent Iran from controlling a land route from Tehran to the Mediterranean Sea.
US forces also have blocked Turkey from taking over Syrian Kurdistan and have prevented Turkish President Recep Erdogan from carrying out his pledge to destroy the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces. If the US chooses not to arm and supply the SDF, once the Americans leave, Syria’s Kurds – America’s only loyal allies there – will either have to cut a deal with Russia and Iran or face Turkey alone.
US forces in Syria also block Russia from taking over Syria’s oil fields. On February 7, forty US Special Forces troops blocked hundreds of Russian mercenaries from seizing the Conoco oil field on the eastern side of the Euphrates.
Finally, US forces in Syria act as a deterrent against Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah aggression against Israel. With US forces on the ground, they fear that provoking a war with Israel will be tantamount to going to war against America. With US forces out of Syria, their fear of attacking Israel will diminish.
BUT THERE ARE two significant upsides to the US move which together outweigh the downside, at least as far as Israel is concerned.
First, by leaving Syria, the US is abandoning Obama’s pro-Iranian policy once and for all. Further indication that this is part of a far-reaching strategic shift rather than a dangerous move by an impulsive president came with a Hadashot News report Wednesday night that senior US officials told Israel this week that Washington will align its policy towards Lebanon and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) with Israel’s position if Hezbollah receives a larger role in the next Lebanese government than it enjoyed in the previous one.
Hezbollah and its allies won a majority of the seats in May’s parliamentary elections. Negotiations towards a new government have been deadlocked over Hezbollah’s demands for expanded portfolios.
Obama’s Lebanon policy – to support the Hezbollah-controlled Lebanese government and the LAF – was part of his overall policy to empower Iran at the expense of Israel and the Sunni Arab states. Until now, guided by the Pentagon, the Trump administration has maintained this policy, much to Israel’s distress.
The advantage Israel gains from US abandonment of the Hezbollah-controlled Lebanese government and the LAF far outweighs the blow it takes from the withdrawal of US forces from Syria. If the US abandons its support for the LAF and the Lebanese government, Israel will be able to defeat Hezbollah in war.
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu’s statement Thursday morning revealed the second upside of Trump’s decision.
Netanyahu said: “We will continue to act in Syria to prevent Iran’s effort to militarily entrench itself against us. We are not reducing our efforts; we will increase our efforts.”
He added that, “I know that we do so with the full support and backing of the US.”
If the US backs Israel in war against Iran and Hezbollah by, among other things, deterring Russia and Turkey from getting involved; defending Israel at the UN; and supplying it with the weapons and other indirect support it needs to succeed – and it gives Israel a green light to attack the Hezbollah-controlled Lebanese government and military – then Trump’s move represents a full abandonment of Obama’s anti-Israel, pro-Iranian policies.
Haley explained on Tuesday that, “The world must know that America will remain steadfast in our support of Israel, its people and its security. That is an unshakable bond between our two peoples. And it is that bond – more than anything else – that makes peace possible.”
By abandoning the anti-Israel fake “peace process” and striking out on a new path based on reality, and by walking away from Obama’s pro-Iran policies in Syria and Lebanon and backing Israel in its efforts to defeat its enemies, the Trump administration is demonstrating what pro-Israel really means. So long as it is true to its word, Israel is safer and stronger for it.