Foreign Affairs and Defense
If there’s one thing the recent war with Hamas made clear, it’s that Israel’s strategy for dealing with the Gaza Strip, known as “mowing the grass,” may be approaching its expiration date. And that will leave the Jewish state with only one feasible alternative—reoccupying part or all of Gaza.
Mowing the grass means that every few years, when Hamas starts a new round of violence, Israel takes military action to degrade its capabilities enough to gain another few years of quiet. Like grass on a lawn, terror inevitably grows back, and must be cut down again; yet just as mowing a lawn nonetheless serves a purpose, so too does destroying terrorist infrastructure. With the exception of the 2014 war, which included a sizable ground component, these operations generally have been short, were conducted almost exclusively from the air, and produced few Israeli casualties.
The obvious drawback to this strategy is that it buys only temporary quiet; after a few years to recover, Hamas once again rains missiles on Israel. That’s something reoccupation would prevent; it bears repeating that while Hamas has fired over 20,000 rockets at Israel from unoccupied Gaza over the last sixteen years, not one missile has ever been fired from the Israeli-controlled West Bank.
Nevertheless, the strategy’s benefits have so far outweighed this drawback.
First, reoccupying Gaza would entail far higher Israeli casualties. The 2014 war, which involved only a limited ground operation in a small section of Gaza, resulted in 74 Israeli fatalities—more than double the number in all of Israel’s other Gaza operations combined. Reoccupation would require a far more extensive ground operation, and therefore many more casualties. It would also require Israeli soldiers to remain in Gaza, likely resulting in additional deaths over the years.
Second, reoccupation would saddle Israel with the burden of managing Gaza. Though the Palestinian Authority runs civilian affairs in the West Bank, it probably wouldn’t agree to do the same in Gaza even if Israel wanted it to (which it might not), since it would fear being seen as illegitimate by its own people if it arrived on the backs of Israeli tanks.
Third, the international repercussions of reoccupation would, at least initially, be far more severe than those of a limited war in response to Hamas missile attacks.
Finally, Hamas’s continued control of Gaza has an important diplomatic benefit: it reduces both international and domestic Israeli pressure for dangerous concessions to the Palestinians in the West Bank. Not only do the Palestinians’ two rival governments make it obvious that no diplomatic agreement would bind all of them, but Hamas’s incessant violence makes it all too clear what Israel would risk by far-reaching withdrawals in the West Bank.
Nevertheless, mowing the grass has one serious flaw: Israel has consistently failed to prevent Hamas from rearming. On the contrary, after every round, Hamas has managed to acquire an even larger and more lethal arsenal than it had before. Nor is there any way for Israel to prevent this, given Hamas’s ruthless appropriation of basic humanitarian goods for its own purposes—from the cement intended for housing that it seizes to build cross-border tunnels to the water pipes it digs up to make into rockets. Consequently, the costs of each successive round keep growing.
During the latest round, for instance, Hamas fired 4,360 missiles over eleven days—almost the same as the 4,594 it fired over 50 days in 2014. In other words, it fired 396 rockets per day this time around, more than four times the 91 per day it fired in 2014. And more rockets mean more Israeli casualties. The thirteen people killed this time was more than double the total in the last air-only operation, in 2012, even though Israel has both upgraded and expanded its Iron Dome anti-missile system since then.
Moreover, while in previous rounds residents of the south bore the brunt of the rocket attacks, this time much of Israel’s economic heartland—the greater-Tel Aviv region—also came under heavy fire. Aside from disrupting the lives of many more Israelis, this shift has obvious economic implications. For instance: for the first time, Hamas forced Israel briefly to close its main international airport, Ben-Gurion, and then to divert incoming flights to Eilat for several days after Ben-Gurion reopened. Though international airlines have suspended flights to Israel before, this is the first time Israel itself has deemed Ben-Gurion at risk.
Finally, being under missile fire every few years produces an ongoing erosion in Israelis’ quality of life, mental health, and sense of security. This will only worsen as the barrages grow larger and more lethal and affect more of the country.
None of these consequences are severe enough to justify dumping mowing the grass immediately. But the increase in rocket fire from one operation to the next means the strategy’s benefits will diminish over time. During the first Gaza operation in 2008-09, which involved a limited ground incursion, Hamas fired 852 rockets, or 37 a day. Thirteen years later, in a conflict that lasted half as long and involved no ground forces, Hamas fired more than five times as many rockets in total and more than ten times as many per day.
Unless this trend miraculously reverses, at some point the pain is going to become high enough that Israel will be forced to abandon this strategy. And the only other potentially viable strategy is reoccupation.
Deterrence is impossible, because not only has Hamas proven utterly indifferent to the suffering recurrent fighting inflicts on its own people, but shooting rockets at Israel appears to be quite popular among Palestinians despite the heavy price they pay. (In contrast, a sizable portion of the Lebanese population vocally objects to Hizballah starting wars with Israel that result in massive destruction.)
Nor can Israel pin its hopes on the PA to end the violence, even if Palestinian elections were held, Hamas lost, and it consented to a peaceful transfer of power in Gaza—none of which is likely. Not only is the PA incapable of either disarming Hamas or preventing it from attacking Israel, given Hamas’s much greater military might, but it never showed any desire to do so even back when it had the power, since Palestinians largely view their armed militias as sacred, an obvious corollary of the fact that attacking Israel is popular. Instead, like Hizballah, Hamas would simply become an armed militia independent of the official government, but with even fewer restraints from popular opinion.
Finally, a diplomatic solution is obviously impossible with a group whose goal remains for Israel “to come to an end just like it began,” as its deputy political leader, Moussa Abu Marzouk, said this May.
But what about reoccupation’s costs? The price in terms of Israeli casualties is irrelevant, as is the financial price, for the simple reason that Israel won’t view this as a feasible alternative until the price of not reoccupying Gaza is worse, just as it refrained from invading PA-controlled parts of the West Bank until the second intifada’s high Israeli death toll made a major military incursion the lesser evil. Moreover, reoccupation has the significant advantage that, over time, Israel should be able to suppress the rocket fire almost completely, just as retaking the West Bank enabled it to suppress the second intifada’s suicide bombings.
And while the diplomatic costs of reoccupation would initially be severe, it’s far from clear that the long-term costs would be worse than the current policy. For the last fifteen years, all major upsurges in both anti-Israel sentiment and anti-Semitism worldwide have been sparked by Israel’s military operations, not its ongoing control of the West Bank (see, for instance, America’s 80-percent spike in anti-Semitic attacks during May’s fighting). That’s because every Gaza operation provides a steady stream of photographs of dead Palestinians to inflame tempers overseas. In contrast, the Palestinian death toll in the West Bank remains low, since Israel’s ongoing control allows it to suffice with policing operations rather than military ones.
The same holds for the lawfare assault on Israel. Aside from the case involving its settlement policy, all the investigations the International Criminal Court is now conducting against Israel stem from its responses to violence in Gaza, namely, the 2014 war and the “March of Return” protests in 2018-19. Cases filed against Israel in other countries’ courts under universal-jurisdiction laws have similarly revolved around specific military operations rather than Israel’s ongoing control of the West Bank.
Israel can also reduce the costs of reoccupation by starting to prepare for this possibility well in advance. That includes training its troops thoroughly so an incursion can be conducted with minimal Israeli casualties, as well as laying the diplomatic groundwork.
If possible, Israel should also choose the timing of the operation, since the diplomatic costs will be significantly lower under a friendly U.S. administration. In particular, with the Democratic party’s younger members increasingly turning away from Israel, the difficulties of conducting any military operation under a Democratic administration will almost certainly grow over time. But since Hamas is capable of making the same calculation, it might well force Israel’s hand. It’s no accident, for instance, that Hamas started the latest war just months after Joe Biden replaced Donald Trump in the White House (though Biden has ultimately proved more supportive of Israel than many expected).
Finally, Israel must weigh the pros and cons of partial versus full reoccupation. Partial reoccupation, coupled with threats that further attacks would result in additional parts of Gaza being retaken, might reduce Israeli casualties and mitigate some of the diplomatic consequences. It might also create deterrence by putting Hamas at risk of losing something it actually cares about: land. Additionally, it would preserve the advantages of the Hamas-PA split, since Hamas would retain control of some territory. And though it wouldn’t eliminate the rocket fire completely, it would significantly reduce it, since most launches take place near the border to maximize the rockets’ range.
But it’s also possible that the diplomatic fallout would be the same regardless of how much territory was reoccupied. In that case, Israel might be better off taking its diplomatic lumps all at once rather than risking the need to reoccupy more territory later on.
Most Israelis don’t want to reoccupy Gaza at all. But if current trends continue, they may someday have no choice. Therefore, Israel must be prepared when that day comes.
Originally published in Mosaic on June 21, 2021
March 16 was the deadline for filing briefs on whether the International Criminal Court should recognize Palestine as a state. But important though that question is, the ICC prosecutor’s decision to open a criminal investigation against Israel poses a much bigger problem: Contrary to the court’s stated mission of trying to reduce the harm caused by war, it may well result in even higher casualties and more extensive property damage.
Like all Western countries, Israel makes great efforts to uphold customary laws of war, including by trying to minimize civilian casualties. As a group of high-ranking Western military experts wrote in a report on the Hamas-Israel war of 2014, Israel “met and in some respects exceeded the highest standards we set for our own nations’ militaries.” In fact, Israel has historically caused fewer civilian casualties and less property damage than other Western armies.
Many Israelis actually resent this, arguing that the restrictions imposed on the army’s use of force put Israel’s own soldiers and civilians at greater risk. And the Israel Defense Forces’ vehement denials can’t necessarily be taken at face value since it would hardly admit to putting Israelis at risk. Yet even assuming these denials are truthful, the fact that many Israelis believe otherwise means that the army is under constant pressure to be less stringent about using force.
Until now, however, it has had a strong counter-argument: These restrictions aren’t so onerous as to make effective military action impossible, and obeying them keeps our soldiers and politicians out of international legal trouble. Consequently, it’s worth the effort.
But now, ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has declared that all the IDF’s efforts were worthless: In her view, it committed prima facie war crimes both during the 2014 war and in subsequent military operations in the Gaza Strip. In other words, meeting or even exceeding the West’s “highest standards” is no longer enough to keep you out of legal trouble.
The court’s supporters have a facile response to this: Israel must simply meet even higher standards, and then it will be fine. But in reality, as previous ICC decisions have made clear, the court considers virtually any civilian casualties unacceptable.
That’s precisely why its pretrial chamber of judges has twice demanded that Bensouda reconsider her decision not to prosecute Israel over its 2010 raid on a flotilla to Gaza. The soldiers were enforcing a blockade that even the United Nations deemed legal, and as Bensouda noted in her decision to dismiss the case, they opened fire solely in self-defense after nine of them were seriously wounded when passengers aboard one ship attacked them with knives, chains, wooden clubs, iron rods and slingshots. But the pretrial chamber dismissed this context as completely irrelevant, insisting that the resultant 10 deaths were a criminal massacre.
Nor is the ICC alone. Zero civilian casualties is also the standard increasingly promulgated by other self-appointed custodians of the laws of war. The International Committee of the Red Cross, for instance, has declared that attacking a “populated village” is forbidden under any circumstances, even if the enemy is hiding there.
Bensouda fought the pretrial chamber over the flotilla case for years because do otherwise would be to abdicate her own prosecutorial independence and grant the chamber the right to dictate her decisions. But it’s hardly surprising that she preferred to avoid another exhausting battle with the chamber over Israel. It was much easier to simply adopt its “no civilian casualties ever” standard and prosecute Israel for its Gaza operations.
Yet zero or near-zero civilian casualties are an impossible standard when, for instance, Palestinians routinely launch rockets from populated areas at Israeli civilians, or bring babies and grandmothers to violent protests where other “demonstrators” are throwing bombs and Molotov cocktails at soldiers in an effort to breach the border. The only way any country could avoid civilian casualties in such situations would be to refrain from military action at all—or in other words, to let the enemy breach its border and attack its own soldiers and civilians while doing nothing to try to stop it. Indeed, near-zero civilian casualties isn’t a standard any military in any conflict has ever been able to meet.
Thus by saying that even compliance with the highest Western standards isn’t enough to protect Israel from prosecution, the ICC has essentially said there’s no point in even trying to uphold the laws of war, because as the ICC interprets them, they are incompatible with the most basic requirements of self-defense. Unless Israel is willing to sit with folded hands while Palestinian terrorists attack it—which it will never do—it has no hope of escaping the ICC’s clutches. And if so, why bother adhering to stringent restrictions that expose its own soldiers and civilians to greater risk?
Moreover, as I’ve explained before, activist courts always seek to obtain widely applicable precedents by going after “easy” targets first, and for the ICC, Israel is obviously an easier target than, say, America or France. Thus assuming the court upholds Bensouda’s position on Gaza—which, given its proven anti-Israel bias, it’s certain to do—this precedent could and would be used against every other Western country that engages in military operations since other Western armies use the same tactics and the same precautions that Israel does. This could lead other Western militaries to conclude that efforts to abide by the laws of war have become pointless.
In short, by going after Israel despite its adherence to the West’s “highest standards,” the ICC could end up reversing more than a century of efforts to reduce the collateral damage of military action. That would lead to even higher civilian casualties, the antithesis of its purpose.
All law is based on two fundamental principles: that compliance is possible without leaving yourself or your country vulnerable to destruction; and that compliance protects you from legal trouble. If those two criteria aren’t met, nobody would have any reason to obey the law.
The ICC’s decision to prosecute Israel eviscerates both those principles. And as such, it’s liable to destroy the very international law it was created to uphold.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on March 18, 2020. © 2020 JNS.org
If you want to understand the true obstacle to Mideast peace, look no further than the Jordanian parliament’s unanimous approval last week of a bill to ban natural-gas imports from Israel, just days after the gas began arriving.
Energy-poor Jordan needs a stable, affordable fuel supply, which the Israeli deal provides. When it was signed in 2016, the Jordanian government said it could save the country $500 million a year—almost 4 percent of Jordan’s 2019 budget and more than half its projected deficit for that year (the actual deficit was apparently higher). In short, the deal would let the kingdom redirect significant amounts of money to some of its other crying needs.
But that doesn’t interest Jordanian lawmakers. What they care about is that this is “the gas of the enemy,” to quote protesters against the deal.
They also don’t care that Jordan and Israel signed a peace treaty 25 years ago. As last week’s vote made clear, every single Jordanian lawmaker still views Israel as an enemy with whom trade is anathema, even if Jordan itself would benefit greatly. That stance is wildly popular: Almost all Jordanians have an unfavorable view of Jews and similar views of the Jewish state.
Israel’s egregious efforts to accommodate Jordan’s anti-Israel sensibilities didn’t help, either. The gas comes from a field developed by an Israeli company, Delek, in partnership with an American one, Noble Energy. But to enable the deal to move forward, the partnership acceded to the Jordanian power company’s demand that no Israeli entity be party to the contract. Officially, therefore, the contract isn’t with Israel, but with Noble’s American marketing subsidiary.
The deal will most likely go ahead despite parliament’s objections because though King Abdullah is happy to let his lawmakers spout anti-Israel rhetoric, he rarely lets them interfere with anything that he considers an important Jordanian interest. And for now, despite the country’s growing unrest, Abdullah’s grip still seems firm.
But regardless of what happens to the gas deal, the vote shines a spotlight on two errors that have consistently undermined Western peacemaking efforts.
The first is underestimating the depth of Arab hatred for Israel, and therefore failing to grasp that this is the principal obstacle to peace. Westerners tend to assume that everyone the world over basically wants the same things—peace and prosperity—and therefore, all sides should be happy to make compromises for peace. But in reality, as the Jordanian vote shows, neither peace nor prosperity is a prime motivator for many people in this part of the world, whereas hatred is a very powerful motivator.
Thus when Jordanian lawmakers had to choose between a deal that would boost Jordan’s economy and a chance to publicly display their hatred of Israel, between a deal that would bolster the peace treaty and legislation that would undermine it, they unhesitatingly chose the latter. And Palestinians have repeatedly done the same.
A corollary of this, incidentally, is that the Western belief in an economic “peace dividend” is pure fantasy. Peace treaties can’t provide a significant economic boost when one signatory largely refuses to do business with the other; consequently, neither the Israeli-Jordanian nor the Israeli-Egyptian treaty has produced major economic benefits for any of the countries involved. A 2018 study by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change found that Israel’s trade with the Gulf States—with which it has no official relations—exceeds its trade with Egypt and Jordan combined.
This doesn’t mean that economic ties are useless; they undoubtedly play a positive role. Jordan has derived benefits from its peace with Israel, including the tens of millions of cubic meters of water a year that Israel is treaty-bound to provide, as well as a vital route for trade with the West (after the Syrian civil war made Jordan’s former route through Syria impassible, goods started going through Haifa Port instead). These benefits presumably contribute to Abdullah’s reluctance to capitulate to parliament’s periodic demands to scrap the treaty. But when material interests collide with Arab hatred of Jews and the Jewish state, the latter often wins.
The second major Western fallacy is that peace obviates the need for defensible borders. Granted, the Jordanian and Egyptian borders are both currently peaceful; Israel’s security cooperation with both countries is close; and both these facts will likely remain true as long as the current Jordanian and Egyptian rulers hold power. But as the Arab Spring made clear, no Mideast autocrat’s reign comes with a long-term guarantee. And given the enormous public hostility to Israel in both Jordan and Egypt, there’s also no guarantee that a new government wouldn’t scrap the treaty.
Although the treaty with Egypt did survive the Muslim Brotherhood’s brief time in power, it’s far from clear that would have remained true had President Mohammed Morsi not been ousted after a mere year in office, long before he had time to implement most of his plans. And it’s even less certain that the Jordanian peace would survive Abdullah’s fall, judging by last week’s parliamentary vote and many similar votes in the past. In that scenario, Israel’s longest border could become a hostile one overnight.
The unabated hostility to Israel among most of its neighbors, coupled with the uncertain future of any agreement signed with a dictator, means that Israel can’t afford to assume any treaty is permanent. It must be prepared to defend itself if a new Arab government scraps the treaty. Indeed, both the Jordanian and the Egyptian treaties were drafted with that in mind, and that’s also why even Israel’s main center-left party insists on retaining the Jordan Valley in any deal with the Palestinians. Yet Westerner peacemakers routinely dismiss the need for territorial depth and favorable topography, insisting that “international forces” (who will run if trouble erupts) and unspecified “technological means” provide sufficient protection.
The Jordanian vote is a reminder that hatred is strong and peace is fragile. If would-be peacemakers don’t start confronting this hatred rather than pretending it doesn’t exist, long-term prospects for peace are dim. And in the meantime, any treaty will have to include defensible borders.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on January 22, 2020. © 2020 JNS.org
For years, I considered Europe a lost cause from Israel’s perspective and decried the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Euro-centric focus, arguing that it should instead devote more effort to places like Africa, Asia and South America, which seemed to offer better prospects for flipping countries into the pro-Israel camp. But the past few years have proven that Europe isn’t hopeless—if Israel changes its traditional modus operandi.
This has been evident, first of all, in the alliances that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has formed with several countries in eastern and southern Europe, resulting in these countries repeatedly blocking anti-Israel decisions at the European Union level. Previously, Israeli diplomacy had focused overwhelmingly on Western Europe. Netanyahu’s key insight was that conservative, nationalist governments seeking to preserve their own nation-states would have more instinctive sympathy for a Jewish state than the liberal universalists who dominate in Western Europe, and whose goal is to replace nation-states with an ever-closer European union.
But as several recent events show, even Western Europe isn’t a lost cause. The difference is that there, conventional high-level diplomacy won’t work. Rather, the key to change is the fact that most Europeans, like most people everywhere, don’t really care that much about Israel, the Palestinians or their unending conflict. Consequently, small groups of committed activists can exert a disproportionate influence on policy.
For years, this has worked against Israel because the anti-Israel crowd woke up to this fact very early and took full advantage of it. Take, for instance, the 2015 decision to boycott Israel adopted by Britain’s national student union. The union represents some 7 million students, but its executive council passed the decision by a vote of 19-12. Or consider the academic boycott of Israel approved in 2006 by Britain’s National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (which no longer exists, having merged into a larger union). The association had some 67,000 members at the time, but only 198 bothered to vote, of whom 109 voted in favor.
Yet it turns out pro-Israel activists can use the same tactics, as in last week’s approval of a resolution saying anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism by the lower house of France’s parliament. The resolution passed 154-72, meaning that fewer than 40 percent of the National Assembly’s 577 deputies bothered to vote, even though 550 deputies were present earlier in the day to vote on the social security budget. In other words, most deputies simply didn’t care about this issue, which meant that passing the resolution required convincing only about a quarter of the house.
Similarly, a relatively small group of committed pro-Israel Christians in the Dutch parliament managed to mobilize support last month for a resolution rejecting labeling requirements for products made in the disputed Israeli territories (Judea and Samaria, the Golan Heights and parts of Jerusalem). The motion, which passed 82-68, correctly deemed these rules discriminatory as long as they don’t apply equally to all disputed territory worldwide.
Also last week, a majority of the Norwegian parliament’s Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defense demanded that the government cut funding to the Palestinian Authority over incitement in school textbooks. And last month, the Dutch government actually cut aid to the P.A. over its practice of paying salaries to terrorists. In both cases, credit belongs to small Israeli organizations that have tirelessly lobbied European parliaments on these issues (Palestinian Media Watch on pay-to-slay and IMPACT-se on student textbooks).
This same principle, incidentally, applies in parts of America where Israel is losing ground, like the Democratic Party. Last month, for instance, anti-Israel activists managed to get several anti-Israel motions onto the agenda of the California Democratic Party convention. But several organizations, including a new group called Democratic Majority for Israel, fought back. Starting with a committed base of around one-third of the delegates, it ultimately managed to persuade almost two-thirds to vote against the resolutions, even though California—one of the most left-wing states in the union—would seemingly be friendly ground for the anti-Israel left.
The problem with traditional diplomacy is that it generally focuses on high-level officials, both elected politicians and civil servants. These are people with zero incentive to rock the boat on Israel’s behalf because they would rather spend their political capital on issues that most of their countrymen (and they themselves) actually care about, which rarely include Israel and the Palestinians. And in Europe, not rocking the boat means adhering to the anti-Israel consensus that has long dominated the E.U. Thus while this kind of diplomacy remains essential for numerous issues, it often isn’t effective at generating change.
Yet precisely because senior officialdom often doesn’t care much about Israel, committed activists can move the needle by lobbying members of parliament, joining the boards of organizations and so forth, thereby generating noise that makes it seem like people care about this issue. That won’t immediately produce change at the governmental level; in Holland, for instance, the government said it would ignore parliament’s position on product labeling. But it’s a necessary first step.
Pro-Palestinian activists have long understood this, but pro-Israel activists are only now belatedly playing catch-up. And while much of the work obviously has to be done by local activists, Israel could facilitate the effort by identifying and actively engaging with groups that are potentially persuadable to pro-Israel activism.
Sometimes these will be groups more identified with the right, like religious Christians and European nationalists. Other times they will be groups identified with the left: In both Germany and Austria, the Green Party’s youth wings have played active roles in fighting BDS. But either way, the goal should be to find potentially sympathetic organizations that could be spurred to pro-Israel activism through engagement.
When a government open to pro-Israel positions gets elected, Israel should obviously try to leverage the opportunity through traditional diplomacy. But by engaging with parliamentarians and grassroots groups in an effort to foster pro-Israel activism, it can increase the likelihood of naturally sympathetic governments adopting pro-Israel policies and reduce the likelihood of naturally unsympathetic governments adopting anti-Israel ones.
For too long, Israel’s attitude towards European diplomacy has been top-down. It’s long past time for it to start investing more in bottom-up efforts.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on December 11, 2019. © 2019 JNS.org
U.S. President Donald Trump’s latest Mideast decisions cast Israeli airstrikes in Syria and (reportedly) Iraq in a different light. Previously, these airstrikes seemed to be aimed solely at preventing Iran from establishing military infrastructure in both countries that could threaten Israel. But it now turns out they were also sending an important deterrent message: If Tehran attacks Israel, Jerusalem will have no qualms about striking back.
The conventional wisdom has been that even if these airstrikes were necessary for Israel’s defense, they posed a real risk of escalation. And obviously, that remains a possibility.
But given Trump’s latest moves, they may actually be making war less likely by letting Tehran know that Jerusalem—unlike, say, Saudi Arabia—won’t sit with folded hands if it suffers a significant Iranian attack like last month’s strike on Saudi oil facilities. The realization that Israel has both the ability and the will to hit back hard might well deter Iran from launching such a strike, even though it now knows that it wouldn’t be risking an American response.
For this reason, much of the rhetoric about how Trump’s recent decisions will affect Israel is overblown, even though the decisions themselves are unequivocally horrible. Strategically, the U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria abandons that area to very bad actors (Turkey and/or Iran). It’s also a moral atrocity, as it abandons the Kurds to Turkey’s tender mercies despite their having been America’s most loyal and effective partner against the Islamic State. And it signals the world that Washington won’t protect its allies, thereby reducing the incentive to be an American ally. Trump’s inaction after Iran destroyed half of Saudi Arabia’s oil processing capacity sent a similar message.
But even though Israel is always worse off when America looks weak or unreliable in the Mideast, it’s in a very different position from either Saudi Arabia or the Kurds because it has always insisted on defending itself by itself rather than expecting American soldiers to fight on its behalf.
Saudi Arabia has long depended on U.S. troops to defend it. Despite having bought billions of dollars of topline American military equipment, its army is neither big enough nor skilled enough to use it effectively. So when Trump makes it clear that he won’t commit U.S. forces to defend Saudi Arabia, Riyadh has a problem.
The Kurds, in contrast, have demonstrated an impressive willingness to defend themselves. But their lack of statehood means they lack critical military equipment, such as an air force, which they would need to defend themselves unaided; that leaves them dependent on U.S. forces to do things they can’t do for themselves. So when Trump announces that American troops will no longer protect them, they have a problem.
But Israel has a large army equipped with the best military gear American and Israeli ingenuity can devise, combined with willingness to use it and experience in doing so. So when Trump’s decisions indicate that Israel can’t rely on U.S. troops to defend it, either, that’s not a problem; it never relied on U.S. troops to begin with.
Granted, there were Israelis who fantasized that America would deal with Iran and thereby spare Israel the need to do so—including, shockingly, some in the defense establishment (who have now belatedly woken up). But realists like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu always understood that this was ridiculous. That’s precisely why he insisted on spending 11 billion shekels ($3.1 billion) to prepare for a strike on Iran if necessary, despite fierce criticism from political opponents.
Iran isn’t a superpower like the Soviet Union, which Israel had to rely on America to contain. It’s a mere regional power, just like Israel.
Moreover, though it has been decades since Israel last faced an enemy as formidable as Iran, the fact that the countries share no land border deprives Iran of its greatest advantage: its vastly bigger population, which enables it to field many more troops than Israel can. If Iran could send tanks across Israel’s border, it might be able to overwhelm Israel by sheer numbers. But it can’t, because it would have to cross all of Iraq and Jordan to do so. Thus any fighting between Israel and Iran itself (as opposed to Iran’s many proxies) would be limited to air and missile battles, in which the superior equipment and skills of Israel’s air force provides a counterweight to Iran’s advantage in missiles.
Nor is there reason to fear, as one prominent Israeli pundit implied, that Trump’s reluctance to deploy American troops in the Mideast means that he would also refuse to replenish critical military materiel should Israel run short during a war. Putting soldiers in harm’s way is very different from providing an ally with the arms it needs to do its own fighting. Moreover, Israel still enjoys considerable support in Congress, which has proven critical to getting Israel needed arms in the past.
Nevertheless, since an Israel-Iran war could wreak devastation on both countries, it’s much better to prevent it from occurring. And that’s where all those Israeli airstrikes come in.
Despite Iran’s willingness to engage in military provocations, it has shown no desire to risk serious military consequences on Iranian soil. Indeed, it has escalated very carefully, moving up to each new level only after concluding—based on the non-response to previous attacks—that it could do so safely. And so far, it’s been right: Even the attack on the Saudi refineries, its worst to date, drew no military response from Riyadh or Washington.
But years of Israeli airstrikes against Iranian and Iranian-affiliated targets have proven that the Jewish state won’t let Iranian aggression go unanswered, and any Iranian escalation will be met commensurately. For instance, after Iran expanded the battlefield from Syria to Iraq, Israel apparently began striking Iranian targets in Iraq as well. All this sends Tehran the clear message that any major attack on Israel itself would likely result in direct Israeli retaliation against Iran.
That knowledge may well deter Iran from launching such an attack. And that is doubly important now that Trump has taken America out of the Mideast picture.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on October 16, 2019. © 2019 JNS.org
When Israel barred two U.S. congresswomen from entering the country earlier this month, I initially thought it a stupid decision. But after hearing the reactions from both American politicians and American Jews, I’ve started to think it may have been necessary.
This isn’t to deny the substantial damage it has caused. Pro-Israel Democrats felt betrayed, and even some pro-Israel Republicans were outraged. Most of the organized Jewish community was horrified. And the BDS movement received media exposure it could never have gained on its own.
But nobody would have felt outraged or betrayed had Israel barred, say, white-supremacist politicians. Thus the underlying message of these reactions was that unlike white supremacism, advocating Israel’s destruction is a legitimate opinion, entitled to the same respectful treatment as the view that Israel should continue to exist. Yet no country can or should treat its own erasure as a legitimate option.
To understand why this was the issue at stake, a brief review of the facts is needed. When Israel originally agreed to allow a visit by Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), it knew they enthusiastically supported BDS, a movement unambiguously committed to eliminating the Jewish state. It also knew they would use the visit to tar Israel in every possible way.
However, it assumed that they would at least pay lip service to Israel’s existence by following the standard protocol for official visitors—meeting Israeli officials and visiting some Israeli sites. On that assumption, and since the law banning entry to prominent BDS supporters permits exceptions for the sake of Israel’s foreign relations, Israel decided to admit them “out of respect for the U.S. Congress,” as Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer said at the time.
A few days before the visit, however, the proposed itinerary arrived and proved that assumption wrong. Far from paying lip service to Israel’s existence, the trip literally erased the country from the map.
It was billed as a trip to “Palestine,” not, say, “Israel and Palestine.” It didn’t include visits to a single spot in pre-1967 Israel, aside from the unavoidable landing (for those too lazy to take the longer route through Amman) at Ben-Gurion International Airport. And even that was billed simply as “arrive in Tel Aviv,” with no hint that Tel Aviv belonged to a country other than “Palestine.”
Nor did the trip include meetings with any Israeli officials; Omar’s subsequent claim that she, unlike Tlaib, did plan to hold such meetings is patently false. According to her own story, she planned to spend Friday, Aug. 16 and Saturday, Aug. 17 in Israel before joining Tlaib’s trip on Aug. 18. But official meetings are always arranged in advance. And as of Aug. 15, when Israel nixed the visit, she hadn’t yet approached a single Israeli government or defense official (though she did contact one Arab Knesset member). Did she really think she could just show up at the last minute, on the two days when Israelis aren’t in their offices (Israel’s work week is Sunday through Thursday), and magically arrange meetings?
Finally, the trip was organized by Miftah, a Palestinian organization that supports terror and regularly spouts anti-Semitic blood libels, including accusing Jews of poisoning wells, drinking Christian blood and organ theft.
In short, this was a trip that literally negated Israel’s existence. Yet all the outraged reactions either ignored this fact or, worse, treated it as unexceptionable. The pro-Israel lobby AIPAC exemplified the former approach, tweeting, “Every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand”—just as if Tlaib and Omar hadn’t deliberately shunned experiencing Israel. Leading pro-Israel Democrats epitomized the latter approach.
“The decision of the Israeli government to deny entry to Israel by two Members of Congress is outrageous, regardless of their itinerary or their views,” declared House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who had just returned from leading 41 Democrats on his own congressional trip to Israel. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) opined, “No democratic society should fear an open debate.” Congressmen Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) said the “close relationship enjoyed by the United States and Israel should extend to all its government representatives, regardless of their views on specific issues or policies.” Former Vice President Joe Biden said, “No democracy should deny entry to visitors based on the content of their ideas—even ideas they strongly object to.”
In other words, even some of the most pro-Israel voices in Congress insisted that wiping Israel off the map is a legitimate opinion, one Israel must accept just as it accepts disagreements over government policy. It shouldn’t “fear an open debate” on whether or not it should continue to exist. It shouldn’t “deny entry to visitors based on the content of their ideas,” even if the idea in question is its own destruction.
This is simply ludicrous. For Israel to deny entry to advocates of its own dissolution should be as uncontroversial as denying entry to neo-Nazis. And it’s deeply worrying that even Israel’s genuine friends in America evidently think otherwise.
Yet Israel can’t expect its overseas friends to treat this view as illegitimate if it doesn’t do the same itself. And allowing entry to people like Tlaib and Omar would do the exact opposite: It would send the message that their desire to destroy the Jewish state isn’t beyond the pale, but merely a legitimate political disagreement.
Perhaps U.S. President Donald Trump’s crude intervention made this the wrong moment to take a stand. Because Israel’s decision came just hours after he tweeted that admitting Tlaib and Omar would show “great weakness,” it was widely perceived as a capitulation to Trump rather than an independent decision on a crucial issue of principle.
But on the flip side, this was by far the most blatant, controversial and high-profile case Israel is ever likely to encounter. Thus barring Tlaib and Omar sets a clear precedent, whereas failing to do so would have completely erased a crucial red line.
And because the world will never be more pro-Israel than Jerusalem is, holding that line is essential. If Israel wants the world to treat its eradication as an illegitimate aim, it must first do so itself.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on August 28, 2019. © 2019 JNS.org
The first anniversary of the U.S. embassy’s move to Jerusalem sparked multiple articles in the Israeli press declaring it a failure for both U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. From the left-wing Haaretz to the centrist Times of Israel, headlines trumpeted the fact that only one minor country, Guatemala, has followed America’s lead. And even that might prove fleeting, as several candidates in next month’s Guatemalan election have pledged to return the embassy to Tel Aviv.
All this is true, but it also misses the point. And it thereby obscures the real and lasting gains of the embassy move.
To understand why, it’s worth recalling America’s own history on this issue. In 1995, Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which ordered the embassy relocated from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It was approved by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in both the House (374-37) and the Senate (93-5). And in every subsequent election, every presidential candidate, whether Republican or Democratic, pledged to honor this directive.
Yet despite this consensus, it still took more than 20 years for the move to happen. Successive presidents, both Republican and Democratic, proved reluctant to defy international opposition. Consequently, they exercised a provision of the law allowing the move to be postponed due to national security considerations. These presidential waivers were renewed every six months for more than two decades.
In contrast, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was never been mooted as a possibility by any other country in the world. Outside America, not a single mainstream party, whether liberal or conservative, ever considered an embassy move, much less actively supported the idea.
Expecting other countries to go from having never even thought about moving their embassies to actually doing so in the space of just 12 months was always fatuous. Indeed, I warned a year ago that “Jerusalem isn’t going to be flooded with new embassies anytime soon.” If it took America more than two decades to move its embassy despite a bipartisan consensus that was codified in legislation, it will clearly take time for countries that have only just started considering the issue to reach the point of being ready to actually make the move.
What Trump’s decision did accomplish, however, was to break the global taboo on thinking and talking about this idea. Never again will recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital be an inconceivable option. Indeed, in many countries, it has already become a hotly debated one. And the more the idea is discussed, the more realistic the possibility becomes.
A few countries have already gone beyond talk and taken preliminary steps down the path to full recognition. For instance, Australia didn’t move its embassy, but it did recognize western Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last year. That disappointed many Israelis, who view the entire city as Israel’s capital. But it’s a major advance from where Israel was pre-Trump, when not a single country in the world recognized any part of Jerusalem as its capital.
Similarly, Hungary opened a trade office with diplomatic status in Jerusalem this year. As the Times of Israel noted in its otherwise dismissive anniversary article, this is the first time in almost four decades that a European country has had a diplomatic mission in Jerusalem, thereby defying Security Council Resolution 478 from 1980, which urged countries “that have established diplomatic missions at Jerusalem to withdraw such missions.” Hungary thereby broke an important barrier.
In several other countries, action is actively being debated. In the Czech Republic, for instance, the president vocally supports moving the embassy while the prime minister opposes it. In Romania, the prime minister supports it but the president opposes it. Canada’s opposition Conservative Party has promised to move the embassy if elected, while the ruling Liberal Party opposes doing so. Brazil’s new president campaigned on moving the embassy, but then backtracked post-election, just as U.S. presidents did for 20 years. And the list could go on.
Finally, even in countries where no action of any sort is yet under discussion, it has at least become acceptable for politicians to say openly that Jerusalem is and should be Israel’s capital. Italian Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, for instance, said in December that Jerusalem should be recognized as Israel’s capital. A year earlier, Belgian Secretary of State Philippe de Backer (whose position is equivalent to a deputy cabinet minister) told a local Jewish paper, “There is no doubt that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital.”
Trump’s decision also accomplished something else important: It permanently slayed the myth that recognizing Jerusalem would spark massive violence in the Arab world. The U.S. embassy move sparked no violence anywhere except among Palestinians, and even that was short-lived. Consequently, no country contemplating such a move in the future will be deterred by fear of a bloody reaction.
One might still wonder why Netanyahu essentially set himself up for failure by repeatedly asserting over the last year that many other countries would move their embassies in America’s wake. He surely knew how unlikely this was; he’s nothing if not a realist. So why didn’t he focus on the modest but genuine gains the move did produce rather than inflating unreasonable expectations?
The answer is that he had no choice but to set the bar unrealistically high because that was the only way to maximize the real benefits of Trump’s decision. No country will ever be more pro-Israel than Israel itself. Thus had Israel implied that it didn’t expect other countries to move their embassies, no country would even have considered doing so. And that would have strangled the important public debates the decision sparked.
By any realistic standard, the embassy move has been a resounding success. In the space of just one year, countries around the world have gone from a situation in which recognizing Jerusalem was unthinkable to one in which it is being discussed, debated and even acted upon. And as long as this trend continues, it’s only a matter of time until actual embassy moves follow.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on May 22, 2019. © 2019 JNS.org
International law used to distinguish between offensive and defensive wars. But modern interpretations have eliminated this distinction, and thereby ended up rewarding aggression.
When U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, foreign-policy experts keened in chorus that he was destroying a fundamental principle of the world order: that territory can’t be acquired through force. Let’s hope they’re right—because that principle, far from deterring aggression, actually rewards it.
The problem is that, as currently interpreted, the principle doesn’t distinguish between offensive and defensive wars. Thus for an aggressor, starting a war becomes almost cost-free (assuming he doesn’t care about getting his own people killed). If he wins, he achieves whatever goal he sought to achieve. And if he loses, the international community will pressure his victim to return any captured lands, thereby ensuring that he pays no territorial price.
This warped interpretation is the diametric opposite of the principle’s original purpose, which was to deter aggression. But it’s also of fairly recently vintage. After World War II, the Allies had no qualms about forcing Germany, the aggressor, to cede territory to its victims. And Western nations still recognized the distinction between offensive and defensive war as recently as 1967.
The proof is Security Council Resolution 242, which is famously interpreted today as requiring Israel to cede all territory captured in the Six-Day War of 1967. But in reality, it was explicitly worded to let Israel keep some of that territory, by demanding a withdrawal only from “territories occupied in the recent conflict,” rather than “the territories” or “all the territories.”
As America’s then U.N. ambassador, Arthur Goldberg, later said, the omitted words “were not accidental … the resolution speaks of withdrawal … without defining the extent of withdrawal.” Lord Caradon, the British U.N. ambassador who drafted the resolution, was even more explicit. “It would have been wrong to demand that Israel return to its positions of June 4, 1967,” he said.
What’s noteworthy, however, is that the clause allowing Israel to retain some captured territory was preceded by a preamble clause, “Emphasizing the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.” In other words, nobody back then saw any contradiction between emphasizing the inadmissibility of acquiring territory through war and authorizing the victim to keep some of the aggressor’s territory because the ban on gaining territory through war was understood as applying to offensive wars, not defensive ones.
And the Six-Day War—in which Israel acquired the Golan Heights from Syria, the Sinai from Egypt and the West Bank, Gaza and eastern Jerusalem from their illegal Jordanian occupier—was a classic defensive war. It began when Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping (a recognized act of war), kicked U.N. peacekeepers out of Sinai, massed troops on Israel’s border and publicly threatened to annihilate it.
Moreover, even after Israel opened the war’s hot phase by attacking and destroying Egypt’s air force, it had no interest in opening additional fronts with Syria or Jordan (famously begging the latter to stay out of the war). Nevertheless, both countries promptly launched their own attacks. In Syria’s case, these included shelling civilian communities from the Golan and conducting airstrikes on them.
In other words, Syria could have sat the war out. Instead, it chose to join the anti-Israel aggression, and in the ensuing fighting, it lost the Golan.
Damascus then spent the next 52 years rejecting repeated offers to trade the Golan for peace while also launching one hot war (in 1973) and providing material support for decades of attacks on Israel from neighboring Lebanon (first by the PLO and later by Hezbollah). In contrast, Egypt made peace with Israel in 1979 (thereby recovering every inch of Sinai), while Jordan signed a formal peace treaty in 1994 after having maintained a de facto peace for the preceding 27 years.
Yet despite Syria’s half-century record of aggression and peace rejectionism, the international community never stopped insisting that Israel must return the Golan to Syria. Damascus believed that it would never have to pay any price for its bad behavior—until Trump came along.
Theories about international law presumably didn’t play a major role in Trump’s decision. Yet by insisting that aggression and peace rejectionism shouldn’t be cost-free, he is being more faithful to this law’s original goal of deterring aggression than its professed devotees, who insist that aggressors should never suffer territorial consequences.
That’s why all the foreign-policy experts claiming that Trump has just legitimized acts of aggression like Russia’s seizure of Crimea are wrong. This claim is possible only under the warped interpretation of international law that makes no distinction between offensive and defensive wars. If all territorial acquisitions through force are equally inadmissible, then legitimizing one would legitimize them all. But under the far more plausible interpretation that prevailed as recently as 50 years ago, the Golan and Crimea are completely different cases because the former was acquired in a defensive war and the latter in an offensive one.
Incidentally, the claim that the decision undermines prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace is also wrong; as Dr. Martin Kramer of Shalem College pointed out, the opposite is true. Until now, the Palestinians have always found peace rejectionism a profitable business; every time they rejected an Israeli peace offer, the international community rewarded them by demanding additional Israeli concessions. But now, Trump has shown that rejectionism carries a price.
By so doing, a president who scoffs at international law may ironically be saving it. International law was never meant to be a suicide pact, but in its modern interpretation, it has increasingly become one. Under this interpretation, terrorists who operate from amid civilian populations enjoy immunity from military action; countries must accept unlimited numbers of migrants fleeing danger; and aggressors can start wars with impunity. Since all this is detrimental to the well-being of ordinary law-abiding countries, if it continues, more and more countries will simply ditch international law in favor of self-preservation.
By recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, Trump is restoring the distinction that used to exist between offensive and defensive wars, and thereby restoring international law to sanity. Anyone who actually cares about international law ought to thank him.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on March 27, 2019. © 2019 JNS.org
An expert report submitted to the U.N. Security Council this month concluded that Iran is illegally funding Yemen’s Houthi rebels by giving them oil, which they can sell for cash. From last year’s version of the same report, we learned that Iran is arming the Houthis with missiles and drones, in violation of a U.N. arms embargo. Thus whatever the Houthis were when the war started, they are now effectively an Iranian subsidiary, dependent on Tehran for both cash and arms.
That is just one of many reasons to be appalled by the Senate’s renewed effort to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led fight against the Houthis. Not only is this strategically idiotic, but it contradicts the Senate’s own stated goal of protecting human rights. And the legislation reintroduced this week sends a terrible message, even if a presidential veto will presumably keep it from becoming law.
On the strategic side, let’s start with the fact that an organization whose official slogan is “God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse the Jews, Victory to Islam” isn’t one Americans should want ruling anything, much less a country whose location enables it to dominate a strategic waterway vital to the global oil industry. And without the Saudi-led coalition, the Houthis would long since have taken over Yemen. In other countries, like Syria and Lebanon, Iranian military and financial aid has repeatedly enabled its proxies to overwhelm the opposition; that this hasn’t yet happened in Yemen is only because there, unlike in Syria and Lebanon, the Saudi coalition has provided its local allies with substantial assistance, including airstrikes.
Second, empowering allies is always better than empowering enemies. Granted, Saudi Arabia is a highly imperfect ally, but it is at least nominally in America’s camp. Iran, in contrast, has been America’s avowed enemy since 1979, and its proxies have been responsible for hundreds, if not thousands, of American deaths in Lebanon and Iraq. Thus for the Senate to weaken Riyadh and strengthen Tehran, which targeting the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen does, would be foolish at any time.
But it’s especially foolish at a time when America ostensibly seeks to exert maximum pressure on Iran to curb its multifarious bad behavior—its nuclear program, about which it has repeatedly lied; its ballistic-missile program, which defies a U.N. Security Council resolution; its regional aggression, which has already enabled it to dominate Lebanon, Syria and Iraq; and its terrorism, including recent attacks in the heart of Europe.
Maximum pressure requires both financial and military components, as the case of the Soviet Union shows. It was America’s massive military buildup under Ronald Reagan, combined with its proxy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, which made Moscow’s military adventurism too expensive for its ailing economy to support.
Iran, like the Soviet Union, has a weak economy, which has been further undermined by America’s reinstatement of stringent sanctions. Yet the economic pressure will be multiplied if Iran has to keep pouring resources into its numerous proxy wars rather than being able to win them cheaply.
Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria obviously further this effort, since Iran must keep replacing what Israel destroys. But the Saudi coalition in Yemen is similarly forcing Iran is keep expending resources on a war it thought would be easily won. Thus if Washington is serious about countering Tehran and doesn’t want to risk American troops in the process, supporting regional allies who are bleeding Iran is the only alternative.
Still, how can America possibly support a coalition that’s committing gross human-rights violations in Yemen? The answer is easy: Horrible as Riyadh’s behavior is, the Houthis are worse. Thus by ending support for the Saudi coalition, American would empower an even greater evil.
A perfect example is the issue of child soldiers. The New York Times ran a front-page story last month accusing the Saudis of using Sudanese child soldiers in Yemen. Though it didn’t provide many hard numbers, it implied that there could well be several thousand such soldiers. This is incontrovertibly bad.
But what the Times carefully concealed from its readers is that the Saudis’ use of child soldiers pales before that of the Houthis. According to an Associated Press report earlier that month, the Houthis openly admit to employing a whopping 18,000 child soldiers.
Moreover, while the Saudis are taking boys aged 14 to 17, the Houthis are using children as young as 10. And while the Saudis are recruiting their impoverished volunteers by offering pay sufficient to make their families permanently self-supporting (assuming the returning veterans invest it, as most do, in profit-making ventures like cattle or shops), the Houthis use other tactics: They kidnap children outright, coerce them to enlist in exchange for a relative’s freedom from jail, or force poor parents to choose between “volunteering” their child and making an unaffordable cash contribution to the war effort. Parents who resist are shot.
In short, bad as the Saudis’ human-rights violations are, the Houthis’ violations are far worse. And by ending support for the Saudi coalition, the Senate would consign Yemen to the barbarous rule of those very same Houthis.
Given that both strategic and moral considerations mandate backing the Saudi coalition, why is the Senate set on doing the opposite? Perhaps it’s due to sheer ignorance: Iran’s useful idiots in the media, like The New York Times, do their best to amplify every Saudi atrocity while downplaying Houthi atrocities. Or perhaps it’s the clean hands syndrome: Senators don’t care what horrors befall the Middle East as long as their hands are clean. But neither is acceptable behavior for national policy-makers, whose job is to gather accurate information and then, if there are no good options, choose the lesser evil.
In Yemen, the lesser evil is clearly backing the Saudi coalition. This would not only further America’s strategic goals at minimal cost (the U.S. contribution consists of intelligence sharing, midair refueling and arms sales), but would be preferable to a Houthi victory from a human-rights standpoint. That the Senate has opted instead to further Iran’s regional domination project is a disgrace.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on January 30, 2019. © 2019 JNS.org
Like most pro-Israel commentators, I’m appalled by U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American forces from Syria. Nevertheless, this is the wrong issue for pro-Israel activists to pick a fight over. Criticizing the decision on grounds unrelated to Israel—of which there are many—is fine. But to imply that U.S. troops should remain in Syria for Israel’s sake is to betray the fundamental tenet of the American-Israeli alliance: Israel will defend itself by itself; it will never ask America to put soldiers in harm’s way for its sake.
It’s worth underscoring just how unique this makes Israel among American allies. America has fought to defend Europe repeatedly. It fought for South Korea in the 1950s, South Vietnam in the 1960s, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in 1991. And there’s an understanding, often anchored in bilateral or multilateral treaties (such as NATO), that America would fight for many other allies if necessary, like Japan, Canada or Australia.
But with Israel, the agreement has always been that Israel would see to its own defense, while America would provide it with the means to do so. That arrangement suited both sides. For America, it was much less costly in terms of both lives and money than having to defend Israeli militarily (a point I explained in detail here). And for Israel, it satisfied a deeply ingrained lesson of Jewish history: Relying on others for protection always ends badly for the Jews.
In that sense, Trump was right, but only partly so, when he rejected claims that the withdrawal would hurt Israel by saying, “We give Israel $4.5 billion a year. And they’re doing very well defending themselves.” Enabling Israel to defend itself is indeed why America gives it such generous aid ($3.8 billion annually, plus $700 million for missile defense in 2018). If Israel relied on American troops to defend it, that aid would have no justification.
But money alone isn’t enough to enable Israel to defend itself. In fact, it’s far less important than two other critical needs.
The first is a reliable arms supplier—one not only willing to sell Israel top-quality weaponry in peacetime, but also to keep the supplies coming during wartime, when they’re most needed. America is irreplaceable in this regard, as Israel has learned through bitter experience. France, for instance, famously halted arms shipments to Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War. Britain has done so repeatedly, most recently by threatening an arms embargo in 2014 if hostilities in Gaza resumed. This, even more than the fact that most American aid must be spent in America, is why Israel buys little military equipment from either country.
The second is support in the diplomatic arena, where Israel is highly vulnerable. Every time Israel fights, it comes under tremendous international pressure to stop immediately before it can defeat or even damage the enemy. Moreover, it’s routinely threatened with international sanctions over issues ranging from spurious war-crimes’ allegations to the settlements. America’s diplomatic umbrella, especially but not exclusively at the United Nations, is thus critical both to buying Israel the time it needs to fight and to protecting it from sanctions.
This brings us to the second reason why a pro-Israel fight with Trump over Syria seems counterproductive. Though Israel benefited significantly from the American troop presence in Syria, its most pressing needs are diplomatic support in general and support for its ability to defend itself in particular. And on both, Trump remains a vast improvement over his predecessor.
Granted, Israel hasn’t fought any wars since he took office, so there’s no guarantee of how he would act. But there’s no reason to think that he wouldn’t provide the needed support, given his administration’s staunch defense of Israel at the United Nations to date.
In contrast, Israel did fight a war while Barack Obama was president, so it knows what it’s like to be without American support. During the 2014 Gaza war, Obama’s administration famously refused to resupply Israel with Hellfire missiles. It sought to pressure Israel into a cease-fire agreement that met all of Hamas’s demands and none of Israel’s. It issued an endless stream of condemnations of Israel during the fighting, rather than supporting Israel’s right to self-defense against the thousands of rockets Hamas fired at Israeli cities.
Then, in 2016, Obama also stripped Israel of America’s diplomatic protection. The U.N. Security Council resolution against the settlements, which he allowed to pass, laid the groundwork for international sanctions against Israel and even prosecution at the International Criminal Court.
And that’s without even mentioning the minor detail that it was Obama who abandoned Syria to Iran and Russia to begin with. Tehran financed its massive Syrian intervention with the billions of dollars it reaped from Obama’s flagship act of diplomacy, the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. And Moscow entered the Syrian war only after waiting more than three years to make sure that America wasn’t planning to get involved. By the time Trump took office, Russian-Iranian domination of Syria was a fait accompli to which America’s scant 2,000 troops could make little difference.
None of this justifies the Syria withdrawal. It’s a terrible idea, and not only, or even primarily, because Israel benefited from having American troops blocking Iran’s long-desired land route through Syria to Lebanon. It further empowers Russia, Turkey and Iran—none of which wish America (or Israel) well. It also may enable a resurgence of the Islamic State, just as America’s withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 did. Abandoning the Kurds to Turkey’s tender mercies after they have been America’s best foot soldiers against the Islamic State for years is not only a moral crime, but a strategic one, as it will undermine America’s ability to recruit local allies in the future. And America will save little in terms of either lives or money by ending this low-cost, low-casualty mission.
But from a pro-Israel perspective, none of this changes two basic facts. First, there are things Israel needs from Trump more than troops in Syria. And second, asking America to keep soldiers anywhere for Israel’s sake violates a sine qua non of both the Israeli ethos and the bilateral alliance—that Israel defends itself by itself.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on January 3, 2019. © 2019 JNS.org