The Lesson for Israel from the US Abandonment of the Kurds

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President Trump has hastily dispatched his Vice President Pence for urgent talks with President Erdoğan. These talks may have produced a 120 hours pause in the Turkish onslaught into the Kurdish areas, but it is too early to say whether it is the beginning-of-the-end of this skirmish, or not. However, it may suggest that Trump begins to realize the folly of the rushed US withdrawal from Syria. By pulling back fewer than 100 soldiers, the US removed the symbolic block to a Turkish invasion of Syria and, in effect, invited Russia to the region as well as the forces of the Assad regime, which it has dubbed “butcher”. Trump is now issuing hollow threats, but the die are cast and Donald Trump, in his “great and unmatched wisdom“ (by his own twit) will have a hard time pulling out the stone he has thrown into the Syrian well.

Trump did not invent American isolationism, nor did he coin the “America First” slogan (that was down to Charles Lindbergh, the pilot who opposed Franklin D. Roosevelt’s pro-British leanings). However, Trump was the one who engineered its current, embarrassing implementation. Anyone amazed by the vanishing act of the US in Syria, forgets that the American DNA has been isolationist ever since President James Monroe conceived his namesake doctrine in 1823. The US generally goes to war in the wake of “unfriendly visits” to places such as Pearl Harbor or the World Trade Towers, but it does not rush into action following the bombing of Saudi oil fields or even the 1940 London blitz.

The abandonment of the Kurds should not have come as a surprise. Sadly, they are victims of serial desertion. The Soviet Union abandoned them (the short-lived Kurdish republic of Mahabad in western Iran) in 1946, and Iran abandoned them in 1975, followed by Israel. Erdoğan appears to have overcome his initial opposition to Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq, with its capital in Erbil. He now sees a Kurdish autonomy in northeastern Syria, with its capital in Qamishli and leadership by the PKK (the Kurdish People’s Party), which Turkey designates as a terror organization and thus as a catalyst for pan-Kurdish sentiment among the Kurdish minority within Turkey and a security threat to Ankara.

The shock in Israel is real and sincere, generating myriad reactions, beginning with Netanyahu’s (which admittedly should be viewed through the lens of Israel-Turkey relations), politicians’ condemnations, hard-to-watch footage, demonstrations, and a noble gesture by some 100 reserve officers. Some even raised their concerns that the frenetic US President would abandon Israel as he did his Kurdish allies. Indeed, in recent weeks Trump seems to be giving a lukewarm and even cold shoulder to Netanyahu, whom he may regard as a loser following two political failures.

However, Israel is not and will not be treated like the Kurds. Israel is a strong country, ranked by US News and World Report as the world’s eighth most powerful nation, immediately after Japan, the UK and France. Israeli-held territory was last invaded in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and although it got off to a lame start, Israel overcame great odds and won (with US help). Even if Trump’s creative mind may toy with thoughts of abandonment, this is unlikely feasible with congressional Democrats and Republicans (including Trump’s evangelical base) already joining hands against his Kurdish policy – despite the fact that the Kurds do not have a US political base in the form of communities, federations and legislators. We, on the other hand, do.

Israel enjoys deeply rooted ideological and political support. It has always made an effort, whether under the leadership of the Likud or of center-left parties, to fortify, preserve and nurture bipartisan US support. Israel devotedly maintained strong brotherly ties with all US Jewish streams. Beyond the basic mitzvah of pan-Jewish unity throughout the ages and time zones, given that three quarters of US Jews are Democrats, this was also a wise political move, in hindsight.

However, in recent years, under Netanyahu’s leadership, the Israeli government has been blatantly supporting Republicans and paying homage to Trump. Israel is kicking in the teeth millions of Jews who want to continue supporting it but are hard pressed to do so in light of their continued humiliation at Israel’s hand. The government’s decision rescinding its own plan for pluralistic prayer at the Wailing Wall, its policies on conversion and declarations of territorial annexation, its offensive Nationality Law and backing for ultra-racist parties, and its stand on issues of marriage and divorce all combine to alienate them from the Jewish state. Israel has become a non-enlightened state, which often needs the support of the most enlightened (Jewish) elements in American society. Once Trump is replaced, even without impeachment, we will need our Jewish brothers and sisters vis-à-vis a Democratic administration and Congress.

We may not have crossed the point of no return with US Jewry and the US political system, yet, but nothing is forever. If there is one lesson to be learned from the Trump-Kurds affair, it is that beyond building up its power, Israel should never take sides in US politics or pull out the rug from under its unity with US Jewry.

Ambassador (Ret.) Barukh Binah is a Policy Fellow at the Mitvim Institute. He served as Deputy DirectorGeneral of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, in charge of North American Affairs, as Ambassador to Denmark, Consul General in Chicago, Press Officer in New York and Deputy Head of Mission in Washington, DC.

(originally published in the Jerusalem Post)

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