Israel Uneasy Over Trump’s Refusal to Stand by Kurds

Israeli Minister of Energy Yuval Steinitz in May, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

President Donald Trump’s decision to stand aside as Turkey sends troops into Syria and fights Kurds allied with Washington has some Israelis wondering whether they too might eventually pay a price for his impatience with Middle East engagements.

In a tweet on Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu expressed solidarity with the Kurds, although he did not mention Trump’s decision to withhold protection for them.

“Israel strongly condemns the Turkish invasion of the Kurdish areas in Syria and warns against the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds by Turkey and its proxies,” Netanyahu wrote. “Israel is prepared to extend humanitarian assistance to the gallant Kurdish people.”

Trump’s Syria about-face was the latest in recent steps that have stirred discomfort within Netanyahu’s cabinet, which had previously seen itself and the Trump administration as marching in lock-step.

In a speech on Thursday, Netanyahu stressed Israel’s self-sufficiency – a change of tone from his touting in two election campaigns this year of his personal rapport with Trump and of a proposed Israeli-U.S. defense treaty.

“We very much appreciate the important U.S. backing, which has only increased greatly in recent years (but) we always remember and apply the basic rule that guides us: Israel will defend itself, by itself, against any threat,” Netanyahu said.

Officials close to the prime minister are quick to talk up Trump’s unprecedentedly pro-Israel policy moves, such as quitting the Iran nuclear deal and recognizing Yerushalayim as the Israeli capital and the Golan Heights as Israeli-annexed.


But, in private, few dispute that Trump’s unpredictability and transactional attitude toward strategy can be a liability.

A cartoon in the left-wing daily Haaretz showed Trump, from the safety of a trench, bidding Netanyahu “so long!” as the Israeli leader unhappily storms Iran alone.

In media interviews, Israeli officials were quizzed over whether Trump had “betrayed” the Kurds – a term they seemed hard-put to deny.

“I don’t want to define it in words because it is not my job to educate the United States,” Yuval Steinitz, a member of Netanyahu’s security cabinet and Likud party, told Ynet.

Israel has maintained discreet military, intelligence and business ties with the Kurds since the 1960s, viewing the minority ethnic group — whose indigenous population is split between Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran — as a buffer against shared adversaries.

It sees the Kurds of Syria as a counterweight to Islamist insurgents and worries that other, Iranian-aligned foes might also fill the vacuum left by a disengaged United States.

Trump’s recent diplomatic outreach to Tehran, in parallel to his firing of hawkish National Security Adviser John Bolton, also gave Israelis pause.

“I think the U.S. isolationist approach is problematic for the entire world, and for our region as well,” Steinitz said.

“Had the United States taken the same isolationist attitude in World War One and World War Two, it’s possible that Germany would now be ruling the whole world.”

An Israeli official close to Netanyahu hinted that any tensions over Trump’s Syria decision were being addressed by the allies over private channels. These are abundant, and include Israel’s envoy to Washington, who has an open door at the White House, and the U.S. envoy to Israel, a career Trump confidant.

“Some things are better dealt with away from the public eye,” the Israeli official said on condition of anonymity.