Riding the Trump wave, has Netanyahu rather paved the ground for war?

Miscalculations in Israel Could Pave Way to Wider War

Alastair Crooke, Consortium News, 29 January 2018

This week, the Israeli political leadership was rolling with guffaws, and ribbing each other in delight, as the US Vice-President, Mike Pence, proved that, as a Christian Zionist, he was more Zionist than the Zionists in the Knesset (minus, of course, its evicted Arab members – see here). But one might wonder what the more sober security and army echelon, were thinking, as they watched the rollicking in the aisles. Netanyahu, via the Trump family go-betweens – Jared Kushner, and the Trump family lawyers – has certainly had an impact in Washington.  Indeed, the Middle East landscape has changed considerably over the last year, as a consequence. But the nature of that change is what is at issue – and not the obvious fact that change has occurred.

When Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) began his coup last June, that was to lead to this 31-year-old assuming absolute power, President Trump characteristically took full credit. “We’ve put our man on top!” he bragged to his friends, according to Michael Wolff in his book, Fire and Fury.  Yes, Trumps’s right. But it was Netanyahu, working the levers behind the scenes, and Mohammad bin Zayed (MbZ)’s ‘man’ in Washington, Ambassador Oitaba, who did the patient heavy-lifting in order to change the US’ settled preference for Prince bin Naif, as Successor to the Throne.  And it was MbZ, in the first place, who had advised MbS that it was Israeli support that was both the necessary, and the sufficient condition, for him to become Crown Prince.  Netanyahu (and Israel) cannot escape some responsibility for the condition in which the kingdom now finds itself.

Are the more sober-minded Israelis now still hugging themselves with enthusiasm for their ‘new man at the top’?  One has some doubts, as Saudi Arabia transforms into a ticking bomb of internal, family, and tribal hatreds – and as the peripheral Emirates wonder what is to become of them in this new era of Saudi hyper foreign policy activity; or what might be their futures, were this Saudi ‘bomb’ somehow to self-detonate. (‘Not pretty’, is likely to be their conclusion.)

And, for the second major aspect to Israel’s influence on the US Administration, one has to look no further than the Kurds: Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said, just before Masoud Barzani’s independence referendum, that “Israel and countries of the West, have a major interest in the establishment of the State of Kurdistan.”  She added, “I think that the time has come for the U.S. to support the process”.  (Netanyahu supported the Kurdish bid too, and reportedly, urged Barzani to press on, despite the opposition amongst the Kurds themselves, and from all the surrounding neighbouring states).  That ploy did not work out too well.

First came the Barzani fiasco, with his initiative squashed within 24 hours; and now we have plan ‘B’, a Kurdish ‘statelet’ in northern Syria. And that too is now unravelling. Israel, having failed to get the buffer zones it sought along the Golan armistice line, or on the Syrian-Iraqi frontier; and having failed to keep the Iraqi-Syrian border closed, prevailed upon (a receptive) US Administration to implant a Kurdish wedge in north-eastern Syria.  An outcome which was intended to keep Syria weak (the oil and gas assets being denied to the Central Government, and the Syrian state divided, and at odds with itself), and to keep open the connectivity of the Syrian mini ‘state project’ to the Kurdish population of northern Iraq.

The Israeli ‘project’ with the Kurds is a longstanding, very much ‘hands on’ one. It was most clearly formalised in the so-called Oded Yinon plan which was published in 1982, and which advocated the fragmentation of the Middle East, in terms of a logic of sectarian division. So, when Minister Shaked advocated for a Kurdish state, saying that it would be integral to Israeli efforts to “reshape” the Middle East, it is highly likely that she had the Yinon plan in mind, which advocated an Iraq fragmented into separate states.

But again (in spite of the Barzani fiasco), there was overreach: Moscow and Damascus offered the Kurds a compromise that would allow for a measure of autonomy, but insisted on the preservation of state sovereignty over all of Syria. The Kurds forcefully declined (apparently believing that Washington had their backs). And US Centcom overreached: they gave the Kurds advanced anti-tank weapons, and man-portable surface to air missiles, too.

Of course the Turks ‘got it’.  Such weapons in the hands of the Kurds change the whole strategic balance.  Such weapons have nothing to do with pushing President Assad to agree a modified constitution for Syria. That narrative is quite implausible. This weaponising was about empowering the Kurds à la Oded Yinon: not just in Syria and Iraq, but as a ploy to weaken and fracture Turkey as well: No wonder the Kurds of Afrin were so full of themselves.  Senior Turkish commentators, such as Ibrahim Karagul (a leading commentator who is close to Erdogan) unsurprisingly, were plain in identifying Israel’s hand in wanting Turkey’s state fragmentation.

So, what has been achieved?  Ankara now is profoundly (and perhaps irrevocably) disenchanted with Washington. Damascus is quietly sorting out Idlib (now depleted by armed opposition groups, commandeered by Turkey to assist in Afrin).  Pressure on President Assad is relieved; and Turkey has shifted more deeply into the Russian-Iran-Iraq axis.  Washington is rueing now the Turkish anger, but what did they expect?  The writing was on the wall from the 19 May press conference held by General Mattis.

But then we come to the third Netanyahu major input into US policy: encouraging President Trump to ditch the JCPOA. Here, Bibi was pushing at an open door, to be fair. Well, it seems that Netanyahu’s wish might come true.  Pence stated that Trump will refuse to sign the US nuclear sanctions waiver this May. But as Washington now rues the Turkish reaction to its Kurdish initiative; so Israel may yet come to rue the loss of the JCPOA.  Do they (the Israeli leadership) seriously believe that Lilliputian MbS, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are going to Gulliverise Iran and its allies?  And does the Israeli armed forces truly trust America to have its back completely, if it comes to regional war?

And finally, there is the ‘deal of the century’:  Well, sending VP Pence to threaten Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinians with withdrawal of funding completes the picture of an Israel hoeing in an extremely narrow, and highly partisan, Zionist seam of American (and global) support — a seam consisting of Jared Kushner (Trump’s son-in-law), David Friedman (Trump’s specialist in bankruptcy), and Jason Gleenblatt (a real estate lawyer, and the former chief legal officer working for Trump’s various companies).

Even Haim Saban, the strongly pro-Zionist founder of the US Brookings’ Saban Center remarked to Kushner last month, (as quoted by The American Lawyer):

““A bunch of Orthodox Jews who have no idea about anything” is how Israeli-American businessman Haim Saban described the team to Kushner during a question-and-answer session at a Brookings Institution forum in Washington, D.C., this week.

“The team has an entrepreneur—you—a real-estate lawyer, a bankruptcy lawyer. I don’t know how you’ve lasted eight months in this line-up. There’s not a Middle East macher in this group,” Saban said, using the Yiddish word for bigwig.

Kushner, the event’s keynote speaker, responded that while the team was “not conventional” it was “perfectly qualified.” He then described Friedman as “one of the most brilliant bankruptcy lawyers and a close friend of mine, and the President.”

Haim [Saban] noted that indeed, the situation in the Middle East, never had been so “bankrupt.””

Perhaps Netayahu may come to reflect that, in mining this very narrow seam, he has placed Israel in a precarious place.  He may rejoice at the Palestinians’ present humiliation by Trump and Pence, but as the Israeli PM catalyses American foreign policy in ways that are deeply antagonistic to the region as a whole (not just Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, but to treaty partners, Jordan and Egypt, too), come the next crisis, Israel may find itself friendless, and alone.  Even Gulf States are re-positioning – hedging, if you prefer – in the face of the deep uncertainty in Saudi Arabia.

America today is deeply polarised, with one side, or the other, reflexively opposing and denigrating unrelentingly the views (domestic and foreign policy) of the other.  Even within the wider seam of cultural nationalism that is apparent in America and Europe today, Trump’s rather narrow Middle East team line-up, is not even representative of ‘alt-right’ culture in general, which ultimately forms Trump’s base.  The evidence — for all the alt-right’s insistence on a common Judeo-Christian basis – is that the alt-right view their culture more narrowly. Rather, the unqualified support that Israel believes it now enjoys, may prove to be highly ephemeral. 

The errors of judgement are obvious to wider Washington, who see the consequence in mixed messages emanating from the Administration and in the erosion of the unitive state into rebellious departmental fiefdoms, which the White House seems unable to control (see here on Turkey).

The Middle East (and not only the Middle East), just skirted serious conflict in 2017, but we may not be so lucky in 2018. Trump is regarded as Israel’s ‘best friend’, but is that really so?  Israel’s future seems much less secure one year after he assumed office. The landscape has darkened.  Israel mis-judged Syria; it mis-judged its Syrian proxies; and (probably) will find that it has mis-judged MbS – and now, a further miscalculation, this time with Turkey.  It may mis-judge Iran, next. 


  1. Brenton wrote:


    What about the possibility of the EU now entering the peace settlement framework, given that the Palestinians have now frozen the US out as being the sole exclusive middleman in Israeli/Palestinian negotiations. How is that likely to impact on each of the actors, and on the US itself. The US tried to keep Europe out of the process ever since Oslo, and now they have opened the door to an entity, although very disparate and possibly disunited on the subject, that has economic muscle to force Israel into compliance if it so desires (and at least Sweden has already used targeted economic sanctions of Settlement produced goods, and Slovakia may follow) and that has no influential Jewish Lobby such as AIPAC.

  2. John Waver wrote:

    Excellent article. I have always maintained that Israel should be abandoning its policy in Syria for strengthened covert relations with Iraq, as it has done with Saudi Arabia. Given Iraqi instability, this is more likely to work than creating a Kurdistan backed by nobody in the Middle-East but Israel.

    On Iran, while I am sure that the Trump Administration will want to prevent Iran from ending up with a nuclear weapon, I find the possibility of all out invasion and occupation of Iran to be very slim for this particular administration. I believe far more likely (and this due in no small part to the realignment in South Asia, between India and the US and between Pakistan and Russia) that the US will invade and occupy the south-eastern province of Iran – which borders Afghanistan and would connect Afghanistan to the Gulf of Oman – to put pressure on the Iranian regime, connect Afghanistan with the wider Middle-East and change Afghanistan’s geopolitical landscape.

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