Five Things to Know This Week: Trump and Bibi Bargain on Syria Move

By | Jan 07, 2019
Israel, Latest

1. On Syria, Trump corrects course, Netanyahu presents the bill

Did Donald Trump expect that his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria—a decision made spontaneously following his phone call with Turkish president Erdogan—would create such a stir? Probably not—and the president seemed taken aback by the backlash. After all, Trump has never been shy about his wish to withdraw forces from the war-torn country, not to mention the fact that it is a relatively tiny force made up of only 2000 U.S. soldiers. “We’re talking about sand and death,” said a clearly frustrated Trump last week as he tried once again to justify his move.

Pulling out of the “sand and death” country created a rare ad-hoc coalition of detractors: former defense secretary James Mattis (who resigned in protest), top national security officials from both parties, congressional Democrats, hawkish Republicans, Israelis, Kurds and Europeans. And for once, Donald Trump listened—or at least seemed to take the opposition into consideration

In what can only be understood as an effort to correct course, Trump dispatched his top foreign policy advisers—Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton—to the Middle East with a reassuring message to regional players who had just witnessed the U.S. turn its back on them. “The United States is not leaving the Middle East,” a senior State Department official stated Friday, summing up Pompeo’s mission to the Middle East. “Despite reports to the contrary and false narratives surrounding the Syria decision, we are not going anywhere.” The message was repeated over and over. Pompeo assured Benjamin Netanyahu when they met in Brazil that the pullout has not altered America’s commitment to Israel’s safety. Bolton conveyed the same message during his meetings in Jerusalem, telling Israeli leaders that the American withdrawal from Syria will be conditional, based on defeating ISIS and pushing Iran out of the country.

Now, taking advantage of the U.S. stumble, Netanyahu has asked for American compensation, in the form of recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights—a territory taken over from Syria during the 1967 war. Israel’s 1981 decision to annex the Golan Heights was flatly rejected by all previous U.S. administrations, stating the need to resolve the dispute in future Israel-Syria negotiations. Now Netanyahu sees an opening for a Jerusalem-style gesture from Donald Trump. Just as Trump bucked long standing American foreign policy establishment reservations and recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, it might be Trump who will be willing to make a similar move with the Golan Heights. The Israeli calculation is simple: The move wouldn’t cost Trump much in terms of political capital, since there is no possible peace treaty between Israel and Syria in sight, and there are not many in the Arab world who will go to bat for Bashar al-Assad. Furthermore, recognizing Israel’s rule over the Golan Heights would put an end to criticism from pro-Israel Republicans who disliked Trump’s withdrawal decision and feared he had thrown Israel under the bus.

Can Netanyahu’s bid work?

Doubtful, although leading Republicans in Congress have already spoken in favor of recognition and the new circumstances might add some momentum to their drive. Still, Trump must know that the Golan Heights is no Jerusalem—the region doesn’t carry the symbolic significance Jerusalem has in the heart of every Jew (and many evangelical Christians) and will not translate into any valuable political gain.

And this calculation could change as Israeli elections in April approach. If Netanyahu feels he’s in trouble, Trump could throw him a lifeline by recognizing Israel’s Golan annexation, boosting Bibi’s image as the diplomatic leader Israel needs.

2. Look who’s back—it’s the anti-BDS bills

Last Congress failed to pass a controversial bill penalizing those who adhere to boycotts against Israel. Now, BDS is back on the table, but with a different take. The Combatting BDS Act supports state-level laws that bar the state from doing business with companies boycotting Israel. This was the the first piece of legislation introduced in the new U.S. Senate and as such has come under fire from Democrats who insisted that any legislation taken up by the Senate should focus on the government shutdown, not any other issue.

Bernie Sanders called the introduction of the anti-boycott bill as the first piece of Senate legislation during a government shutdown “absurd,” and House newcomer Rashida Tlaib added that those behind the bill “forgot what country they represent.”  Tlaib’s comment ignited a public brawl, with critics claiming she had, in fact, raised the anti-Semitic canard that American Jews have “dual loyalty” both to the U.S. and to Israel.

3. Is impeaching Trump a Jewish issue?

As is the case in the old joke about “two Jews, three opinions,” here too there is more than one viewpoint. On the one hand, California congressman Brad Sherman was first to introduce Articles of Impeachment against Trump, accusing the president of obstruction of justice. On the other hand, Jerry Nadler, the newly minted chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which would presumably take on impeachment hearings, is not enthusiastic about the move. “Wait and see,” Nadler suggested, echoing the approach of Democratic leadership that is currently reluctant to go ahead with an impeachment process. For Eliot Engel, who assumed last week the chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the plan to go after Trump and his alleged Russian ties is through investigation, not necessarily impeachment. Engel made clear he would probe all questions regarding the Trump organizations’ interactions with Russia. “The White House needs to take us seriously, and if they don’t, we are going to make sure they take us seriously.”

4. New Knesset may hear less English

Israelis will go to the polls in April, and the new Knesset they elect may have fewer Anglo-Israelis than the current Israeli parliament. Michael Oren, who made aliyah from New Jersey and became the Israeli ambassador to Washington, resigned from the Kulanu party and has yet to decide if and where he’ll run for re-election. Kulanu party member Rachel Azaria, whose mother was born in the U.S., also announced she’s leaving Kulanu and has given no word yet on whether she will seek election in any other party. In the Likud party, American-born Yehuda Glick will have to fight his way through the party primaries to ensure a seat in the next Knesset. But for Anglos further to the right, a new Glick is likely to join: Jerusalem Post and Breitbart columnist Caroline Glick is throwing her hat into the ring, joining the newly-announced New Right party headed by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked.

5. Peace Plan Watch

It’s official: The Trump-Kushner-Greenblatt deal of the century is back on the shelf and isn’t coming down any time soon. U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman made it perfectly clear last week that the peace plan roll out is on hold until after the Israeli elections.

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