As far as much of the American public is concerned, the timing for U.S. President Donald Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin couldn’t be worse. The indictments of 12 Russian military intelligence officers on Friday renewed the calls for a tougher stance from the administration against Moscow. But with Trump determined to achieve some sort of détente with Russia, the indictments gave ammunition to his critics who see the meeting as appeasement or worse.
But while Americans are deeply divided about the highly politicized topic of relations with Russia, many Israelis seem to be taking a very different view of the situation. Israel’s government is openly rooting for Trump and Putin to agree to cooperate in removing or at least lessening what it considers to be the country’s greatest security threat: Iran’s military presence in Syria.
Despite this past weekend’s renewed rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has devoted most of his recent attention towards his own outreach project to Russia. Netanyahu did his best to flatter Putin during his visit last week to Russia but, unlike Trump, not even his most bitter critics are tossing around libelous accusations about him being a Russian agent. That’s because there is little doubt that the best chance for avoiding a new war rests on persuading Russia to force Iran to move its troops away from the border with Israel.
Netanyahu returned home hoping that the outline of an agreement with Russia over Syria had been reached. The parameters are straightforward. Israel would agree not to question the continuation of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime now that the dictator’s Russian and Iranian allies have nearly completed their victory in the civil war. In exchange for the Israelis not disputing that mass murderer’s hold on power, the Russians would force the Iranians to pull back their forces, as well as their Hezbollah auxiliaries, and otherwise prevent Tehran from turning Syria into another front in their war on Israel.
As long as the Syrians abide by the terms of the ceasefire that Henry Kissinger negotiated between the respective governments led by Golda Meir and Assad’s equally murderous father Hafez in 1974, it sounds like a reasonable deal to the Israelis. But they are also hoping that Trump can help provide Russia with a motive for restraining Iran, if not evicting it altogether from Syria.
The questions about this strategy are twofold.
One concerns whether both Israel and the United States are wrong to believe that Putin has any real intention of pushing Iran out of Syria or keeping a lid on the potential for conflict with the Jewish state.
The other rests on whether sweet-talking or even bribing the Russians to help on Iran is worth the price that Putin might expect the United States to pay: acquiescing to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, as well as sending a signal that future efforts to reassemble the old Soviet empire might also be accepted by the Americans.
Trump’s openness to Russia is troubling to many Americans for reasons that have nothing to do with Ukraine or Syria. Those who see Trump’s soft spot for the Russians as a payoff for Moscow’s interference in the 2016 presidential election are throwing around words like “treason” when they discuss a policy that they might have applauded under other circumstances. The connection between Russian meddling and Trump is something many on the left take as a given, though proof for actual collusion is still wanting, pending the conclusion of Robert Mueller’s investigation.
Even if these accusations are false, any decision on Trump’s part to make nice with the Russians lets his foes brand his actions as a betrayal of U.S. interests.
Leaving aside the question of bad optics, the possible cost of Trump’s seeming ambivalence or hostility to America’s European allies and NATO could be paid by the small republics that now look to the West to defend them against Moscow. The fate of not only Ukraine, but also the Baltic states and Poland, rests on American resolve to restrain Russia today, just like it did during the Cold War. Any dropping of sanctions on Russia or acceptance of its seizure of the Crimea undermines the notion of collective security on which American foreign policy has rested since 1945.
Yet there is also a compelling case to be made that restraining an Iranian regime that was strengthened and enriched by President Barack Obama’s appeasement policy is just as much of a priority for the West as standing up to Russia. Obama bears the blame for letting not only the Iranians grow bolder, but for allowing the Russians take charge in Syria after his disgraceful “red line” retreat on chemical-weapons use. But Iran’s growing power is now Trump’s problem, and it’s up to him to not only roll back the terrible nuclear deal Obama struck with Tehran but to prevent it from starting a new war with Israel that would have incalculable consequences.
That’s why the Israelis should be given a pass for hoping that Trump does convince Putin that it’s in his best interests to prevent Iran from starting a war that would endanger the gains Russia made while Obama tried to “lead from behind.”
The main point here is that there is more at stake in the U.S.-Russian talks than settling scores about 2016 or what you think about Trump. The United States needs to find a way to get Russia to lessen the threat of war from Iran in Syria, while not betraying those Europeans who live in fear that Putin will attack them, too. It remains to be seen whether Trump is up to the task of threading that diplomatic needle. Still, the people of Israel are hoping that, at the very least, America will do its part to prevent the Middle East from inching further towards a war driven by Iran’s ambitions and hate for the Jewish state.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.