ENEMIES & ALLIES

President Trump’s Silence on Israel-Iran Skirmish Speaks Volumes

Hours after Iran and Israel engaged in the first actual military skirmish in their troubled history, which ended up with a downed Israeli F-16, the United States remained silent.

Jack Guez/Getty

NETU'A, Israel—Two Israeli illusions burst on Saturday—a warm and spring-like day in which droves made the trek north here to the Galilee, a parcel of green hills and valleys currently swathed in a Klimt-like blanket of wild flowers, with falcons and cranes gliding by.

The first bit of artifice to bite the dust was that Israel will be able, in the long-term, to remain untouched by the Syrian civil war that continues to tear its northern neighbor apart.

The second shattered mirage was the hope, propagated as truth by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that the United States under President Donald Trump remains Israel’s most reliable ally.

Twelve hours after Iran and Israel engaged in the first actual military skirmish in their troubled history, which ended with a downed Israeli F-16, the U.S. president remained silent.

Israel’s weekend quiet ended at 4:15 a.m., when air raid sirens sounded in the southern Galilee agricultural communities of Beit Shean, triggered by a winged Iranian drone launched from Syria which flew into Israeli airspace with the apparent aim of collecting intelligence.

Israeli army spokesperson Lt. Jonathan Conricus speculated in a conversation with journalists that “whoever sent it may have thought we’re not alert on Saturdays,” the Jewish Sabbath.

According to the Israeli army, the drone was tracked from its Syrian launchpad and allowed to fly over Israel for about 90 seconds before being shot down by Apache helicopters.

Israel retaliated to the incursion by sending four air force jets to bomb the Iranian drone control site in Syria. In response, Syrian anti-aircraft installations launched a barrage of missiles against the Israeli jets.

Shrapnel from one missile caused the American-made F-16’s pilots to bail out over Harduf, an ecological village, with the plane crashing onto the lawn of the village high school, which, fortunately, was empty over the weekend.

Israel, which has not seen combat against Syrian forces since 1982 at the height of the Lebanon War, responded to the second incursion of the day into its own territory with “a large-scale operation” that levelled 12 Syrian and Iranian military sites.

Air raid sirens sounded again.

And just like that, before the day was fully underway, the beloved emerald tranquility of this region and decades of diplomatic history seemed as evanescent as the Maginot line.

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The shadow of a vast proxy war in Syria is growing, and darkened considerably when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced in the afternoon that one of his army’s helicopters had also been shot down over Syria while on a mission against U.S.-backed Kurdish forces.

Another victim of the day was Netanyahu’s carefully calibrated “deconfliction mechanism” with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

On a Jan. 30 visit to Moscow, Putin at his side, Netanyahu said, “The most important thing I think is to make sure that we understand each other and that we don’t shoot down each other’s planes. And we decided to do what is called in this awful jargon deconfliction, which means not shooting each other. And we established a mechanism to do that, and that mechanism holds secure.”

On Saturday, the Russian foreign ministry issued a statement that could have doubled for a lesson in diplomatic doublespeak, if not outright support for Syria’s President Bashar Assad.

“We urge all sides to exercise restraint and to avoid any actions that could lead to an even greater complication of the situation,” the ministry said. “It is necessary to unconditionally respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria and other countries in the region.”

“Growing cracks can be found in the working assumption that Russia controls all of the military and diplomatic moves in Syria, wrote Haaretz military analyst Zvi Bar’el. “Russia was unable to prevent Turkey from invading northern Syria; it failed to turn the Sochi conference in late January into a significant step toward an overall cease-fire and subsequently to negotiate the establishment of a transitional government; and it didn’t deal with the deployment of pro-Iranian forces in southern Syria in a manner that might assuage Israeli concerns.”

In short, Bar’el implicitly asked, on whom can Israel rely?

President Trump meanwhile spent the day emitting a stream of tweets bewailing the lack of “Due Process” for men accused of assaulting women, and attacking the Democratic Party, the FBI, the Department of Justice, and James Comey.

“This is a symptom of a White House in crisis,” Dan Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, told The Daily Beast.

“President Trump is obviously distracted by the Russian investigation and the White House staffing debacle. The State Department is generally sidelined from discussions with Israel. The U.S.-Israel relationship has generally been managed under Trump by only three or four people, which is just not a viable way to manage real time crises that require coordinated responses across the political, military, diplomatic and intelligence spheres.”

Shapiro, who is currently a visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, concluded, “This is where the chaos of the U.S. administration hits .U.S interests abroad and the interests of key allies hard.”

As the day ended Netanyahu returned to favored themes, telling Israelis he’d firmly told Putin “Our policy is clear.”

“Israel will defend itself against any aggression and any attempt to violate its sovereignty.”

According to Israeli government sources, Putin responded with a platitude: “Moves that could lead to violent escalation in the region should be avoided.”

Netanyahu told Israelis he had also spoken with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, currently on a tour of Egypt, Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, the U.S. NATO ally that has all but declared war on U.S.-funded and armed Kurdish militias in Syria, that has no clear purpose.

Tillerson would do well to “add a stop in Israel to this visit, and perhaps Moscow as well,” Shapiro commented. The trip could be “an opportunity for some coordinated messaging with Israel. Thus far the U.S. seems absent from the playing field, which does not serve its own interests or that of its closest regional ally, Israel.”

Late in the day, the Pentagon issued a strangely detached statement reassuring the world that the United States did not take part in in Israel’s military action in Syria while “fully supporting Israel's inherent right to defend itself against threats to its territory and its people."

Without getting into specifics, the Pentagon said it hoped for “greater international resolve in countering Iran's malign activities."

The State Department said in its own statement that “the United States is deeply concerned about today's escalation of violence over Israel's border and strongly supports Israel's sovereign right to defend itself.”

“The U.S.,” it said, “continues to push back on the totality of Iran's malign activities in the region and calls for an end to Iranian behavior that threatens peace and stability.”

“The United States is no longer the region’s 911,” Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York, summed the day up in an interview. “Enough.”

The U.S. is disengaging, Pinkas said. “It started with Obama and Trump is essentially continuing this policy, albeit with a different music. This was evident in Egypt, Libya, Syrian civil war, Yemen. So it should come as no surprise, nor should anyone whine ‘abrogation.’”