Trump's Abandonment of the Kurds Gives Israelis Pause—and Makes Netanyahu More Replaceable Than Ever | Opinion

It has been three weeks since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received the mandate to work to form a coalition. In one week Netanyahu must either relinquish the mandate, or ask for an extension (which President Reuven "Ruvi" Riviln is unlikely to grant.) Then, Blue and White party's Benny Gantz will have his turn. If Gantz fails, during the next 21 days, any Knesset member has the opportunity to seek support from 60 fellow Knesset members to pull together a government. If still no one succeeds, Israel will be forced to go for a third round of elections—a scenario which seems more likely, with each passing day.

If new elections do take place, Netanyahu will have lost three of his most potent campaign advantages: the favor of his relationship with Trump; his contention that Israel's security status has never been better, and finally, the influence of his relations with Vladimir Putin.

Until last week, Israel remained one of the few countries in the world where President Donald J. Trump was popular. Israelis love to be loved. After visiting Israel, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital, and recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, Israelis felt loved by Trump, and heartily bestowed love upon Trump in return.

That all changed last Sunday night, when Trump made the unilateral decision to abandon the Kurds, after Americans had fought side-by-side with them for the past 7 years. That decision hit home with Israelis on multiple levels. Initial reactions were simply visceral—If Trump could give up on the Kurds abruptly, without warning, how can we be sure he won't do the same to us? Trump's tweets defending his actions were widely shared throughout Israeli media, especially the part of his tweet which asserted: "GOING INTO THE MIDDLE EAST IS THE WORST DECISION EVER MADE..." As much as Israelis like to dream that Israel is part of Europe, they are all well aware that Israel in the Middle East.

Additionally, Israelis have always had a special relationship with the Kurds, having maintained secret relations going back to 1966. As a non-Arab ethnic group in a majority Arab Middle East, there has always been mutual sympathy between Israelis and Kurds. Moreover, many Israelis emigrated from Kurdistan, and thus have natural sympathies towards them.

Finally, and most importantly, Trump's actions have significantly weakened Israel's strategic position. By effectively eliminating the autonomous Kurdish area in Syria, the Trump Administration has allowed for the creation of a land bridge between Iran, Lebanon, and Syria — which has strengthened the Iranians and the Syrians, both sworn enemies of Israel. This development is of course tied into America's resounding lack of response to repeated Iranians provocations (e.g. the downing of a US drone and the attack on Saudi oil fields.) Israelis have come to realize that the United States under Trump cannot be relied upon to constitute a bulwark against Iran. As Alon Ben David, military correspondent for Israel's Channel 13 stated: "Trump's actions have strengthened all the bad actors in the region. There is no silver lining"

At the end of the last election campaign, Netanyahu dangled the prospect of a possible military pact with the US. Now, Israeli leaders like right-wing MK Naftali Bennett have been quick to tweet that Israel will never rely on any other country to defend itself.

Throughout the last two election campaigns, one of the main points given in favor of voting for Netanyahu was that Israel's security situation had never been better. However, in trying to convince the Blue and White Party to join a unity government, and agree to all of his conditions, Netanyahu continually stressed what a dangerous security position Israel currently faces. If Netanyahu's latest claim is correct, it certainly cannot be true that our situation has "never been better". Israelis have begun to recognize how alone they are in the world, and some of the blame for that has to belong to the person who has been Prime Minister for the last decade.

In addition, there is the case of Naama Issachar, a 26 year old Israeli-American who had a layover in Moscow's airport, when traveling on an Aeroflot flight between India and Israel, (a money-saving choice made by tens of thousands of Israelis, including this writer.) Issachar was caught with seven and a half grams (0.335 oz.) of cannabis in her suitcase. Although she never entered Russia, she was charged with drug smuggling. Issachar has been in jail for six months, and while many people were vaguely aware of her story, everyone was certain it would end with a fine. However, last week it became clear that the incident was much more complex. The prosecution asked for seven and a half years of jail time, over 9 grams of pot. In her short trial, Naama was found guilty of drug trafficking and was indeed sentenced her to seven and a half years in a Russian jail.

All of a sudden a much bigger picture emerged. It turns out that Naama is being used as a pawn. Israel has Russian hacker Aleksey Burkov in custody. Burkov is wanted in the US for credit card fraud, and possibly much more. The US had pressed for Burkov's extradition, and the Israeli Supreme Court has granted its approval. However, the Russians have been pulling out all the stops to thwart the extradition.

The Russian government appears to have chosen Naama because she holds dual American and Israeli citizenships. They used the fact her luggage contained a minuscule amount of cannabis to charge her with the crime of drug trafficking. It's been made clear that all Israel has to do is surrender Burkov to Moscow and Naama will magically be released. Netanyahu spoke to Putin about the case via telephone, so far to no avail.

In the meantime, Israelis have begun a very public campaign to pressure Russia to free Naama. A call has gone out to boycott Aeroflot, and for the moment, travel agents report that Israelis are suddenly reluctant to use Moscow as a transit point (I know I would not.)

The Issachar family has vowed to continue to do whatever it can. Naama's mother has been living in Moscow for the past five months, while Naama has been in jail. I spoke to Naama's sister, Liad, who lives in New Jersey. Liad said: "We will do everything it takes to bring Naama home, and we won't stop until its done." Meanwhile, Prime Minister Netanyahu has made an official clemency appeal for Naama, on behalf of himself and President Rivlin.

It has been nearly 10 months since the last elected Israeli government was disbanded. Since that time, Israel's strategic position in the Middle East has been substantially weakened, largely as a result of President Trump. Netanyahu bear's hug of Trump is looking more and more like a losing strategy, both for Israel and for his chances of winning a new term as Prime Minister. Finally, it has turned out that despite Netanyahu's claim he is a friend of Putin; Putin has no friends, just interests.

Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.