U.S. President Donald Trump’s latest Mideast decisions cast Israeli airstrikes in Syria and (reportedly) Iraq in a different light. Previously, these airstrikes seemed to be aimed solely at preventing Iran from establishing military infrastructure in both countries that could threaten Israel. But it now turns out they were also sending an important deterrent message: If Tehran attacks Israel, Jerusalem will have no qualms about striking back.
The conventional wisdom has been that even if these airstrikes were necessary for Israel’s defense, they posed a real risk of escalation. And obviously, that remains a possibility.
But given Trump’s latest moves, they may actually be making war less likely by letting Tehran know that Jerusalem — unlike, say, Saudi Arabia — won’t sit with folded hands if it suffers a significant Iranian attack like last month’s strike on Saudi oil facilities. The realization that Israel has both the ability and the will to hit back hard might well deter Iran from launching such a strike, even though it now knows that it wouldn’t be risking an American response.
For this reason, much of the rhetoric about how Trump’s recent decisions will affect Israel is overblown, even though the decisions themselves are unequivocally horrible. Strategically, the U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria abandons that area to very bad actors (Turkey and/or Iran). It’s also a moral atrocity, as it abandons the Kurds to Turkey’s tender mercies despite their having been America’s most loyal and effective partner against the Islamic State. And it signals the world that Washington won’t protect its allies, thereby reducing the incentive to be an American ally. Trump’s inaction after Iran destroyed half of Saudi Arabia’s oil processing capacity sent a similar message.
But even though Israel is always worse off when America looks weak or unreliable in the Mideast, it’s in a very different position from either Saudi Arabia or the Kurds because it has always insisted on defending itself by itself rather than expecting American soldiers to fight on its behalf.
Saudi Arabia has long depended on U.S. troops to defend it. Despite having bought billions of dollars of topline American military equipment, its army is neither big enough nor skilled enough to use it effectively. So when Trump makes it clear that he won’t commit U.S. forces to defend Saudi Arabia, Riyadh has a problem.
The Kurds, in contrast, have demonstrated an impressive willingness to defend themselves. But their lack of statehood means they lack critical military equipment, such as an air force, which they would need to defend themselves unaided; that leaves them dependent on U.S. forces to do things they can’t do for themselves. So when Trump announces that American troops will no longer protect them, they have a problem.
But Israel has a large army equipped with the best military gear American and Israeli ingenuity can devise, combined with willingness to use it and experience in doing so. So when Trump’s decisions indicate that Israel can’t rely on U.S. troops to defend it, either, that’s not a problem; it never relied on U.S. troops to begin with.
Granted, there were Israelis who fantasized that America would deal with Iran and thereby spare Israel the need to do so—including, shockingly, some in the defense establishment (who have now belatedly woken up). But realists like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu always understood that this was ridiculous. That’s precisely why he insisted on spending 11 billion shekels ($3.1 billion) to prepare for a strike on Iran if necessary, despite fierce criticism from political opponents.
Iran isn’t a superpower like the Soviet Union, which Israel had to rely on America to contain. It’s a mere regional power, just like Israel.
Moreover, though it has been decades since Israel last faced an enemy as formidable as Iran, the fact that the countries share no land border deprives Iran of its greatest advantage: its vastly bigger population, which enables it to field many more troops than Israel can. If Iran could send tanks across Israel’s border, it might be able to overwhelm Israel by sheer numbers. But it can’t, because it would have to cross all of Iraq and Jordan to do so. Thus any fighting between Israel and Iran itself (as opposed to Iran’s many proxies) would be limited to air and missile battles, in which the superior equipment and skills of Israel’s air force provides a counterweight to Iran’s advantage in missiles.
Nor is there reason to fear, as one prominent Israeli pundit implied, that Trump’s reluctance to deploy American troops in the Mideast means that he would also refuse to replenish critical military materiel should Israel run short during a war. Putting soldiers in harm’s way is very different from providing an ally with the arms it needs to do its own fighting. Moreover, Israel still enjoys considerable support in Congress, which has proven critical to getting Israel needed arms in the past.
Nevertheless, since an Israel-Iran war could wreak devastation on both countries, it’s much better to prevent it from occurring. And that’s where all those Israeli airstrikes come in.
Despite Iran’s willingness to engage in military provocations, it has shown no desire to risk serious military consequences on Iranian soil. Indeed, it has escalated very carefully, moving up to each new level only after concluding — based on the non-response to previous attacks — that it could do so safely. And so far, it’s been right: Even the attack on the Saudi refineries, its worst to date, drew no military response from Riyadh or Washington.
But years of Israeli airstrikes against Iranian and Iranian-affiliated targets have proven that the Jewish state won’t let Iranian aggression go unanswered, and any Iranian escalation will be met commensurately. For instance, after Iran expanded the battlefield from Syria to Iraq, Israel apparently began striking Iranian targets in Iraq as well. All this sends Tehran the clear message that any major attack on Israel itself would likely result in direct Israeli retaliation against Iran.
That knowledge may well deter Iran from launching such an attack. And that is doubly important now that Trump has taken America out of the Mideast picture.
Evelyn Gordon is a journalist and commentator living in Israel.