Israel appears to be one of the few winners from the Helsinki summit between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Both men expressed support for Israel, a rare point of agreement in a region where the two countries have long been at odds and are backing opposite sides in a variety of conflicts.
Israel is concerned with the security of its Golan border with Syria, which the forces of a resurgent President Bashar al-Assad are rapidly approaching.
“We both spoke with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] and [Israel] would like to do certain things with Syria having to do with the safety of Israel,” Trump told the joint news conference made famous for his wholesale discounting of the U.S. intelligence community and flattering embrace of Putin. “Russia and the United States will work jointly [in this regard].” For his part, Putin said he paid “special attention” to Israel at the summit.
Netanyahu has worked hard to develop good relations with Putin and Russia, and that work paid off. Putin said “the situation on the Golan Heights must be restored to what it was after the 1974 [separation of forces] agreement,” essentially a complete cease-fire with Syria and the absence of foreign troops in the area. Putin went on to say that “this will bring peace to Golan Heights and bring a more peaceful relationship between Syria and Israel, and also to provide security of the State of Israel.”
While that statement was music to Netanyahu’s ears, Israel’s real problem is not Syria — it is Iran.
According to some pundits, Putin and Netanyahu have that covered, as well. They describe an agreement in which Russia agrees to keep Iranian troops and proxy groups about 50 miles from Israel’s border — if they can — and Russia promises not to object if Israel strikes Iranian assets in southern Syria, especially if Iran deploys weapons that threaten the Jewish state. Even if true, questions remain as to whether such an agreement will ever be implemented.
But where does the United States fit in all of this? Other than promises of even greater Iranian sanctions, and Trump’s bellicose threats of destroying Iran, the Trump administration has not articulated any strategy or plan for dealing with the flashpoints of conflict in the Middle East — other than an interest in withdrawing from the area. As such, we are witnessing a disturbing shifting of influence, with America on its way out and Russia on its way in.
This was the message of Daniel Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, who wrote last week: “In the light of the post-Helsinki dawn, Israel must also adjust to the reality that Russia alone is calling the shots, and the United States looks diminished as an ally.” If that’s correct, Israel did the right thing by investing in a relationship with Putin. The jury is still out on the merit of the same investment by the U.S. president.