Since President Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of northeastern Syria and pave the way for Turkey’s military campaign against American-backed Kurdish fighters, much ink has been spilled on what it means for Israel, including by me just last week. Inside Israel, those whose faith in Trump was previously unshakeable appear to now be shaken and are waking up to the fact that Israel may end up being subject to the same transactional calculus as every other country that has dealt with the current administration. But rather than belabor this point – which is neither a new or a novel argument – it is useful to probe the different layers of what is now taking place between the U.S. and Turkey, as it provides a roadmap of how things may turn for Israel and how Prime Minister Netanyahu might avoid future unpleasantness with the U.S.
To start with the obvious, Netanyahu’s over-the-top bet on Trump to the detriment of any relationships he had with Democrats and the overwhelming majority of American Jews was a mistake from the start. There was and should be every expectation that an Israeli prime minister will seek to have a strong relationship with any occupant of the White House – even if Netanyahu had no problem violating this dictum during the Obama administration – but things such as tweeting in favor of Trump’s border wall with Mexico, defending Trump’s coddling of anti-Semites, and comparing him to Cyrus the Great ensured that Netanyahu had no hedge against the inevitable Trump unreliability.
But placing all of his chips on an erratic and volatile president was only the surface layer of Netanyahu’s error. Observing what has unfolded in the past week between the U.S. and Turkey demonstrates just how much farther the initial mistake has the potential to go. Even if Trump proves to be everything that Netanyahu hoped, the structure of the American political system is – unlike Israel’s parliamentary system or Turkey’s unbalanced presidential system – one in which Trump is only part of the equation that any foreign leader must take into account. Congress is able to pursue its own foreign policy priorities, and it is notable that foreign policy – particularly with regard to Russia and Turkey – is the only area where Congressional Republicans have broken with Trump, leading to a bifurcated policy in which White House priorities and promises are not as reliably ironclad.
Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also assumed that Trump was the only party to whom he had to appeal as relations between the U.S. and Turkey got progressively worse over the past few years over a host of issues, from increasing Turkish authoritarianism to Turkish efforts to help Iran overcome U.S.-led sanctions to Turkey’s purchase of S-400 anti-aircraft systems from Russia. When Trump gave him the green light to send the Turkish army into the autonomous Kurdish zone in Syria, Erdoğan assumed that there would be no repercussions from the U.S. But because Congress is its own independent branch, it decided to respond with a resolution rebuking Trump’s decision that passed the House yesterday 354-60, and sanctions on Turkey are almost certain to follow.
Netanyahu has also relied on Trump to the exclusion of Congress, whether it be things relatively small such as barring members of Congress from entering Israel at Trump’s behest or things far larger such as disavowing the two-state model that he had previously endorsed despite Congress overwhelmingly expressing its support for a two-state outcome. If Netanyahu were to take genuinely drastic steps with Trump’s approval that would be opposed by Congress, such as annexing West Bank territory, the current mess in which Turkey finds itself embroiled may be an indication of what Israel might face in some measure.
Relying on assurances from Trump, or a green light from the president or anyone else in his administration, can backfire not only in relation to Congress. It can backfire in relation to Trump and the administration itself. Not only is Trump prone to wild swings back and forth – telling Erdoğan that he can go into Rojava, then changing his mind the next day and threatening to destroy Turkey’s economy, then reversing himself yet again and declaring that it is a good thing that Turkey is fighting so that the U.S. doesn’t have to – but his administration’s left hand often doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. Not only are there too many power centers with conflicting priorities, there is no coherent policy process to arrive at decisions. Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo’s trip to Turkey today, coming on the heels of Trump’s comments yesterday where he made it clear as day that he likes seeing Turkey and the Assad regime battle things out in Syria, was doomed to fail before they even left American soil, since nothing they say to any Turkish official can be relied upon, something the Turkish government knows as well.
In a similar vein, Netanyahu has been told all sorts of things, not only by Trump but by people around him, and it is impossible to know what to believe or what to rely on. In an obvious example, the Israeli government believed that John Bolton’s presence in Trump’s ear would result in an unprecedented pressure campaign against all nefarious Iranian activity across the region, almost certainly relying on assurances from Bolton himself, and Trump’s Iran policy has instead turned out to be an unpleasant surprise. Ambassador David Friedman has said all manner of things in public, from giving his approval to partial West Bank annexation to stating just this week that American policy opposes removing even one Israelifrom anywhere in the West Bank as part of a peace plan, and this is likely only a glimpse of what he tells Netanyahu in private. If Netanyahu relies on such assurances when determining Israeli policy going forward, he may find himself out on a limb that Trump decides to saw off, or that gets sawn off by accident since everything that the Trump administration says and does involves no more thought than goes into a 280 character tweet.
Turkey and the U.S. are treaty-bound allies, Trump has expressed a clear affinity for Erdoğan in the past, and the relationship is still moving south at an accelerated pace following what Erdoğan thought was a clearly unadulterated successful phone call with Trump. Netanyahu should study this incident carefully, because it goes beyond whether or not Trump is willing to sell out Israel. It’s not a question of Trump’s personal reliability, but whether anything he says or does can be relied upon in crafting policy. If Netanyahu is making policy decisions based on assurances from Trump or anyone who works for him, he may find that Israel is suddenly at odds with Congress, with the Trump administration, or both.