Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will roll into Washington bloodied and bruised from a corruption scandal which is quickly eating alive his inner circle. Despite the domestic turmoil, we’ll likely hear that there is no daylight—anymore—in the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Yet tensions over Syria—namely the contours of the mission and the dimensions of the de-escalation zones—and Iran are lurking beneath the glad-handing, goodwill, and graciousness.
President Trump has positioned himself as the anti-Obama—anything President Obama was for, he is against—and that has become the organizing principle of his personal foreign-policy brand. Such a dynamic extends to Israel. It started during the transition in December 2016, when Trump opposed the Obama administration’s closing act on Israel in abstaining from a United Nations Security Council condemning the Jewish state over settlements. At the time he tweeted “[Israel] used to have a great friend in the United States, but . . . not anymore. The beginning of the end was the horrible Iran deal and now this (UN)! Stay strong Israel, January 20 is fast approaching!” Fast-forward to 2018, and the president is still trying to be anything but Obama. At the Conservative Political Action Conference last weekend, the raison d’être of his presidency was on full display —this time concerning recognition of Jerusalem, bragging that he took action after his predecessors kicked the can down the road.
However, putting aside the public kumbaya, one of the biggest foreign-policy challenges on the global stage—the day after ISIS in Syria—remains a thorn in the side of both leaders. President Trump’s comments at a press conference last week outlining his goals in Syria could complicate matters: “we’re there for one reason to get ISIS and get rid of ISIS and to home. We’re not there for any other reason.” But Netanyahu laid down his red lines in January, which sounded very different from the ISIS-centric model framed by Trump—he dubbed the situation on the ground as a “watershed change,” and went on to ask, “[W]ill Iran establish itself in Syria or will this process be stopped. If it is not halted on its own then we will act to stop it.” This principle became all the more urgent after Israel downed an Iranian drone that was violating its airspace after being launched from Syria’s Tiyas Military Airbase, which has been used by the Qods Force to transfer weaponry to be used against Israel. At the same time, Trump’s thinking has clearly trickled down through the chain of command. On Tuesday, General Joseph L. Votel, head of CENTCOM, proclaimed to Congress “[c]ountering Iran is not one of our coalition’s missions in Syria.” This mismatch in missions may be headed on a collision course during the Trump-Netanyahu confab at the White House.
Another item on the agenda which could cause some rumblings is the size of Syria’s southern de-escalation zone. Under the terms of the ceasefire deal signed by Russia, Jordan, and the United States in November 2017, non-Syrian forces—like Iranians—are not permitted to enter these areas. Israel had originally wanted such a zone to be twenty-five miles wide—at a minimum. But Washington, Amman and Moscow agreed that the zone would be thirteen miles wide—and even worse for Israel, 3.5 miles wide in some areas. Such dissonance was aggravated in February after Israel allegedly wiped out half of Syria’s air-defense capabilities in response to the Iranian UAV veering into Israeli skies—a development which Russia’s Foreign Ministry feared would unravel the southern de-escalation zone in Syria. Putin and King Abdullah of Jordan met earlier in February to prevent the disintegration of the agreement—but, as analysts like Yury Barmin have noted , “Jordanian officials no longer see Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a threat and even go as far as to claim their relations are back on track.” Would Trump support an Israeli request to widen the southern zone after the drone episode? Even if he was sympathetic to such a request given his distaste for Tehran, it’s not clear that Washington even has the leverage at this point to push the envelope in this space—given Assad’s strengthened hand—or the will to do so if Trump remains committed to the notion that Putin is a trustworthy partner for peace in Syria. Israel’s unease and willingness to act boldly to protect its own interests will only increase in this environment—even at the expense of any rapprochement Trump is seeking with Putin.
Finally, disagreements over the “fix or nix” approach to the Iranian nuclear file may boil to the surface. The State Department has identified three changes to which it would like to see the European Union agree: limits on ballistic-missile testing; guarantees that the international community would have “unfettered access to Iranian military bases;” and nixing the sunset clauses in the JCPOA itself. What form these fixes take remains to be seen. However, the missile demand may run into some Israeli resistance. According to a cable obtained by Reuters, Secretary Tillerson instructed U.S. diplomats to relay the following to their counterparts: “[w]e are asking for your commitment that we should work together to seek a supplemental or follow-on agreement that addresses Iran’s development or testing long-range missiles.” The phrase “long-range” is curious and first appeared in Trump’s statement on Iran in January, highlighting the conditions that would have to be met for him to stay in the JCPOA. Yet, Iran has short-range and medium-range missiles, the latter of which are still capable of striking Israel. For instance, in November Iran proudly displayed a new version of the Qadr H medium-range ballistic missile, which is liquid-fueled and can reach a target as far as two thousand kilometers away—in other words, Israel. Long-range missiles have a specific meaning; for example, North Korea’s Hwasong-15 has a range of thirteen thousand kilometers. It remains to be seen whether such a reference to “long-range missiles” reflects imprecision in vocabulary or a definitive policy decision. If this is the way President Trump wants to handle the missile threat, Prime Minister Netanyahu may very well object.