Last week, a Syrian-operated Russian antiaircraft system shot down a Russian plane while shooting at Israeli jets that had bombed a target in Syria. 15 Russians were on the plane, and none survived. That is really all I know about the incident itself.
Yesterday, the Russian Ministry of Defense blamed Israel, saying that Israel warned Russia only a minute before its attack on a building containing “systems to manufacture precision rockets for Iran and Hezbollah.” They said at one point that Israeli jets hid behind the Russian plane. They said that Israel misled the Russians about the location of the target. Israel denied the charges, and sent the commander of the IAF to Moscow on Thursday to present detailed technical information to the Russians.
Earlier in the week, Russian President Vladimir Putin had taken a softer line, saying that Israel was not to blame for the “chain of tragic circumstances.”
I am not in a position to say who’s right. One thing that’s clear is that the Syrians are totally incompetent, squirting missiles all over the sky, most likely after the Israeli planes were long gone. But nobody expects Arabs to be competent or to act like responsible grownups, so they are excused. It’s the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” And of course the opposite applies to Israel and the US (“the soft bigotry of high expectations?”) who are treated as all-powerful and responsible for everything that happens everywhere).
But the political implications of the event are significant. We think that Russia = Putin, but this is certainly not entirely true. While Putin has been surprisingly fair to Israel (for whatever reason), Russia is still Russia, and there are surely circles there which yearn for the old days when the Soviet Union was directly hostile to Israel (here is some interesting speculation about the depth of that hostility). And Putin is anything but transparent. We may enjoy his “friendship” today, but we cannot assume that it will continue tomorrow.
During the Cold War, Israel was “adopted” by the US, probably preferable to being adopted by the Soviets, but the fact that the Soviets adopted our enemies placed us in peril of becoming a proxy battlefield for the great powers. Today, the Russian-American rivalry is not as serious as it was then, but you can excuse us for being nervous.
Our good relationship vis-a-vis the US also cannot be taken for granted. President Donald Trump has been a better friend to Israel than many US presidents, particularly the last one. His administration finally ended the decades-long refusal to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and to carry out the will of the Congress to move the US Embassy there. Perhaps even more important, it has deflated the “Palestinian refugee” myth, which is probably the single most important factor that for 70 years has prevented any settlement – or even movement in the direction of a settlement – of our conflict with the Palestinians. Trump seems to be actually enforcing the Taylor Force Act, which calls for cutting funding to the Palestinian Authority as long as it continues paying terrorists and their families. His administration has re-imposed sanctions on Iran, effectively reversing the course of the previous administration, which – for reasons which are beyond my understanding – actually helped Iran finance world-wide terrorism, and which put into place a ‘deal’, against the wishes of the US Congress, that made a nuclear-armed Iran more likely.
American politics relating to this president have become so extreme, so polarized and polarizing, that even the previous paragraph – which I see as beyond dispute – provokes anger among the anti-Trump forces. But it’s still true. From the viewpoint of Israel, and I am thinking in the broadest possible sense, not from a right- or left-wing perspective, Trump has been great.
I was talking to a friend the other day, and we both agreed that it was strange that few observers seem to note the fragility of our relationship with the US. This fragility is partly due to the aforementioned madness – there is no other word – that characterizes the political scene in the US today. Trump will not be president for more than 6 years, and he may not be re-elected in 2020. He may even be hamstrung by an impeachment attempt if the Democrats take the House in the midterm election coming up in a little more than a month.
Imagine what will happen when the Democratic “Resistance” – the very word, evoking visions of partisans hiding in the forest and blowing up trains, shows the degree of polarization – comes to power, which of course it will at some point. Israel, formerly a non-partisan issue, has become (also thanks in part to the previous US president) just the opposite. Just as Trump reversed many of the decisions of his predecessor, his successor will act to reverse Trump. I can’t imagine a new president moving the embassy back to Tel Aviv, but certainly many of his decisions that affect Israel will be at risk.
Perhaps worse, the Democratic Party’s rising stars and most of their presidential hopefuls are more anti-Israel than ever before. Polls show that younger Democrats tend to be less pro-Israel than older ones, so time is not on our side. As my friend said, “if you thought Obama was bad, wait for President [put any possible candidate’s name here].” And a Democratic Congress would back the president up instead of checking him, as the Republican Congress did to Obama.
In the increasingly anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist world, Israel and her Jewish supporters are thought to be powerful and manipulative, controlling large nations and bending them to their will. In truth, tiny Israel must walk between the raindrops with the US and Russia in order to survive (Benjamin Netanyahu has been good at this, which is one of the reasons for his political survival). I think it’s hard for Americans or Canadians, who are insulated from an unstable world by two oceans, and who live in resource-rich nations that stretch between them, to fully grasp the insecurity that is Israel’s lot. This is one reason why Israelis have very little patience with North Americans telling them what’s good for them in matters relating to security.
Although we can’t predict the details of the future, one thing that is absolutely certain is that our relationships with the great powers will change; and the trends are such that it is not likely that the change will be for the better.
Sometimes it seems that Israeli politicians think, for example, that billions in US military aid will continue forever. They won’t. I guarantee it. We should start phasing it out now, instead of waiting for an anti-Israel president and Congress to do it for us.
Would you like to see more construction in Judea and Samaria? Now is the time.
I hate to always sound so belligerent, but if we are destined to have a war with Hamas, Hezbollah, and/or Iran, should we have it while Donald Trump is US President, or should we wait for, say, Cory Booker? Kamala Harris? Or even Michelle Obama?
We will always be walking between the raindrops, but we have good weather today. We should take advantage of it.