Eric H. Yoffie

American Jews: Unite against Iran

President Trump has betrayed the Kurds, a moral indecency of monumental proportions.  In the process, he has bolstered Iran’s strategic position throughout the Middle East, advanced the interests of Turkey’s autocratic leader, strengthened Russia’s position in Syria, and dealt a terrible blow to Israel’s security and political standing.

Three comments on the implications of our President’s latest blunder:

*Trump’s actions should not have been a surprise to Israel or to anyone else.

Headlines in Israel declared how shocked and surprised Israel’s leaders were by Trump’s unexpected move.  But why?  Have they not been paying attention to everything that Trump has been doing in the nearly three years of his wild and erratic policy-making?  Did they think that Israel would somehow be exempt from his shoot-from-the-hip style and from his decision-making by whim and impulse rather than by prudence and process?

After all, Trump is a serial betrayer.

He betrayed each one of this three wives with multiple infidelities.  He betrayed his late brother Fred, by successfully urging his father to cut his brother’s family out of his father’s will.  He betrayed his working-class supporters by failing to deliver on a single bread-and-butter campaign promise.  He betrayed his NATO allies by casting aside traditional alliances, forsaking American leadership in the world, and repeatedly favoring autocrats over democrats.  And on and on.

The Kurds never had a chance.

And if truth be told, neither did Israel.  Yes, the President withdrew from the Iran deal with much fanfare, and levelled tough economic sanctions.  And he surely has as bold an ego as the U.S. has produced in a century.  But profoundly isolationist by temperament, lacking allies, and with no plan B if Iran did not fold, he was reduced to stark silence or impotent whining when the Iranians started to strike back.

When Iran disrupted shipping in the Persian Gulf, Trump did nothing.  When Iran shot down American drones, he did nothing.  When Iran or its surrogates fired cruise missiles into the Saudi oil fields, he did nothing.

An instinctive tyrant, loyal only to himself, and bizarrely allergic to even the most modest use of the massive military might of which he is forever boasting, why in heaven’s name would Israel imagine that Trump would stand up for the Kurds and rein in Iranian provocations?  Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government have a right to be angry and are wise to be worried.  They have no right to be surprised.

*Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds and his paralysis in the face of Iranian expansionism provide a compelling reason why Prime Minister Netanyahu should step down.

Donald Trump may be impeached, although that is not likely, or he may be defeated in the 2020 election.  Either way, a foreign policy vacuum will be created on Middle East policy, and it is not at all clear what will fill it.  What is clear is that Israel needs to take the initiative in reestablishing ties with the great American center and offering an alternative to the do-nothing chaos and incoherence of the Trump era on Iran.

And time is short.  As Tom Friedman pointed out this week in the New York Times, Iran is well down the road in its effort to encircle Israel with proxy militias in Lebanon, Syria, and Western Iraq.   And the precision-guided missiles with which they are being equipped can do far more damage than the primitive rockets that Hamas has been lobbing into southern Israel.

Iran’s success and America’s inaction mean that Israel needs a strategy of building alliances with her friends in Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, to assure Israel’s security and counter Iran.  Such friends exist, in both parties, as reactions to Trump’s dismissal of the Kurds have demonstrated.  But this is work that Bibi Netanyahu simply cannot do.

The Prime Minister has fawned over Trump with melodramatic overkill.  (And ironically, he has justified his Republican sympathies by pointing to the President’s tough-guy stance on Iran.)  The result?  The democratic side of the Congress views Netanyahu and his team as partisans and pariahs, and the Israeli Prime Minister will have zero credibility in attempting to steer American foreign policy in a new direction.

Let’s imagine instead a unity government led by Benny Gantz, with Gideon Saar as the future Prime Minister in a rotation agreement.  Might Gantz and Saar, in a series of congressional meetings and press conferences, have some success in conveying the dangers that Israel faces and the need for a more supportive and activist American role in responding to Iran?  They might.

Of course, Donald Trump might weather the current storm, recover his standing, and be reelected.  If, God forbid, that were to be the scenario, Israel’s situation would be grim.  Trump’s narcissistic rage is unlikely to mellow and his presidency is unlikely to become less deranged and absurd, on Iran and everything else.  Still, if Trump were to be reelected, Israel would more than ever need a Prime Minister with broad appeal, able to reach out across the American political spectrum.   The simple fact is this:  Mr. Netanyahu has bet his political life on a bear hug of President Trump, who would smite the Iranians and provide Israel with redemption.  He lost the bet, and for Israel’s sake, it is time for him to go.

*American Jews need to get organized and active on the Iranian issue.

American Jews cooperate on very little these days, even when it comes to Israel.  But Iran might provide the exception.

Some American Jews supported the Iran deal – I was among them – and some did not.  But the deal itself no longer seems to be at the heart of the debate.  Whether or not the deal is ultimately reinstated in some form, Iran’s campaign for regional hegemony, for asserting domination over Saudi Arabia and the Sunni states, and for circling, threatening, and ultimately destroying Israel is an indisputable reality.

The task of American Jews is to educate the American people about this reality, and to make the case that American interests will be adversely affected by an Iranian-dominated Middle East.

President Trump has argued against any major American involvement in another ground war in the Middle East, involving Iran or anyone else.  And in this regard, he is undoubtedly right.  The American people do not want such a war.

But the American Jewish community can reasonably make the argument that no large-scale commitment of American troops will be needed to deal with Iran.  The America presence in Syria—1000 troops—was a largely symbolic force, meant to advise and deter.

The Iranians, after all, are a rational regional power; they probe for weakness, and in the absence of resistance, they push some more.  In most cases, the Saudis and the Israelis can do the resisting.  America’s job is to assure a regional balance of power, provide protection for the oil production of the Saudis and the Gulf states, give the Russians a reason to behave, and offer a defense umbrella for Israel if the Iranians or their satellites attack.  Responsible deterrence is the key.

And yes, occasionally America’s 1.3 million-person active duty armed forces might be called upon for some firepower.  That is what the military is for.  But no major ground war should be contemplated or required, and such a promise should be made up front.

Can American Jews join together, take on Iran, and push back against the America Firsters?   I believe they can.

This means jointly advocating for American leadership in the world, but of a restrained and reasonable variety.  This means calling for the Congress to provide Israel with the sophisticated weapons it needs, both offensive and defensive, to deal with the growing threat that Iran poses to Israel.  This means doing battle with isolationists like President Donald Trump, Republican Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee, and their counterparts in the Democratic party.  And this means demanding that at the upcoming Democratic debate, the presidential candidates make their views known on the subject of Iran, the Kurds, and America’s role in the Middle East.

The threat to Israel is immediate and profound.  American Jews need to get to work.

About the Author
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, a writer and lecturer, served as President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012.
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