It’s only fitting that 2018 should end with political turmoil and confusion in Washington and Jerusalem. It’s been that kind of year.
With President Donald Trump’s sudden announcement to pull out the 2,000 U.S. troops who have played a role as buffer in war-torn Syria, followed by the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis over that move and other foreign policy disagreements, critics and allies of the president have spoken more openly about his ability to govern.
One prominent U.S. general referred to Trump as “a rogue president” this week, and an editorial in the conservative publication The Wall Street Journal described his actions as that of “a raging bull.”
How this will play out in the coming year, with the Democrats controlling the House, and the president increasingly relying on his own instincts, remains to be seen.
As noted on this page, Trump’s decision to pull out of Syria could have serious consequences for Israel, which is already playing a difficult role in trying to secure its citizens from the chaos of the Syrian civil war, complicated by the presence there of Iran and Russia. Now, with the U.S. leaving, Moscow and Tehran will become an even bigger problem. Officially, Israel is saying, in effect, as it has always said, “we can defend ourselves, thank you.” But Iran will now have a straight path on land to Israel’s northern border. It will be that much more difficult for Israel to stay out of a war that has already claimed a reported half-million lives, flooded Europe with immigrants, and become a potential ignition point for a world war.
Until now, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has handled the political and military situation in Syria extraordinarily well. He has visited Moscow a number of times, trying to convince President Vladimir Putin to make sure Israel doesn’t get caught in the cross-fire. At the same time, he has called for air strikes to keep Hezbollah fighters from receiving dangerous arms from Iran, which aims to establish its own military presence in Syria.
But Netanyahu is facing serious new problems on several fronts. The U.S. pullout creates a dangerous vacuum in Syria, Putin has snubbed him since Israel shot down a Russian plane over Syria, and on the domestic front, the drumbeat of an indictment increases as the prime minister has been accused of political corruption in several cases. Now comes word that Israel will hold elections April 9 — they were scheduled for next November — and there is much speculation that the timing was calculated to improve Netanyahu’s chances for political survival. The thinking is that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit will hold off on the indictment decision until after the elections so as not to appear to be influencing the voting. But that could all change. Even if Netanyahu is indicted, he could stay in office legally — and he could be re-elected. Many Israelis may not like him personally but don’t see an alternative candidate they trust with vital issues of security.
If nothing else, we’ve been reminded this year that politics is volatile and unpredictable, and that nothing should surprise us.