Jerusalem, Oct 10 (AP/UNB) — For the past three years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has bet heavily on President Donald Trump and been rewarded with major diplomatic gains in exchange for his warm embrace of the U.S. leader.
But the U.S. pullback from northeastern Syria, essentially abandoning its Kurdish allies, has called that strategy — and Trump's reliability as a friend — into question. In particular, there are growing fears that Israel's archenemy Iran could be emboldened by what appears to be an increasingly hands-off American policy in the region.
"The Israelis had thought of Trump as a special U.S. leader very much in tune with their view of the region," said Dan Shapiro, who was former U.S. President Barack Obama's ambassador to Israel. "Now they're coming to terms with the cold hard reality that his isolationist instincts and his chaotic, impulsive decision making can actually be very damaging to their interests."
It is a surprising turn of events for Netanyahu, who has been one of Trump's strongest supporters on the international stage.
That alliance yielded a wealth of dividends for Netanyahu during the first few years of the Trump administration — perhaps none so striking as Trump's decision to break with decades of U.S. policy and recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital. He moved the American Embassy to the contested holy city, enraging the Palestinians.
Trump also withdrew from the international nuclear deal with Iran — an agreement that Israel had derided as weak and ineffective. He defended Israel from its many critics at the United Nations, and, early this year, recognized Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war.
Netanyahu routinely boasts that Trump is the best friend that Israel has ever had in the White House. But things have begun to change since he failed to win reelection in April and was forced to hold a second, inconclusive vote last month.
During the first campaign for the April race, Trump embraced Netanyahu's candidacy and made little secret of his support, inviting the Israeli leader to the White House when he announced his recognition of the Golan Heights annexation.
But during the do-over race, Trump kept his distance. And after Netanyahu last month failed for a second time to win a parliamentary majority in national elections, Trump appeared to play down the friendship. "Our relations are with Israel, so we'll see what happens," he said.
Concerns have only deepened following a series of moves in which Trump backed away from possible military confrontations. In June, he called off a planned attack against Iran in response to the shooting down of an American drone. Trump also decided against military action in response to an alleged Iranian attack on Saudi oil facilities last month, saying he did not want war.
Then, this week, he abruptly withdrew U.S. troops from Kurdish areas in northeastern Syria, clearing the way for a Turkish invasion aimed at crushing the Kurds, America's allies in the fight against the Islamic State group. Trump has defended the move by saying the United States should not be "fighting and policing" in the Middle East. But it reportedly caught Israeli officials off guard.
The fear is that Trump's actions, or lack thereof, could encourage Iran to step up what Israel sees as aggressive and hostile activity in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.
"The main image is a very weak U.S. that does not help its allies. It deserts its allies," said Eytan Gilboa, an expert on U.S.-Israel relations at Israel's Bar-Ilan University.
Israeli officials declined to comment about Trump's decision in northern Syria but said relations with the U.S. remain strong and the country is more than capable of defending itself.
"We will always remember and implement the basic rule that has guided us: Israel will defend itself, by itself, against any threat," Netanyahu said at a memorial ceremony Thursday for soldiers killed in the 1973 Mideast war. "The Israeli military is prepared to preempt any threat, defensively and offensively, with crushing strength."
But while officials have stopped short of openly criticizing Trump, the American pullback from Syria has pushed some to question Netanyahu's close alliance. That support has had the effect of alienating some of Israel's traditional backers in the Democratic Party and the overwhelmingly liberal Jewish American community and caused friction with allies in Europe.
"From Jerusalem's perspective, it is another warning sign that this president — until recently presented as Israel's greatest friend ever in Washington — can't be trusted," said Amos Harel, a commentator in the Haaretz daily. "Again, one must wonder whether too much reliance hadn't been placed on Trump, at the cost of Netanyahu distancing himself far from the Democrats and undermining traditional bipartisan support in Washington for Israel."
Ofer Shelach, a lawmaker with the Blue and White Party, the main rival of Netanyahu's Likud party, said the events in northeastern Syria are "more evidence of Benjamin Netanyahu's ongoing diplomatic failure." He said that despite the close ties with Netanyahu, Trump does "what suits him."
But not everyone views the U.S. move as necessarily bad for Israel — or all that new. Yaakov Amidror, Netanyahu's former national security adviser, said Trump's disengagement in many ways continues Obama's reluctance to become embroiled in yet another Mideast conflict.
Although a U.S. exit from the region could have "very bad consequences" in terms of Iranian actions, he said it also could create new opportunities. Not having to worry about the "sensitivities" of U.S. troops in the area could give Israel more freedom to act, he said.
"The space is more opened to not just the Iranians but to us," he said.
Sanaa, Oct 8 (AP/UNB) — Yemeni health officials say an explosive device has gone off near the flashpoint port city of Hodeida, killing at least four children.
The officials say the explosion took place late on Monday in the town of Wadi Nakhla. Two other children were wounded. All the causalities were from the same family.
The officials blamed the Houthi rebels, saying they scattered land mines and explosive devices in areas under their control in Hodeida to hamper a push by government forces last year.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity under regulations.
Recent heavy rainfall and floods in the region have exposed land mines, which are largely unmapped and remain a threat to civilians.
Yemen's war pits the Iran-aligned Houthis against the internationally recognized government, backed by a Saudi-led coalition.
Beirut, Oct 8 (AP/UNB) — Turkey will not bow to threats over its Syria plans, the Turkish vice president said Tuesday in an apparent response to President Donald Trump's warning to Ankara the previous day about the scope of its planned military incursion into northeastern Syria.
Trump said earlier this week the United States would step aside for an expected Turkish attack on Syrian Kurdish fighters, who have fought alongside Americans for years, but he then threatened to destroy the Turks' economy if they went too far.
The U.S. president later cast his decision to abandon the Kurdish fighters in Syria as fulfilling a campaign promise to withdraw from "endless war" in the Middle East, even as Republican critics and others said he was sacrificing a U.S. ally and undermining American credibility.
Trump's statements have reverberated on all sides of the divide in Syria and the Mideast.
In Ankara, Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay said Turkey was intent on combatting Syrian Kurdish fighters across its border in Syria and on creating a zone that would allow Turkey to resettle Syrian refugees there.
"Where Turkey's security is concerned, we determine our own path but we set our own limits," Oktay said.
Meanwhile, in the Syrian capital of Damascus, Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad called on the country's Kurds to rejoin the government side after apparently being abandoned by their U.S. allies.
Mekdad's comments were the first Syrian reaction since Trump's announcement on Sunday and as northeastern Syria braces for an imminent Turkish attack on Syrian Kurdish militias. Trump's statement has infuriated the Kurds, who stand to lose the autonomy they gained from Damascus during Syria's civil war, now in its ninth year.
"The homeland welcomes all its sons and Damascus will solve all Syrian problems in a positive way, away from violence," Mekdad said in an interview with the pro-government daily Al-Watan.
As for the expected Turkish incursion, he added that the Syrian government "will defend all Syrian territory and will not accept any occupation of any land or iota of the Syrian soil."
The Syrian Kurdish force has pledged to fight back, raising the potential for an eruption of new warfare in Syria.
"We will not hesitate for a moment in defending our people" against Turkish troops, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said in a statement, adding that it has lost 11,000 fighters in the war against the Islamic State group in Syria.
Turkey, which considers Kurdish fighters in Syria terrorists and links them to a decades-old insurgency in Turkey, has already launched two major incursions into northern Syria over the past years. The first was in 2016, when Turkey and Syrian opposition fighters it backs attacked areas held by the Islamic State group west of the Euphrates River. Last year Turkey launched an attack on the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin, leading to the displacement of some 300,000 people.
"We tell them that they have lost everything and must not lose themselves," Mekdad added.
Also Tuesday, Iran urged Turkey not to go ahead with its planned an attack on Syrian Kurds, the Iranian state TV reported. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, to express Tehran's opposition to the anticipated Turkish operation.
Zarif urged Turkey to respect Syria's integrity and sovereignty, the report said.
Iran, Turkey and Russia have been working together as part of the so-called Astana group on the Syrian civil war, talks that have run parallel to U.N. efforts to find a solution to the conflict.
Trump's announcement threw the military situation in Syria into fresh chaos and injected deeper uncertainty into the region.
U.S. involvement in Syria has been fraught with peril since it started in 2014 with the insertion of small numbers of special operations forces to recruit, train, arm and advise local fighters to combat the Islamic State. Trump entered the White House in 2017 intent on getting out of Syria, and even before the counter-IS military campaign reclaimed the last militant strongholds early this year, he declared victory and said troops would leave.
In recent weeks, the U.S. and Turkey had reached an apparent accommodation of Turkish concerns about the presence of Kurdish fighters, seen in Turkey as a threat. American and Turkish soldiers had been conducting joint patrols in a zone along the border. As part of that work, barriers designed to protect the Syrian Kurds were dismantled amid assurances that Turkey would not invade.
Beirut, Oct. 8 (Xinhua/UNB) -- Lebanon's state security arrested on Tuesday head of Islamist Jundallah party Sheikh Kanaan Naji in Tripoli, north of the country, local media reported.
Abdel Rahman Mabsout, an Islamic State member who blew himself up in Tripoli's terror attack on June 3, had worked as a bodyguard for Naji, according to online newspaper Elnashra.
"Mabsout bought the weapons used in Tripoli's terrorist attack from other bodyguards working for Naji," it said, adding that these bodyguards were arrested.
Meanwhile, Defense Minister Elias Bou Saab assured that the judicial bodies will do their job to reach fair decisions in this case.
Jerusalem, Oct 8 (AP/UNB) — With a simple tweet, Gideon Saar did what no Israeli politician from the ruling conservative party has done in more than a decade — openly challenge its chief, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The brazen move against the long-serving Israeli leader has solidly positioned the 52-year-old Saar as the Likud party's leading candidate to replace Netanyahu, who is fighting for his survival amid a pending corruption indictment and post-election political paralysis.
A former aide and senior Cabinet minister under Netanyahu, Saar has long been considered a rising star in Likud and one of the lone independent voices in a party that has, in general, blindly followed its leader.
But that has begun to change. Netanyahu failed in two elections this year to capture a parliamentary majority, and the possibility of a criminal indictment in the coming weeks has hindered his efforts to head a coalition government. Seeking to solidify his status, the premier last week floated the prospect of a snap internal leadership primary in which he expected Likud to endorse him. But he quickly backed down after a two-word Twitter response from Saar: "I'm ready."
It was a risky maneuver in a party that fiercely values loyalty and has had only had four leaders in its 70-plus-year history. Saar followed it up with a more detailed tweet clarifying that he was not out to topple the prime minister, as Netanyahu has long claimed. Still, Saar left no doubt about his ultimate objective.
"No one is denying the prime minister's role as chairman of the Likud," Saar wrote on Twitter. "When there is a race for leadership of the party — as the prime minister himself initiated a few days ago — I will run."
For Saar, it was a move long in the making. A former lawyer and journalist, he was first brought into politics 20 years ago by Netanyahu, who made him his Cabinet secretary during his first term in office.
Saar then established himself as a staunch nationalist who opposed Israel's 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and resisted the prospect of a Palestinian state. He quickly rose in the Likud ranks, twice finishing first in internal elections for its parliamentary list and enjoying successful stints as education minister and interior minister after Netanyahu returned to power in 2009.
But as with others in Likud who saw their popularity rise, he too began to be perceived by Netanyahu as a threat. Their falling out was capped by Saar's active role in getting Netanyahu's nemesis Reuven Rivlin elected president, over the prime minister's objections.
With his advancement stunted, Saar abruptly quit politics in 2014 to spend more time with his new wife, Israeli TV anchor Geula Even, and their young children.
He made his comeback this year, chosen by Likud members for a senior position on the party's list of candidates in parliamentary elections. While campaigning hard for Likud, Saar has been its only top official to occasionally flaunt Netanyahu — resisting calls to legislate immunity for the prime minister and attending a media conference Netanyahu had called to boycott.
"Gideon has no fear and he's straight as an arrow," said Shimshon Shoshani, Saar's former director general in the Education Ministry.
Though he didn't share Saar's right-wing ideology, Shoshani said they worked in tandem on bold education initiatives and he saw a public servant fit to lead the country.
"He's a man who has a vision, and he knows how to translate that vision into concrete plans," said Shoshani, an 82-year-old veteran of the Israeli bureaucracy.
Despite his hard-line positions, Saar enjoys good relations across the political spectrum and is perceived as a potentially more comfortable partner for a unity government with the rival Blue and White party, which emerged as the largest party in last month's election.
But neither it nor the Likud control a parliamentary majority. A coalition government between the two parties appears to be the best way out of the deadlock, but Blue and White's leader, former military chief Benny Gantz, refuses to sit with Netanyahu because of his expected indictment on corruption charges.
Saar's independent streak has drawn frequent fire from Netanyahu's lackeys, and Netanyahu himself last year accused Saar of orchestrating a "putsch" with Rivlin to unseat him.
Under Israeli law, if neither Netanyahu nor Gantz can form a coalition, a majority of lawmakers could theoretically choose an alternative as prime minister. Saar is widely seen as the politician most capable of winning such support.
With a primary election seemingly off the table for now, Netanyahu is talking about convening a Likud functionary body to stipulate he's the party's sole candidate for prime minister.
Netanyahu's office has refused to comment about his plans. However, Limor Livnat, a former Likud Cabinet minister and Netanyahu ally, decried the conduct against Saar as a show of weakness.
"Instead of cultivating potential successors, Netanyahu has neutralized every Likud member who has shown any independence and has surrounded himself with yes-men," she wrote in the Yediot Ahronot daily. "Since when is announcing one's candidacy in a party primary construed as a plot against the incumbent party chairman?"
Eran Davidi, a long-time confidante of Saar's, said Saar and Netanyahu have not met in five years and the enmity was likely to cost Saar a Cabinet post if Netanyahu succeeds in forming another government. But if he fails again, and the country heads to an unprecedented third election within a year, Davidi said he expected the long-hidden cracks to finally emerge within Likud.
While others have expressed interest in heading the party after Netanyahu voluntarily steps aside, Saar remains the only one who doesn't intend to wait till that happens.
"He has ambitions and he has said that he came back to politics to lead the country," Davidi said. "Eventually, the Likud members will appreciate that he had the courage to run. That's the qualities of a leader."