Donald Trump went into his meeting Monday with Vladimir Putin in Finland deeply concerned about national security. It wasn’t the security of American citizens, however, but rather those of Israel that the US President appeared to have on his mind.
This wasn’t a surprise as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been urging Trump to discuss Israel’s number one strategic concern with the Russian President: Iran’s involvement in Syria.
As if to encourage Trump publicly, Netanyahu gave him one last nudge on Sunday, telling the Israeli cabinet: “I thanked President Trump for his strong policy against Iran, because since this policy has been taken, we have seen a great effect on – and inside – Iran. President Trump clearly reiterated his commitment to the security of Israel and his willingness to help the State of Israel in various fields and, of course, I thanked him for that.”
Before the Helsinki summit, many Democrats and Republicans hoped Trump would finally confront Putin over Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election, especially in light of last week’s US indictments of Russian agents over hacking.
But standing alongside Putin at a news conference on Monday, Trump refused to endorse his own government’s assessment that Russia had interfered in American democracy, prompting a flood of criticism from all sides of the political spectrum.
From the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem, however, it all looked very different; the summit between the two world leaders was a success.
Putin mentioned to journalists at a press conference after their meeting that “Mr. President [Trump] paid special attention to [the security of Israel] during today’s negotiations.”
Trump reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to Israel during Monday’s news conference. “They would like to do certain things with respect to Syria, having to do with the safety of Israel,” he said. “In that respect, we absolutely would like to work in order to help Israel.”
Let’s compare that commitment to Israel’s national interest with Trump’s failure to address US interests on Monday.
“I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia that was behind the hacking of Democrats’ emails, Trump told reporters. “I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”
Netanyahu paid tribute to Trump in a statement following the summit by commending the “abiding commitment of the US and President Donald Trump to the security of Israel, as expressed at the meeting [in Helsinki].”
He also paid tribute to Putin for upholding a decades-old agreement concerning the frontier between Israel and Syria, while praising the security coordination between Russia and Israel.
It’s worth dwelling a moment on this. While most if not all of the US national security establishment views Russia as a major threat, Israel sees things very differently. It is very happy with what it sees as a successful strategic relationship between Putin and Netanyahu.
Many Israeli leaders have come around to the view that, on balance, Russia’s presence in Syria is a good thing. After years of instability and American inaction, Russia has brought the regime of Bashar al-Assad to the brink of victory. And while that victory has brought with it the presence of Iranian forces, and Iranian proxies, Israel increasingly believes Russia might be ready to roll them back, at least partially.
Why? Because Russia has significant military and economic interests in Syria, which it does not want Iran’s presence in the country to jeopardize.
A conflict with Israel would threaten Russia’s gains. Moscow also knows that Israel could strike Syrian leadership targets and has threatened to do so in the past if Israel was attacked.
Netanyahu has extensively lobbied both Russian and US governments. He has made numerous visits to Russia to discuss the situation in Syria. The latest was on July 11, just five days before the Trump-Putin summit. The Prime Minister wants Iran out of Syria altogether, but if that is perhaps asking too much, then Netanyahu still believes Russia could be willing to push Iran far away from the Israeli-Syria frontier on the Golan Heights.
Putin reiterated Russia’s commitment to the 1974 agreement between Syria and Israel, likely to the chagrin of Iran, saying, “This will restore calm to the Golan, restore the ceasefire between the Syrian Arab Republic and Israel, and secure the security of the State of Israel.”
It seems that Trump delivered for Israel, if not the US. After the summit, Netanyahu tweeted, “The friendship between Israel and the US has never been stronger.”