Can Trump manage a Mideast crisis? Why Israelis have concerns.

Crew enters Bradley Fighting Vehicles at a U.S. military base in northeastern Syria, Nov. 11, 2019. The redeployment of U.S. forces away from positions supporting Syrian Kurdish forces contributed to Israeli concerns over the direction of U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Darko Bandic/AP

In the hours after the killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli opposition leaders alike were quick to praise the Trump administration.

The U.S. drone strike had eliminated a hardened foe of Israel who sought, effectively, to encircle the country’s borders with hostile and well-armed proxies.

But for all their initial elation, Israeli national security experts have been left with a nagging hangover: Like Saudi Arabia and other key players in the region, they are still struggling to figure out the administration’s strategy in the Middle East.

Why We Wrote This

Policymaking process may sound dreary, but it also elicits confidence. America’s abilities to handle global crises fall on the shoulders of the president, yes, but also on a well-staffed policy bureaucracy.

Was the killing of General Soleimani a regional game changer that will curtail the reach of Tehran, or just the one-off assassination of a man they consider an archterrorist?

Moreover, many voice concerns about whether President Donald Trump and his administration have sufficient expert staffing and best practices to manage a military conflict against Iran, Israel’s most powerful regional foe.

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At the core of the uncertainty is whether the surprise killing of General Soleimani signals a reversal by the United States, Israel’s most important ally, of a recent trend of disengagement from the Middle East.

A rising cycle of direct confrontation with Iran would be at odds with the U.S. reluctance to become embroiled in the Syrian civil war and to retaliate for attacks on regional allies like Saudi Arabia, as well as with the pullback from its northern Syria alliance with Syrian Kurds.  

“I hear many, many questions about U.S. strategy in our [national security] system,’’ says Michael Herzog, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a retired Israeli brigadier general whose late father, Chaim Herzog, was Israel’s sixth president. “To what extent this signals a real change of course, or [conversely] is kind of an eruption given the fact that the Iranians crossed an American red line.”

In the latter case, he says the Israelis surmise that “the U.S. will revert to its previous course, which strategically is more about retreating from the region rather than increasing its footprint.”

Trump’s popularity

President Trump enjoys overwhelming popularity in Israel for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and taking a hard line on Iran, and for his support for Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau seized from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war. His decision to take out General Soleimani, who for decades cultivated a network of allied militias in Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, and Syria to form a forward ring of pressure around Israel, figures as another notch in his belt here.  

“Israelis feel satisfaction in the elimination of Soleimani, considering all the blood on his hands, and his leadership of the regional campaign to marshal Shia forces against Israel,’’ says Daniel Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University. “It’s consistent with an Israeli ethos of striking first at terrorist leaders.”

Mr. Trump’s public popularity and his close ties with Mr. Netanyahu make Israeli politicians and experts cautious about airing public criticism of the leader of Israel’s main ally.

Still, policy hands are more focused on Mr. Trump’s repeated declaration of his desire to be done with the “endless wars” in the region and on the actions that signaled a declining commitment. And only a few months ago, the president was flirting with the idea of negotiating with Iran. 

In late December, the Israeli military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, complained that it would be better if Israelis weren’t the “only ones” acting against Iran.    

Despite the surprise assassination, the U.S. military’s leak of a letter purporting to announce plans to withdraw from Iraq ­– later denied by U.S. Defense Secretary Mike Esper – only fueled those concerns.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who led an aggressive Israeli policy toward Iran as defense minister under Mr. Netanyahu, says the leaked letter represents the deeper desires of an unpredictable commander in chief. 

“It’s not completely far-fetched to think that Trump would exchange blows with the Iranians – this is the main worry of allies in the region – and at a certain stage, when the blows become more serious, you wake up one day, and it turns out that Trump has ordered U.S. forces to leave,” Mr. Barak said in an interview with Israel Army Radio.   

Immediately after the attack on Mr. Soleimani, Iraq’s parliament voted to order the U.S. military to leave its soil. If the U.S. were to exit Iraq in the aftermath of the killing, it would mark a backfiring of extraordinary strategic consequences, says Ambassador Shapiro and others.

“I don’t rule out that, paradoxically, [the attack] will result in the U.S. retreating from Iraq,” says Mr. Herzog. “The president could say, ‘We targeted Soleimani, [so] we can leave.’ If the U.S. government decides to leave Iraq ... there’s going to be a domino effect.”

The machinery of policy

Beyond confusion about the strategic direction of Washington in the Middle East, there are serious Israeli misgivings about the machinery of U.S. policy.

Given the turnover among the Trump administration’s senior ranks and attrition among career policymakers in executive branch bureaucracies, there are questions about whether the administration has the ability to handle a serious crisis.

“On the face of it, it doesn’t seem to be an ideal administration to deal with such a problem,’’ says Ephraim Halevy, a former director of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad.

“The decision-making process is problematic. The staff at the White House has been depleted. The number of people involved in the National Security Council is much less than it was before,” he says. “This situation is a big-time challenge.”

Looking to another region, Mr. Trump’s foreign policy flirtation with North Korea and the lack of results from U.S. negotiations with leader Kim Jong Un also don’t inspire confidence, says Ehud Eiran, a political science professor at Haifa University and a visiting scholar at Stanford University. 

“It seems that the whole machinery isn’t exactly rational. The general pattern of decision-making is not based on process,’’ Professor Eiran says. “There is no input from the national security bureaucracy, no coordination. Big dramatic moves aren’t followed with any achievements.”

The large list of potential actors and complex matrix of alliances in the Middle East make the task of calibrating U.S. actions all the more challenging, he adds.

Danger of miscalculation

While security experts believe it’s likely that Iran will avoid direct retaliation against Israel in order not to provoke a counterattack, they still worry about Israel becoming embroiled in unintended escalation between the U.S. and Iran. 

Indeed, even before the strike against General Soleimani, Iran’s presence in Syria and its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon stoked considerable tension along Israel’s northern border. Now, Israel will have to factor in the flammable aftermath of that targeted killing when it decides whether to hit Iran or its allies, such as a deadly attack on an air base in the Syrian province of Homs Tuesday that Damascus accused Israel of carrying out.

According to a report Wednesday in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Israel’s Military Intelligence branch sees the current U.S.-Iran clash as creating an opportunity for Israel to strike at Iranian and allied targets, even though it expects Iran or Hezbollah would respond to any fatalities.

“We are closer to the threshold of escalation, and the probability or prospect of miscalculation is much higher than it was before the assassination,” says Kobi Michael, a fellow at INSS.

“If Israel needs to operate, it will be a good reason for these militias to retaliate much more aggressively. And we will find ourselves on a slippery slope.”