“We are on our own” – this was a key message from veteran Israeli commentator Ehud Yaari regarding the consequences for Israel following an apparent US retreat from the Middle East.
Yaari was recently in Australia as a guest of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC), where he met with politicians, journalists, government bodies and community organisations to provide insights into Israel’s challenges including the political turmoil following its second election this year, and the threats posed by an emboldened Iran.
Yaari is an Israel-based Lafer International Fellow of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a Middle East commentator for Israel’s Channel Two and the author of eight books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
At an AIJAC function in Melbourne, Yaari said he hoped Israel would form a “strong government” through a unity deal between Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White, initially led by the experienced Netanyahu, in order to tackle Israel’s pressing challenges, most significantly an aggressive Iran which has entrenched itself in Syria after saving the Assad regime.
Following eight years of civil war in Syria, Bashar al-Assad and his regime managed to survive largely due to the financial and military support from Russia and Iran, with Russia in the air and Iranian proxies on the ground, he noted.
According to Yaari, Israel made a mistake in not being more active in supporting efforts to rid Syria of the Assad regime when the war first broke out. He said Israel “missed the opportunity”, because Israeli leaders decided “they preferred the devil we know than the devil we don’t know.” Yaari said regarding Assad, “This devil we know is the one who went for a nuclear bomb, until Israel bombed the nuclear reactor… is the one who is using chemical weapons against his own people… It was reckless [for Israel] to be so cautious” with respect to Assad.
Yaari believes the Assad regime’s survival has enabled Iran to entrench itself in Syria and upgrade its terrorist proxy Hezbollah’s missile arsenal, which is estimated to now consist of around 140,000 missiles.
Yaari said, “The Iranians are trying to build a war machine of their own [in Syria], independent of the Syrian army” with an arsenal of precision missiles, a fleet of attack drones, and thousands of non-Iranian Shi’ite militias. According to Yaari, Israel has disrupted about 80% of the Iranian effort over the past three years, through around 1000 Israeli air raids. He believes Israel’s understanding with Russia is that President Vladimir Putin allows Prime Minister Netanyahu to attack Iranian and Hezbollah targets as long as Assad is left untouched, but cautions that “Putin may change his mind tomorrow.”
Regarding the US decision not to respond to the attack on Saudi Arabia’s large oil facilities in September widely attributed to Iran, Yaari believes the lack of response made it clear that the US is intent on retreating from the Middle East, thus changing the strategic landscape of the region. He said, “I’m afraid the next time the Israeli Air Force hits a target [in Syria], the Iranians will say, “well it worked in Saudi Arabia and now the Saudis are trying to talk to us… why don’t we try to have this type of retaliation against Israel.’”
As a result, Yaari said, “Everyone in the region – Arabs and Jews – understands that there will be no American umbrella, there will be assistance, help, weapons, and diplomatic support… but the Americans are not there to engage in the muddy quagmire of the Middle East, that’s over. So we are left to face Putin as a next-door neighbour on our own and to cope with the Iranian attempt to obtain supremacy over the fertile crescent of the Levant. All of it on our own.”
Yaari believes this will have other far-reaching consequences including undermining the potential of the long-awaited US “Deal of the Century” for Israelis and Palestinians. He said that while everyone knew that the Palestinians were intent on rejecting the deal, the idea was to “create a platform for the Israelis and Sunni Arabs to discuss…and lift the growing cooperation between Israel and the Arab states, especially in the Gulf States… [into] the open, [through] public negotiations.” However, as a result of the US retreat from the region, he contends, there is now “not a chance in a million that the Saudis and others will be prepared to play this game.”