After Syria Pullout, Middle East Leaders Fear Reduced US Role in Region, Top American Jewish Official Says
by Barney Breen-Portnoy
Many leaders in the Middle East are watching developments in their neighborhood with “increasing trepidation” after President Donald Trump’s sudden decision last month to withdraw American troops from Syria, a top US Jewish leader with extensive contacts in the region told The Algemeiner this week.
“The fear that I have heard is that we are going back in the same direction as the past — that the US is reducing its role in the Middle East as a reliable ally,” Malcolm Hoenlein — the executive vice chairman and CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations — said. “This is about perception. That’s not because this is necessarily the intent or the reality on the ground, but it is the perception, and perception becomes reality, especially in the Middle East. The uncertainty about what this means now and what it will portend for the future is very critical, especially because countries are facing such delicate situations.”
Another concern that has been raised is that Trump’s move followed a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — “who, in many estimations, is potentially as great a danger in the region as Iran — and maybe in the long run, a bigger danger,” Hoenlein noted.
“The fact is that he is building military bases all over the region, he has amassed troops and tanks on the Syrian border and he has threatened to wipe out Kurdish populations, going after them both inside Turkey and in Syria,” Hoenlein continued. “So turning parts of Syria over to Turkey or expanding its role in the country would obviously get a lot of hearts racing and eyebrows raised.”
For Israel, the American pullout was a “mixed blessing,” Hoenlein said, “because obviously they want the US there, but on the other hand, the US may give Israel much greater leeway to act, as it becomes the major force limiting Iran in Syria.”
“The bottom line is we don’t know yet the ultimate outcome, but the decision clearly has potentially disturbing implications,” Hoenlein stated.
Asked to compare Trump’s decision-making process to that of his predecessors, Hoenlein replied, “Having been doing this for almost five decades, I have worked with many presidents and administrations. Each one has its own style and each one has its level of predictability or lack of predictability. With the Obama administration, we also didn’t always have a sense of what they would do.”
In the Trump era, Hoenlein went on to say, “people don’t know how particular decisions are made and who is involved in making them. The truth is that President Obama didn’t have regular cabinet meetings. Cabinet secretaries would tell us that they had limited communication with him, but I think it’s even more so today, where you have a president who largely relies on himself to make decisions.”
“That doesn’t mean he doesn’t talk to people,” Hoenlein added. “He has a strong team, with people like [National Security Adviser John] Bolton, [Vice President Mike] Pence and [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo. That’s an all-star team, from our perspective, of people who have long records of support and doing the right thing.”
“However one feels about the Syria decision, the president has at least put America out front,” Hoenlein contended. “Countries have seen the US playing an assertive role, which is what they want.”
Last spring, Hoenlein was among a group of US Jewish officials who met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. However, Riyadh’s effort to develop closer ties with Israel and the American Jewish community hit the skids in the wake of the gruesome Oct. 2 murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
“It has had a chilling effect, overall and in specific ways,” Hoenlein said. “My experience with him [the Saudi crown prince] is that he is smart, and I just don’t understand how the circumstance developed. Maybe history will tell us much more about how it really happened. To do it at the consulate in Turkey, when you know Turkey monitors everything. And to not anticipate that the reaction would be so explosive.”
“Khashoggi himself was sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood and wrote some troubling things, but that does not justify, in any way, this action,” Hoenlein emphasized. “So I’m just baffled by how the decision was made, who made it and the thinking that they would get away with it.”
“I think Saudi Arabia is paying a heavy price, and the major beneficiaries right now are Turkey and Iran,” Hoenlein assessed. “We don’t want to see Saudi Arabia defeated, as this would be very counterproductive. There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia makes mistakes, and this is a big one, but I hope the relationship can be put back on track before long. But there has to be a real accounting for that to happen.”
Regarding the long-awaited rollout of Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, Hoenlein remarked, “I’ve spoken to people involved in it, and they’re the only ones who can really comment on it. I have to say that this administration has really successfully kept this under wraps, without leaks. There is a lot of speculation. Everyone is talking in generalities about what they think is in the plan. I think we’ll have to wait and see. I do believe the plan exists, and the people who’ve worked on it are very thoughtful. They have said both sides will not like it all, and there are also things both sides will like. That’s going to be true with any proposal that comes forward. That’s what the negotiations that follow will be about.”
“You have to be realistic,” Hoenlein pointed out. “Right now, there is no possibility for a deal when you don’t have a partner on the Palestinian side who is willing and empowered to sit down. And there certainly can’t be anything until after the elections in Israel take place in April, because then it would become a political football and kill any chance of progress.”
Turning his attention to Capitol Hill, Hoenlein opined, “I think that the new Congress is overall stronger than the old Congress. I think that the pro-Israel support is very solid. I am troubled, however, by a small extreme minority who are very vocal with outlandish demands, to which the media gives far disproportionate coverage. We shouldn’t exaggerate their role and influence, but what I am worried about is that this cancer in the body politic metastasizes.”
“While all are of concern, I don’t think we should lump them together,” he maintained. “I do think there are some differences between a Rashida Tlaib, who associates with the most horrible people, and an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who clearly doesn’t know much and we’ll have to see how she adapts. And I do believe many of the Democratic leaders recognize that this represents a challenge to them, let alone to how the party is seen, in the Jewish community, and among many others. These extremists are organizing around the country and attracting younger voters.”
“I think there has to be a real leadership message that just like Congressman Steve King’s comments [about white supremacy] were not tolerated by the Republicans, speech against Israel and the Jews must not be tolerated by the Democrats,” Hoenlein said.
Referring to Tlaib, Hoenlein argued, “When a member of Congress brings people to her swearing-in who call for the destruction of Israel and put Palestine over Israel on the map behind her, I think for that and other things she has to be held to account, and hopefully that will happen.”
For Jews, Hoenlein said, the massacre of 11 worshipers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh by a far-right gunman in the fall was a “wake-up call” about rising antisemitism in the US.
“It is growing here and growing fast, and the severity of antisemitic crime is increasing,” Hoenlein asserted. “And this comes at a time when we see the divisiveness in American society, with the growing polarization and partisanship.”
Since Pittsburgh, security has become a higher priority for American Jews, Hoenlein observed.
“First of all, states, as well as the federal government, have given more money for the security of Jewish institutions,” he said. “It’s still way short of what we need, and the communities themselves are burdened by even the minimal steps, such as cameras and bollards, that we recommend. But I am finding much more interest. Many synagogues are doing exercises to train people in how to respond to an intruder or an attack. I think there is greater awareness and recognition of the need to be proactive and take preventative steps.”
More generally, “I believe people have to be held to account for what they say and what they do,” Hoenlein commented. “In many cases, we are seeing growing tolerance for intolerance when it comes to expressions against Israel and Jews.”
“I think there are people who are real heroes in this period, like [British author] J.K. Rowling, who does not get enough credit for the very courageous stand she has taken against antisemitism,” Hoenlein said. “And there are others who are doing the same. But we need to hear the voices of authority. And when leaders are pictured with an antisemite like Louis Farrakhan, it’s not dismissible. They wouldn’t dare appear with David Duke in a similar photo.”
“So we have to speak loudly,” he declared. “And we have to stand with our students on and off campus. We have several major lawsuits going on, and we must be more proactive. We need to reach out to faculty, administrators, donors and government agencies to prevent the abuse of Jewish students and pro-Israel groups.”
“This is not 1939 Germany,” Hoenlein posited, “but there are very disturbing signs that remind us of the mid-30s, and we have to learn the lessons from then so we are aware and alert, and respond forcefully and appropriately.”