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Taliban forces patrol at a runway a day after US troops’ withdrawal from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 31 2021. Picture: REUTERS/STRINGER
Taliban forces patrol at a runway a day after US troops’ withdrawal from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 31 2021. Picture: REUTERS/STRINGER

The geographic distance between Tel Aviv and Kabul is roughly 3,200km. But after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Israel is worried that the Taliban and its radical allies are right next door. 

This is a point that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett made in his meeting with President Joe Biden on the eve of the American evacuation. “We live in the world’s toughest neighbourhood,” Bennett said. “We’ve got ISIS [Islamic State] on our southern border [in Sinai], Hezbollah on our northern border, Islamic Jihad, Hamas and Iranian militias that surround us. And they all want to annihilate the Jewish state.”

Each of these groups has been inspired by the Taliban victory. It has been centuries since a jihadist army has so decisively defeated the combined military forces of the West. The US can pretend that it was merely strategically leaving a pointless battlefield, but the entire Middle East knows better. This was not only a historic humiliation for America, but a model for Jihad extremism.

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah, saw it immediately: “This is a portrayal of America’s full defeat and the US demise and failure in the region,” he said in a speech. Beirut, like Tel Aviv, is about 3,000km from Kabul. But that city is now a Middle Eastern capital.

After the American collapse, Palestinian Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh called the Taliban leader, Abdul Ghani Baradar, with congratulations and an analogy. The victory, Haniyeh said, “is a prelude to the demise of all occupation forces, foremost of which is the Israeli occupation of Palestine”. Baradar, in turn, wished Palestine “victory and empowerment as a result of their resistance”.

Shiite Iran, too, cheered the victory of the Taliban, its Sunni “brother state”, over the infidels. Sectarian divisions apparently matter for less these days than solidarity in the battle against the “Great Satan” of America and the “Little Satan” of Jerusalem.

Needless to say, the failure of American resolve in Afghanistan is concentrating minds in Israel. People are shocked and depressed. Few have expectations that a newcomer like Bennett can handle this shift in the regional balance of power.

In a twist of fate, Israel’s prime minister was the first foreign leader to meet with Joe Biden after he defended the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. Twice Bennett declared that Israel has no more trustworthy and nor reliable friend and ally than the US. Once is good manners; a second time has the sound of wishful thinking.

Israel is particularly concerned about the US’s ability to manage the nuclear threat from Iran. In their White House meeting, Biden declared said that, while he still favours diplomacy on the Iran nuclear issue, if talking fails he would use “other options” to prevent the regime in Tehran from building an atomic arsenal. Bennett nodded politely, but he certainly doesn’t believe that Biden would use force to prevent such a dangerous development. Neither does anyone in Tehran.  

Biden also made it clear that he and his advisers want a two-state solution for Israel that goes beyond the Trump plan for a demilitarised, democratic Palestine in about 70% of the West Bank. Bennett is opposed to such a state in principle, but his coalition partners, many of whom are to his left on the issue, might be willing to go along. 

The prime minister will argue that a Palestinian state would become a rocket launching pad for Palestinian terrorists or a springboard for an Iranian-Iraqi-Syrian-Hezbollah invasion. In the past, American diplomats have challenged this by offering intel and security guarantees. Given Biden’s lack of good intel in the last weeks of the war in Afghanistan, and the struggle to save American citizens left in Kabul, protestations of US reliability have been seriously undercut.

Israel is not the only country in the region pondering the new situation. Saudi Arabia, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, and perhaps even Egypt and Jordan will be wondering if the US is still the strongest horse. So, for that matter, will the Nato allies that were brushed aside in the American rush to the airport.

There are people here in Israel who dream about a new partnership with China as a superpower with strategic and commercial potential. But the US would not stand for it, and the US remains Israel’s indispensable, if temporarily diminished, partner.  

So Bennett has little choice but to make the best of things. He will refrain from criticising Biden (or Barack Obama, whom Bennett — at Biden’s behest — clumsily thanks for his support of Israel). He will keep his distance from Donald Trump without alienating the Republicans and use his open, boyish manner to build relationships with centrist Democrats. There are American weapons, heretofore unavailable to Israel, that Bennett wants to acquire in case of a showdown with Iran. And he would like to see the US use its economic clout to save what remains of the Abraham Accords.

Given the Jihadi enthusiasm inspired by the fall of Kabul, Israel will inevitably be forced to demonstrate its own military prowess in a convincing way. Hopefully Biden will understand and support what action it chooses. After all, unlike the US, Israel can’t afford to appear weak. It doesn’t have the luxury of packing up and flying away.

Bloomberg Opinion. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion


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