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Thank you, John Sterling

Is a War Between the US And Israel Possible?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov, File

During college I had an interview for a job with the NSA. I was never really interested in working there as much as curious. With my background in international affairs focused on the Middle East, they seemed interested in me and I was looking for work. And that I taught myself to read Russian was a plus. So, it was worth a few meetings.


The NSA interviews ended abruptly with my deciding not to show up for an aptitude test. Because I wasn’t really interested, and had other opportunities, I wasn’t so committed. I was also easily swayed not to pursue this by the owner of the bagel shop I frequented.  I remember chatting with her one day and telling her what I was up to. I mentioned the NSA and she politely, firmly, and maternally told me, “That’s not a job for a nice Jewish boy.”

Indeed, in the wake of the arrest of Jonathan Pollard on charges of spying for Israel, I wondered if that was truly a job, much less a career option, for me.  Would an American Jew be able to rise in the ranks of one of the United States’ leading intelligence agencies without implications of dual loyalty?

Indeed, during the second or third interview, albeit without using the words “dual” or “loyalty” in the same sentence, the senior NSA officer implied as much in different words. “What would you do,” he asked, “if there were to be a war between Israel and the United States?” Rather than answer his offensive and absurd question, I proceeded to tell him why that would never happen. I believed it then and believe it now.

Yet, today the world is a different place.  There is no Soviet Union as the polarizing evil empire. And while Russia has not quite filled the shoes of the Soviet empire, in its place there’s been a rise of extremist Islam. There are multiple sources of this competing for hegemony, killing one another as well as no shortage of non-Muslim victims they view as infidels. But Iran remains in first place with a wide field of contenders for silver and bronze.


One of the later is undoubtedly Turkey. At the time I had my conversation with the enlightened NSA officer, Turkey was a proud secular Moslem country.  Turkey had the distinction of being one of, if not the only, Moslem countries not just to have diplomatic relations with Israel, but even warm relations.

What a difference a decade makes. Under its autocratic ruler Erdogan, Turkey has become a lead detractor of Israel, and supporter of terrorism particularly against Israel.   

With the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and consent for Turkey to take over control of Syrian territory to fill the void, there’s been significant bipartisan criticism of the Trump administration in the U.S., and allies around the world. There’s a sense that the U.S. has abandoned its ally in the Kurds, as well as empowering and emboldening Turkey and its extremist Islamic world view and ambitions. These criticisms are legitimate. As it relates to middle eastern diplomacy and abandoning allies, one might say that Trump has taken a page out of Obama’s playbook.

Where does this leave Israel? With Syria controlled by Iran, Turkey, and Russia, with nobody but themselves to keep one another in check, while a war with the U.S. is not on the horizon, what would happen if Israel engaged in conflict with Turkey? What if Israel’s defensive operations (successfully carried out against Syrian and Iranian targets in recent years) were to catch Turkey in the crosshairs? It wouldn’t matter if this was a direct and deliberate attack against Turkish positions, or of Turkish troops just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  


It's hard to imagine Turkey sitting idly by and allowing either of these to pass without a response. As Palestinian Arab and other terror groups operate freely out of Turkey, maybe they would unleash these and allow or facilitate an attack on Israel, or soft Jewish targets. Maybe Turkey would take the opportunity to hold hostage any among the thousands of Israelis who pass through on connecting Turkish Air flights to and from Israel each week. Or maybe, just maybe, Turkey would respond directly.  

If either of these were to happen, Israel could be put in the position of deliberately engaging Turkey. With the US withdrawn from Syria, what would its response be?  

Wait, you ask.  Why would the US care any more about Turks getting killed (by Israeli strikes) in Syria any more than Syrians, Iranians, Russians, Kurds, or others?  Could the US jump to Turkey’s defense?

As a member of NATO, Turkey enjoys the benefit of an understood mutual alliance.  Forget that the Turkey today s not the Turkey that joined NATO and that some Europeans are visibly uncomfortable with Turkey being part of this alliance, especially as they are now being armed with sophisticated Russian weapons. Would any direct aggression between Israel and Turkey become a lightning rod for international backlash, albeit with the backdrop of hundreds of thousands being slaughtered in Syria?

Would an Israeli strike on Turkey trigger the U.S., or other NATO members, to denounce or directly engage Israel?  


Despite my NSA officer’s positing the notion, albeit as a way to challenge my loyalty as an American, is there likely to be a war between Israel and the U.S. this generation, over Turkey or any other reason any more than in the last generation? No.

Maybe, with Turkey invading Syria as a land grab and to butcher Kurds, this will be the catalyst for its removal from NATO. But until that point, what’s happened in Syria recently establishes dangerous precedents and has been a game changer and emboldened a NATO member whose interests are directly in contradiction with NATO.

I pray for the Kurds and I pray that I am not proven wrong in my answer to my enlightened NSA officer, albeit three decades later.

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