In his treatise “Poetics” - which deals, among other things, with the components of Greek tragedies - Aristotle defined “anagnorisis” as the moment of discovery in which the hero perceives the fatal flaw in his own personality or in one of the play’s other protagonists. The “anagnorisis” is followed by “peripeteia,” the reversal of fortunes in which joy turns into dejection and assured triumph emerges as stinging defeat.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s last-minute decision to abort a U.S. attack against Iran in retaliation for the downing of an American spy drone should have shattered the hubris that has enveloped Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since the November 2016 presidential election and sparked “anagnorisis” that highlights the fatal flaw - in this case, fatal flaws - in Trump’s character. Netanyahu should now fear a double dose of “peripeteia” - the collapse of his entire anti-Iranian strategy, on the one hand, as well as the risk that Israeli voters, like the audience in a Greek tragedy, undergo a cathartic change of heart, threatening his supposedly assured victory in the September 17 election.
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This is the backdrop to the gag that Netanyahu has imposed on himself and on his ministers: What started as tactical maneuver to distance Israel’s fingerprints from the escalation in the Persian Gulf has morphed into a paralyzing silence of fear and trepidation. Trump’s statement that he had reversed his own decision to attack for fear of a “disproportionate” response that may have killed up to 150 Iranians should have sent alarms ringing and sirens blaring in the prime minister’s bureau in Jerusalem. Netanyahu, after all, has bet his career and possibly Israel’s future on an impulsive and temperamental president, who is capable of changing from aggressive hawk to compassionate peacenik in the blink of an eye, as if he was the spiritual and not just the physical heir of Barack Hussein Obama.
Trump’s abrupt volte-face inflicted a series of blows on Netanyahu in particular and on Israel in general. It further undermined the already limited confidence of other Western leaders in Trump’s judgment, it cast the U.S. president as a paper tiger and provided a moment of triumph for the ayatollahs in Tehran and it raised new doubts about the rationale behind Netanyahu’s drive to persuade Trump to abandon the 2015 nuclear deal and to bring Iran to its knees through harsh sanctions and military threats.
Trump’s efforts to justify his flip-flop, moreover, have given a presidential stamp of approval to the concept of “proportionality” of military actions in international law. The restriction, rebuffed by successive Israeli governments, has often served as the basis for accusing Israel of war crimes in its own punitive operations against Palestinians and others.
Trump’s decision to back away from military action that could have precipitated escalation or outright war was received with a collective sigh of relief by most of his critics and opponents, but his reasoning for the reversal doesn’t hold water. Assessment of potential collateral damage is part and parcel of any defense department presentation of military plans and was surely included in the briefings given to Trump hours before he approved the strike, rather than ten minutes before its execution, as he claims, and only because he insisted on asking. With Trump, though, one must always consider the possibility that he simply wasn’t listening.
Nonetheless, it is far more plausible that Trump, who promised voters he would extract the U.S. from endless and futile wars in the Middle East, was deterred at the last minute by the specter of embroilment in what Iranian President Hassan Rohani has described as “the mother of all wars” with Iran. He heard the reservations voiced by congressional leaders of the Democrats, but heeded the protests broadcast on Fox News, especially from its rising star Tucker Carlson, who represents the isolationist wing of the GOP. Perhaps, as attested to by insiders privy to White House consultations, Trump revels in his self-perceived omnipotence, which enables him to ignore the international community and to order an attack one minute, and to then call it off the next, much to the astonishment of Netanyahu in Jerusalem and Trump’s own gung-ho advisers in the White House.
The threat of escalation, of course, hasn’t receded; in fact, it may have now increased. Trump’s perceived somersault is likely to embolden Tehran and tempt it to continue challenging the U.S. in ways that could force Trump to order far harsher military actions than the limited operation he aborted over the weekend. His perceived show of weakness further decreases the already slim chances that Iran might succumb to U.S. pressure and agree to negotiate a more restrictive nuclear deal than the one it signed with Obama and other world leaders. And even if he has garnered rare praise from dovish liberals, who won’t vote for him in any case, Trump’s move casts him in a negative light right at the start of the 2020 election campaign - possibly pushing him to approve stronger military measures in the near future in an effort to contain the damage.
And even though its only direct link with the U.S. president’s military moves is concurrent timing, the New York Magazine report on noted author and advice columnist E. Jean Carroll’s claim that Trump had sexually assaulted her - if not raped - twenty years ago in the dressing rooms of Manhattan’s prestigious Bergdorf Goodman clothing store provided another indication of the Achilles' heel of Netanyahu’s Iran strategy: Trump’s questionable character. Carroll is the 16th woman to directly accuse Trump of sexual assault or harassment, and as is the case with the never-ending stream of former employees in the prime minister’s residence who attest to maltreatment by Sara Netanyahu, the numbers determine the consequences: On the one hand, the interest shown by the media and public opinion into allegations that would have once rocked Washington D.C. is now down to a bare and possibly unforgiveable minimum - but the addition of such a credible accuser as Carroll confirms widespread belief that the man in the White House is, in fact, a serial sex offender.
Trump’s attitude toward women isn’t detached, of course, from his self-admiration, narcissistic behavior and disdain for others. Despite his lack of experience or knowledge, Trump regards himself as an expert on anything and everything under the sun. His patience for courageous advisers who insist on speaking truth to his power is limited, as proven by the wholesale replacement of his original national security team, whose members insisted on restraining the president in an effort to limit the fallout from his impetuous decisions. Netanyahu may depict Trump as Israel’s greatest friend ever but he should have realized long ago that Trump has only one god, and his name is Donald.
Trump, after all, hasn’t stopped lavishing self-praise on his ties to Kim Jong Un, despite the despot’s ongoing refusal to curtail North Korea’s nuclear program. He is more concerned with claims of his “collusion” with Russia than in ensuring that Moscow doesn’t repeat or even expand its interventions in the future. He lost interest in Venezuela the moment he realized there was no easy path to ending Nicolas Maduro’s crippling dictatorship. He interprets any substantive critique by other world leaders of his policies, however mild, as a personal affront - and sabotages relations with the outside world in childish response.
It’s highly doubtable, after all, whether Trump has ever taken the trouble to read the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the 2015 nuclear deal is called, or if he is at all capable of enunciating what makes it such “a disaster” in his eyes. His staunch opposition to the accord is an outgrowth of political circumstances, which have cast Netanyahu-adoring evangelicals as one his most crucial constituencies.
And Trump’s personal hostility to the deal derives, first and foremost, from his intense aversion to his predecessor Obama and his ongoing efforts to erase any remnants of his legacy. And it is on this flimsy foundation that Netanyahu has based Israel’s national security policies from the moment Trump entered the White House.
Events of the past few days have shown the risk and futility of relying on a president who disdains meticulous preparation and relies on his gut instincts; who is now facing Iran as a lone ranger, after unilaterally ditching the nuclear deal, dismantling the international coalition that supported it and thus allowing Tehran to play the U.S. and its allies one against the others; who has never heard of the idiom “hope for the best but prepare for the worst” and now finds himself facing a choice between plague and cholera, i.e. between projecting weakness or fighting a war he does not believe in; or who embraced Netanyahu’s fantastical dogma by which the only thing needed to contain the ayatollahs and possibly undermine their regime is ever-escalating economic sanctions and military threats, even though these, for now at least, have only achieved the contrary.
The recognition that Netanyahu’s all-out wager on Trump could come up empty began to dawn on Jerusalem in the wake of Trump’s on-again, off-again withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. It intensified last week in the wake of the Bahrain economic summit fiasco, which saw Israel disinvited because its presence was deemed too provocative; and it should solidify completely after Trump’s attack-that-never-was against Iran over the weekend.
Netanyahu is undoubtedly praying now for a positive twist in the plot. He is certainly reassuring worried political allies that Trump will come through in the end. But one thing’s for sure: From now until the September 17 election, Netanyahu and his disciples will continue to insist that Trump is king of Israel and that the rancid drops dripping down on Israel from the White House are nothing more than blessed, bountiful rain.
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