Analysis

For Israel, Trump's Iranian Policy Is a Gift That Keeps on Giving

Iran may stall until 2020, but Israel has an entirely different set of considerations ■ Why tens of thousands of Israelis chose to ignore terror warnings and visit Sinai

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Protesters burn a U.S. flag during a rally against the U.S.'s decision to designate Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization, Tehran, Iran, Friday, April 12, 2019.
Protesters burn a U.S. flag during a rally against the U.S.'s decision to designate Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization, Tehran, Iran, Friday, April 12, 2019.Credit: Vahid Salemi,AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The gifts from America continue to arrive, even after the Israeli election. This week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced annulment of the exemption from sanctions that the Trump administration had extended to eight countries that continued to import oil from Iran in the past year. That comes on top of the American designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization, and Trump’s decision last May to withdraw from the nuclear agreement with Iran.

Washington is continuing to pursue a policy of maximum pressure on Tehran, in accordance with the tenets of Pompeo’s 12-point plan from almost a year ago. The Americans hope that by ratcheting up the economic pressure they will force the Iranians to return to negotiations and discuss new terms for an agreement, which will demand that they do more than what was set out in the accord signed in Vienna in 2015, during the Obama administration.

The Americans are operating in a relatively comfortable oil market and relying on promises by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to step up their oil production in order to avert a price rise after the screws are tightened further on Iran. However, annulment of the sanctions exemption will affect the already tense trade relations between the United States and China – one of the countries that has benefited from Iran’s supply of oil. Trump is acting with Saudi backing and Israeli encouragement, but Europe is totally out of the game. The Europeans, like the Russians and the Chinese, are abiding by the Vienna agreement and don’t believe that the American moves will be of any use.

Before his appointment as national security adviser, John Bolton spoke positively about the possibility of toppling the Iranian regime. Pompeo, according to a report on the website Axios, recently told a group of Iranian exiles that this was not the administration’s goal: that the United States does not have a military plan for a war in Iran and does not support opposition groups seeking to overthrow the regime. The aim is to return to negotiations, but unlike the Obama administration, Trump is not content with temporary restrictions on the Iranian nuclear project and with imposing transparency. He wants more than that: a commitment to stop subversive activities and to end Iranian aid to terrorist organizations in the Middle East.

As in the Israeli-Palestinian channel, Trump is convinced that his experience in real estate transactions will help him extract the best deal from Tehran. However, the Iranians have so far failed to be impressed. It’s likely that they will prefer to play for time, in the hope that Trump will lose his bid for reelection in November 2020 and that the Democratic president who succeeds him will present a more convenient approach, from their perspective.

There is concern in the prime minister’s circle over two possible developments: that the dispute over the attitude toward Iran will become a central issue in the U.S. election, and that the Americans will return to the 2015 agreement, in the event of a Democratic victory. In fact, Haaretz reported this week that six of the Democratic presidential hopefuls committed to re-sign the nuclear agreement, should they win the election.

The growing preoccupation with this issue in Washington is generating a sense of urgency in Israel and perhaps even a desire to spur Trump to take irreversible steps against Iran, even before the next election. Netanyahu is consciously putting all the Israeli eggs in one basket in the American arena. The shared interests of Netanyahu and Trump are exacerbating American alienation from Israel – at least in the Democratic Party’s left wing. This week, one of the leading candidates in the race, Sen. Bernie Sanders, said he was “100 percent pro-Israel” but added that the country is “now run by a right-wing – dare I say – racist government.”

That’s a declaration that it would have been hard to even imagine coming from a senior Democratic figure two years ago.

Look-alikes

On the margins of all these developments, Netanyahu announced that he would name a Golan Heights settlement for Trump, as a token of gratitude for American recognition of Israel’s sovereignty there. There’s no doubt that the premier grasps, even better than other leaders, what makes the president tick: an endless need for praise and flattering gestures.

Years ago, Israeli intelligence officials talked about Syria in the singular male mode: what “the Syrian” is planning, what “the Syrian” will do. The reference was initially to President Hafez Assad, and then to his son, Bashar, based on the assumption that only one person sets policy in Damascus. Now, even though both the United States and Israel have democratic regimes, both of them are behaving like monarchies: Leader A announces that he will name a community for Leader B.

That’s not the only common denominator between the two countries. Trump escaped a recommendation for indictment by the skin of his teeth in the affair of possible Russian collusion in the 2016 election, in part because the special counsel, Robert Mueller, operated according to a Justice Department directive to the effect that a serving president cannot be tried. Netanyahu is toiling at this very moment to get legislation passed that he hopes will rescue him from judicial action against him as long as he’s in office.

Reverse exodus

On Tuesday morning, long after all the horses had bolted the stable, the National Security Council (calling itself a “senior security source”) tried to close the doors with respect to travel to Sinai. The main headline in the mass-circulation Yedioth Ahronoth called on the tens of thousands of Israelis who chose to ignore the travel advisory and spend the Passover week in Sinai to return home immediately. The alerts about terrorist attacks in Sinai were still in effect, the NSC said: “Leave Sinai as fast as you can. Don’t stay there, it’s dangerous.” The response: total indifference.

An undated image posted by ISIS of Mohammed Zahran, center, the man Sri Lanka says led the deadly Easter attacks.
An undated image posted by ISIS of Mohammed Zahran, center, the man Sri Lanka says led the deadly Easter attacks.Credit: Aamaq news agency via AP

The mass exodus to Sinai stems primarily from the large disparity between the prices of accommodations on the peninsula’s beaches and those at tourist sites in Israel. The long spell of quiet in Sinai, with no terror attacks on tourists, is also contributing to the growing sense of security – not to mention there was also probably a recoil at what was seen as exaggerated intervention by the authorities in people’s personal choices. The state is on sensitive ground here, considering its close relations with the Egyptian regime. The ties with Cairo are tighter than ever, and Egypt doesn’t want to lose the revenues from Israeli visitors. A couple of years ago, against the background of an urgent terror alert, Egypt closed the Taba crossing to Israelis for a short time, at Jerusalem’s request. That exceptional step was not repeated this week.

As far as is known, there are no specific and concrete warnings of attacks in Sinai. However, the ISIS branch in the region, Wilayat Sinai, remains active and continues to make trouble for the Egyptian security forces. A senior American diplomat who visited Israel this month said that a worrisome rise in activity by Islamist terrorists has been discerned recently in Sinai.

Also in the background was the series of suicide-bomber attacks in Sri Lanka on Sunday against churches and hotels, which took the lives of more than 350 people. There have been cases in the past when terrorists’ large-scale attacks quickly “inspired” copycats elsewhere.

The Islamic Caliphate – the vast territory ISIS held in western Iraq and eastern Syria – collapsed in the past year, but the movement is still alive and kicking. Terrorist cells connected with or drawing inspiration from ISIS and Al-Qaida exist across Asia and Africa. Some of the terrorists who took part in the civil war in Syria have since returned to the European countries in which they lived. The attack in Sri Lanka is definitely not the last of its kind, despite the important achievement of the U.S.-led international coalition in the campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

The Sri Lanka government initially attributed the attack to a local organization, which had help from foreign groups, while on Tuesday, ISIS claimed responsibility for it. It was also claimed in Colombo that the attack was revenge for the massacre perpetrated against Muslim worshippers by a white fanatic in New Zealand last month. That seems unlikely: The spate of bombings in Sri Lanka was a fairly complex operation and entailed the recruitment of seven suicide bombers. It’s difficult to organize and execute an operation like that within a month.

There are, however, increasing reports about the failure of the government in Colombo in dealing with an intelligence warning about ISIS intentions, which was apparently received a few months ago. In 2009, following a 33-year war, the government declared that the Tamil Tigers terrorist organization had been defeated. Apparently the Colombo authorities were not prepared to cope with Islamic terrorism.

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