Analysis

Iran Overture and Greenblatt Departure Cloud Trump-Netanyahu Paradise

Double diplomatic whammy reinforced by curious decision to visit British PM Boris Johnson in his time of misery of defeat

Election banner for Netanyahu's Likud party showing his shaking hands with Donald Trump, Jerusalem, September 4, 2019.
Ahmad Gharabli/AFP

Thursday morning started badly for Benjamin Netanyahu and things went downhill from there. Before taking off for London, Netanyahu seemed to be criticizing his lord, ally and lifeline Donald Trump for reaching out to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, saying, “This is not the time to talk to Iran”. 

After realizing the grievousness of his crime - and its potentially cruel punishment – an anxious Netanyahu pounced on the first opportunity to clarify that 1. His barb wasn’t aimed at Trump, heaven forbid, but at the misguided French President Emmanuel Macron and 2. Trump is still his hero, one who would bring “sobriety and responsibility” to any talks he might hold with the Iranian leader, Netanyahu said. At least he didn’t include Trump’s renowned “dignity” and “honesty” as well.

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Then, in a double whammy, Trump’s peace envoy Jason Greenblatt resigned, depriving Netanyahu of his chief cheerleader and casting more doubt on a peace plan increasingly seen as a joke anyway. “His dedication to Israel and to seeking peace between Israel and the Palestinians won’t be forgotten, “ Trump tweeted, an assertion that was, to the President’s credit, half-true.

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Greenblatt’s unabashed public support for Netanyahu and his right-wing policies along with the blunt broadsides he regularly threw at Palestinian leaders and officials were indeed memorable, even unprecedented. Greenblatt’s contribution to peace, on the other hand, were forgotten the moment he resigned, because there was hardly anything to remember.

The rumor mill was working overtime on Thursday in an effort to uncover the logic behind the timing of Greenblatt’s resignation. But whether it was for personal reasons, the outcome of a power struggle with his peace team counterpart Ambassador David Friedman - or, as many Twitter comments asserted, his previous involvement as lawyer and chief accounting officer for the Trump Organization, which is under criminal investigation – Greenblatt’s exit on the eve of the supposed publication of the peace plan undermined its credibility even further. If Netanyahu knows Trump, he must surely be worried about how he’ll react.

Britain's PM Boris Johnson welcomes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside Downing Street in London, Britain September 5, 2019.
HANNAH MCKAY / Reuters

All this against the backdrop of Netanyahu’s curious decision to visit the new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson just as he tries to recover from a humiliating hazing by the British Parliament over Brexit. Netanyahu apparently believes that hobnobbing with Johnson, however briefly – the British PM dedicated all of half an hour to his Israeli guest – enhances his stature as a world statesman. One wonders, however, why he wasn’t deterred by the risk that some of Johnson’s personal and political misery, as well as the temporary collapse of the no-deal Brexit endorsed by Trump and other nationalist leaders, would rub off on him, on the eve of upcoming election.

Netanyahu’s main concern, however, is that neither one of the two trouble spots, Iran and Palestinians, erupt in his face during the ten days left before the September 17 ballot, although they are hardly of equal weight. Greenblatt’s resignation deprives Netanyahu of a valued spokesman and lobbyist but changes virtually nothing, because there’s nothing to change. Trump’s outreach to Iran, on the other hand, is a time bomb waiting to explode, before the elections and for years to come, potentially, if Netanyahu is reelected.

Despite his trust in Trump’s “sobriety”, the U.S. President is making Netanyahu jittery. Trump’s obvious reluctance to risk armed conflict with Iran has already deprived the U.S. of the deterrence needed to fulfill Netanyahu’s plan of pressuring Tehran to capitulate. A Trump-Rouhani photo-op, especially one that resembles the president’s smiles-over-substance summits with North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un, would be perceived in Israel as a harsh presidential slap on their prime minister’s face.

In many ways, Netanyahu is now a hostage of the high expectations he himself created. In exchange for Trump’s historic gestures of moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing Israeli sovereignty in the Golan, Netanyahu glorified the U.S. president and came close to deifying him. With a president such as Barack Obama, sharp disagreements were taken for granted. With Trump, even the slightest tensions – never mind the distinct possibility that he could blow his top on any given day – will be seen both as a major development and as Netanyahu’s personal failure. That’s the risk of filling a balloon with too much air – the slightest scratch can make it explode.

Trump and Netanyahu’s alliance is still strong, their mutual interests intact and their “scratch my back I’ll scratch yours” collaboration in each other’s internal politics is probably still in force. But for the first time since the start of Trump’s term, there are indications of approaching turbulence. The skies are still crystal and blue but it’s possible to faintly discern a few dark clouds on the far horizon. Though he confidently pretends otherwise, Netanyahu knows that it could start raining in the Trump-Netanyahu paradise at any given moment. And it will be he, and not Trump, who will get drenched.