With Donald Trump, Netanyahu Sees Opportunity for 'Historic Changes' for Israel

Netanyahu made remarks at several closed meeting since Mossad chief met Trump adviser Gen. Flynn. In their meeting, Flynn told Israeli spymaster that president-elect was serious about moving U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.

Barak Ravid
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Clockwise from top left: U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump adviser Michael Flynn.
Clockwise from top left: U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump adviser Michael Flynn.Credit: Evan Vucci/AP, Olivier Fitoussi, Olivier Fitoussi, Mike Segar/Reuters
Barak Ravid

Donald Trump’s presidency will enable Israel and the United States to advance joint moves on several diplomatic and security issues that weren’t possible under U.S. President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said at several closed meetings over the past two weeks, according to a senior cabinet minister.

The minister, who asked to remain anonymous, said Netanyahu’s great expectations of Trump stemmed from what Mossad chief Yossi Cohen and acting National Security Adviser Jacob Nagel heard from Michael Flynn, whom Trump has nominated as his national security adviser. Both men met with Flynn in the United States earlier this month.

Since then, Netanyahu has said repeatedly that their meeting with Flynn was excellent, and that what they heard from him constituted a “turning point” in American foreign policy in general, and toward Israel and the broader Middle East in particular, the minister said.

“There’s an opportunity here,” the minister quoted Netanyahu as saying. “We can effect historic changes.”

The Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment.

Nagel was in America to attend the Saban Forum, but also to say good-bye to his American counterpart, Susan Rice, and to meet with Trump’s advisers. Netanyahu then decided that Cohen should join Nagel at the latter meetings. One source said Cohen hadn’t originally wanted to do so, but eventually acquiesced.

The principal meeting, which Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer also attended, was with Flynn on December 1.

Outside Trump’s family, Flynn is one of the people closest to Trump. He also formerly headed the Defense Intelligence Agency. But he is a controversial figure in the American defense and intelligence community, and during the campaign, he disseminated fake news and conspiracy theories on his Twitter account. Moreover, in at least one case, he retweeted an anti-Semitic tweet.

The meeting with Flynn largely focused on Iran, and especially the world powers’ nuclear agreement with Tehran. Another key topic was the Syrian civil war. Nagel and Cohen outlined Israel’s critical interests in any future solution to that war – primarily, keeping Iran and Hezbollah from gaining control of Syria.

According to Cohen and Nagel’s report, Flynn sent positive messages on almost all the issues discussed, the senior minister said. Flynn said Trump is serious about moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This was the most significant confirmation Israel had heard on this issue since Trump won the election.

The Flynn meeting convinced Netanyahu and several other ministers that Israeli policy needs to be adjusted in light of Trump’s election win. The diplomatic-security cabinet hasn’t yet held an in-depth meeting on the implications of Trump’s victory for Israel and the policy changes it will entail. But such a meeting is expected to take place soon, possibly even later this week.

“Very significant developments are expected in everything related to American policy,” the senior minister said. “The situation is one in which the question of what Israel wants on every issue has become much more relevant. There’s an opportunity here, but it’s not certain that Netanyahu himself has decided what he wants to do.”

The cabinet is divided on most of the major issues. On the Palestinian issue, for instance, Netanyahu has said he wants to work with Trump to advance a two-state solution; Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has said he wants to revive the understandings reached between former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and former President George W. Bush, which would legitimize construction in the major settlement blocs but freeze it outside the blocs; and Education Minister Naftali Bennett wants to take the two-state solution off the table entirely.

Israeli officials believe Trump will try to reach a package deal with Russia over several issues on which Washington and Moscow are at odds, including Syria. This could potentially threaten Israel’s interests, but it also provides an opportunity for furthering Israeli interests in Syria that couldn’t be advanced under Obama. But on this issue, too, the cabinet hasn’t yet decided on the direction to take.

A few days ago, for instance, Transportation and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz said Israel should use the Trump presidency to obtain American recognition of its annexation of the Golan Heights. The next day, Lieberman rejected this idea, saying Israel’s main interest was getting rid of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whom he termed a “butcher” and a “murderer.”

During Obama’s presidency, Netanyahu had defined Israel’s interests in Syria in a narrow, tactical manner, limited largely to preventing attacks on Israel from Syrian territory and preventing the transfer of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah.

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