Analysis

Netanyahu’s Real Test on Iran: Translating Trump's Words Into Actions

Trump opened a window of opportunity for Israel to influence American policy on Iran, but Netanyahu must put aside his emotional conduct and engage with Trump and the world like a professional

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opens the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office September 26, 2017. REUTERS/Gali Tibbon/Pool
POOL/REUTERS

On Friday night, a few hours after the speech in which U.S. President Donald Trump presented his administration’s new strategy to deal with the Iranian threat, the White House sent an email to journalists with a long list of positive reactions. At the top of the list was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, followed by many Republican senators.

Netanyahu loves speeches. Especially when he is the one making them, and especially when they involve the Iranian issue. In September 2012 he made his “red line” speech at the United Nations General Assembly, with the famous illustration of the bomb and with the threats against Iran.

>> Trump’s Iran speech should make Netanyahu and Khamenei both happy | Analysis <<

In March 2015, two weeks before the elections in Israel, Netanyahu made his controversial speech in Congress and went to war against President Barack Obama, with the aim of thwarting the Iranian nuclear deal.

On Saturday night, Netanyahu posted on social media a video amounting to “fake news,” in which he claimed that that very speech, two and a half years ago, is what made Trump announce on Friday that he is not re-certifying the nuclear deal. In reality, Netanyahu’s speech in Congress severely damaged relations with the U.S., prevented Israel from having any kind of influence over the nuclear agreement during the most crucial moments of its formulation, and even cost Israel a few billion dollars in U.S. aid.

>> Explained: What actually happens after Trump decertifies the Iran nuclear deal >>

Netanyahu liked Trump’s speech. The American president embraced almost completely his Israeli counterpart’s narrative on Iran being the root of all problems in the Middle East and a threat to the entire world. Netanyahu also made significant gains in the political sphere and in public opinion.

Contrary to Netanyahu’s wishes, Trump did not tear the agreement to shreds and did not announce that the U.S. is leaving it. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Adviser Herbert McMaster and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who managed to restrain the president and prevent an immediate international crisis, made clear in briefings and press releases that the U.S. still sees itself as a partner to the Iranian nuclear agreement.

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Regarding the nuclear deal, the president sufficed with a technical, almost symbolic step. He announced he would not re-certify the deal and passed the ball to Congress to try and push new legislation that would further restrict the Iranian nuclear program and attempt to lengthen the deal's expiration date. Yet the attempt to formulate legislation that would be efficient, win majority support and hopefully even bi-partisan backing, all while not destroying the current agreement, may prove to be a difficult, if not impossible task. 

But for that to happen, and for Trump's speech not to remain a mere morale-boosting cheer, Netanyahu must put aside his emotional conduct on the Iranian issue and engage in a professional, slogan-free, quiet and intimate dialogue with the Trump administration and with Western governments, chiefly Germany, France and Britain.

The biggest and most positive change heralded by Trump's speech on Iran was the change in American policy regarding all those things not pertaining to the nuclear accord – namely, Iran's ballistic missile program, its support of Hezbollah, its involvement in Syria and Yemen, and its ongoing violation of human rights in the Islamic republic. Nonetheless, it's hard to see how the White House will translate Trump's heated words into actions. The only practical step taken by Trump in wake of the speech is imposing new economic sanctions on Iran's Revolutionary Guard.

Netanyahu clarified this weekend that he believes Trump's speech creates an opportunity to improving the nuclear deal and address Iran's negative impact on the region. Netanyahu's analysis is correct. A window of opportunity has opened for Israel to influence American policy and reach long term strategic cooperation with the U.S. This coordination is critical on issues like increasing oversite on the existing agreement and preparing for the day after, in terms of military, preventing Iranian garrisoning in Syria and increasing pressure on Hezbollah, as well as forming regional alliances with Sunni states.

This is exactly where his test lies. Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and Theresa May expressed great concern over the weekend over Trump's speech. Without their support, there will be no chance of consolidating a significant step against Iranian subversion in the region, not to mention regarding the nuclear deal. An Israeli political initiative on the Palestinian issue or a willingness to advance Trump's peace plan may also assist in achieving this goal.