Analysis

No Nuclear Presentation Can Save Netanyahu From Trump's Willingness to Speak With Enemies

As Trump courts a possible Rohani meeting, all Netanyahu can do is hope it will wait until after the election

Trump, Rohani and Netanyahu
AP, AFP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not usually give the impression of being one who silently prays to his god every night. But if he were such a person, it would be easy to imagine him lamenting on Monday night to the heavens to protect him from his friends – and he would take care of his enemies himself. 

For the past few weeks the understanding that U.S. President Donald Trump, the star of the Likud’s “Different League” election campaign, may soon meet with none other than public enemy number 1: Iranian President Hassan Rohani, has been brewing. Netanyahu began preparing for this nightmarish scenario back in the days of the romance between the United States and North Korea, but has taken it much more seriously since Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was invited to the G-7 summit in August.

>> Read more: On the Iran front, Netanyahu is blurring the border between defense and politics | Analysis 

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 39Haaretz

While Netanyahu has attacked all the leaders outside of Washington, saying time after time that this is not the time to conduct negotiations with Iran, he has been smothering his good friend in the White House with compliments in which he says Trump will certainly bring a tougher and smarter approach to the talks than in the past.

So far this pragmatic approach has made sense. After all, what can be done in such a situation? Go before Congress and speak against the president? Unimaginable.

A campaign poster reading 'Netanyahu, another league' on display in Tel Aviv, September 8, 2019.
Oded Balilty/AP

But even if Netanyahu did prepare for such scenario in advance, with all the coolness in the world, it is hard to believe that Netanyahu particularly enjoyed hearing Monday evening that Trump is continuing to pursue his nemesis – in front of the cameras and microphones – only a few hours after his favorite show: Presenting another alleged Iranian violation of the nuclear agreement. He stood on the stage, with all the slides, in Hebrew and in English, and all that jazz, a show that ended with his call to the international community to join Trump and Israel in applying maximum pressure on Iran. What is needed is “pressure, pressure and more pressure,” he said. Unless Netanyahu meant Rohani is stressed about the meetings.

This is not just a few words thrown out by the U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper after a quick meeting in London. It was an explicit statement of the leader to the media right after the Netanyahu show. In any other case, we would have started hearing incessantly that Trump was in fact an anti-Semite, working for the New Israel Fund, close to George Soros and has linked up with Avigdor Lieberman and Ahmad Tibi on the deep left to depose a serving prime minister. 

This time it is a bit more complicated. So what can still be done? Change the subject in the hope that the problematic summit will not happen before Election Day, continue to say that Trump will be a wonderful mediator, send public and covert messages to stop – at least until the election is over. At the same time they are sending an army of supporters to echo that Netanyahu, a former soldier who has personally suffered the price of war, has always hoped for dialogue and better Iran deal.

But the bitter truth is that even if Netanyahu was truly interested in a new agreement with Iran, and even if it was possible to reach such agreement with significantly better conditions than its predecessor, no one could be certain that Trump would be a particularly successful mediator. Certainly not judging by to the North Korean precedent.

Netanyahu presents the Iranian site that he says was used to develop nuclear weapons, September 9, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

Trump’s unpredictable behavior is not a new challenge for Netanyahu. The Israel lobby in Washington has been whispering for a long time about growing fears of too sharp and creative moves that are impossible to control. Back in the earliest meetings between the two leaders, it was possible to recognize preliminary hints of this when Trump warned, with an impish smile and a pale Netanyahu at his side, of his being uncomfortable of Israeli construction of settlements: “I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit.” Or later when Trump suddenly announced: “I like two-state solution. That’s what I think works best.”

In both of these cases, and in others too, Netanyahu – who usually calculates things down to the smallest detail – found it difficult to improvise a graceful enough response to the embarrassing situation. But it turned out that after every such statement, contacts and actions were immediately made behind the scenes to return things to normal. At least so far, things were always retroactively straightened out to match Netanyahu’s policies and what had actually been said mattered less.

This time, in contrast, it is necessary to remember that Iran is not only an Israeli problem. Too many actors are involved and in the end Trump will do what he thinks is best for America. And what he thinks is best for America, it seems time after time – as opposed to his good friend Netanyahu – is direct negotiations. Even with enemies, even without preconditions. He does not view it as weakness and is not afraid to shake hands. No PowerPoint slide can save Netanyahu from this conclusion.