With Trump in White House, a Revitalized Netanyahu Talks of Chance to Cripple Iran Deal

Netanyahu, said to be almost euphoric about change in his relations with White House, tells Knesset committee there's a 'change of the highest order' in U.S. view of Iran. With regards to settlements, Netanyahu seeks to avoid unnecessary confrontations.

AP

At Sunday’s cabinet meeting, after the ministers voted to extend Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer’s tenure by another year (his fifth), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lauded his protégé’s work in Washington. He used Dermer, who was persona non grata in Barack Obama’s White House, to exemplify the dramatic change produced by Donald Trump’s assumption of the presidency.

“I heard Trump praise Ron on several occasions,” Netanyahu said, as quoted by a source in his office. “Many people overseas have approached me recently and asked me to ask our ambassador to help them at the White House.”

On Wednesday, addressing the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Netanyahu repeated this. “Many countries have used us to help them further their affairs with the new administration,” an MK who attended the meeting quoted him as saying. “They know Israel’s government is the one closest to the Trump Administration.”

It’s hard to overstate how happy Netanyahu was with his visit to Washington three weeks ago. Ministers and MKs who have heard him talk about the U.S. president recently got the impression that he’s in love. He described his long acquaintance with Trump, their chemistry and the dramatic change in the atmosphere between the White House and the Prime Minister’s Office.

Netanyahu was supposed to go to Washington again later this month to attend the AIPAC conference, and while there he planned to hold a second meeting with Trump. But officials in his office said recently that he might postpone that trip.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu told the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that an even more dramatic change of plans might be forthcoming: Instead of Netanyahu going to Washington, Trump might soon visit Israel. “A Trump visit is a possibility,” he said. “It’s on the agenda.”

A demonstrator holds up a sign against the polices of Netanyahu and Trump at a 'Muslim and Jewish Solidarity' protest in New York, February 15, 2017.
MIKE SEGAR/REUTERS

But for all the change in atmosphere, the real reason Netanyahu beams whenever he mentions Trump is the change in the administration’s policy on Iran. Trump, he told the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, spends long hours on the Iranian issue – both the nuclear agreement and Iranian subversion in the Mideast.

Netanyahu: 'Trump gets it'

“There’s a change of the highest order in the White House’s view of Iran,” Netanyahu told the MKs. “Trump and his people get the danger and understand that Iran must be viewed as a source of the Mideast’s problems, not a solution.”

The 2015 nuclear agreement Iran signed with the major world powers is a stain on Netanyahu’s legacy. During Obama’s first term, under heavy American pressure, Netanyahu failed to carry out his threats and plans to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. During Obama’s second term, Netanyahu waged all-out political war against him to thwart the agreement, but failed.

Netanyahu hopes Trump’s first term will provide a corrective, and he’s investing all his energy in this. Even though Trump has walked back his campaign promise to tear up the nuclear agreement, and even though Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson both favor preserving the deal, Netanyahu believes that ultimately, the U.S. administration will be willing to take action on this issue. At the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Netanyahu said his goal was to persuade the administration to either repeal the nuclear deal or change it.

Netanyahu’s feelings about Trump may be colored by his terrible relationship with Obama, but even Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who met with U.S. officials in Washington this week, returned with a sense of real change in the relationship.

“On issues relevant to Israel and the Middle East, senior Trump administration officials see eye to eye with us on most things,” said an Israeli official briefed on what happened at Lieberman’s Washington meetings. “With the Obama administration, we had tactical agreements on certain issues but strategic disagreements on issues like the nuclear agreement with Iran, the Syrian civil war and attitudes toward the Muslim Brotherhood and the Al-Sissi government in Egypt. With the Trump administration, in contrast, we have shared views of strategic issues, but differences and disagreements on certain tactical issues, like construction in the settlements.”

The official said Lieberman’s impression from his meetings was that the administration is serious about trying to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and that despite Trump’s statement that he’s open to a one-state solution, the administration’s goal remains what it was under Obama – a two-state solution and establishment of a Palestinian state. What has changed is the tone.

“The Trump administration wants to reach understandings with us about the issue of settlement construction, but even more, about the overall vision and the question of where we’re going on the Palestinian issue,” the official said. “They don’t want to force anything on us, and it’s clear to them that first, we have to rebuild trust between the parties, which doesn’t exist now, and improve the West Bank’s economic situation.”

The troika in charge of relations with Israel, and especially the Israeli-Palestinian issue, consists of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner; the new ambassador, David Friedman, whose appointment was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday; and special envoy Jason Greenblatt, who is expected to make his first official visit to Israel next week.

Greenblatt will have the dubious pleasure of forging understandings with Israel on settlement construction. Right now, he’s spending much of his time learning about this issue – the settlement blocs, the isolated settlements, the illegal outposts, construction in Jerusalem and planning and building procedures in the territories.

Israeli official: Trump's people don't mention 'freeze'

The Israeli official said that in no conversation with the Trump administration so far has the word “freeze” been uttered. The term the Americans use is “restraint,” but what that means isn’t yet clear. He said the Americans have repeatedly made two requests: Don’t surprise us, and don’t create any irreversible facts on the ground – both things Israel did repeatedly with Obama.

Netanyahu, who believes the Trump administration offers great opportunities on the Iranian issue, intends to make every effort to reach understandings with the Americans on settlement construction. At Wednesday’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting, he said he wants to forge understandings similar to those reached by prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert with President George W. Bush. Those understandings permit construction almost exclusively in the settlement blocs.

“For eight years under Obama, we fought with the U.S. over every window in Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood and every generator in the settlement of Itamar,” Netanyahu told the MKs. “We wasted enormous energy on this. I don’t want to reach the same situation with Trump that we had with Obama. So if it’s possible now not to fight with the U.S. over settlement construction, we don’t have to fight.”

The desire to avoid such fights is why Netanyahu is now desperately seeking an elegant way to backtrack on his promise to build a new settlement for residents of the evacuated outpost of Amona. It’s also why a bill to annex the settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim still hasn’t come to a vote, and why a substantial portion of the thousands of building permits in the settlements that the government issued just two months ago have been frozen.

The big question is how much of this can Netanyahu’s coalition swallow. The leaders of the Habayit Hayehudi party, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, currently don’t appear to be willing to cut him much slack.