Netanyahu, Trump in Intensive Talks for Dramatic Diplomatic Gesture in Coming Days, Ahead of Israeli Election

Israeli prime minister in close contact with people close to U.S. president, with one option under consideration being an American statement on creating ‘defense pact’ with Israel

President Donald Trump greeting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2017.
Marc Israel Sellem/Pool

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to arrange a dramatic diplomatic gesture from the Trump administration that will help him win the Israeli election on September 17. (For the latest election polls – click here)

In recent weeks, there have been intensive talks between some of Netanyahu’s advisers and people close to U.S. President Donald Trump over a potential statement by the American president, in which he could commit to protecting Israel in the future from any existential threat.

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In addition, Netanyahu is also trying to orchestrate some form of gesture from Russian President Vladimir Putin — either in the form of an official Putin visit to Israel or a trilateral meeting of the national security advisers of Israel, Russia and the United States. This would be similar to a meeting that took place in Israel in June.

The idea of a presidential statement by Trump regarding Israel’s security was born out of the broader initiative of creating a “defense pact” between the United States and Israel. Such a pact has been under discussion since the 1990s but has never been implemented. In recent months, discussions on the subject have been revived, with support from several senior Republican senators.

However, signing a defense pact would require the involvement of the Pentagon and other U.S. government agencies, and negotiations on the matter could last for months. The chances of completing such an agreement before the September 17 election are almost nonexistent.

In addition, a defense pact is not universally supported within the Israeli defense establishment. Some senior Israel Defense Forces officers are concerned that any such agreement would “tie the hands” of the IDF in the future.

Some of the former senior officials who oppose such an idea are free to give interviews and voice their opinions on the subject, thus limiting the political benefit that Netanyahu would gain from the idea.

As a result of these limitations, a smaller alternative has come up in discussions between Israeli and U.S. officials: A joint announcement about the start of negotiations over a future defense pact. Such an announcement doesn’t necessarily mean the negotiations will be completed, but would help Netanyahu politically in the short-term and could also help Trump as the president strives to present himself as Israel’s greatest supporter.

One of the main supporters of the defense pact idea is the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, which held a conference call on the subject last month with Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham.

During the conversation, Graham said he had personally discussed the idea with Trump, and that he believes there will be support for it inside the U.S. administration. Graham added that the idea would likely be very popular among the Israeli public.

Another “gesture” that is being discussed is a presidential statement by Trump that the United States under his leadership will help Israel militarily in any case of a future existential threat to the Jewish state. This kind of statement doesn’t require the involvement of other government agencies and does not go through any authorization process in Congress.

The legal standing of any such statement isn’t clear, but will probably have a large political impact in both countries.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hinted at such a move in an interview with right-wing radio host Hugh Hewitt last Thursday. During the interview, Hewitt asked Pompeo if the United States would support Israel during a military conflict, in a similar way to how the Nixon administration sent ammunition to Israel in 1973 at the height of the Yom Kippur War.

Pompeo said in reply: “We’re constantly in conversations about that, making sure that we collectively have defense systems capabilities that are appropriate for their needs. I have every confidence this president, who moved our embassy and who made clear Israel’s rights in the Golan Heights, will do all that is necessary to ensure that our great partner in Israel will be protected.”

Last week, internal differences within the Trump administration were revealed with regards to Israel’s military action in different parts of the Middle East. While Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence gave full backing to Israel, officials in the Pentagon “outed” Israel as being responsible for a series of airstrikes in Iraq, while the Department of Defense later issued a statement in support of the Iraqi government.

A day after the official notification that made headlines in Israel and the U.S., the interim-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford issued a rare  joint statement from the Pentagon, affirming  their previous message.

"Obviously we are in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government," Esper said in relation to the 5,000 American troops that are stationed in the country. "Obviously we’re concerned about anything that may impact our mission, our relationship or our forces," Dunford said. "All of our operations are consistent with the agreements that we have with the Iraqi government," he added.

The disagreements surrounding the attacks attributed to Israel in Iraq is expected to arise if negotiations regarding a defense pact do materialize. The disagreement may be another reason why the administration would prefer to make a presidential statement rather than entering into negotiations over a detailed agreement with Israel.