Trump Says He Talked Defense Treaty With Netanyahu, to Be Discussed After Israel's Election

Trump's announcement comes three days before Israelis head to the polls and in wake of reports that Netanyahu has been trying to get a diplomatic gesture from Washington

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands after Trump's address at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem May 23, 2017.
\ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

U.S. President Donald Trump had a telephone conversation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday in which the two talked about the possibility of signing a mutual defense treaty between Washington and Jerusalem, the president said. (For the latest election polls - click here) 

On Twitter, Trump wrote that the potential deal would "further anchor the tremendous alliance between our two countries." He added that he looked forward to "continuing those discussions after the Israeli Elections when we meet at the United Nations later this month!"

His announcement came three days before Israelis head to the polls.

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Netanyahu thanked Trump in an official statement he released. "Thank you my dear friend President Trump. The Jewish State has never had a greater friend in the White House. I look forward to our meeting at the UN to advance a historic Defense Treaty between the United States and Israel. We will continue together with full force our common battle against terrorism," he wrote. 

In a televised interviews with Channels 12 and 13 on Saturday night, the prime minister described the conversation as "warm and friendly." 

"President Trump called me on his own initiative," Netanyahu said. "I talked to him about establishing a defense treaty, an amazing thing. This is a historic thing." He added: "When I work for years first of all to gain recognition for Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and then an exit from the Iran nuclear deal," referring to steps Trump has taken, "I'm going to bring a defense treaty that will bring us security for generations." 

In that interview, Netanyahu said that he hopes that Israel will not go to elections a third time, claiming that it depends on whether right-wing voters will back his Likud party. "I hope very much that we will not get to a situation" where the president gives the mandate to form a government to a different prime ministerial candidate, he said.

Netanyahu also reiterated that Israel "very well may have no choice" but to go to war with Hamas in Gaza. Journalist Ayala Hasson pressed the prime minister on his past promise to curb Hamas, and noted that 1,800 rockets were fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip in the past year and a half.  

"We'll find the time to supress Hamas," Netanyahu said. The premier also claimed that Israel is likely to set out on a campaign that is "different from previous ones" but said that he does not wish to elaborate on live television.

"If Hamas does not take control" over the territory, Netanyahu said, "there will be no choice but to act in the form of an operation, and maybe in the form of a war." He continued, "We will chose the time and place and method to surprise Hamas. If there's no need for this, then we won't do it."

He added that he will not reveal any more information and will not advance these measures "even a second before this is necessary from an operational standpoint, because I don't want to endanger the country."

He was repeating claims from earlier this week, when he said that in light of ongoing escalation on Israel's southern border, the country may find itself entering a campaign in the Gaza Strip. 

Trying to get a big diplomatic gesture from the White House

Earlier this month, Haaretz reported that Netanyahu is trying to arrange a dramatic diplomatic gesture from the Trump administration that will help him win the election on September 17.

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

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 Forcesofficers 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, like the one Trump alluded to in his tweet.

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.

Noa Landau contributed to this report.