It’s too early to assess whether U.S. President Donald Trump will soon meet with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rohani. It’s clear there are contacts for diminishing the growing tensions between Washington and Tehran, and perhaps for drawing up a new nuclear treaty as well. It’s also clear that the efforts to thaw the frozen ties between the Islamic Republic and the great power, which in Iran has been dubbed “the Great Satan,” are of great concern to Israel’s prime minister.
Benjamin Netanyahu has good reason to worry: The main objective he has posited for Israeli foreign policy was to weaken Iran by means of diplomatic isolation, economic sanctions and military threats. Four years ago Netanyahu failed to torpedo President Barack Obama’s nuclear treaty with the Iranians; he had greater success with Trump, who withdrew from the treaty, renewed the sanctions and threats against Iran, and reached a brink of belligerent confrontation with it in the Persian Gulf.
Now Netanyahu is confronting a change in direction in Trump’s policy, which is reflected in an attempt to arrange a meeting and reach an understanding with the Iranian leadership. The timing is particularly bad for the prime minister, who is running in the election from an inferior position. A public embrace between Trump and Rohani will display the weakness of Israel’s prime minister to the entire world. The image nurtured by Netanyahu as the ultimate confidant of the president of the United States, which is at the heart of the Likud campaign, would be seriously flawed on the eve of the election.
These circumstances explain Netanyahu’s decision to escalate Israel’s military activity against Iran and its proteges in the region, by expanding the “war between the wars” to Lebanon and Iraq - while risking a confrontation with Hezbollah, and despite American opposition to Israeli attacks in Iraq, which was expressed publicly, in an unusual step.
Netanyahu’s conduct arouses bad memories from the “esek bish” (“rotten business”) affair that took place in the 1950s (aka the Lavon Affair). At the time Israel tried to prevent the Western powers from a rapprochement with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was seen here as an enemy and as the main threat, like Iran today. And as was the case during the previous round, this time, too, there are signs that responsibility for the imbroglio will be assigned to “over-enthusiasm of the operative ranks .”
The damage that has already been done due to the escalation of Israeli activity, which is reflected in an undermining of the relationship with the U.S. administration and the danger of an exchange of blows with Hezbollah - is bad enough. Netanyahu must refrain from a Lavon Affair 2, sit on the sidelines and avoid interfering in the diplomatic efforts of the United States and Iran, mediated by France. Israel has a great interest in relieving the tension in the region and preventing a clash whose shock waves would endanger it as well. Restraint at this time would serve the Israeli interest far more than threats and the use of force.
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The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.