How Trump and Netanyahu Split Ways on Iran, Pushing Israel to Reconsider Acting Alone

Though many on the pro-settler right still think Trump is a divine miracle, senior Israeli officials have come to the disquieting realization that, in its hour of need, Israel can't rely on the president

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Netanyahu next to a brand new F-35 after arriving in Israel
Netanyahu next to a brand new F-35 after arriving in IsraelCredit: Ariel Schalit,AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

In very few countries have hopes regarding the Trump administration’s foreign policy been as evident as in Israel. And now, the increasing disappointment with Donald Trump is hardly ever expressed publicly by the government or top brass, for understandable reasons.

First, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t want to spoil the close personal relationship he has nurtured with Trump. Second, like most leaders of Middle East countries close to the United States, Israeli leaders are leery of bruising the president’s huge ego. Third, Trump keeps giving gifts to Israel regarding the Palestinian issue.

But behind the scenes there is talk of great frustration, largely concerning the change that appears to be developing in the administration’s stance on Iran.

For a while, things looked different. On the eve of his election victory, and even more so after entering the White House in January 2017, Trump often sounded like he was reciting the talking points of the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. The president’s Jewish family members and advisers felt a deep identification with Netanyahu even before the inauguration.

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After a few creaks during the campaign (for example, Trump’s comment on the eve of his appearance at the 2016 AIPAC Policy Conference that Israel might have to pay for its U.S. military aid), it appeared that Washington and Jerusalem were totally in sync. Trump expressed support for Israel at every opportunity. He also enshrined his support in practical measures. Soon enough, in May 2018, Trump both announced the American withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear agreement and moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

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

These two decisions, which Trump first mentioned during the election campaign, fulfilled Netanyahu’s most important aspirations, were welcomed enthusiastically by most Israelis, and were perceived as political achievements by the prime minister back home. Trump then went even further. This past March, on the eve of Israel’s first election this year, he made another of Netanyahu’s dreams come true by recognizing Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights.

It was no accident that Netanyahu leveraged his relationship with Trump in an election campaign that stressed the prime minister’s hobnobbing with the leaders of great powers. During the summer, Likud put up banners showing Netanyahu and Trump together, above the slogan “Netanyahu, a different league.”

Trump’s warm embrace of Netanyahu didn’t stop there. The administration systematically eroded plans for supporting the Palestinians and reduced aid to the UNRWA refugee agency that provides for the day-to-day needs of hundreds of thousands of families in the West Bank and Gaza.

For dessert, there were occasional leaks about “the deal of the century,” Trump’s plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, whose big reveal has been delayed again and again for more than a year. Media reports said the plan would be very near the position of the Likud government – and were answered by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ boycott of the administration’s peace team.

Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waves to members of the Revolutionary Guard's all-volunteer Basij force in a meeting in Tehran, Iran. Nov. 27, 2019
Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waves to members of the Revolutionary Guard's all-volunteer Basij force in a meeting in Tehran, Iran. Nov. 27, 2019Credit: ,AP

Not sated by all these goodies, the Israeli right’s appetite only grew. Rumors were spread of an even larger plan being drawn up by Trump and Netanyahu: The president would reveal his plan, the Palestinians would reject it, and the Americans would give the green light to annexing parts of the West Bank. These ideas haven’t been fully realized, but on the right there’s lots of talk about an opportunity that won’t come around again; some have even described Trump’s election in terms of a divine miracle.

The U.S. conservative agenda

Before this year’s second election in September, the sides discussed further ideas, among them a strategic alliance between the two countries. In the end, Netanyahu had to suffice with making a vague statement about talks on a future alliance, which received a minor and somewhat sour response from the administration. But in mid-November, Trump renewed his bounty of gestures toward Netanyahu and Likud when the State Department said it would stop regarding the West Bank settlements as violating international law.

In a speech to American Jews at the beginning of the month, Trump joked about the Democrats’ impeachment proceedings: “If anything happens here, I’m taking a trip over to Israel. I’ll be prime minister.” (Opinion polls in 2018 showed 69 percent of Israelis had confidence in Trump, the second-highest of any country in the world, in stark contrast to respondents in most countries surveyed.)

It appears that the Israeli right’s extensive support of Trump ignores his personality flaws and the waft of corruption clouding his actions. This is a bit reminiscent of the deal by conservatives in the United States who support the president and his shady deeds as long as he keeps packing the courts with conservative judges, serving their political agenda. This applies equally in Israel: The right is aware of Trump’s defects, but hey, at least he supports Israel.

In recent months, however, the impression has emerged that maybe something has gone awry between the president and Israel. This has happened mostly concerning the Iranian issue. It could be that Trump has been more consistent than his opponents say.

True, the president has consistently attacked the Iranians and the nuclear agreement, but it’s doubtful he has ever dropped his isolationist instincts in the Middle East. Trump, like Barack Obama, dislikes any idea of another war in the region and sees no point in sacrificing more money and soldiers for what appear to him as lost causes.

A Turkish and Russian joint patrol near the town of Darbasiyah, Syria, int he region from which U.S. forces abruptly withdrew on Trump's orders. Nov. 1, 2019
A Turkish and Russian joint patrol near the town of Darbasiyah, Syria, int he region from which U.S. forces abruptly withdrew on Trump's orders. Nov. 1, 2019Credit: Baderkhan Ahmad,AP

America’s decreasing dependence on Arab oil and the shift of the U.S. foreign-policy focus to East Asia have reinforced his tendency to avoid military friction with Iran, after the losses the United States suffered in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the president is a great believer in the power of economic pressure.

The sanctions he imposed on Tehran, especially the threats to boycott European companies that trade with Iran, have indeed begun to show results. For many months it looked as if Iran was limping under the pressure of the sanctions and was working on amendments to the nuclear agreement that would bring the Americans back on board.

But since May there has been a change: It seems Tehran has altered its policy and embarked on attacks on targets linked to the petroleum industry in the Gulf. The aim is still to force the Americans into negotiations, but this time from a position of strength.

The Iranians have apparently concluded that this is possible in light of Trump’s dithering. First, there were attacks on tankers off Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, then Iran shot down an expensive U.S. drone that the Iranians said breached their airspace, and finally, in mid-September, the Iranians launched a devastating drone and cruise-missile attack on Saudi oil sites.

Abandoning the Kurds

Amid all these moves, Trump chose to sit tight. In fact, he explained why the attacks are actually the Saudis’ problem, not Washington’s, and enthusiastically expressed a wish to meet with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rohani. This meeting hasn’t happened yet – it seems mainly because the Iranians have deferred it.

What’s happening to Trump now with the Iranians is what happened to him two years ago with the South Korean ruler: He was so thrilled by the idea of going down in history as a peacemaker that he’s willing to totally ignore the true nature of the regime he wants to negotiate with and its diversionary tactics regarding talks.

As Netanyahu has known for a long time, even though for some reason many of his foolish disciples in Israel have refused to recognize this, Trump always looks out for number one. The president has no problem making policy U-turns and covering them up with crude lies or attacks on his critics.

This also gives rise to the increasing Israeli suspicions that Trump won’t be reliable at the movement of truth, that the president’s boasting on Twitter about what’s within his power to do to Iran will become a stutter if the Iranians act in a way that also threatens Israel directly.

Recently, amid the fierce gasoline-price riots in Iran, hopes have been renewed that despite everything, the American economic pressure will have serious repercussions. But the 12-point plan Secretary of State Mike Pompeo set forth a year and half ago for pressure on Iran has borne little fruit.

Above all, as seen from Israel, it appears the current administration is incapable of planning and carrying out complicated moves that could achieve significant strategic results in the long term.

Since the Kurdish affair, Israel’s concerns have deepened. At the end of October, in a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump took his famous step that flabbergasted both his own generals and his allies in the region. In withdrawing U.S. troops from the Kurdish region in northeastern Syria, he let Erdogan carry out his plan to occupy the area and drive out the Kurds.

In this, Trump demonstrated not only his lack of knowledge but his lack of interest.

When he was attacked, he cited his desire to end American investment in “endless wars” in the Middle East, said it was all merely quarrels over sandy wastelands – and then changed his tune and deployed several hundred U.S. troops in the region, saying this was to protect oil fields that would be useful to the United States.

The abandonment of the Kurds, loyal allies who sacrificed thousands of their people in the war against Islamic State alongside the United States, set off shock waves in Middle East capitals. From Jerusalem’s perspective, the message is clear: Despite all the differences (to Israel’s advantage) from the Kurds’ situation, reliance on the U.S. president is a shaky proposition.

Trump might be sympathetic toward Israel but it’s hard to be sure he’ll come to its aid if it gets entangled in a military confrontation. In light of his recent actions, could Israel be certain, for example, that the Trump administration would order an airlift of ammunition and spare parts the way the Nixon administration did in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War?

As for Iran, Trump’s policy stresses the need to revisit Israeli preparations for a possible escalation and even an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear sites, should it emerge that Iran is violating the agreement full throttle and is rushing toward producing a bomb. Netanyahu is believed to have already ordered an updating of the military option, on the assumption that in such a case the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran would become relevant.

All these musings are being whispered quietly so the Americans won’t hear them and get insulted. At the end of last month, in a speech at the graduation ceremony of the officers’ training school, Netanyahu said “the bar of Iran’s audacity in the region has been getting higher – and is getting even higher amid the lack of a response.”

A lack of response on whose part? The prime minster left that open for the proud parents of the new officers to think about. Either way, the doubts and concerns are gnawing away.

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