Netanyahu's Iran Dilemma: Getting Trump to Act Without Putting Israel on the Front Line

Even if Trump's instinct tells him it's best to avoid war with Iran, no one can be certain of his intentions - not even Netanyahu

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File Photo: President Donald Trump welcomes visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House in Washington, March 25, 2019.
Trump welcomes Netanyahu to the White House in Washington, March 25, 2019. The Israeli policy debate regarding Iran is taking place solely between the PM's ears.Credit: Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Update: Saudi DC embassy confirms interception of Houthi missiles headed for Mecca

Amid intensive efforts to form a new government and maneuvers meant to extricate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from the indictments piling up against him, the existing government in Israel is dealing with another important issue – developments in the Gulf.

The “existing government” essentially means one man, Netanyahu himself. Until Avigdor Lieberman accepts the offer to join a new Netanyahu government, the prime minister is also the defense minister. The security cabinet too is a dead horse. Since the April 9 election, Netanyahu has convened it only once, on May 5, for a strictly pro-forma discussion on the escalation in the Gaza Strip. Two members of the security cabinet (ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked) didn’t even manage to get reelected, and other ministers are still waiting for their positions in the new government.

The debate on Israeli policy regarding the threats exchanged between America and Iran is taking place solely between the prime minister’s ears, albeit with advice from senior defense officials.

>> The war between the U.S. and Iran has begun, in case you didn’t notice | Opinion ■ If the U.S. goes to war with Iran, Netanyahu will be the prime suspect | Analysis ■ U.S.-Iran escalation contains a different kind of strategic threat for Israel

Netanyahu has one key advantage that he lacked during the years of the Obama administration – close coordination with U.S. President Donald Trump. But even Netanyahu is having trouble assessing Trump’s real intentions.

Last week, after a series of worrying leaks by senior American officials, Trump took action to calm the situation. He declared that he’s not interested in war, and leading American newspapers published detailed accounts of disagreements within the administration over the severity of the steps that should be taken against Iran.

But Sunday night, after additional Iranian threats, Trump once again changed direction. In a vitriolic tweet, he threatened, “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!”

Trump’s aggressive tweet came a few hours after another Iranian signal: A rocket landed in Baghdad’s Green Zone, not far from the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. The attack followed a series of American warnings about Iranian plans to hit U.S. targets in Iraq, which led America to withdraw nonessential personnel from the embassy and American oil companies in the region.

This incident was the third, or possibly the fourth, in just over a week. It was preceded by a series of explosions that damaged four oil tankers in a United Arab Emirates port and a drone strike on a Saudi oil facility by Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who are funded by Iran.

The U.S. embassy compound in Baghdad's Green Zone, Iraq, May 20, 2019.Credit: AFP

The possibility that Iran contributed to the latest round of fighting in Gaza also can’t be ruled out. That escalation began on May 4 with sniper fire aimed at Israel by Islamic Jihad, an organization that answers to Iran’s authority. It was not preceded by any Israeli attack on Islamic Jihad.

The three attacks in the Gulf all have a clear common denominator. Tehran hasn’t claimed responsibility for them (the Houthis took responsibility for the drone strike), but the widespread assumption is that the Iranians were behind them. Such attacks enable Iran to send a threatening message while also maintaining deniability, which makes it hard for America to respond with military action of its own.

The latest attack’s proximity to a clearly American target (the embassy in Baghdad) was presumably what set Trump off and led him to switch to threatening Tehran directly. Nevertheless, his basic instinct still appears to be that it’s better to avoid unnecessary wars in the Middle East. For now, America’s moves appear to be primarily defensive.

In this conflict, Israel is hoping to have its cake and eat it too. Ever since Trump was elected president two and a half years ago, Netanyahu has been urging him to take a more aggressive line toward Iran, in order to force it to make additional concessions on its nuclear program and disrupt its support for militant organizations.

A UAV-X drone flown by Yemen's Houthi rebels in Hodeida, YemenCredit: ,AP

Trump acceded to this urging a year ago when he withdrew America from the nuclear agreement with Iran. That was followed by tighter sanctions on Iran, as well as publication of a plan by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo detailing 12 steps Tehran must take to satisfy Washington.

But Israel isn’t interested in being part of the front. That is why Jerusalem has issued so few official statements on the Iranian issue, and why Netanyahu has urged ministers to be cautious in what they say.

This caution also applies to military action. This weekend’s reports from Syria about two Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets in the space of 24 hours don’t seem credible. It’s reasonable to assume that Israel will opt for greater restraint, including on the northern front, for as long as the exchange between America and Iran remains understated.

Trump Peace Plan

Despite the tensions in the Gulf, the Trump administration is continuing its preparations for unveiling its Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative. On Sunday, the administration announced that it would publish the economic portion of its plan on June 25, during an international conference in Bahrain.

This confirmed two assumptions about the “deal of the century.” First, its economic portion takes precedence over its diplomatic portion, whose final form remains unknown. Second, as usual, Trump is trying to turn the conference into the essence, an event whose importance lies in the very fact that it took place.

But the Palestinians are refusing to cooperate. By Monday, the Palestinian Authority had already announced that it won’t send delegates to the conference.

It’s somewhat ironic that the same administration which has consistently slashed financial aid to the Palestinians over the past year, in both the West Bank and Gaza, is now trying to use Arab money from the Gulf to overcome their suspicions and entice them to join its diplomatic initiative.

But the main obstacle, the sweeping Palestinian refusal, may well be joined by another difficulty: In both America and the Gulf States, attention is liable to be diverted to the growing tensions with Iran.

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