U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Israel Wednesday with Iran, COVID-19 and the Israeli annexation of Palestinian settlements on the public agenda - and one large looming unspoken item likely to shape the conversation. Much like Marisa Tomei’s character Mona Lisa Vito in the movie "My Cousin Vinny," all the participants will be able to hear the ticking of a clock that means time is running out for any big plans they may have had together.
If political polls and the state of deepening crisis in the United States are any indication, the Trump crazy train is likely to be leaving the station next January and with it, the opportunity for Benjamin Netanyahu, his new partner, Benny Gantz, and the Israeli right, to cut a deal with American leaders who share their extreme views.
Donald Trump’s rival, Joe Biden, who has steadily lead Trump in national polls and is leading him in polls in key swing states, and his Democratic Party colleagues are likely to usher in a return to an Obama era-like chill in U.S. relations with Israel’s ruling coalition.
Or to put it in terms that the evangelical Pompeo might prefer, the participants in the meetings this week, are going to be grappling with the possibility to that the Trump Rapture is coming and that soon the President, his evangelical side-kicks like Vice President Mike Pence and Pompeo, and his advisors who support the Israeli hard right like son-in-law Jared Kushner, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and megadonor Sheldon Adelson, will all disappear from American political life.
They will not, it seems, likely be lifted to political heaven, and for some - like Trump and Kushner - the world to which they are transported may look more like a courthouse, but they will be done, nonetheless.
The consequences of such a transformation must be crystal clear to Netanyahu, who suffered mightily from political frostbite during the Democrats’ last time in office.
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Trump, of course, could win re-election. But with American facing its worst public health crisis since the 1918 flu pandemic and its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression - with the chances of a recovery from either before November looking remote, Bibi, Benny and Mike are all going to know that it’s quite possible a big change is coming.
That change will almost immediately result in a reversal of Trump policy on Iran and an effort to return to something like the détente of the Obama’s Iran nuclear deal. It will result in an outright rejection of Israeli annexation plans by the U.S. and a much more active push for Palestinian rights and a two-state solution from the U.S.
And of course, the whole fantasy of the Kushner "Middle East Peace Plan" is likely to end up filed with Kushner’s pandemic-fighting initiatives among the most egregious failures of the Trump Era. (Although thankfully, the cost in human life so far of the non-peace non-plan "peace plan" has been much lower than his COVID-related "expert" advice to his father-in-law.)
The fact that we may be entering the End Times for the alliance between extremist political actors and actions in the U.S. and in Israel may be a source of optimism to some. But as with all apocalyptic story twists, it is best to proceed with caution and perhaps even a healthy dose of apprehension.
If Bibi knows that there are only six months left to act with impunity on annexing settlements or in blasting Iranian positions in Syria or those of their proxies or in turning up the pressure on the Tehran regime, it is likely that they will push to achieve as much as they can on these agendas in the months ahead.
If Trump wins, fine. No downside. But if Biden is in office in January, which is a possibility they can’t dismiss, actions thereafter will come with more significant pushback, potential repudiation and even penalties from the U.S.
Pompeo knows this, too, and as a politician who has big ambitions with or without Trump in office, striking out at Iran and expanding the land controlled by the Israeli government would both accrue to his lasting credit with both evangelicals and the right wing of the Republican Party.
The COVID discussions are, of course, purely window-dressing. As anyone who can read a statistical table can see, no one in their right mind would take advice from the Trump Administration on how to manage this or any other pandemic. (Indeed, the fact that Pompeo would make this trip in the first place, in the midst of this crisis, despite the State Department’s own travel advisories, is yet another sign from Trump & Co. that they recklessly wish to declare victory over the virus even as it rages on, and that they continue to utterly disrespect science, medicine, math and history as they mis-manage their way into infamy during this disaster.)
For Israel, for the Palestinian people, for the Middle East and for the world therefore, it is clear that even at a time of a virulent pandemic taking a horrific toll and an economic collapse that has sent the world into recession and will take years from which to recover, those are not the only threats we face.
A desperate Trump, his cynical and opportunistic enablers like Pompeo, and an Israeli leader who is in an equally precarious position, may use the distractions of this grim moment in history…to make it even grimmer. So too does the fact that Pompeo, though pompous, arrogant and sycophantic, is also smart and more capable than many in Trumpland.
It is at moments like this that one can only hope that the profound incompetence of the rest of the Trump administration limits what damage he and his Israeli interlocutors can actually do. It is a fragile hope, however, as doing damage turns out to be the one thing that both Trump and Netanyahu are really good at.
David Rothkopf is a foreign policy expert and author, host of the Deep State Radio podcast and CEO of The Rothkopf Group, LLC a media and advisory firm. His next book, "Traitor: A History of American Betrayal from Benedict Arnold to Donald Trump," will be published in October 2020. Twitter: @djrothkopf