Benjamin Netanyahu has run into a rough patch. The north is on fire, Gaza is seething, police investigations continue unabated, the nation-state law is exploding in his face, tens of thousands gathered to protest in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square and the polls – after spiking – are now in a tailspin. Small wonder that the lust for early elections in 2018 has been replaced by a yearning for later elections in 2019.
But the dark days of Netanyahu on the domestic scene stand in stark contrast to the aura that surrounds him in superpower diplomacy. He has become the indispensable go-between in the problematic relations between the Kremlin and the White House. He is the only world leader praised by both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. He negotiates with Putin as an equal and he sways, and possibly directs, Trump. There has never been an Israeli prime minister with such global influence.
Netanyahu fostered his ties with Putin when Barack Obama was president, but Trump’s election launched a quantum leap. Unlike Obama, Trump praises Netanyahu incessantly and basks in his good relations with the Israeli leader. Netanyahu, for his part, has long forgotten his Obama-era insults and tantrums and has emerged as general advocate, secret adviser, cheerleader-in-chief and, often, fig leaf for the U.S. president. When the whole world was recoiling from the Helsinki summit, Netanyahu praised it. When America was reeling this week from Trump’s tweet threatening Iran with virtual extinction, Netanyahu lauded the president’s “tough position.”
And the ground on which Netanyahu is building his new-found eminence is Syria. Russia seeks to take control of Syria and to stabilize Bashar Assad’s rule, but fears a conflagration between Iran and Israel that could upset its plans. In other days, the Kremlin would have negotiated with the U.S. administration on the assumption that each side is bringing its clients to the table. But in the era of Trump, the Kremlin is talking to the Israeli prime minister on the assumption that he can seal the deal with his client Trump.
The void is compounded by the fact that Trump doesn’t seem to give a fig about Syria. If Obama opened the door for the Russians, Trump is willing to hand over the keys and deeds as well. His primary concern is withdrawing the two thousand American troops currently stationed in the country’s northeast. His eagerness is so pronounced that U.S. officials worry that their president is squandering strong leverage on Putin, who wants to see the Americans gone.
In essence, Trump has delegated authority to Netanyahu to negotiate with Putin in his stead. "Close the deal," he’s telling the leaders of Russia and Israel, "and I’ll sign it." On the eve of the Helsinki summit, Netanyahu and Putin agreed on some of the main principles of a new Syria deal, and Netanyahu called Trump to brief him – or explain to him – what it’s all about. In doing so, Netanyahu gave Trump and Putin something positive to showcase in Helsinki. In return, he secured a public commitment by Putin to safeguard Israel’s security, and another round of fulsome praise from Trump.
Perhaps this was the background to Trump’s tweeted warning to Iran that it would face “CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.” Ironically, the dire U.S. warning against its greatest enemy was greeted in Israel with yawns, either because such threats against Iran seem natural or because Israelis have learned not to take Trump’s tweets too seriously. U.S. media, on the other hand, went into DEFCON 1 mode. Trump has lost control, analysts surmised. He will attack Iran in order to divert attention away from Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, Michael Cohen’s tapes or the $12 billion dollar payout to farmers hit by his tariffs. Things went back to normal 48 hours later, however, after Trump reversed course and offered the Iranians a new deal to replace the one he ditched three months ago. This time, however, Netanyahu kept silent.
But perhaps, for a change, Trump should be given the benefit of the doubt. Maybe his apocalyptic tweet wasn’t the usual discharge from America’s favorite midnight rambler, but a coordinated move synchronized with the Israeli-Russian talks on Iran. It may have been a shot across the bow meant to warn Tehran to cooperate with the emerging deal. In such a scenario, Trump is the big stick that Putin and Netanyahu wave at their convenience in order to keep the Iranians in line.
The curious fact is that the Kremlin did not react to the fire and brimstone tweet, even though Iran is considered a semi-client state of Russia. Moscow did not stand up for its loyal ally in the fight against the Syrian rebels. Vera Michlin-Shapir, a researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies, says the Russians took a step back. They refrained from sparking unnecessary tension in their delicate relationship with Trump at a time when they need his cooperation. The fact is that the Russians no longer claim that Iran's ejection from Syria is “unrealistic.” But Russia’s reticence can be taken one step further than the cautious Michlin-Shapir would allow: Perhaps they initiated the warning, and welcomed it.
Netanyahu’s immediate aim is to distance Iran from Israel’s northern border, to work out security arrangements with Bashar Assad’s army – which will soon take up positions it held before the civil war – and to ensure the Israeli Air Force’s freedom of action to prevent transfers of arms to Hezbollah. A senior source told Israeli reporters this week that the Russians are offering to set up a 100-kilometer security zone void of Iranian presence, but Israel is still pushing for a complete ouster of Iran from Syria and severe restrictions on its activities north of the proposed zone, at the very least. Netanyahu is well aware of widespread skepticism about Putin’s ability to expel pro-Iranian Shi'ite militias from the designated security zone or to confront Iranian units to the north. U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said last week that it’s doubtful whether Russia has the will or capability to do so. This is where the U.S. supposedly enters the picture: Either Iran will be compelled to withdraw within the framework of a larger settlement, or, if an overall conflict breaks out between the two countries, the problem will pale in significance.
With Putin, however, there is no such thing as a free lunch. He hasn’t turned into a Zionist overnight. He isn’t riveted by Netanyahu’s hazel-green eyes and isn’t mesmerized by his eloquence either. Netanyahu’s appeal isn’t limited to being a partner to Putin’s wish to stabilize Syria. According to a report in the New Yorker, which has yet to be denied, Netanyahu and his Washington Ambassador, Ron Dermer, are proposing – and may still be pushing – a “grand bargain” of Syria for Ukraine in which Trump would press to ease sanctions imposed on Russia for its invasion of East Ukraine in exchange for a Syria deal. Michlin-Shapir says that even if such a specific “grand bargain” does not exist, there should be no doubt that Putin wants to tie Syria to an overall dialogue with Washington over other points of friction between the two countries.
In his current situation, however, when any gesture to Putin will inevitably be seen as a payoff, Trump will be hard pressed to persuade Congress or public opinion to support any kind of deal with Putin – in Syria, Ukraine or anywhere else. Trump discovered this week that he couldn’t even invite Putin to his own White House, and Netanyahu will have to carry much of the burden. He will be Trump’s salesman. He will tell Congress that the little deal in Syria, or the grander bargain that includes Ukraine, are good for Israel and good for the United States. Putin, who has a lot of arguably anti-Semitic respect for the influence that Netanyahu, in particular, and the Jews, in general, have on America, is relying on the Israeli prime minister.
It is no coincidence that Trump revealed Putin is “a fan” of Netanyahu’s or that he presented the two leaders’ agreement on Syria as the main achievement of their talks in Helsinki – the contents of which, amazingly, are still unknown, even to administration officials. And it’s no coincidence, of course, that Netanyahu praised the Helsinki summit and placed it within a context of vastly improved U.S.-Israeli relations. Netanyahu’s word still carries a lot of weight among Republicans, who are shell-shocked by Trump’s fawning in Helsinki, and especially in Trump’s crucial Evangelical heartland.
Netanyahu’s willingness to assume the role of a major player in the relations between Russia and the United States, as he has in the talks on Syria, is “a minefield,” Michlin-Shapir concedes. Less cautiously, one can describe it as a dangerous gamble. Netanyahu has agreed to recognize Russia’s hegemony in Syria and has even embraced the idea of deploying Russian “police units” in the proposed security zone. And what will happen if Moscow, as many expect, doesn’t expel the Shi'ite militias or Iranian forces and installations to its north? Will Netanyahu stand alone against Russia, as he has in his talks with Putin? Can he risk a military confrontation? Would he be able to enlist the U.S. to his side if the agreement that he brokered and promoted falls apart?
Netanyahu is ignoring two red lines that have restrained Israeli leaders since the state’s inception. Israel has always taken care not to come between the two superpowers on issues other than Israel’s security and well-being. In the 1970’s it maintained a low profile even as the U.S. was gearing up for the fight to liberate Soviet Jewry. Israel has also avoided at all cost any risk that it might be portrayed as pushing America to war. Fifteen years ago, Israel paid a steep price for the mere suspicion that it nudged George W. Bush to go to war in Iraq despite the fact that most senior officials kept mum – with the exception of Netanyahu, then a private citizen, who assured Congress that invading Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein was a great idea. In case of conflict in Syria – and even more so, of conflagration with Iran – Netanyahu will have nowhere to hide. If there are American losses, he will be portrayed as the warmonger who whispered in Trump’s ear.
The beautiful friendship between Trump and Netanyahu has already harmed Israel’s standing among Democrats and many American Jews, although Netanyahu can still claim that his actions and policies are aimed at fortifying Israel militarily and on the world stage. But against the backdrop of the fierce polarization in U.S. politics, if and when Netanyahu turns up as Trump’s front man and Putin’s champion, he will be seen as an active collaborator of a much-reviled president.
Netanyahu seems to be betting, based on White House assurances, on Trump getting off scot-free from Robert Mueller’s investigation. If, however, the president is ultimately implicated of collusion with the Kremlin, before and possibly after the elections, Netanyahu could suddenly be cast as an aider and abettor, if not a ranking member, of the Putin-Trump-Netanyahu triad. More than enough names of Israelis or people connected to Israel have already cropped up in connection with the alleged contacts between Trump’s aides and Putin’s agents.
In fact, Netanyahu isn’t just gambling: He’s going all-in. He's putting his trust in Putin, who is notorious for bailing. And he is placing all his chips on Trump, an impulsive and controversial president who disdains America’s historic alliances and changes positions like most people change their clothes. Starry-eyed Dermer described Trump this week as “the new sheriff,” but failed to mention that he randomly shoots in all directions – and often hits himself. As long as his triumvirate with Putin and Trump is viable, Netanyahu is king of the world. But he may have forgotten that the higher they climb, the harder they fall.
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