A meeting between the U.S. and Iranian presidents is just about a done deal. That is the growing conclusion in Israel’s security establishment after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Asper in London Thursday. As always, one caveat must be added: This summit will happen unless the less predictable member of the pair, Donald Trump, changes his mind at the last minute.
Tehran and Washington are actually stepping up their mutual hawkish rhetoric. Iran announced Friday, as planned, additional violations of its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. The U.S. keeps piling new sanctions on Iran and Hezbollah, and Brian Hook, the U.S. special envoy for Iran, lashed out at Tehran last week. And still, a presumption is taking shape that after these mutual recriminations, the sides are gradually growing ready for a meeting, possibly on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York at the end of the month.
The meeting with Asper, rather than the courtesy call he paid to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, seems to have been the main reason for Netanyahu’s lightning visit to London last week. For three years Netanyahu enjoyed enormous influence with Trump and his aides, but that seems to be shifting somewhat. The president’s expected summit meeting with his Iranian counterpart, Hasson Rohani, will attract the clear chagrin of Jerusalem. Speaking with reporters in London, Netanyahu acknowledged that a Trump-Rohani meeting was possible and said, “I don’t tell the U.S. president who to meet with or when.”
The person leading the most hawkish line against Iran in the Trump administration is John Bolton, the national security adviser. But he seems to have fallen out of the president’s favor. Other senior officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who last year outlined a very aggressive 12-point plan against Iran, are expected to toe the president’s new line.
The American willingness to hold direct negotiations with Iran could lead later on to an expectation for Israel to turn down the heat on Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. The Israel Defense Forces has not received any directives toward that end, and it continues to take a proactive, assertive line against Tehran, as seen in the incidents of the past few weeks.
The defense establishment is still focused on the northern border. The Revolutionary Guards have not yet settled their scores over the August 24 killings in an Israel Air Force strike of two Lebanese militants who worked on behalf of the Quds force. And it’s not at all clear whether Hezbollah views its firing of anti-tank missiles near Avivim a week ago as the end of the cross-border tension. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah hinted that his organization is planning additional measures, possibly against Israeli drones operating in Lebanese airspace. The 10 days that remain until the Israeli election will be particularly sensitive up north.
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In the background is the unresolved problem of Hezbollah’s precision-missile project in Lebanon. Last week the IDF revealed another assembly line for precise rockets, near Nabi Chit in Lebanon’s Bekaa region. The Shi’ite organization took steps to cover its tracks there after the story broke. Lebanese media reported that Pompeo warned the country’s president, Michel Aoun, that Israel planned to strike the site unless the facility was dismantled. In actuality, these were warnings that Israel sent to Lebanon some months ago through U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield, the Trump administration’s point man on the maritime border dispute between Israel and Lebanon.
With all eyes facing northward, the Gaza Strip remains a lower priority. This weekend there was another mini-round of fighting. Hamas, recognizing that Israel is more vulnerable to extortion in the run-up to the election, eased its grip on the Friday protests, which were more violent than usual. Two Palestinian boys, aged 14 and 17, were shot dead by Israeli soldiers.
In response, five rockets were fired into Israeli territory and IDF tanks fired on a Hamas position near the border with Israel. On Saturday, for the first time, a drone dropped explosives on a military jeep near the border. Islamic Jihad was apparently behind both the rockets and the drone. Encouraged by Iran, the organization is taking a more militant line in a bid to drag Hamas into a confrontation with Israel. The Egyptian intelligence team is likely to visit Gaza this week in an effort to calm the situation.
Israel’s response to the rockets remained restrained, despite the political criticism aimed at Netanyahu. The prime minister will continue to take a tough stance in the northern arena to deflect criticism of inaction in the face of rocket fire on communities near the Gaza border. In the West Bank, the latest series of attacks on Israeli civilians continued Saturday, when a Palestinian teen stabbed a man and his teenage son, who traveled from Ofakim in southern Israel for treatment by a dentist in Azzoun.
In the background of all of this is the acknowledgment by all the parties that after next week’s election the United States will presumably present the second part of Trump’s Middle East peace plan, after a two-year delay. An additional factor is the political considerations within Israel, in the event that Netanyahu needs a diplomatic excuse from Washington to pull Benny Gantz and Kahol Lavan into a unity government.
But these are long-range concerns: For now, the prime minister has shifted into high gear in an effort to win 61 Knesset seats for Likud and its satellite parties on September 17. In addition to the battle to permit cameras in polling stations, whose aim is to shake Likud voters out of their apathy, intensive efforts are being made in the hopes of exacting some kind of diplomatic gesture that could help the party before the election. As reported in Haaretz last week, aides to Netanyahu have been lobbying presidential advisers with the goal of achieving a promise by Trump to protect Israel from any existential threat in the future (as a prelude to the possible establishment of a mutual defense pact). In addition, Netanyahu is trying to orchestrate a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin or, in the absence of a louder gesture, an encore of the meeting of the national security advisers of Israel, Russia and the United States held in Israel in June.