Saudi Arabia has agreed to launch informal and indirect talks with Iran in an effort to de-escalate rising tensions in the Persian Gulf.
News of the contacts between Riyadh and Tehran would have garnered far more attention in Washington, had it not been overshadowed by U.S. President Donald Trump’s Ukraine impeachment brouhaha, and in Jerusalem, had it not been drowned out by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s increasingly frantic efforts to hold on to power.
Both Trump and Netanyahu should be satisfied that reports of rapprochement between the Middle East’s two great rivals have been pushed to the sidelines. It is, after all, proof of their joint failure: According to reports from the Saudi court, the kingdom’s decision to engage Tehran reflects its assessment that Trump has undermined the U.S. ability to deter Iran through the threat of military force. In Middle East terms, the U.S. president is now seen as a paper tiger.
>> Read more: Anti-Iran alliance falters as Netanyahu, Trump and MBS focus on their own predicaments | Analysis ■ Saudi Arabia recognizes its weakness and is ready to talk to the Iranian foe | Analysis
Netanyahu gave expression to this new strategic reality in his Knesset speech last week, in which he warned of an imminent danger of confrontation with Iran, possibly within a few short weeks. Tehran, he said, has expanded its terror operations and its aggressive designs on Israel. In the face of such a clear and present danger, Netanyahu said, Israel would have to siphon many billions of civilian dollars into its military budget in order to meet the Iranian threat.
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Netanyahu did not mention Trump in his speech. He didn’t laud the U.S. president’s courageous decision to abandon the Iran nuclear deal, as he often has in the past, or Trump’s steadfast stance against Tehran’s sinister designs.
Israelis, who had been reassured by Netanyahu that his brilliant plan had put Tehran on the defensive, were surprised to hear that Iran suddenly posed a threat on par with the 1973 Yom Kippur War. They were doubly flummoxed at Netanyahu’s suggestion that in this existential battle, Israel is all alone.
Netanyahu’s war-hype has been widely interpreted as yet another cynical political ploy aimed at pressuring Benny Gantz and Kahol Lavan into joining a national unity government led by Netanyahu. Be that as it may, Netanyahu’s Knesset speech highlighted the collapse of his entire Iran strategy, though he will be the last to admit it.
The fatal flaw in Netanyahu’s game plan was obvious to anyone who took Trump’s measure from the outset. It wrongly assumed that the U.S. president could be a stable and dependable partner in advancing Netanyahu’s game plan. It posited that Trump recognized the threat Iran poses to both Israel and the U.S. and that his utmost priority would be to quell it. It did not take into account Trump’s isolationist tendencies or that his only real priority is promoting himself.
Netanyahu’s confidence was bolstered by Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and his decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. Along with Trump’s May 2018 abandonment of the nuclear deal, the two largely declarative gestures were perceived as positive proof of Trump’s commitment to the Jewish state.
Turning a blind eye to Trump’s erratic handling of other foreign policy hot spots, no one in Netanyahu’s immediate surroundings dared suggest that the president’s overtures towards Israel, which enraged the international community, were simply manifestations of his reckless handling of foreign affairs overall.
Trump’s June 20 last minute decision to recall a U.S. strike against Iran in retaliation for the downing of an American drone marked a line in the sand. His abrupt order to abort, taken without consultation with any of his foreign policy principals, indicated his deep reservations about using U.S. military might and fear of getting entangled in another Middle East conflict. It also highlighted Trump’s utter cluelessness about the potential regional ramifications of his move and the damage it would inflict on U.S. prestige and power of deterrence.
Thus, 17 months after Trump delighted Netanyahu and other anti-Iranian leaders in the Middle East by abandoning the deal, U.S. policy is in shambles. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, including the staunchly pro-Trump United Arab Emirates, are recalculating their approach to Iran. Without a dependable U.S. ally willing to flex its muscles, accommodation with Tehran suddenly seems like a better option than confrontation.
Iran’s economy may be crippled by tightening U.S. sanctions, but its leadership remains as belligerent as ever. Trump’s ability to muster an international coalition similar to those set up by his predecessors, from George Bush Sr. to Barack Obama, has been undermined by his hostile attitude to Western European allies. And his embroilment in the Ukraine brouhaha is now making a bad situation far worse.
For the remainder of his term, the president will be preoccupied with his campaign to undermine impeachment proceedings in the House by any means possible. His fight for survival in Congress will dovetail with an election campaign that promises to be harsher and nastier than any of its precedents.
Conflict with Iran, even if it abandons any pretense of adhering to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, is fraught with risks and dangers to Trump’s reelection efforts, rendering it virtually moot. Trump’s only trump card in the election campaign is the health of the U.S. economy, which could be dramatically reversed in the case of an all-out war in the Middle East.
Netanyahu’s ability to sway Trump to refocus on stemming Iranian aggression is limited in any case. The White House is well aware that the Israeli prime minister’s political future is foggy, at best, and finished, at worst.
By the time Trump comes around to soliciting Netanyahu’s help in the 2020 campaign in return for the presidential bounty he has heaped on him throughout his term, he could very well find a different and far less accommodating occupant in the prime minister’s office. Just when Trump hoped to exploit Netanyahu’s good standing and influence with Trump’s evangelical base, the prime minister could be otherwise engaged as a defendant facing trial in an Israeli court.
And to think that for this strategic train wreck, Netanyahu estranged Democrats, alienated American Jews, distanced himself from liberal public opinion, and introduced new tensions in Israel’s already problematic relations with other Western countries.
Netanyahu embraced Trump without reservation, up to and including tacit support for presidential manifestations of anti-Semitism. He dubbed him an Israeli hero, the greatest pro-Israel president to ever reside in the White House. He turned Israel into Trump’s cheerleading squad, alone among the nations, and Israelis into Trump’s enthusiastic groupies. He embraced Trump’s disdain for checks and balances, the rule of law and freedom of the press and imported his corrupt values, further eroding Israeli public opinion’s confidence in democracy in government and demand for honesty and integrity at the top.
Netanyahu’s grand failure on Iran may seem like a lesser sin than his authoritarian attempts to seize control of Israeli democracy, his complete subjugation of Israel’s ruling party or his corruption of Israel’s very soul, but circumstances could soon change the hierarchy.
With Netanyahu gone, Israel could slowly start to recuperate, mend its ways and return to normalcy, but a war with Iran that is a direct outgrowth of Trump’s incoherent foreign policy could devastate Israel long after Netanyahu is gone. A potentially disastrous confrontation – one that could have been avoided had Netanyahu played his cards more carefully and less arrogantly – could turn out to be Netanyahu's only lasting legacy.