Trump’s Soft-pedal Outreach to Iran Is a Preview of Netanyahu’s Worst Nightmares

Three weeks before Israeli election, the U.S. president is undermining one of the prime minister’s main electoral assets

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U.S. President Donald Trump and visiting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walk along the Colonnade of the White House in Washington, March 25, 2019.
U.S. President Donald Trump and visiting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walk along the Colonnade of the White House in Washington, March 25, 2019.Credit: Manuel Balce Ceneta,AP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

U.S. President Donald Trump is scaring the bejesus right now out of his BFF, otherwise known as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Trump’s unexpected outreach to Tehran’s ayatollahs at the G7 summit startled Israelis and embarrassed Netanyahu, doubly so because it came amid escalating tensions between Israel and Iran and its beneficiaries, Hezbollah and Hamas.

If it were anyone other than the mercurial Trump, one might suspect the U.S. president of actively seeking to sabotage Netanyahu’s reelection campaign, as if he were a Barack Hussein Obama or a die-hard leftie from the New Israel Fund.

Trump’s willingness to consider a tête-à-tête summit with Supreme Leader stand-in Hassan Rohani would actually outshine Obama, who, despite the 2015 nuclear deal, only spoke with the Iranian leader by telephone. The thought of Trump cuddling up to Rohani with the same warmth he reserves for other strongmen who are enemies of the U.S., such as Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong Un, is Netanyahu’s worst nightmare, the sum of all his fears.  A mere photo-op could be a picture worth thousands of anti-Netanyahu votes.

>> Read more: Israel fears Trump might sit down with the Iranians – and be outmaneuvered ■ As Trump signals talks with Rohani, Israel ratchets up tensions with Iran

One can safely assume that in the hours after Trump made his conciliatory remarks – which included the shocking claim that Iran had reduced its support for terror – the Prime Minister’s Office was frantically trying to ascertain whether the president’s remarks were off the cuff or pre-planned, and which secret contacts between Washington and Tehran had facilitated them. Some analysts maintain, in fact, that the spate of recent Israeli attacks on Iranian targets in Lebanon and Iraq were aimed at disrupting Trump’s charm offensive and at signaling Netanyahu’s displeasure with it.

More urgently, Netanyahu is praying that when Trump asserted in Biarritz that progress might be made within “weeks,” he didn’t mean before the September 17 elections, when it might have a significant impact on Israeli voters. A sudden rapprochement could undermine one of Netanyahu’s main assets in the election campaign: His close ties to Trump in general and the implicit credit he takes for stewarding the president’s decision to abandon Obama’s nuclear deal in particular.

Israelis, who mostly support Netanyahu’s tough policies on Iran, were obviously alarmed by Trump’s abrupt volte-face, but the prime minister’s detractors focused their criticism on Netanyahu rather than the U.S. president. This is the inevitable outcome, commentators opined, of Netanyahu’s reckless policy of betting the house on Trump while ignoring and even alienating everyone else, including U.S. Democrats. Trump’s willingness to flout international agreements, violate accepted norms and change his positions from one day to the next initially played into the prime minister's hands, but the president’s erraticism may now come around to bite Netanyahu as well.

Trump’s willingness to play along with French President Emmanuel Macron’s design to resurrect Obama’s nuclear deal, possibly with longer sunset clauses and new arrangements for limiting Iran’s ballistic missile program, appear to undermine Netanyahu’s strategy of beating and isolating Tehran into submission. And if Trump adheres to his pattern with North Korea’s Kim, he could continue lavishing praise on the ayatollahs while they advance their nuclear technology and perfect the accuracy of their long-range missiles under his nose.

Trump’s turnaround exposes at least two fatal flaws in Netanyahu’s long-term planning. The first is that Trump’s May 2018 abandonment of the nuclear deal and subsequent ratcheting up of sanctions may have crippled an already ailing Iranian economy, but it was Washington rather than Tehran that found itself isolated in the international arena. Trump’s unilateral decision to nix the nuclear deal, coupled with his overall conflicts with European powers, undermined his ability to enlist them to his side. Instead of reinforcing Trump’s tough stance, they turned into lobbyists on behalf of the ayatollah's regime.

The second flaw is Trump’s fundamental isolationism and reluctance, if not outright refusal, to entangle the United States in another foreign war, especially in the Middle East, which has weakened Washington’s deterrence. The last thing Trump wants or needs right now is a conflagration that could disrupt global oil supplies and possibly precipitate and exacerbate a recession in an American election year that could doom Trump’s chances for reelection. With all due respect to Israeli security and Netanyahu’s wellbeing, the president’s priorities are clear, concise and include only one element, that being Trump himself.

Trump’s change of tone on Iran came against the backdrop of a particularly volatile and topsy-turvy week in his presidency, even by his own unsettling standards. He played tough on China trade, then backtracked, described China as an “enemy” but praised its leader Xi Jinping as a great guy. Trump refrained from creating his usual ruckus at the G7 summit, but then angered its participants by pledging to invite banned Russian leader Putin to the next one, which will be hosted by the United States, possibly and outrageously in one of Trump’s own resorts.

And then there was Trump’s appalling assault on “disloyal” U.S. Jews who prefer Democrats, along with his wholehearted embrace of his anointment by a conservative conspiracy theorist as the King of Israel who moonlights as the messiah. Trump also surprised Israelis by announcing that his long awaited “ultimate” peace plan could be unveiled before the Israeli elections, though it’s unclear whether publishing the plan would help Netanyahu or harm him.

Whatever its details, dedicated right-wingers are likely to suspect that Netanyahu wouldn’t dare say no to his American benefactor, driving them to vote for Ayelet Shaked’s hardcore Yamina party instead. More moderate right-wingers who may have weighed voting for Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan, on the other hand, could very well believe that Netanyahu is better placed to resist untenable Israeli concessions and vote for him instead.

The prospect that the dormant peace process would come back to life, along with the deteriorating security situation in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and vis-à-vis Iran are likely to bolster calls for a national unity government that would include both Likud and Kahol Lavan. Netanyahu might consider such an option, but only if his right-wing coalition, sans Lieberman, fails to garner an absolute majority of 61 in the Knesset, as polls currently show. If Netanyahu does better than the projections and secures his right-wing majority, the calls for a broad government will amount to naught. Like Trump, Netanyahu’s first priority is looking out for number one; a narrow coalition of the right and religious parties is the only scenario that will grant him immunity from indictment and prosecution.

Netanyahu’s immediate goal, however, is to persuade Trump to refrain from any more gestures towards Iran during the 20 days that remain before the elections. An encore of Trump’s soft-pedal approach at the G7 summit could cast serious doubt on Netanyahu’s Trump-or-nothing approach, painting it as a reckless gamble rather than ingenious strategy.

Ironically, one of the talking points Netanyahu spin-doctors have been whispering into journalists' ears over the past 24 hours is to emphasize Trump’s tendency to shoot from the hip and to contradict himself over and over. The president’s otherwise harmful instability, which is the main reason why Netanyahu is being criticized for tying Israel’s fate to him, is being turned around to shield the prime minister from backlash. The very same people who previously lauded each and every pro-Israeli statement uttered by Trump are now advising Israelis not to pay any attention to his words. He could very well say the exact opposite tomorrow, they assert, with a prayer in their hearts.

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