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With Unprecedented Chaos in Washington, Israel Sets New Red Lines Over Iran in Syria

The situation in the White House requires Israel to act with extreme caution ■ Israeli defense chief to spell out new red lines to U.S. and Russian officials

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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U.S. President Donald Trump
U.S. President Donald Trump
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

It is still the best show in town. Almost nine months have passed since Hurricane Donald hit Washington for the first time, and a little more than 11 months since Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential elections. Sometimes it seems the world has begun to get used to the daily dose of drama.

The Twitter attacks in the early morning hours, the late accounting on Twitter when sleep tarries, the biweekly resignations of senior officials – it is easy to become addicted to the ceaseless action of the most irregular president in the history of the United States.

But then, out of the noise, once every few weeks comes a reminder of the true significance of the matter. One such occurrence was the interview given at the beginning of the week by Republican Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to The New York Times. Corker, who has announced his intention of leaving politics next year, raised the curtain and supplied the American public with a glimpse into what is happening behind the scenes, between the White House and Capitol Hill.

In the interview, and in an earlier press release, Corker raised the following claims: Trump is running the government as if it was his reality show “The Apprentice.” The alliance of the responsible adults – retired generals John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, along with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – is busy most of the time restraining Trump, who could very well push the entire country into chaos. Trump’s statements about foreign affairs are worrying and are capable of unintentionally leading to the outbreak of World War III. Corker finished with something many senators, including his colleagues from the Republican Party, agree with but do not feel free to express.

Walkouts all around

At the same time that Trump was busy with another provocation to distract the public – what seems to be Vice President Mike Pence’s planned walking out of the football game after players kneeled during the singing of the national anthem in protest – Corker supplied a ringing warning, from within the center of the Republican Party. The president’s behavior, as can be understood from Corker’s words, is a clear and present danger to the world.

Israel was and remains a secondary sphere for the Trump administration. Corker and others are worried mostly by the trading of threats between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. But Israeli officials, who are in regular contact with their colleagues in Washington, are finding it difficult to hide their embarrassment in the face of the fog and confusion still surrounding the administration’s actions.

Many senior positions in Washington have yet to be filled and it seems that in many cases the administration’s officials are busy with their own personal survival, while they are trying in vain to guess what Trump will say next – and from which they are then supposed to deduce U.S. policy. In the background lies the fear, shared by those in both Israel and the United States, that the pandemonium which characterizes all the administration’s actions is already being exploited by more disciplined, sophisticated players in Moscow, Beijing and Tehran.

The situation in Washington, unprecedented by any standard, requires Israel, too, to act with extreme caution. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his speeches and discussions behind the scenes, is pressuring Trump to cancel or change the nuclear agreement between the six world powers and Iran. The agreement reached in Vienna in summer 2015 is full of defects, but it is doubtful that Netanyahu (or any other leader) can predict how Trump will act in case of conflict with the Iranians.

At the same time, the hopes expressed occasionally from the Israeli left, as if an American president will come and solve once and for all the Palestinian conflict by imposing a forced settlement on the two sides, appears absurd. So far the administration has not demonstrated even a shred of patience, long-term planning or ability to make the progress required for such an effort to succeed where all of Trump’s predecessors have failed.

Of soft speechand big sticks

President Teddy Roosevelt described his foreign policy as “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Trump talks all the time, mostly with resolve, but he has not yet made it clear how big is the stick he carries and whether he intends to use it. The great enthusiasm – in Israel too – that met the cruise missile attack on the Syrian air force base, and the dropping of the “Mother Of All Bombs” in April in Afghanistan, has long since dissipated.

The United States has already abandoned the Syrian sphere to Russia and Iran, which are doing almost everything they want to do. The supreme tests keeping the Trump administration busy are waiting in North Korea and, to a certain extent, in Iran, whose leaders are following the American handling of Pyongyang with great interest.

Trump has hinted in recent weeks that he intends to announce that the Iran nuclear deal doesn’t serve America’s security interests. By Sunday, he is expected to make this stance official.

If so, he will be handing Congress the decision on whether to reinstate economic sanctions against Iran. But America’s decision obviously doesn’t obligate the other world powers – most of which have already announced that they’re sticking with the agreement. The administration’s ability to get new sanctions through Congress is also in question, especially after Trump chose to pick a fight with Corker, whose committee would play a key role in any such move.

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Mattis has asserted that preserving the agreement is an American interest, while the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joseph Dunford, has said Iran isn’t violating the agreement. (This is a matter of controversy, since some claim that the International Atomic Energy Agency has deliberately not insisted on inspecting Iranian nuclear sites that are liable to prove problematic). And Wendy Sherman, the Obama administration official who ran negotiations on the deal for the State Department, said this week that Trump would be making a terrible mistake if he abandoned it.

According to Sherman, Trump is correct in saying that Iran’s actions are creating instability in the Middle East, but he’s wrong to say that these actions violate the spirit of the nuclear deal. She also says that abandoning the deal would have a disastrous effect on America’s relations with the European Union and other powers.

Rare private Israeli dispute

The previous administration has much to answer for with regard to the numerous concessions it made to Iran while negotiating the deal. Nevertheless, it would apparently be a mistake to ignore its officials’ warnings.

On the Israeli side as well, the politicians and the defense professionals differ in their view of the Iran deal, even if here (unusually) the dispute is being conducted in private. The Israel Defense Forces and intelligence agencies are presumably aware of the agreement’s flaws (first and foremost preserving Iran’s uranium enrichment capabilities and the lack of restrictions on its missile program), but also of the risks that could ensue if America abandons the agreement.

Former Military Intelligence director Amos Yadlin, who currently heads Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, remains close to senior IDF officers, and his public statements often reflect the mood in the General Staff and the intelligence community. In an article published this week, Yadlin and Dr. Avner Golov argue that this isn’t the moment to cancel the nuclear agreement.

Instead, they propose that Israel reach deeper understandings with Washington about a possible exit from the deal if Iran violates it in the future. They also recommend strengthening Israeli-American efforts to block Iranian aid to terrorist and guerrilla organizations and taking steps in the UN Security Council against Tehran’s ballistic missile program.

Some senior Israeli intelligence officials are currently more worried about what’s happening on a nearer Iranian front, in Syria, following the Assad regime’s success in the Syrian civil war. Media attention has focused mainly on Iran’s plans to deploy Shi’ite militias, including Hezbollah, along the Syrian-Israeli border in the Golan Heights. But Iran is engaged in a much broader and potentially much more dangerous move, which includes plans to build an Iranian-controlled airport near Damascus and a seaport on the Mediterranean coast in Tartus (next to the Russian one), and possibly also to station a larger number of ground troops in Syria.

In addition, Israel is worried that Iran will replenish Syria’s stock of precision missiles, most of which were used up during the civil war, and that it might attempt to deploy advanced Russian-made anti-aircraft missiles in Syria. These are Israel’s new red lines, which Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman will spell out over the next two weeks during meetings with his Russian and American counterparts.

According to American media reports over the last few weeks, support is growing in the Pentagon for taking steps against Hezbollah, and even against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which the administration is apparently considering declaring a terrorist organization. Washington seems to be more willing than in the past to step up its intelligence gathering on Hezbollah, and perhaps even to actively intervene against Iranian efforts to arm the Lebanese organization. Mattis, who sees Iran’s growing influence in the region as a more urgent problem than the nuclear issue, may propose steps like these to Trump as an alternative to imposing new sanctions on Iran.

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