Where Tensions Will Arise in Trump and Netanyahu's New York Speed-date

On Iran, Syria and the Palestinians, the two leaders will try to maximize agreement where they can. That won't prevent wild card, uncoordinated declarations that could upset their arrangements

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U.S. President Donald Trump and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu embrace at Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem. May 22, 2017
U.S. President Donald Trump and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu embrace at Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem. May 22, 2017Credit: JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS
Daniel B. Shapiro
Daniel B. Shapiro

The UN General Assembly (UNGA) is a bit like speed-dating for world leaders. With so many of them descending on Manhattan at once, they bounce from meeting to meeting, looking for love, but settling for a good conversation. Even close friends and partners can often do little more than check in on a broad agenda, leaving aides to do the follow-up work and carry the mission forward later.

President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu meet in just such an atmosphere. With a long and complex set of issues before them, but little time to delve deep, it will be difficult to take big steps forward. I joined President Obama and Netanyahu for meetings in New York nearly every fall.  They had many productive encounters - these just weren’t them.

Trump and Netanyahu must work through three challenging issues on which they have an escalating ladder of agreement: Syria, Iran, and the Palestinian issue.

Syria is the ladder’s lowest rung, the most difficult issue for them to reach agreement on, due to differences in how they define their respective interests.

Netanyahu worries about Syria under a stabilized Assad regime and Russian sponsorship becoming a launching pad for new threats against Israel. So he wants to ensure that Iran does not control areas that ISIS vacates as it is vanquished. 

And Israel (according to foreign reports), recently proved that it is willing to act militarily to eliminate such threats, even deep inside Syria, by striking a Syrian advanced weapons production facility in Masyaf. But Trump has indicated that his main interest is completing the campaign to eliminate ISIS, and he isn’t so interested in the United States sticking around to define what comes after.

Within this overriding difference, the leaders will need to try to agree on what Israel and the United States will each do - diplomatically and militarily - to prevent Iranian threats against Israel from Syria, and to coordinate their demands from Moscow for Russia's help with this effort.

Iran's President Hasan Rouhani, bottom right, is sworn in for the second term in office. Tehran, Iran, Aug. 5, 2017Credit: Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

Iran occupies the middle rung of the ladder. Both leaders think the nuclear agreement (JCPOA) is awful and declare their desire to cancel it. But both of them hear consistently from their senior advisers, generals, and intelligence chiefs that Iran is fulfilling its commitments under the deal, and that canceling it will lead to the worst possible situation - no limitations on Iran’s nuclear program, no renewed sanctions, and no international support for tough new measures. So they face a dilemma.

According to a report on Israeli Army Radio, Netanyahu will propose to Trump that the United States demand amendments to the JCPOA that will extend some of its deadlines and allow inspections for cheating at currently closed sites. 

This is a plausible approach, but some strategic patience is required.  The nuclear deal is not a perfect agreement (there was no such thing) but it will keep Iran far from a nuclear breakout capability for at least a decade. To ensure a follow-on agreement that extends that time, the support of other key players - Russia, China, and the EU - will be required. Alienating them with unilateral steps in the deal’s early years is a sure way to make that harder, and will complicate critical efforts to enlist Russia in stemming threats in Syria, as described above, and gain China’s willingness to stop exporting oil to North Korea.

There is time to build a case and a coalition for extending key restrictions of the JCPOA, and to employ all necessary means, from renewed economic sanctions to the threat of Israeli or U.S. military action, to reinforce the unacceptability of an Iranian nuclear weapon. But with North Korea already posing a major threat, a rush to undermine the Iran deal is a rush to face a second nuclear crisis with significantly closed-off options.

At the apex of the ladder sits the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Not because Trump and Netanyahu have settled on a strategy to achieve a breakthrough but because of the opposite: both seem to recognize the futility of any near-term attempt to launch negotiations. 

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. May 11, 2017Credit: Yuri Kochetkov/AP

With Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas mired deep in internal Palestinian struggles - over his Fatah party’s relationship with Hamas and by those jockeying to succeed him - and with Netanyahu calling corruption investigations targeting him an attempted "coup" to install a more concession-prone prime minister, neither leader has anything to offer in negotiations, or indeed, even to launch them.

So the agenda is clear: Trump will continue to say that he wants to have negotiations to achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians, without specifying that he means a two state solution. Netanyahu will say that he is ready for negotiations, and will demand that the Palestinians stop incitement and payments to terrorists in prison. And both will support modest economic measures to maintain stability in the West Bank. Trump would be wise to adopt the two-state definition, but it is smart not to overreach: a rushed three-way meeting convened by Obama in 2009 ended poorly.

This agenda could well carry Trump and Netanyahu to the end of the year - when Trump’s envoys told Abbas they will present a proposal for talks - or beyond. What is not yet known is how long Abbas will have the patience to occupy this top rung with them. If he uses his speech at the U.N. to announce that he is re-opening his campaign for recognition of a Palestinian state, it will be a clear sign that he wants off.

That’s the wild card at the UNGA. Uncoordinated declarations in speeches by the leaders, like spurned speed-daters hate-tweeting their tormentors.  And it can make seemingly stable footing suddenly very shaky.

Daniel B. Shapiro is a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.  He served as U.S. Ambassador to Israel from July 2011 until the end of the Obama Administration.