US President Donald Trump has an insatiable thirst for flattery and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showed he knows how to slather it on when the two met Monday at the White House. The prime minister spared nothing in praising the president’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and got a definite maybe in response to his invitation to Trump to open the new embassy in May for Israel’s 70th birthday.
The rest of Netanyahu’s agenda, the strategic issues, was less urgent and saved for the private sessions.
Netanyahu’s political future hangs by a thread in the face of multiple criminal investigations, and he came to Washington to show Israeli voters what a great job he’s doing and how much they need him. He will keep reminding them that his good friend Donald said, “We have, I would say, probably the best relationships right now with Israel that we ever had. I think we’re as close now as, maybe, ever before.”
Netanyahu, the smarter and more politically astute of the pair, will politely overlook the fact that Trump has no sense of history or interest in learning. This president adores boasting and speaking of himself in superlatives. So the prime minister, ever the obliging sycophant, agreed.
“It’s never been stronger,” he said. He knows history but he also knows his host, and fawning takes precedence.
Team Trump spread it on thickly the same day at the AIPAC policy conference. Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, and Vice President Mike Pence were in full pander mode as they kept the 18,000-strong pro-Israel activists jumping up and down with standing ovations by offering undying paeans of devotion. By no coincidence, both are possible 2020 presidential contenders.
It was an encore performance for Pence, who in January told Knesset, “Every freedom-loving American stands with Israel – because her cause is our cause, her values are our values and her fight is our fight.”
I’ve heard versions of that line countless times and I’m always reminded of what Lyndon Johnson told a reporter who asked how he could campaign so hard against John F. Kennedy for nomination and then become his running mate: “When two people agree about everything all the time, you can be damn sure one of them is doing all the thinking.”
Pence’s devotional sounds good, albeit delusional, and that’s what Netanyahu wanted to talk about in private.
Once behind closed doors it was “Iran, Iran, Iran,” Netanyahu later said. He wanted to learn how far Trump is willing to go on fixing the Iranian nuclear deal and blocking Iranian entrenchment in Syria.
Trump has called the Iran nuclear agreement “the worst deal ever,” and said if it isn’t fixed by May 12 he will withdraw from it immediately. That’s what Netanyahu wants to hear, but the problem is none of the other signatories to the deal (Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia), the UN and, of course, the Iranians want to renegotiate.
Military and intelligence leaders in the US and Israel agree the deal isn’t perfect but it is working – international inspectors report Iran is in compliance – and it should be retained. As Netanyahu and Trump were discussing this, an Iranian government spokesman said, “If America pulls out of the deal... Iran could resume its 20% enrichment in less than 48 hours,” according to The Jerusalem Post.
More urgent is Iran’s spreading influence and presence in Syria. It is establishing bases to train and organize proxy forces to attack Israel, some close enough to launch quick cross-border raids against Jewish communities.
It is also building factories to produce missiles and weapons for those fighters. An Iranian surveillance drone was recently shot down over Israel, others could carry explosives.
Netanyahu wants new international missile sanctions to include those short- and medium-range missiles Iran is supplying to its allies, but so far it seems Washington and its allies want to focus just on ICBMs capable of carrying nuclear warheads to Europe and North America.
The is no coherent US policy toward Syria or Iran, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) charged on CBS’s Face the Nation Sunday on his return from the region.
“We’re about to have a war between Israel and Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon” and “we have no policy” to contain Iran or counter Russia’s spreading influence in the region.
America has become a marginal player in the Middle East; it began under Barack Obama and continues under Trump, who is letting Russian President Vladimir Putin take the lead.
There is a growing view across the region that Russia has “far eclipsed the United States in regional influence,” former US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro wrote in Foreign Policy.
Israeli military analyst Ron Ben-Yishai noted that “of all the regional actors [Iran, Russia, Turkey, Syria, Hezbollah, Kurds]... the only one absent is the US president, and the biggest casualty from that abstention is Israel.”
“Iranian entrenchment in Syria will... create a serious threat to aerial and maritime traffic... to and from Israel and its offshore gas rigs,” he wrote.
Russia and Israel respect each other’s interests and the former is not interfering when the IDF conducts what it calls “preventive operations.” Israel has launched some 100 attacks on weapons depots and shipments through Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon over the past five years. As the Syrian civil war winds down it is unknown how the Assad regime and its Russian protectors will respond to such missions in the future.
With Iran deepening its military footprint in Syria to mount attacks against Israel, the question becomes how the US can help Israel protect itself.
Shapiro said Washington should continue defending Israel’s freedom of action in Syria by vouching for the legitimacy of its raids as part of its right to self defense.
It should also speak to Russia to restrain Iranian provocations and military capabilities, and let everyone know that America will hold Tehran accountable for any attacks against Israel, he added.
It is against America’s and Israel’s interests for Iran to get a Mediterranean seaport and for Russia to become the dominant superpower in the region.
“Can Trump offer more than rhetorical support to Israel’s campaign to deter and defend itself against the Iranian threat in Syria?” Shapiro asks.
What we don’t know is how compromised Trump is viz Russia and how that might limit America’s ability to deal with the growing Iranian threat.
That will be the ultimate test of the unbreakable bond Trump and Netanyahu have been talking about this week.