May is going to be quite the month for US President Donald Trump. At some point in the coming weeks, he is expected to sit down for a historic tête-à-tête with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un. Around the same time, on May 12, he will come up against the deadline for the Iran nuclear deal.
At Press conference with Mogherini, Netanyahu predicts Europeans following Trump on Jerusalem embassy move (Reuters)
And then there is the planned transfer of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on May 15 as well as a proposal to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the White House has been working on for the past year. While the Palestinians’ recent anti-American rhetoric made it seem like the proposal had been shelved, the administration is claiming that the plan is still in the works. When will it be presented? That remains to be seen.
Even for Trump – a man who prides himself on being a brilliant deal-maker – this is a lot to handle.
Most presidents would choose one or two massive foreign policy challenges of similar scale to tackle throughout their entire presidency, let alone in the span of just a few weeks.
For Israel, the issue of utmost concern right now is Iran. On the one hand, there is complete agreement within Israel’s defense and political echelons that the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran is bad. It gave the Iranians astounding financial breaks and left them with almost all of their nuclear infrastructure in place. Once the deal’s sunset clauses kick in, Iran’s breakout time to a bomb will be just a few weeks.
On the other hand, there is no arguing the fact that the deal has given Israel a respite. Just a few years ago, the government appeared on the verge of ordering an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. With that threat postponed, the IDF has been able to spend the last few years honing its capabilities ahead of an eventual confrontation while investing in other fronts and needs.
While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a vocal proponent of seeing America pull out of the nuclear deal, the question is whether he – or anyone for that matter – knows what will happen the day after. Trump is trying to use the threat of America’s pending withdrawal from the accord as leverage to negotiate a newer and better agreement that will, for example, place restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile program, its regional aspirations and the problematic sunset clauses.
The Europeans warn that the chances of that happening are slim.
The French and German foreign ministers came to Jerusalem recently to explain to Netanyahu that Iran will not agree to a new deal and that if America pulls out, so will Iran.
If that happens, they warned, the only way left to stop Iran will be with military force, and who has the appetite for that? What Europe might not be taking into account though is the possibility that Netanyahu has received assurances from Trump that he will attack Iran if it leaves the deal and begins racing toward a bomb. It is possible that if Iran withdraws and begins enriching uranium to military grade levels, the “fire and fury” Trump once threatened North Korea with, will be diverted to Iran.
But what if that doesn’t happen? What if Trump decides to nix the deal but then fails to follow through with tough negotiations or the threat of military force? Is Israel better off with the deal gone and Iran an even greater threat, or not? What if Trump connects the peace process to the nuclear deal and tells Netanyahu that he will happily take care of Iran, but only if Israel ensures progress on the Palestinian track? This would be the revival of the famous “Bushehr-for-Yitzhar” deal – Bushehr is the site of some of Iran’s nuclear reactors, and Yitzhar is a settlement in Samaria – that Barack Obama reportedly offered Netanyahu in late 2009. Under that deal, Obama was supposed to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program would be stopped, and Israel would, in exchange, facilitate the establishment of a Palestinian state.
The deal, of course, never materialized.
A Palestinian state was never established and the 2015 nuclear deal failed to completely stop Iran’s race to the bomb.
Is Trump planning such linkage between Iran and the Palestinians? It remains to be seen, although the timing of how this all plays out could be a sign of what is coming.
Just days after making a decision on Iran, the US will hold a ceremony marking the moving of its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Some security cabinet members are nervous of what will come next. As one member told me recently: “Even between friends, there never really is a free lunch.”
Whatever happens, Trump is going to have his hands full in the coming weeks. For any of these efforts to work – North Korea, Iran or the Israel-Palestinian peace process – the president will need to be personally involved, become intimately familiar with all of the details, and be prepared to use the full weight of his office when necessary.
Israel is just one piece on the presidential chessboard. It might seem that Israel and the US are aligned as never before, but Netanyahu will need to be careful to ensure Israel’s interests are not disregarded. As demonstrated by Trump’s surprising and off-the-cuff announcement last week that he plans to withdraw US forces from Syria, Netanyahu already knows that, with this president, anything is possible.
Migrants, activists in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv protest Netanyahu's scrapping of relocation deal, April 3, 2018 (Reuters/Tamara Zieve)
ALL OF THESE scenarios are worth contemplating in light of Netanyahu’s public display of indecisiveness this week vis-à-vis the deportation of Israel’s African migrants
Calling what Netanyahu did a zigzag doesn’t do justice. It was a political fiasco of national proportions, one that will one day be taught in university-level political science courses.
Up until Monday, the declared government policy was to forcibly deport the vast majority of African migrants, most of whom had come to Israel in search of work. The Interior Ministry hired and trained special inspectors, and while the planned deportations were contentious and divisive, the government seemed determined to move forward.
But then in mid-March, the High Court of Justice froze the plan.
Netanyahu had a few options. He could have convened the cabinet, the attorney-general, and the top minds at the Interior Ministry and thought of a new, refined plan that would have met the court’s requirements.
Instead, he secretly brokered a deal with the United Nations, under which half of the migrants would be moved to Western countries and the other half would be allowed to remain in Israel.
News of the plan – kept secret from his cabinet and party – was revealed at 4 p.m. on Monday in a press conference Netanyahu convened in Jerusalem. It didn’t take long for all hell to break loose.
Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett, Netanyahu’s primary rival on the Right, slammed the deal and warned that Israel would become a migrant haven if so many migrants were allowed to stay. Even Minister Miri Regev, who until Monday seemed to be Netanyahu’s staunchest ally in the Likud, joined the chorus of criticism.
Even for a seasoned politician like Netanyahu, the pressure was too much to bear. Six hours and 45 minutes later, at 10:45 p.m., the prime minister posted on Facebook that he had decided to temporarily freeze the new plan. By Tuesday he had completely nixed it, leaving Israel, once again, in the lurch and without a real policy.
What didn’t make sense is why Netanyahu didn’t try to garner support for the UN plan before going public. In the past, when contentious issues were scheduled to come up in the cabinet – such as the release of Palestinian prisoners in 2014 – he knew to meet with Bennett and reach understandings before going public. The fact that he didn’t do that this time might say something about his state of mind.
This is concerning because, as pointed out above, Israel has serious challenges ahead that will need to be confronted with calm, poise and a steady hand. If Netanyahu zigzags and flip-flops so many times on an issue like deporting migrants, what will happen on issues of graver consequence – such as the Iran deal and the conflict with the Palestinians – that strike at the core of Israel’s national security? Will he repeatedly change his mind then, too, or will he be more focused and stable? After this week, it is difficult to know.
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