Netanyahu not pushing back over optional Trump-Rouhani meeting - analysis

There was also speculation that Netanyahu wanted to meet Esper to lobby against what is looming as an inevitable meeting between US President Donald Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s lightning visit to London last week turned out to be a trip without a headline.
In the midst of a very close election campaign, Netanyahu dropped everything and jetted over to London for 24 hours where he met his British counterpart Boris Johnson, who is up to his neck with his own political problems; British Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace; and US Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
The pre-trip speculation was that Netanyahu was looking for a commitment by Esper to some kind of Israel-US defense pact that he could then wave before Israeli voters before the election. But no such announcement manifested. While the pair met, there was no post-meeting press conference or joint communique.
There was also speculation that Netanyahu wanted to meet Esper to lobby against what is looming as an inevitable meeting between US President Donald Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
“This is not the time to hold talks with Iran,” Netanyahu said before boarding the plane to London. “This is the time to increase the pressure on Iran.” Once there his tone mellowed a bit, he said he would not presume to tell Trump with whom to meet.
“I certainly don’t decide for the president of the United States when to meet and whom to meet with,” he said. “I don’t know when such a meeting would be, but if it happened, Trump would be tougher and more clear-thinking than [the US] was before. His basis for a meeting would be on what we agree: that the deal was terrible, that the deal didn’t deal with key issues.”
If Netanyahu traveled to London hoping to convince the Americans of the error of talking to Rouhani, comments Esper made the next day at a British think tank that indicated that the prime minister did not have a resounding success.
“It seems in some ways that Iran is inching towards that place where we could have talks and hopefully, it’ll play out that way,” Esper said at the Royal United Services Institute in London. He added in comments later, “‘Inching’ is subtle movements, and I think that’s a good thing.”
That does not sound like the US is stepping away from possible talks with Rouhani, but rather moving them forward, and speculation is ripe that Trump will indeed meet the Iranian leader toward the end of the month on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting.
Were the person heading into these talks named Barack Obama and not Donald Trump, Netanyahu would, it is widely believed, have spoken loudly and forcefully against it. And that is a safe assumption because Netanyahu did speak loudly and forcefully against Obama’s negotiations with Iran. He even went to Obama’s home court – the US Congress – to do so.
So why is Netanyahu suddenly so understanding when the person who may be doing the negotiating with the Iranian leader is Trump?
Netanyahu’s critics will say it is hypocrisy; or that he is so deep in the president’s pocket that he cannot speak out against him on any matter; or that after boasting repeatedly that he was able to influence Trump to withdraw from the Iran deal and impose sanctions, to criticize him now would be to admit that this policy did not work out so well – and what candidate is going to make such an admission just a week before the elections?
But there is another explanation as well. Netanyahu trusts Trump and the people around Trump to a degree that he never trusted Obama or the people around him. Years of fighting with Obama over Iran, the settlements and the Palestinian diplomatic process took a toll – Netanyahu was never convinced that administration would not – in the popular parlance of the time – “throw it under the bus.”
Trump withdrew from the Iranian nuclear deal; Obama signed it. Trump imposed, and is continuing to impose, sanctions on Iran; Obama removed sanctions. Trump is openly talking about a possible meeting with Rouhani, Obama blindsided Israel (and Saudi Arabia) by directing secret negotiations and back-channels with the Iranians.
There is much less concern in the Prime Minister’s Office that this administration will disregard Israel’s concerns regarding Iran, as it felt the previous administration did.
But Netanyahu’s critics say Trump is so unpredictable. One day, he was hurling epithets at North Korea’s Kim Jong Un – the next day, he was sitting down with him cordially. One day, Trump could recognize Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal, and the next day he might sign a deal with Iran that is bad for Israel.
True, Trump is unpredictable. But his actions toward the Jewish state over the last three years have indicated not a hint of a man who would sell the country down the river. Quite the opposite.
And even – in the absolute darkest scenario – he would have an inclination to do so, he is surrounded by cabinet members and key advisers who would fight hard to keep that from happening: Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Advisor John Bolton and senior advisers such as Jared Kushner and Brian Hook.
There is a reason Netanyahu is not fighting Trump tooth and nail over Iran like he did Obama: Trump and his national security team have gained Netanyahu’s trust on this dossier – and on a number of other dossiers – to a degree Obama and his team never did.