Netanyahu’s road map for Iran and Donald Trump

US President Donald Trump has announced that, in principle, he would agree to meet Iran’s President Rouhani, while the Iranians are playing it tough for now.

Can he win again? Prime Minister and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Can he win again? Prime Minister and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Benjamin Netanyahu is arguably Israel’s most statesman-like leader since David Ben-Gurion, but the prime minister of Israel also must be a juggler adept at keeping several balls in the air at the same time. As The New York Times wrote, “War in the Middle East has more than one front, both militarily and diplomatically.”
First there is the US, Israel’s only real ally. Then there is the new tenant in the Middle East, Russia. But a special place, of course, is reserved for Iran and its aggressive threats which – as Prime Minister Netanyahu again revealed only last week – was conducting ongoing nuclear activities in violation of its agreements. And then there are Iran’s Shi’ite and other proxies with which Israel conducts ongoing battles on different fronts.
Unlike the past, however, when military operations often brought about unintentional diplomatic developments, Israel’s military and diplomatic activities are now usually a coherent whole that reflect the overall worldview of the government. These encompass not only issues that directly relate to Israel or its neighbors but also to global developments and their potential direct or indirect impacts. Recent military actions against the Iranians and their proxies in Syria, and reportedly in other places as well, should be seen in this light.
These events have, among other things, reopened the argument about Israel’s traditional policy of “ambiguity.” While this policy has usually served important Israeli interests (and still does most of the time), there are also exceptions when shedding the mantle of secrecy may have advantages, both diplomatically and militarily. Today there are strategic thinkers, though a minority, who believe even with regard to the nuclear issue, ambiguity should be reconsidered.
Iran’s military and hegemonic designs against Israel will, of necessity, continue to be the main focus of Netanyahu in the coming months and years. Thus, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s “surprise” dropping-in at the G7 summit in Biarritz, France, and its possible repercussions, whether for good or evil, will be very much on Netanyahu’s agenda.
It might sometimes seem that the Europeans, and France in particular, are double-dealing on the matter of Iran. French President Emmanuel Macron has tried to reassure the US that the principles he raised in his speech to the US Congress – mainly preventing Iran from attaining nuclear weapons, restricting the development of ballistic missiles and ending its subversive activities in the Middle East – should apply to any new agreement with the Islamic Republic. However, these assurances have been undermined by the reported French initiative to establish a $15 billion line of credit for Iran.

US PRESIDENT Donald Trump has announced that, in principle, he would agree to meet Iran’s President Rouhani, while the Iranians are playing it tough for now. If a meeting will take place, much will depend on the consistency of President Trump’s approach to the Iranian issue, as well as on the solidarity between Europe and the US. It was Trump’s sanctions policy that forced Iran to reassess its previous stance, and indeed, to send its Foreign Minister to Biarritz. But as Dennis Ross wrote in a joint article in The Washington Post, at the end of the day, sanctions alone are not effective without international pressure that is also backed by a credible force.
Another topic that Netanyahu will have to address in coming months and perhaps years is President Trump’s “Deal of the Century.” The prime minister will also need to deal with the Palestinian issue and its direct implications, not only on Israel, the Palestinians and the Middle East, but also for Israel’s relations with the US. In a recent column, New York Times senior political correspondent Tom Friedman blamed all sides equally – the various US administrations, the American-Israeli Left, the Palestinians, but mainly the Israeli government – for the ongoing deadlock in the peace process. Unlike others, though, Friedman was honest enough to state “unequivocally” that the real purpose of the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement and its supporters on the American left and in Congress, is to eliminate the State of Israel and not to oppose “occupation or settlements”.
But Friedman, like other commentators, did not mention the two real reasons for the lack of movement on peace, namely the unchanged position of the Palestinians and their leaders’ refusal to recognize the right of the Jewish people to a state. That means that from their perspective, any agreement to settle the conflict with Israel would be temporary at best. The other reason is that the current chaotic situation in a Middle East is dominated by Islamic forces committed to wiping the Jewish state off the face of the Earth. This justifies Netanyahu’s position that this is not the time to decide on a final formulation, one way or another, to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, whether by the “two-state” solution or by the “one-state” solution.
Though the “status quo” is not perfect, its alternatives at this time would be worse. Netanyahu’s main concern is security – and his largely consensual declaration that the strategic Jordan Valley and the northern part of the Dead Sea will be incorporated into the State of Israel (which Jordan will publicly condemn but privately applaud) reflects his pragmatic security-based approach.
The writer is a former Israeli ambassador to the United States.