Just ahead of this week’s elections in Israel, two personnel moves within the Trump administration raised concerns about possible effects of those developments on the “bromance” between President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
First came the surprise announcement by Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s special envoy to the Middle East, that he would leave his position shortly after the Israeli election and the release of Trump’s much-ballyhooed and long-awaited Middle East peace plan. Then came the president’s firing of his national security advisor, John Bolton.
Because of Bolton’s history of stalwart support of the Jewish state, and the anticipated loss of what is pretty universally seen as Greenblatt’s unabashed tilt toward Israel in his work, there is concern that the absence of those voices within the administration could open the door to new diplomatic approaches – particularly with respect to Iran – that could prove uncomfortable for Netanyahu.
With Bolton and his hard line views on Iran gone, Trump’s apparent interest in exploring the easing sanctions on Iran in order to entice Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to a meeting “without preconditions” is something that almost certainly gives Netanyahu pause. But Netanyahu knows how dangerous it would be to speak publicly against any move by Trump and risk invoking presidential ire. Meanwhile, Trump was uncharacteristically guarded about his plans for Iran, saying only that “we’ll see what happens.” And then he tweeted his “locked and loaded” threat over the weekend.
There is much uncertainty about where Trump will go with Iran. But if he pursues engagement efforts, there is concern that he lacks the discipline or the patience to work through a comprehensive negotiation, and that he will simply be charmed by the glamour of meeting with a sworn enemy (as he was with Kim Jong Un of North Korea) and focus only on the PR splash without advancing the goal of Iranian denuclearization.
So what can Netanyahu do? Probably not much.
The existential threat of Iran to the safety and security of the State of Israel has long been Netanyahu’s primary focus, and until now he has felt free to challenge any nation or leader that sought to reach a compromise with Iran’s nuclear ambitions and efforts. But things are different with Trump. As observed by Chemi Shalev in Haaretz, “In many ways, Netanyahu is now a hostage of the high expectations he himself created. In exchange for Trump’s historic gestures of moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing Israeli sovereignty in the Golan, Netanyahu glorified the U.S. president and came close to deifying him.” And that deification comes at a very steep price, since “with Trump, even the slightest tensions – never mind the distinct possibility that he could blow his top on any given day – will be seen both as a major development and as Netanyahu’s personal failure.”
Departing advisors. Cracks of daylight. Unpredictable players. A possible new Iran deal. Friends of Israel have reasons to be concerned.