Israel Pulse

How Netanyahu exploits US-Iran tensions

Article Summary
For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the low-level US-Iran tensions are a great opportunity to bolster his security image and to divert public attention from his legal imbroglio.

His contribution to the 2018 US withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran is considered one of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's greatest achievements. His campaign against the Iranian threat combined with a close alliance with US President Donald Trump have yielded enormous political capital for Netanyahu. However, one year after the signing of the agreement, the sanctions policy he championed has failed to bring Iran to its knees. On the contrary, Tehran announced on June 17 that it would quadruple the pace of its low-grade enriched uranium production and pass the 300-kilogram limit set by the nuclear deal with world powers.

Thus, while the Iranians are upping the ante vis-à-vis Trump, the American president — Netanyahu’s ace in the deck — is seeking an escape hatch from a clash with Tehran. And while Netanyahu was posing for photos in the Jordan Valley with US national security adviser John Bolton June 23, Trump was voicing reservations about his hawkish, war-mongering aide and condemning people “who want to drag us into war.” In fact, the only campaign in which Trump is interested from now until November 2020 is the one for the presidential election. The New York Times reported that veteran Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson was the one who persuaded the president to abort the strike on Iranian targets and bring the bombers home. Tucker reportedly told Trump that instead of resulting in a regime change in Tehran, as Bolton hoped, a new war in the Middle East would bring about regime change in Washington.

Arab leaders are aware of Trump’s focus. The heads of the Arab League states were in no rush to accept the invitation to the economic workshop the president initiated in Bahrain. While they were sending low to mid-level officials to discuss aid to the Palestinians, their finance ministers headed to Cairo to discuss the same issue. The Arab leaders refused to cooperate with the US attempt to mask the dead end in its pro-Israel policy and pressure on the Palestinian Authority. Thus, in addition to Netanyahu’s vain attempts to isolate the Palestinians and develop a public diplomatic bypass with the Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, Netanyahu has also failed to bring Iran to its knees. Contrary to remarks by US Ambassador David Friedman in a June 8 New York Times interview, the Palestinians do “have a veto on progress.”

But along with failing to isolate or bypass the Palestinians, Netanyahu failed on another level. The third side of Netanyahu’s failure trifecta consists of the US proposal to re-open a corridor between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The “safe passage” initiative was originally part of the 1993 Oslo Accord, but since Hamas took over Gaza in 2007, Israel has made separating Gaza from the West Bank a central element of its policy. And here comes Trump proposing to build a Palestinian bridge in the heart of sovereign Israeli territory. The “safe passage” idea does not appear to preclude continued Hamas control of Gaza and would therefore open the gates to those refuting Israel’s right to exist and allow them to cross into Jerusalem and the West Bank.

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Hamas will not come alone. The Sunni organization is tightening its relations with the ayatollahs. On June 16, about a week before the Bahrain meeting, a Hamas delegation headed by the movement’s deputy chief Salah al-Arouri landed in Tehran and met with Iranian Defense Minister Mohammad Alawi. A communique issued after the visit read, “The sides reiterated the need to maintain ties in order to deal with the challenges and dangers stemming from the US administration’s obstinacy in promoting the ‘deal of the century,’ which the Palestinian people have rejected unanimously.”

Netanyahu’s apparent insouciance over the danger of opening up the West Bank to Hamas, an organization he has compared to the Nazis, stems from his skepticism about Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian deal and from his proven ability to lead its instigator astray. See, for example, the move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and seeming support for Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank.

On one hand, Netanyahu, like Trump, has no interest in a photo op against the backdrop of battlefield scenes and cemeteries. On the other, Netanyahu, who is also Israel's defense minister, does have a keen interest in keeping the Iranian threat in the headlines, at least until the Sept. 17 elections — just as long as the media does not delve into the corruption scandal involving him and his wife. As far as he’s concerned, the Iranians or their proxies can bomb a Japanese oil tanker in the Gulf of Hormuz every day and intercept a US drone every two as long as Trump does not suddenly include Iran’s spiritual leader Ali Khamenei on his Christmas list, as he did with North Korea's Kim Jong-Un, whose fingers have long been poised over the nuclear button.

“Low intensity conflict,” as military analysts describe this sort of engagement, is ideal for the prime minister of Israel, but it is hardly a desirable situation for the citizens. Intensifying the Iran boycott could result in escalation and all-out war.

When Trump aborts a military strike in the Middle East based on the advice of a television news anchor, "low intensity" could turn in the blink of an eye into a hail of Hezbollah missiles and Hamas rockets on Israel’s cities. When Netanyahu is a caretaker probationary leader fighting for his personal freedom against the threat of prison time, even a small spark could ignite a major fire.

Senior Israeli defense officials warned on June 20 that they are unprepared to deal with mass casualties of a multi-front war. This would be a good time to recall what Netanyahu as head of the parliamentary opposition said in 2008 about then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was discussing a peace deal with the Palestinians. “This is a man up to his neck in investigations and he does not have a public and moral mandate to make such fateful decisions in the State of Israel. There is concern, I have to say, real and not unfounded, that [such a prime minister] will make decisions based on the personal interest of his political survival and not on the basis of national interest,” Netanyahu said.

When Ehud Barak was preparing for elections as he served as prime minister in 2001, Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein ruled that he did not have a mandate to continue peace talks with the Palestinians. The same must hold doubly true regarding a mandate for war.

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Found in: us-israel relations, israeli elections, israeli-palestinian conflict, us middle east policy, benjamin netanyahu, donald trump

Akiva Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. His most recent book (with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements, was on the best-seller list in Israel and has been translated into English, French, German and Arabic.

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