By James Sorene
This article was originally published in The Telegraph.
For Israel’s Prime Minister, the big day has finally arrived. A meeting with a Republican President who claims to have a deep affection for Israel and who shares Benjamin Netanyahu’s worldview that Iranian aggression must be tackled and Jihadi terrorism defeated.
The Netanyahu entourage arrived on Tuesday as official White House guests at Blair House. In the last 24 hours they have had an insider’s view of an administration in turmoil after the resignation of Mike Flynn as National Security Advisor after just three weeks.
For Netanyahu this bizarre set of circumstances presents a major strategic opportunity when he meets the US President. With only a small team in place and a limited knowledge of the Middle East, Trump is a blank canvas that Netanyahu can paint with his personal view of the Middle East, no doubt sprinkled with some insights from Israeli intelligence.
On Iran, Netanyahu will praise Trump’s evolving approach. In an ironic twist the Israeli leader will agree that the nuclear deal should remain as the least worst option, but will press Trump to tighten its implementation. Recent US sanctions to punish Iranian missile testing were welcomed by Israel as well as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, but all share an increasing fear of Iran’s expanding regional power. Trump’s belligerent impulse will be to talk tough and promise more sanctions. The isolationist Trump will tell Israel and the Arab states that when it comes to containing and deterring Iran, the burden must be shared; the US can’t and won’t do it all alone, and has other priorities.
Netanyahu will explain to Trump that the real problem in the region is not lack of resolve by Arab State’s but an erosion of state authority and an inability to effectively govern their territory. Across the Middle East, ideologically charged, militarily ruthless non-state actors have stepped into the vacuum. ISIS has carved out chunks of Iraq and Syria, where it is being beaten back. But in Sinai, against Egypt, ISIS is winning. Trump wants to eradicate ISIS but has provided no detail about how that will be achieved or how the US will prevent new groups emerging in its place.
But for Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States it is Iran that represents the most immediate threat because of its success supplying and directing the military campaigns of some of the most dangerous groups in the region – Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon, Houthi rebels in Yemen and Shia militias in Iraq. It is in this arena that Netanyahu will push Trump and ask him pointedly, what is your strategy here?
When the conversation moves to the Palestinians, Netanyahu will explain Israel’s national security conundrum; Hamas in Gaza, ISIS affiliates in Sinai and the Golan. Hezbollah sitting on the Lebanese border with thousands of missiles aimed at Israel. The Israeli Prime Minister will state that he supports a two-state solution but with a Palestinian leadership lacking legitimacy, that flirts with extremists by glorifying terrorism, now is not the time for another weak state in the Middle East that could coopt Hamas or fall to ISIS.
Trump will likely accept the veracity of Netanyahu’s security assessment but herein lies the great unknown. What will Netanyahu say when Trump asks, what is your strategy here?
Israeli hardliners who oppose a Palestinian State, in any circumstances, believe Trump’s election has given them complete freedom to bin the two-state solution and any notion of giving away most of the West Bank in exchange for peace with the Palestinians. There is talk of new legislation to annex territory to keep up the momentum after the controversial Regulation law was enacted to retroactively legalise illegal settler outposts built on private Palestinian land. Netanyahu has been damaged by a lengthy corruption investigation and, needing support, has drifted on the hardline current, unwilling or unable to change direction.
But last week it was Trump who appeared to row back. In an interview with an Israeli newspaper he criticised recent Israeli announcements to expand settlements and said they are “not good for peace”. Before he left for Washington, Netanyahu warned his coalition partners that Trump wants to pursue a peace deal.
Far from creating comfort, Trump has pushed Netanyahu into a corner and he needs to make a choice. The riposte to his bleak security assessment could be that with a friendly US President and an unprecedented array of Arab allies in the region lined up to help, surely there is an opportunity to grasp.
If he asked the US to officially recognise Israel’s largest settlement blocs as a starting point to new negotiations, they may do it. A similar guarantee from President Bush led Israel to make its most generous offer ever to the Palestinians in 2008. Netanyahu understands that the status quo vis a vis the Palestinians is unsustainable, his time in office is limited, he wants to be remembered as a leader who made the big decisions and this could be the time to make one. As the Rabbis of the Talmud say, “if not now, when”.
James Sorene is CEO of BICOM.