Trump and Netanyahu Veer out of Sync on Iran

The dispute ongoing in the White House over the timeline for the US military exit from Syria is weighing heavily on Preside Donald Trump’s relations with Middle East powers – especially Israel. The president’s national security council and its head John Bolton are working hard to extend the timeline for implementing the president’s decision. Bolton is thus putting his own standing in the White House on the line. It is possible that Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan had this in mind, when he snubbed Bolton by refusing to receive him on Monday, hoping to pin this “failure” on the visiting the security adviser and so cut short his career.

Bolton’s talks with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu were not particularly fruitful either, although they shared common ground on Syria. However, the American visitor could not say for sure how far the Trump administration would back Israel’s operations against Iranian targets in Syria; nor could he offer a timeline for the US exit. For now, Bolton said, it was being delayed until the Turkish military threat on the Syrian Kurds was resolved. But an indefinite stay was not contemplated.

The main complicating factor now is the widening gap between President Trump and PM Netanyahu for the handling of the Iranian presence in Syria and Iraq. For Netanyahu, evicting Iran’s presence from Syria is the crux of his military and diplomatic strategy. Trump is at odds with this perception. He wants to keep the two campaigns separate. The war on Iran should be conducted through economic and diplomatic measures for bringing the ayatollahs regime inside Iran under pressure and forced to return to the negotiating table, he believes. Iran’s intervention in Syria, Iraq and other Middle East lands like Yemen should be set aside as part of America’s overall policy for those countries. In a word, the US president does not believe that the campaign against Iran will be decided on the battlefields of Syria, Iraq or Yemen, and is against getting US armed forces involved in those faraway arenas. For him, the preferred option is to reach out for local understandings with Tehran, or even military cooperation in limited arenas, quite separately from the comprehensive push against the Islamic regime in Tehran.

Netanyahu is diametrically opposed to Trump view, although, for obvious reasons, he never says so in public. He sees grave peril rising on Israel’s doorstep which is embodied in Iran’s ongoing recruitment and training of tens of thousands of Shiite soldiers in Iraq and Syria – including even Syrian Sunni groups – under Tehran’s direct or indirect command. Failing action by the US and Israel to crush this peril, Netanyahu believes that the wider contest against the regime in Tehran will not bring the results desired by the US president.

DEBKA Weekly’s sources report that Trump-Netanyahu dissonance on Iran came to the fore in the first week of December over the IDF’s Northern Shield operation for destroying Hizballah’s cross-border tunnels. This operation is incidentally still ongoing far from the news headlines, It was launched in consequence of – and the day after – US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Netanyahu met in Brussels on Dec. 3.

For Trump, this was a small-scale, localized operation. He firmly resisted all Israel’s efforts to deal with the wider issue of the pact between Lebanese President Michel Aoun and Hizballah’s Hassan Nasrallah, although it meant that the Lebanese national army was in the pocket of Iran’s unfettered Lebanese proxy along with US-supplied arms, and that Beirut’s banks paid no penalties for helping Tehran beat US sanctions.

The prime minister’s assertion on Jan. 3 – that the US would take care of the economic war on Tehran, leaving the military side to Israel – was frowned on by Trump. He directed Bolton to ask Netanyahu to clarify exactly what he meant.

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