Trump Kept Israel in the Dark over Iran Contacts – Like Obama

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was forced to swallow a bitter pill when he found out that President Donald Trump had embarked on back-channel contacts with Tehran for negotiations on an amended nucleal deal that would cover its ballistic missiles and other problematic issues. Israel only learned about the moves in progress from intelligence contacts in the Gulf states, just as it did in 2013, when Barack Obama embarked on a similar move.

Trump’s own comments a month ago almost gave the game away, (“They’re a much, much different group of leaders. And I hope at some point they’ll come to us and we’ll sit down.”), and Israel ought to have picked up on the comings and goings of Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah between Washington and Tehran, and Iranian Foreign Minister Muhamed Javad Zarif’s visit to Muscat in early July. Both ministers were lives wires in Obama’s drive for nuclear negotiations with Iran.

The shock of discovery left Israel’s government, military and intelligence leaders floundering. To cover the embarrassment, a senior official in Jerusalem told reporters tardily on July 31 that Israel had been assured there was no change in the tough US policy on Iran.

But being kept in the dark by his most steadfast ally caught Netanyahu at an awkward political and personal moment – and the state of Israel in an embarrassing military and strategic predicament, on several counts:

One: The Netanyahu government was struggling to quell popular complaints over its failure to substantially deploy the IDF for dealing with two perils: Iranian and Hizballah advances on Israel’s northern borders and rising Palestinian violence from the Gaza Strip. For want of an explanation, officials used a pretext: The damage US sanctions had inflicted on the Iranian economic was so extreme that the ayatollahs’ regime could barely survive, and so the threat to Israel’s border would evaporate of itself without direct IDF intervention. This pretext was intoned in the past week by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, fellow ministers and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gady Eisenkot.

It was left in tatters by Trump’s confirmation of DEBKAfile’s earlier disclosures that he is heading for a summit with Iran’s Hassan Rouhani and that secret informal contacts with Tehran were in motion.

Two: In any case, this pretext did not wash with the general public. The Prime Minister’s Likud party had for many months led opinion poll figures uncontested. But this week, the figure slipped by a couple of points, more steeply in the polls run privately by the parties. The defense minister’s “Yisrael Beiteini” hovers dangerously around the threshold figure.

Three: Israel’s leaders will face even harder questions after the Trump track with Tehran gets underway. Netanyahu rode to high popularity on the wings of the US president’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s national capital and the transfer of the US embassy from Tel Aviv in May. But Israelis will be less forgiving of the prime minister’s shortcomings if – and when – US concessions to Iran start coming to light.

Questions were already spilling out over Netanyahu’s frequent trips to Moscow and meetings with Vladimir Putin when he had long given Washington and face-to-face talks with Trump a miss.

Israelis have never fully trusted Washington since Barack Obama dumped their country to win the ayatollahs over and persuade them to sign a nuclear deal. They are now worried by his successor’s decision to deal with a regime dedicated to Israel’s destruction. The have just seen Iran and its proxies reaching their borders, without Israeli resistance, and are watching to see if their country’s interests are to be sacrificed further for another US rapprochement with Iran and an amended nuclear deal. For such a sacrifice, Israelis would make Netanyahu pay dear.

Four: In the last DEBKA Weekly, we asked: How Will Putin Repay Netanyahu for Playing Hard Ball against Iran in Syria? The answer is at hand: the Putin-Netanyahu honeymoon is over. The prime minister’s special relations with Trump may also be hanging by an Iranian thread. If that also snaps, the Israeli prime minister will be in big trouble at home.

Five: The war on Israel’s arch-enemy, the Islamic Republic of Iran, has been the flagship policy under which Netanyahu and his military and intelligence establishments sailed for more than a decade. Trump’s moves signal Israel’s leaders that their ship has never reached any port and the time has come to furl the flag. Netanyahu is left with three options:

  1. Initiate pro-active steps independently.
  2. Team up with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to fight Iran together. Israel held back from this course hitherto failing a nod from Washington.
  3. Continue adhering to almost complete military and strategic passivity as before.

If the prime minister had one lesson to learn from his failure to act in the face of Iran’s expansion into Syria and Hizballah’s intervention in the conflict, it is that doing nothing leads nowhere. It has resulted in the United States, Russia and other powers sidelining Israel in their policy calculations. Putin no longer takes Israel’s interests into account in Syria, and Trump is hewing his own path to Tehran, regardless of its enmity to Israel.

On Wednesday, Aug. 1, Netanyahu sounded as though he was ready to latch onto option 2. Addressing a graduation ceremony at Haifa port for naval ship’s captains, he said, in reference to the Yemeni Houthis missile attack on two Saudi supertankers, on their way to the Red Sea’s Strait of Mandeb: “I am convinced that an international coalition resolved to prevent this happening awaits Iran. And this coalition will include the State of Israel with its full military array.”

How believable is this threat? And what are Iran’s next moves likely to be? (Read a separate article in this issue)

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