The nuclear pact with Iran, a potential Israeli strike on Iranian and Hizballah forces in Syria and/or Lebanon and an Israeli-Palestinian peace talks scenario, are the obvious topics for the talks Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is due at hold with President Donald Trump at the White House next Monday, March 5.
But, for now, Washington has put the issue of the nuclear pact with Iran on a back burner while the Europeans work on a compromise formula. They are taxed with meeting Trump’s demand for better terms by the next deadline in May, or else he will withhold certification, while also satisfying Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who refuses to contemplate any changes at all.
The Palestinian issue is not on any burner, but in deep freeze. An attempt at a thaw may be ventured in the course of the US president’s full Middle East agenda in the coming weeks. Two more allies will be visiting the White House – Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman in mid-March and UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin-Zayed al-Nahyan in early April. (The rival of these two Gulf allies, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim Hamad al-Thani is also due in April, when US diplomats will try to resolve their feud)
In May, the US moves its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
These events press forward amid a certain amount of turmoil since Tuesday, Feb. 27, when Trump’s on-in-law Jared Kushner, who leads the Israeli-Palestinian file, had his security clearance downgraded in a ruling by the president’s chief of staff John Kelly.
It is understood in Jerusalem that Kushner’s circle of backers in the White House is shrinking under the pressure for him to step back from some of his responsibilities as a senior adviser to the president.
This impression was confirmed by a comment from UN Ambassador Nikki Haley on Feb. 22. She said that negotiators Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt are “still going back and forth” and “They’re coming up with a plan” that “won’t be loved by either side and it won’t be hated by either side.” On Feb. 28, the Washington Post claimed that “Israel tried to figure out ways to manipulate Jared Kushner.”
There is a sense that Trump is toning down his enthusiasm for supporting Israel so long as prime minister Netanyahu is embroiled in police investigations. The downgrading of Kushner’s security clearance also cuts into the project he leads with Greenblatt and US Ambassador David Friedman for promoting an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. This presents Netanyahu with a quandary over how much confidential intelligence he may share.
All these complications leave the Trump-Netanyahu meeting with their most serious topic of discussion, which is: What form should Israeli military action take in the face of the deepening Iranian and Hizballah military presence in Syria and hostile buildup in Lebanon?
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources point to a good example of US and Israel operating in sync last month, when US forces thrashed Russian, Iranian and Syrian forces in eastern Syria on Feb. 7, and the Israeli air force struck a dozen Syrian and Iranian targets three days later. The Trump administration appears to be pondering taking advantage of a new UN report, which confirms the Assad regime used chemical weapons against civilians in Eastern Ghouta, to hit Syrian regime targets with another round of punitive strikes. Last April, reacting to the same crime, an American cruise missile barrage smashed into a Syrian air base. If Washington decides on another punitive operation in Syria, Israel may again take the opportunity of hitting Iranian and Hizballah targets in Syria – even at the risk of their retaliating against civilian targets on its home ground.