US President Donald Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting on July 18, 2018, at the White House in Washington, DC. In a file photo taken on May 2, 2018, a handout picture provided by the Iranian presidency shows President Hassan Rouhani giving a speech on Iranian TV in Tehran. Photo: AFP and Iranian Presidency / Nicholas Kamm and Handout
The possibility of a meeting between US President Donald Trump, left, and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani worries the Netanyahu government, as it could affect the election next month. File photos: AFP and Iranian Presidency / Nicholas Kamm and Handout / 2018

The positive reception by US President Donald Trump to a potential meeting with his Iranian counterpart, floated at the G7 earlier this week, is causing consternation back in Israel that pressure on its chief foe could ease at a critical moment.

Until recently, Israel was confident it enjoyed full backing from the United States in its regional confrontation with Iran, which in recent days has manifested in the form of strikes against Iranian allies from Lebanon to Iraq and Syria.  

President Trump, viewing Tehran as an enemy, unilaterally exited the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers in May 2018. One year later, National Security Adviser John Bolton announced the US was beefing up its military presence in the Persian Gulf by sending over nuclear-capable B-52 bombers, fighter jets, an aircraft carrier, and additional troops. The administration even came perilously close, Trump has admitted, to launching airstrikes against Iran after a US military surveillance drone was shot down in June.

But Trump’s posture towards Iran seems to have altered dramatically in recent days.

During the G7 meeting, Emmanuel Macron arranged to fly in Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to the site of the summit at Biarritz in France, a move Trump said the French leader had cleared with him ahead of time. Macron announced he was attempting to set up a Rouhani-Trump summit. He sounded upbeat and said he believed a meeting could be arranged within a few weeks.

Although Trump did not meet directly with Zarif, Macron mediated between the two. The change in Trump’s statements was dramatic and immediate. The US leader indicated a willingness to meet with Rouhani. Trump also said he was “not looking for leadership change” in Iran and evinced he was “willing to help relieve Iran’s economic troubles” by providing them with a letter of credit – an about-face from the espoused policies of the administration.

Moreover, Trump said the standards of living forced on Iranians due to sanctions are unacceptable. The sum of these statements signals a break with the preferred Israeli policy of isolating Iran through sanctions until they agree to a more one-sided deal or suffer regime change.

Even an unsuccessful summit of the kind held between Trump and Kim Jong-un could relieve pressure on Iran at a crucial time, an Israeli official told Asia Times.

“Even if the summit were to fail, it would make it harder to fight Iran,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

There are other indications that the Trump administration is seeking a policy of de-escalation with Iran.

According to a Wall Street Journal report, the US is seeking talks with the pro-Iranian Houthi rebels in Yemen in an effort to end the civil war there. In addition, the Pentagon expressed dissatisfaction with recent Israeli attacks in Iraq, which they believe is undermining the American ability to work productively with Baghdad.

Not so fast

Though concerned that American policy is turning, Israel can take comfort in two factors.

First, the US president is erratic and has often made off-the-cuff statements which do not necessarily express genuine policy priorities.

His foreign policy on both China and North Korea has veered wildly between confrontation and undue flattery. The comments about rapprochement with Iran came the same week which saw Trump threaten to nuke tornadoes, buy Greenland, accuse American Jews of dual loyalty and make other bizarre statements. The Israeli government is hoping that this is simply another instance of his unguarded verbiage.

Netanyahu can also take comfort in the fact that the major foreign policy decision-makers aside from Trump will temper rapprochement feelers. In particular, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser Bolton have been the architects of an aggressively anti-Iranian line.

In an interview with Radio Free Europe on Tuesday, Bolton denied there was a change of policy afoot. 

“Talking with [Iran] does not imply for President Trump changing your position and the idea that Iran would receive some tangible economic benefit merely for stopping doing things it shouldn’t have been in the first place is just a nonstarter,” he said. 

However, there are also signs the Pompeo and Bolton could be sidelined.

Pompeo was notably absent from the G7 summit and was almost certainly not consulted regarding an about-face on policy toward Iran. In addition, there are persistent rumors that Bolton is headed for the exit and will be gone by October.

Israel is currently benefiting from the unwillingness of Iran’s hardliners to engage with the US leader.

One senior Israeli official told Barak Ravid of Axios that Trump’s willingness to sit with Iranian leaders is long-standing and, therefore, “we were very lucky that until now the Iranians rejected all of Trump’s proposals for talks.”

Elections loom

The United States has traditionally backed Israel at moments of conflict escalation. Trump and Netanyahu, in particular, have enjoyed a relationship of almost unparalleled closeness politically and strategically. The two have acted with coordination to the extent that it is hard to think of a previous policy issue on which they evinced serious differences.

The seemingly unconditional backing Trump has provided to Israeli policy has bolstered the ability of the Jewish state to attack with impunity throughout the region and foil Iran’s plans. The mere fact that Trump is signaling a policy of rapprochement as Israel is facing conflict on all sides, could be viewed as a betrayal from the Israeli perspective.

In stark contrast to the manner in which he handled American-Iranian rapprochement under Obama, the Netanyahu government is not able to publicly criticize Trump due to their close political affiliation. Israeli politicians and officials are tight-lipped over the entire affair. However, there is no doubt that this turn of events is sending shock waves throughout the Israeli defense and security establishment.

From a domestic political perspective, further rapprochement between Iran and the US could be a serious blow for Netanyahu’s bid for reelection. The prime minister has visibly tied his fortunes to the erratic Trump presidency.

So far, this has paid off handsomely for Netanyahu. Trump’s decision to back away from the Iran deal, move the US embassy to Jerusalem, and recognize Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights have been significant political victories for the Likud leader.

However, the electoral asset could quickly turn into a drag on Bibi’s bid for office. Netanyahu has run his campaign based on his statesmanlike image and diplomatic accomplishments. Pictures of the prime minister with Trump adorn prominent locations throughout the country, including the Likud headquarters. He also benefits from his momentum as the incumbent.

If a summit with Iran were to be announced before the Israeli elections on September 19, the news risks undermining one of the main messages of the campaign and the most basic rationale for his continued reign: Trump.

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