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A US-Iran deal may play a role in Israel’s election and Netanyahu’s future

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When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heard that President Donald Trump said he was open to meeting with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, and that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Jawad Zarif was in Biarritz, France, during the Group of 7 (G-7) meetings, Netanyahu reportedly panicked. Terrified that President Trump would meet with Zarif, he frantically tried to reach Trump.

Netanyahu was unsuccessful — perhaps because Trump deliberately avoided speaking to him — but, in any event, Trump did not meet with Zarif.

That, however, was far from the end of the story. Trump has made clear that he hopes to meet with Iran’s president, presumably to start a dialogue similar to that which he has conducted with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. And that puts Netanyahu in a serious bind.

The Israeli leader long has presented himself to Israel’s electorate as the only person capable of providing for Israel’s security, especially against Iran. His was the loudest voice opposing the consummation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known colloquially as the Iran nuclear deal, and was the first to applaud Trump’s withdrawal from that agreement. 

Netanyahu now finds that his good friend Trump may be willing to strike a “better” deal with Iran, initially by meeting with Rouhani on the margins of the upcoming United Nations General Assembly session.

The timing of such a meeting could not be worse from Netanyahu’s perspective. The General Assembly’s session is scheduled to open Sept. 17 — and that is the day of Israel’s latest general election. Should the White House announce that a meeting will take place on or shortly after that date, it could seriously undermine Netanyahu’s credibility as a bulwark of Israeli security and seriously damage his prospects in an election whose outcome already is seen to be even more uncertain than was the country’s election in April.

Of course, there may never be a Trump-Rouhani meeting. Rouhani has conditioned any interaction with Trump on the lifting of U.S. sanctions against Iran, which Trump is unlikely to touch. For his part, as he made clear at the G-7 Summit, Trump likes to keep everyone guessing about his next steps. After all, he not only met with Kim after calling him “little rocket man” and threatening North Korea’s annihilation, he walked out of a second meeting with the North Korean — but now calls him a friend and even said that his wife likes Kim, although she never met him. 

That Trump changes his mind frequently is virtually a given; no meeting, however many times it is confirmed, is a certainty. Just ask the Queen of Denmark

Nevertheless, Washington and Tehran already may be engaged in off-the-record discussions to pave the way for a summit between Trump and Rouhani. Netanyahu cannot but worry. Unless, of course, he has his own deal in mind.

There has been some speculation in Israel that Netanyahu may be willing to go along with a Trump-Rouhani bargain of some sort if Trump signals his readiness to recognize Israel’s partial annexation of the West Bank. Netanyahu has been angling for a partial annexation for some time, in order to shore up support with the settlers there, many of whom, remarkably, view him as too soft on the Palestinians. Trump’s granting Netanyahu a green light to announce annexation, coming after American recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights and moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, could guarantee Netanyahu the settlers’ support and determine the outcome of the election in his favor.

But the Israeli leader faces a serious dilemma: No one believes that the Palestinians are an existential threat to Israel; Netanyahu himself makes no such claim. But Israelis, and many others, recognize that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose such a threat. Indeed, even a deal with Trump that did not open a door to a nuclearized Iran — but one that, at a minimum, would economically empower the Islamic Republic — would pose a far greater threat to Israel than anything the Palestinians could marshal. 

Would Netanyahu be willing to risk Israel’s long-term security by agreeing to a deal that would enable him to announce an annexation plan that would bring him an electoral victory in September? 

That the question can even be posed tells much about the man who has eclipsed David Ben Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister but whose character pales before that of Israel’s founding father.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags Benjamin Netanyahu Donald Trump Hassan Rouhani Iran nuclear program Israel Kim Jong Un United Nations General Assembly US-Iran relations West Bank

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