Why Trump’s UN speech should worry Netanyahu

For Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump is the be-all and end-all of Israel’s security.

al-monitor US President Donald Trump addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly meeting at UN headquarters, New York, Sept. 25, 2018. Photo by REUTERS/Carlo Allegri.

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us-israel relations, unga, sergey lavrov, security, nuclear talks, iranian-israeli conflict, donald trump, benjamin netanyahu

Sep 27, 2018

Conspiracy buffs will subscribe to the theory that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was the one who crafted US President Donald Trump’s Sept. 25 speech to the UN general Assembly. Trump announced that he would not permit a regime that threatens Israel’s annihilation to obtain nuclear weapons; he promised tighter sanctions on Iran and demanded that Iran be kicked out of Syria. He also patted himself on the back for recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and didn’t even mention Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and the settlements it built there.

Indeed, the speech was surely a source of great pride and satisfaction for Netanyahu, who is also Israel’s foreign minister. Netanyahu played a leading role in Trump’s decision earlier this year to withdraw from the world powers’ nuclear agreement with Iran. In his May speech announcing the unilateral move, the president said he had formed his decision after seeing the material Israel had stolen from Iran’s nuclear archives. Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which had been gathering dust in Congress file folders for years, was carried out on Netanyahu’s watch, too. The two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has evaporated and the settlers are once again cheering Netanyahu for this disappearing trick.

This is the picture that Netanyahu and many Israeli media outlets are selling the Israeli public. However, the view from the Middle Eastern gallery is far less rosy. Israel is paying a heavy strategic price for the strong alliance that Netanyahu has forged with Trump against Iran. The US withdrawal from the hard-won deal set off a crisis of trust between the United States and its three closest allies — France, Germany and the United Kingdom. By walking away from the deal, Trump freed Russia from the weight of international sanctions against Iran and turned the two countries (Russia and Iran) into allies divvying up the loot in Syria.

We will never know whether the loopholes in the P5+1 nuclear agreement with Iran would have enabled the Iranians to develop nuclear weapons, as Netanyahu claimed. On the other hand, we do know that the US walkout set off a conventional arms race on Israel’s borders unprecedented since Cold War days. A troubling indication for Israel in this regard is Moscow's decision announced Sept. 24 to supply the Syrians with advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles and tracking and jamming equipment against satellite navigation, radar systems and jet fighter communications. On Sept. 22, Lebanon’s Al-Mayadeen TV offered another worrisome indication of trouble when it reported Russia’s intention to seal off the air space over Syria’s territorial waters.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the S-300 supply was meant to “cool down the 'hot heads' and keep them from ill-conceived actions threatening our troops.” He was apparently referring to the Sept. 17 downing of a Russian military reconnaissance aircraft and the killing of 15 crew members off the coast of Syria (by Syrian defense systems reacting to an earlier aerial attack, allegedly by Israel). Shoigu said Russia and Syria had completed the S-300 deal in 2013, but it was suspended at Israel’s request. “The situation has changed, and it's not our fault,” he added.

Strategic ties between states with shared interests do not shift overnight over an operational error. The state of Israeli-Russian relations changed when Russian President Vladimir Putin restored Russia to its role of a central actor in the Middle East at the same time that Netanyahu partnered with Trump in the clash with Iran.

A few weeks before Trump declared the withdrawal from the Iran deal, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced that he and his Chinese colleague Wang Yi had agreed to block any US attempt to sabotage the nuclear deal anchored in a UN Security Council resolution.

In addition to undermining the nuclear deal, of which Russia was one of the sponsors, Netanyahu also pushed Russia and the European Union out of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating arena. The prime minister reacted dismissively to an invitation by Putin to meet in Moscow in October 2016 with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, instead of joining forces with Trump to further undermine the frail standing of the Palestinian Authority.

Highlighting his frequent Kremlin visits, Netanyahu has tried to convince folks of his exceptional diplomatic skills. Indeed, many Israelis view the prime minister as a genius who manages to tango at the same time with all the world’s major leaders. A paper published earlier this year by the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya indicates that such acrobatics are not feasible. The think tank’s researchers note that over the past two years Russia has been promoting arms deals, some of highly advanced weapons, to Arab states bordering the Mediterranean, Red Sea and Persian Gulf. Russia is also deeply involved in the Syrian and Iranian arenas, with Russia-Iran arms deals (at different negotiation stages) estimated at $10 billion, according to the study.

The researchers point out that supplying arms to these states provides Russia with economic benefits and diplomatic influence, helping it establish itself as a global power. These deals could also enable Russia to deploy forces in the countries to which it sells advanced systems, and even to go as far as setting up military bases in places like Egypt, Sudan and Persian Gulf states. Russia’s military involvement with a growing number of countries in the Middle East, the experts argue, is expected to have implications for US freedom of movement on land, air and sea.

The pat on the back that Trump gave himself while standing on the UN podium generated laughter in the General Assembly hall. Trump’s clear helplessness in view of the tightening Russian-Iranian-Shiite axis in the Middle East is not funny by any means. The mistake made by the prime minister of Israel, who has decided to prop up his foreign and defense policy on the shoulders of this irresponsible lightweight, will end in tears.

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