by Ari Lieberman
A refreshing departure from the Obama days.
President Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel are slated to meet on Wednesday in their first official state meeting. The two leaders are personal friends and have known each other for some time. Certainly the dynamic of the rapport is far different than the toxic environment that characterized the Obama -Netanyahu relationship. Indeed, the fact that Trump sought this meeting so soon after the inauguration demonstrates with utmost clarity that he places a high premium on the U.S.-Israel alliance and seeks to reset ties so frayed after eight deleterious years of Obama.
Aside from their personal friendship, the two leaders see eye-to-eye on many matters of national and international import. One of Trump’s key campaign promises was the construction of a wall that would safeguard America’s southern border. On a number of occasions, Trump cited Israel as an example of a nation that successfully protected its citizens from terrorists and illegal infiltrators through the construction of sophisticated barriers along its vulnerable frontiers. No doubt he will be seeking Israeli know-how and drawing on the Israeli experience when embarking on his ambitious wall project along the Mexican border.
Unlike Obama, who attempted to undercut Israel at every turn, Trump sees Israel as a key strategic ally with shared moral and ethical values in a dangerous region devoid of democratic principles. The two leaders are set to coordinate their strategies to meet a plethora of daunting challenges.
The primary challenge facing both Israel and the West is the Islamic Republic of Iran and the mullahs will almost certainly be at the top of the agenda when the two leaders meet. With its illicit ballistic missile program, interference with maritime traffic, state sponsorship of international terrorism, support for anti-Western proxy armies, toxic rhetoric and imperialistic designs, Iran has established itself as the premier enemy of the West and a malign regional influence. But it is its rogue nuclear program above all else that renders the Islamic Republic a clear and present danger.
Technically, Iran’s nuclear program is constrained by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or the so-called Iran deal. The deal was haphazardly orchestrated and spearheaded by Obama in a desperate bid to establish some form of foreign policy legacy. Instead, the JCPOA with its limitless loopholes and secret side deals – all benefiting the mullahs – rendered the world a much more dangerous place and left Trump to inherit Obama’s mafia debts.
The JCPOA’s international dimensions and involvement of the P5+1 renders the option of simply tearing up the deal imprudent. But the U.S. can insist on modifications aimed at ensuring more transparency and establishing better mechanisms for verification. For example, Iran’s opaque facility at Parchin, where it conducts its most highly secretive nuclear experiments, remains off limits to inspectors. Instead, the Iranians are permitted to gather and hand over their own soil samples for inspection. That’s like placing Lance Armstrong guardian of his own urine sample. It is simply ludicrous and this provision needs to be changed to allow unfettered access to all sites where Iran conducts nuclear-related activities. In addition, another provision in the JCPOA allows the Iranians to have nearly a month’s advance notice before a site can be inspected allowing the mullahs sufficient time to remove evidence of malfeasance. Clearly, this provision must be re-worked as well.
The likelihood of Iran agreeing to these and other changes is slim which means that confrontation with the Islamic Republic is inevitable. The only question is whether to confront the aggression now, while Iran is not nuclear capable or later when it acquires a nuclear weapon.
Ever since the execution of the JCPOA, the mullahs have been testing the limits of U.S. patience. Obama overlooked all Iranian transgressions – including the kidnapping of 10 U.S. Navy personnel – and allowed America to endure humiliation after humiliation at the hands of a third rate power. This naturally lowered America’s credibility and prestige in the eyes of its allies and enemies alike. Clearly, Trump and Netanyahu will formulate a blueprint to coordinate a robust strategy to combat the Iranian malignancy and unlike Obama, this blueprint leaves the military option on the table.
Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria and hostility that Israel faces at the United Nations on a daily basis will also be high on the agenda. Obama’s parting shot at Israel was United Nations Security Council resolution 2334, a vile and mendacious resolution that views the Israeli presence in its ancestral lands as a “flagrant violation of international law.”
Both Trump and Netanyahu view the UN as a flawed body where anti-Western schemes are hatched by third world despots. But the U.S. wields considerable influence at the UN because it contributes nearly ¼ of its budget. The U.S. taxpayer dollar would be more useful if allocated elsewhere and a tug at the UN purse strings would be sufficient to jolt some sense into that hijacked body and steer it back on course. A UNSC resolution reversing resolution 2334 or at least removing its most odious provisions would be a good start. The Trump administration’s recent blocking of a Palestinian official to be the UN’s envoy to Libya demonstrates the commitment the new administration has toward redressing some of the more egregious UN practices.
As for the so-called settlements, Trump has publicly stated that he does not view them as obstacles to peace but qualified his position somewhat when he noted that they are not helpful either. That relatively benign viewpoint represents a refreshing break from the past when toxic, anti-Israel vitriol flowed from the White House whenever a resident of Judea and Samaria constructed an additional bathroom.
Netanyahu will likely seek a commitment from Trump to uphold assurances made by George Bush implicitly acknowledging the legality of at least some settlements and allowing for unfettered construction in settlement blocs and in areas that Israel will almost certainly hold in any future agreement with the Palestinian Authority. This includes areas in and around Jerusalem as well as the Jordan Valley, a region that Israel views as of paramount strategic importance due to its obvious defensive characteristics.
Netanyahu will likely raise the embassy move to Jerusalem. Under the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, the American embassy must be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem but the law allows the executive to exercise a waiver every six months, which all presidents have opted to exercise since the law’s passing. Trump expressed enthusiastic support for such a move during the campaign only to be noncommittal once assuming office. Nevertheless, the Jerusalem Embassy Act enjoys widespread support among many of his top advisers as well as bipartisan congressional support.
The two leaders will also discuss the emergence of radical Islam – both of the Sunni and Shia variety – and the threat that this malevolent ideology poses to regional allies as well as the West. Trump has made the destruction of ISIS a top campaign promise and will draw on Israel’s valuable expertise in combatting the scourge of Islamic terrorism.
ISIS and Hamas remain poised at Israel’s southern border. ISIS and Hezbollah operate with virtual impunity in lawless Syria. Netanyahu will seek to convince Trump of the absurdity of ever returning the strategic Golan Heights to Syria and will try to persuade him to recognize the legality of Israel’s 1981 annexation of the strategic plateau. A forceful presidential statement to that effect would severely undermine decades of perverse UNSC resolutions condemning Israel’s “unlawful occupation” of the Golan.
Whatever the results of this meeting, it will stand in stark contrast to the first encounter between Netanyahu and Obama. During that disastrous 2010 meeting, Obama tried to publicly humiliate Netanyahu. One Israeli commentator dryly noted that “Bibi received in the White House the treatment reserved for the president of Equatorial Guinea.” But with the rise of Islamic extremism, frustration with Iran, Palestinian intransigence and recognition that Israel represents an outpost of democracy in a sea of Islamic medievalism, things will certainly be different this time around.
Ari Lieberman is an attorney and former prosecutor who has authored numerous articles and publications on matters concerning the Middle East and is considered an authority on geo-political and military developments affecting the region.
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