John Bolton’s unceremonious White House departure couldn’t have come at a worse time for Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Israeli prime minister has made much of his diplomatic prowess as he faces a tough re-election bid next week, playing up his close relations with U.S. President Donald Trump and his achievements on the global diplomatic stage. But Bolton’s exit delivered a blow to Israel’s policy of isolating and economically clobbering the Islamic Republic.
Bolton was a key ally in Israel’s quest to pressure Iran to rein in its nuclear and military ambitions, and for years had advocated regime change and preemptive strikes on its atomic program. His exit paves the way for less hawkish voices to gain influence and improves the odds that Trump will break with more than four decades of U.S. policy and meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
“Some daylight seems to be seeping through here,” said a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren. “Israel needs to resign itself to the very real possibility of talks.”
Netanyahu stridently opposed former President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran and has boasted he persuaded Trump to withdraw from the pact last year. His bet on Trump has looked more risky in recent weeks, however, as messages emanate from Washington about possible Trump-Rouhani talks at the United Nations General Assembly in New York this month.
Israel’s big fear is that Bolton’s departure will be followed by the easing of Washington’s tough sanctions campaign in a bid to entice Iranian leaders to enter negotiations, an Israeli official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Ready to Meet
On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said Trump was prepared to meet Rouhani “with no preconditions.” Asked if he foresees a meeting this month, Pompeo said “sure.”
“It’s bad news for Israel,” said Chuck Freilich, former Israeli deputy national security adviser. “It’s certainly bad news for Bibi as far as Iran goes, for those who take a hard position on Iran,” he added, referring to Netanyahu by his widely used nickname.
While Trump aspires to a broader and tougher deal with Iran, Netanyahu doesn’t think the timing is right to ease the pressure on Tehran, despite a soaring of tensions in and around the Persian Gulf. Earlier this week the Israeli leader said he had evidence of previously undisclosed Iranian nuclear sites.
Yet if the Israeli leader had no qualms about confronting Obama over his Iran policy — he blasted the nuclear deal in a speech to Congress — then he has to proceed more cautiously with Trump. The U.S. president has delivered Netanyahu several long-sought diplomatic coups, such as recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and Israeli sovereignty over the war-won Golan Heights.
There have also been signs the unseen U.S. Middle East peace plan won’t call for the establishment of a Palestinian state on territory Israeli has controlled since capturing it in 1967.
Accordingly, Netanyahu told reporters last week that he couldn’t stand in the way of a meeting between Trump and Rouhani, and that the U.S. leader would go in with a stronger approach than seen in past talks.
“Trump is going to talk with the Iranians over Bibi’s head,” said Israeli political rival Yair Lapid, a leader of the Blue and White centrist bloc, in a Facebook video Tuesday. “It seems this whole legend of Netanyahu’s special ties with Trump is blowing up before our eyes.”
The increased chances of warming ties between the U.S. and Iran mean now is the time to make clear what kind of nuclear deal Israel could find acceptable, said Oren, the former envoy. A good agreement would include verified dismantling of nuclear infrastructure, rescinding the right to enrich, and ending support for terrorist groups.
“Israel had relations with Congress and the White House before Bolton and will continue to have them after him,” said Yaakov Amidror, former national security adviser to Netanyahu. “The tactical question at the moment is whether or not to increase pressure in the lead-up to talks. We want in the end a good deal.”
— With assistance by Yaacov Benmeleh, and David Wainer