As we leave the Jewish calendar year of 5777 behind it is worth remembering that the three large external issues facing Israel remain unchanged and their resolution no clearer than they were at the beginning of 2017.
Moreover, to greater and lesser degrees, these depend on President Trump’s positive sentiments, but as yet unclarified policies.
Simultaneously, whilst facing numerous challenges at home, Prime Minister Netanyahu seems unstoppable on the world stage where he brings absolutely unprecedented success to Israeli public diplomacy.
The first and number one near term issue remains keeping Iran out of Syria as much as is possible. This against the backdrop of US unwillingness to actively enter this arena itself and yet to allow Russia, whose prime allies here are Assad and Iran, to dictate the situation on the ground.
Trump’s indifference in Syria has left Israel to negotiate an arrangement with Putin that allows Israel to hit targets inside Syria, with certain red lines. Perhaps the best that can be achieved in the current circumstances – but with uncertain parameters, dangers of action in close proximity to Russian military personnel and all largely at Putin’s pleasure.
The longer term second issue is Iran itself and the so called P5 + 1 nuclear agreement of July 2015, reached under Obama. This agreement lifted sanctions on Iran in return for it supposedly not being able to produce weapons grade enriched uranium, and hence a nuclear device, for some 15 years.
President Trump is required by US law to issue certification of Iranian compliance to this agreement, every 90 days.
According to press accounts, although Trump did not want to issue certification in July, he was persuaded to do so by his senior officials – Sec of Defence Mattis, Sec of State Tillerson and National Security Advisor McMaster.
This matter comes up for recertification again, on October the 15th.
To date there is a regular pattern – Trump criticises the agreement as “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions in history”, calls it an “embarrassment” and then reluctantly recertifies it.
On Wednesday last week Trump said that he had already made a decision about whether to keep or kill the Iran nuclear agreement this time, but would not reveal his answer as yet.
This continues another Trump tactic used frequently, which may in fact prove very effective, at least for a time – policy ambiguity.
Keeping all parties on their toes and all waiting on the whim and yet to be clearly delineated policy direction of the US President.
Which brings us to the third issue, the Palestinians.
Whilst the United Nations address of PM Netanyahu focused almost exclusively on Iran and President Trump’s speech when he spoke about the Middle East did likewise, the Palestinians rated hardly a mention.
Prior to his UN address, Trump met separately with Netanyahu and Abbas in New York.
We do not know exactly what was said in these meetings, but we have some indications. Whilst Netanyahu tried to also maintain the focus on Iran in the private discussions with Trump, it is clear that the issue of the Palestinians was discussed there. And had almost immediate repercussions in Israel.
Trump is consistent in dealing with the Israel/Palestinian issue quite differently from all other issues. He does so uncharacteristically low key and behind the scenes.
A White House spokesperson explained it as follows:
“While President Trump had productive meetings with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas at the United Nations, we always said that the UN would not focus on peace conversations and that those conversations would be happening on a separate track. The meetings are part of the Administration’s quiet, steady discussions towards peace.”
It also appears that whilst in a different way from Obama – that is, not publicly – Trump continues to pressure Netanyahu on the issue of settlement expansion.
At the Israeli Security Cabinet meeting on the 24th of September, Netanyahu surprised some members of his coalition and settlement leaders by postponing the planning meeting of the West Bank Civil Administration, which is the body responsible for approving new settlement housing.
This was apparently done at Trump’s request.
Netanyahu reportedly told his cabinet that he had no intention of humiliating the pro-Israel Trump administration by making decisions relating to settlements.
One settlement leader stated:
“The government is good at declarations, but it only pretends to build.”
Back to New York – At a short press conference in the presence of Netanyahu prior to their meeting on the 18th of September, the first between them since May, Trump said:
“I really believe peace between the Palestinians and Israel would be a fantastic achievement. We are giving it an absolute go. I think there is a good chance it could happen; most people would say there is no chance whatsoever. I actually think that with the ability of Bibi, and frankly with the other side, I really think we have a chance.
We’re going to be discussing many things; among them, peace between the Palestinians and Israel — it will be a fantastic achievement. I think Israel would like to see it, and I think the Palestinians would like to see it. And I can tell you that the Trump administration would like to see it.
So we’re working very hard on it. We’ll see what happens. Historically, people say it can’t happen. I say it can happen.”
Asked at the end of the photo opportunity whether he wanted to see a one-state or two-state solution, Trump said only, “We are talking about it a lot.”
Trump’s Middle East peace negotiator, Jason Greenblatt, is returning to Israel just prior to Succoth to “continue the peace track”.
Status quo ante.
As noted above, Netanyahu continues to represent Israel quite amazingly on the world stage and it is hard for the pessimists to really understand and credit that great changes in Israel’s position amongst the nations of the world have occurred.
The last weeks have been filled with so many ‘firsts’, that the word is losing its meaning and impact. And this follows on from many other ‘firsts’ in terms of visits to Africa et al.
Netanyahu just finished the first diplomatic tour by an Israeli Prime Minister in Latin and South America, holding meetings with the presidents of Mexico, Colombia, Argentina and Paraguay.
From there he came to New York and also on the 18th of September met for the first time publicly, with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
In terms of symbolism and message transmission, this was probably the most important of all of Netanyahu’s meetings in the past few weeks.
The photos that were distributed had very powerful imagery – both Netanyahu and al-Sisi smiling broadly, happily in conversation and shaking hands enthusiastically.
In an area of the world where these things count for a lot, the photos spoke volumes.
According to a statement from al-Sisi’s office, the Egyptian president stressed the importance of renewing peace talks in order to reach a just solution based on the idea of two states for two peoples.
The Egyptian statement also noted that Netanyahu expressed his appreciation to al-Sisi for Cairo’s important role in the Middle East, its fight against terrorism and its efforts to achieve stability and peace in the region.
And if all of that was not enough, PM Netanyahu also met one on one with the President of Panama, Juan Carlos Varela; Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan; and Rwandan President Paul Kagame.
So yes, despite the many and serious challenges ahead, Israel enters 5778 in good shape and in a stronger diplomatic and military position than a year ago.
Indeed, arguably in better shape than ever before.
And all the better able to face whatever may come.
Gmar Chatimah Tova