By Joyce Karam
After eight years of hand-wringing and not-so-subtle backstabbing between former US President Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu, a “monumental” shift in language and substance awaits the Israeli prime minister as he arrives in Washington to meet Obama’s successor Donald Trump.
Netanyahu’s visit on Wednesday will mark the first official meeting that Trump will hold with a Middle Eastern leader in the Oval Office since his inauguration on Jan. 20.
Netanyahu is also scheduled to meet Vice President Mike Pence, and have dinner with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday. He will also meet with House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
The change in optics will be accompanied by a shift in the discussions, according to experts, where Iran’s regional role and its nuclear program will likely dominate the meetings, followed by exploring ideas to jumpstart the peace process.
“The difference from the Obama administration is monumental,” said David Shor, a foreign policy expert based in New York. The strained relations between Obama and Netanyahu were no secret over the last eight years; Netanyahu dismissed the administration’s calls for a settlement freeze, rebuffed its Iran policies and went behind the White House’s back in addressing the Republican-majority Congress in 2015.
Key to the differences during the Obama days was “the enormous pressure (the administration put) on Israel to make concessions, while basically giving Tehran a free hand in the region,” Shor said.
And in that alone, a sea change is expected from the Trump Cabinet. Upping “the pressure on Iran — especially regionally, with a clear upgrading and enhancing of the US-Israel alliance” is expected, and “Israel surely hopes that Iran will once again be the central focus of American foreign policy in the Middle East,” the expert added.
Two weeks ago, Trump put “Iran on notice” following its ballistic missile test in late January, and rolled out targeted sanctions against companies and individuals worldwide that aid the program. There is also a debate within the administration on designating the Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization.
This tempo of US escalation against Iran could employ military tools to curb Tehran’s regional behavior. The New York Times reported on Sunday that US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis “was exploring whether the Navy could intercept and board an Iranian ship to look for contraband weapons possibly headed to Houthi fighters in Yemen.” The operation was called off because the ship was in international waters. Such an approach is music to the ears of the Israeli prime minister, who for years has called for a more muscular policy against Iran.
The network of pro-Israel officials that are stacked in Trump’s White House will also bolster the visit, said Shor. “Trump is surrounded with people who hold Israel in a very high regard,” added the expert, citing Trump’s most senior advisers Jared Kushner, who is also Trump’s son-in-law, along with Steven Bannon and Michael Flynn as among the White House officials who have had a close relation with Israel. The New York Times reported that Netanyahu has had long good family relations with the Kushner family, to a point that the Israeli prime minister once slept in Kushner’s childhood bedroom.
“Many around Trump are to the right of Netanyahu,” on policy said Shor. Trump told the Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom on Sunday that Netanyahu is “a good man” and that they “always had good chemistry.”
In that same interview, Trump reiterated basic US foreign policy positions on Israel, saying he is “not somebody that believes that going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace.” Trump also seemingly backtracked on moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, saying that he is “studying” the move and “we will see what happens.”
But such language is not necessarily a threat to Netanyahu, who is facing his own battle with the right back home. The Israeli government would likely rather see “the lion’s share of attention going to Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region … it surely doesn’t want settlements to dominate the discussion as it relates to its relationship with Washington,” said Shor.
Trump is using the pressure on Iran as well to try and build an Arab coalition that would have a key role as well in any peace process. The New York Times reported last week that the Trump administration is “developing a strategy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would enlist Arab nations like Saudi Arabia and Egypt to break years of deadlock.”
Netanyahu’s visit to Washington is expected to cement a friendlier era in chemistry and politics with the Trump White House, building on a Republican majority in both chambers of Congress and a confluence in regional strategies around pressuring Iran and finding a new approach for the peace process.