Netanyahu’s Iran speech for an audience of two

Israeli interests are served by mutual US-Iranian antagonism.

Amir Cohen Reuters

Another day, another Benjamin Netanyahu show for the easily duped.

The Israeli prime minister’s cartoon-like presentations are becoming a little embarrassing, though he clearly doesn’t mind: the theatrics are a distraction – not least from domestic corruption allegations – that keeps everyone occupied for a while before other shiny things get dangled.

The substance of his speech on Monday was also of little curiosity beyond his contention that Israel had managed to smuggle out a half-ton cache of classified documents from Iran (how? Truck? Cargo plane? Lots and lots of motorbikes?). Most analysts quickly noticed that there was “nothing new” in Netanyahu’s “revelations.” In effect, he had deliberately done what the White House was to do in a “clerical error”: put in present tense what should have been in the past.

His message was intended for an audience of just two.

Ol’ blue eyes

All eyes are on Washington as the 12 May deadline for Donald Trump to decide whether or not to walk away from the Iran nuclear deal nears.

Will he? It is a deal he has long derided as “insane” and that during his presidential campaign he promised to tear up. It was signed by his predecessor, and one of Trump’s major policy planks appears simply to be doing the opposite of Barack Obama.

Moreover, as both critics and supporters point out, Trump has at least tried to carry out his campaign promises, sometimes failing, as with the Affordable Care Act, and sometimes succeeding, as with Jerusalem – to devastating effect.

Weighing against Trump walking away are arguably weightier points. For one, he has already twice chosen not to walk away from the deal.

All America’s main allies – and rivals – are signed up to the deal and want it to continue. Trump has been pushing some of these, most recently French President Emmanuel Macron, to modify the agreement, but that will require a broader negotiation that Iran has already said it opposes.

Finally, of course, ditching the deal sets an extremely unhelpful precedent for American diplomacy. If a deal lasts only as long as the president who signs it, why bother? This will potentially hamper US diplomatic efforts elsewhere, not least in the Koreas.

Undoubtedly, Netanyahu’s presentation was in part intended as an appeal to Trump’s instincts to ditch the deal. Whether it will succeed is anyone’s guess. Chances are Trump won’t know until the words come out.

A prince’s ransom

The other address for Netanyahu’s performance was Riyadh.

There Mohammad bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, would have been looking to Israel for a quid pro quo for sticking his neck out in New York and – reportedly – calling Palestinians an ungrateful lot who should just forget all this nonsense about justice and past wrongs and get with the program. That program will be written for them in Washington by people in thrall to their occupiers and disposessors, and will leave them stateless and as refugees in exile.

What’s so bad about that?

(It has been little secret that Arab countries have for long now only put on a show of support for Palestinians. Yet this new candor is not refreshing. It is shocking. Not because Arab countries should have any special brotherly feelings for Palestinians – though also because of that – but precisely because this is not about brotherly bias, but justice and a refusal to accept that all that really matters is brute force and manipulation.)

Anyway, MBS, as he is universally known now, needed some gesture in return. Riyadh fears Tehran above all and getting Israel on board – whether by directly targeting Iranian interests in Syria, or using its good offices in Washington to see the US re-impose sanctions on Iran – can only help.

Netanyahu’s presentation not only signalled to Riyadh that Israel is right next to Saudi Arabia on this topic, but uncertainty over the future of the Iran deal has had the little benefit of pushing up oil prices on spooked markets. Should Trump walk away from the Iran deal it would ensure that tensions – and with them oil prices – remain high for a while. What better way to prepare for the Aramco IPO, which may become the biggest initial public offering in history?


Dangers ahead

This could be a game of brinkmanship. A regional war involving Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia and possibly Russia and the US would seem to be plainly insane and not just in the Trumpian sense.

Even a war in Syria – which no one seems to care any more other than as a theater for military one-upmanship, and where Israel has been freely bombing and Iran has been building up its military capabilities – would seem a risky undertaking since it would not take long for it to spread to Israel itself and Lebanon.

But what’s the brink? Israel will want Iran to remove any and all military installations it may have put in Syria. But Iran has fought hard and long to help save Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad. It will be loathe to leave any strategic advantage it may have built up. Is there a face-saving formula that both can climb down to?

It’s not clear. A regional cold war is very dangerously on the edge of a hot war that will no longer be contained in local theaters like Syria and Yemen.

A cool head in the White House would help. But Trump has done nothing to douse any flames anywhere. Not in Gaza, not in Yemen and not in Syria. Bluster may have shown promise in Korea. With America’s trigger-happy allies in the region it has only been encouragement.

Omar Karmi is an associate editor for The Electronic Intifada and former Jerusalem and Washington, DC, correspondent for The National newspaper.