Israel's fear: might the erratic Donald Trump strike a deal with Iran?

Concerns in intelligence circles in the week Israel reportedly launched air strikes against Iran-controlled targets in three countries


Israel’s leadership is dealing with two sets of uncertainties.

At ground level, on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, the IDF is at high alert over an expected attempt by Hezbollah to launch an attack. Iron Dome missile defence batteries have been deployed, the airspace closed and movement restricted on roads near the border.

Meanwhile, 6,000 miles away at the Israeli embassy in Washington, where senior diplomats are usually among the best informed of the goings-on within the Trump administration, there is concern about a surprise diplomatic initiative with Iran.

The short visit by Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Jawad Zarif to the G7 summit in Biarritz was surprising in its timing, but attempts by France and other European governments to try to bring the Americans and Iranians back together around the table were expected.

In the event, Mr Zarif did not meet Donald Trump but the prospect of a meeting between the US president and Iranian president Hassan Rouhani at the United National General Assembly in New York next month is still being floated, despite Iranian denials.

Israeli officials are careful not to go on the record when describing their frustration with Mr Trump’s unpredictability.

After all, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly describes him in effusive speeches as Israel’s best friend ever.

And that is part of the problem: Israel’s leader has painted himself into a corner. His relations with the Oval Office may have never been closer but it means that pushing back against a Trump peace initiative will be much more difficult than it was with Barack Obama. And Mr Trump is much less predictable than his predecessor.

In the last two years, there was his surprise friendship with the North Korean dictator, who in the past he had called “little rocket man” and threatened with annihilation. Then there was the sudden announcement that the US would withdraw all its troops from eastern Syria — a decision 

that Israel managed to mitigate somewhat with the support of its allies in the US administration.

Mr Trump’s erratic decision-making, his fondness for grand gestures and his confidence in his deal-making prowess all raise fears that he could hastily reach a new Iran deal to replace the one he withdrew from last year, without taking Israel’s concerns into account.

Israel is now relying on the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei more than on Mr Trump to block any deal. Ayatollah Khamenei, unlike Mr Rouhani, is no fan of diplomacy and is ideologically opposed to signing a new agreement with the Great Satan.

And the faction in Tehran favoured by the Supreme Leader is challenging Israel closer to home. Despite Iran’s tottering economy, he has authorised investing scarce resources in building up the missile and drone capabilities of Shia proxies across the region.

Israel sees these efforts — in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq — as a direct threat. Until recently, the Israeli campaign of airstrikes against Iranian assets was being waged solely in Syria but according to Pentagon sources quoted last week in the New York Times, Israel is behind the recent series of explosions in the bases of Iranian-backed militias in Iraq.

The joint Iranian-Hezbollah operation to launch attack-drones from Syria, which Israel foiled in an airstrike on Saturday night, was in response to these strikes in Iraq.

The explosion that happened a couple of hours later in Beirut, in Hezbollah’s Dahiye stronghold, has also been ascribed to Israel and reportedly destroyed Iranian-supplied components of a project to improve the accuracy of Hezbollah’s missiles.

This is the first time since the Second Lebanon War in 2006 that Israel has been accused by Hezbollah of an attack on Lebanese soil and its secretary-general Hasan Nasrallah has sworn to retaliate.

Israel is not only taking security precautions; it is — ironically — turning to the Trump administration to warn Lebanon’s government of the implications of a Hezbollah attack coming from its territory.

This is one American diplomatic initiative that Israel is interested in.

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