Tel Aviv Diary: Trump's Korea Flop Has Israelis Questioning His Negotiation Skills | Opinion

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U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S. March 5, 2018. Trump's u-turn on North Korea had some Israelis wondering if he is the great deal-maker he makes out himself to be. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

On Thursday night, Israeli media quoted Syrian reports that Israel had attacked an air base outside of Homs. According to reports from Syria, the target was missiles being transported to Hezbollah. If the reports were accurate — and there is no reason not to believe they are correct — this would represent one of nearly 100 Israeli attacks on targets in Syria over the course of the past few years; attacks whose goal has been to stop the transfer of advanced weaponry to a terrorist organization. This is in addition to the recent attacks by Israel on Iranian activities in Syria. These attacks are a reminder there has been a quiet war going on to the North, out of sight, and largely out of mind. 

Prior to the news from Syria, the lead story on Israeli broadcasts had been President Donald J. Trump’s decision to call off the summit with North Korea. Despite the fact that North Korea is far away, the news shows devoted extended time to explain the reasons and ramifications for Trump’s move to cancel. 

There was a palpable disappointment on the streets of Tel Aviv after word of the cancellation broke. One acquaintance turned to me and said, “That really is disturbing. I thought Trump knew how to make a deal.” When asked about the cancellation, a well-known venture capitalist answered, “Eizeh Basa,” which roughly translates to “what a bummer.”

RTS1M9Y0 U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S. March 5, 2018. Trump's u-turn on North Korea had some Israelis wondering if he is the great deal-maker he makes out himself to be. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Israelis have a great deal invested in the perceived deal-making ability of President Trump. Many cheered the American exit from the Iran agreement. As a mid-level bank executive said to me this week, “It [Iran] is better the problem is taken care of now and not left to her children to inherit.”

However, in the past several days, a few voices could be heard in the media and in public discourse, wondering what if Trump really has no plan?  What if all he is really good at is grand gestures? This concern was raised by some after Secretary of State Michael “Mike” Pompeo issued his series of demands from Iran.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately endorsed what read like an Israeli Christmas wish list, enumerating changes the U.S. and Israel would like to see implemented by Iran. Knowledgeable observers realize that on a scale of 1-100, the chances of the Iranians accepting the conditions — which effectively call for regime change — are something between 0 and 1.

Some still hope Pompeo’s demands are just an opening gambit in Trump’s “Great Art of the Deal,” and that it could still be possible to obtain an improved agreement from the Iranians. Many are skeptical, however, especially since the Trump administration does not seem to have any plan on how to persuade the Europeans and other countries to join in on American efforts.

In fact, just the opposite seems to be happening. There appears to be no understanding at the White House that if you seek European cooperation on Iran, the way to obtain that assistance is not by threatening to impose 25% tariffs on European cars.

Still, President Trump remains very popular in Israel today. Trump is credited with moving the Embassy to Jerusalem, after all of his predecessors failed to keep their campaign promise to do so. Trump promised to withdraw from the Iran nuclear accord and he did it. Nikki Halley, the Trump administration’s Ambassador to the United Nations has given marvelous speeches at the UN in defense of Israel.

However, skepticism has begun to be voiced in Israel about just how closely Prime Minister Netanyahu has been aligning this country with the Republican party, and with President Trump, in particular. There are those who warn that Netanyahu’s actions are responsible for turning support for Israel into a partisan issue — after 70 years during which US support has clearly been bipartisan.

On Friday morning, Dan Margalit, one of the most respected Israeli columnists and a former close supporter of Netanyahu wrote: “Bibi eroded our support from Democrats who make up half of Americans, with his speech to Congress and close identification with Trump. Who would believe that 76 Democratic Congressman would come out against Bibi and his policies in the West Bank?”

Even if support from the Trump Administration is very real, many have begun to argue that whatever good Trump might do for Israel, he will not be in power forever. Eventually, the pendulum will swing and one day the Democrats will be in power. It remains a question whether the short-term gain is worth the potential long-term problems for Israel. Can Israel afford to become a partisan issue in American politics? Of course, if Trump turns out to be as incompetent at foreign policy as his critics claim, then the risk will have been for naught, and Israel will have weakened its longstanding relationship with the US for an illusionary short-term gain.

Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​

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