Dispatch

What Bolton’s Departure Means for Israel

Some Israelis are worried it will leave them alone to confront Iran in the region.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton in the Jordan Valley between the Israeli city of Beit Shean and the West Bank city of Jericho on June 23.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton in the Jordan Valley between the Israeli city of Beit Shean and the West Bank city of Jericho on June 23. ABIR SULTAN / POOL / AFP ABIR SULTAN/AFP/Getty Images

TEL AVIV, Israel—The departure of National Security Advisor John Bolton from the U.S. administration on Tuesday has some Israelis worried that President Donald Trump would now pursue a more vigorous policy of detente with Iran, leaving Israel on its own to fight Iranian influence in the region, according to analysts.

Bolton had been one of the drivers of the Trump administration’s so-called maximum pressure campaign against Tehran, which perfectly matched Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy toward Iran. But Trump has been signaling a shift over the past few weeks, including a willingness to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

Any softening of the U.S. approach would mark a dramatic change in policy for the administration, which canceled the President Barack Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran last year and has steadily ratcheted up sanctions.

“What needs to worry us is that the last hurdle ahead of a historic reconciliation between the U.S. and Iran has been removed,” Gabi Ashkenazi, a former army chief of staff who is currently part of the centrist Blue and White party, told Israel’s Army Radio on Wednesday. “I would be worried about the possibility that after this agreement between Iran and the Americans, Israel will be left on its own against Iran, something that all prime ministers before Netanyahu were very careful to avoid.”

Bloomberg reported yesterday that Trump decided to oust Bolton precisely over his opposition to easing sanctions against Iran, with an eye to a future meeting with Rouhani. In the Oval Office, Trump indicated Wednesday that he wasn’t seeking regime change in Iran, a goal Bolton has spent his career championing.

But Netanyahu downplayed the implications of Bolton’s departure.

“Look, the one who formally crafted the American policy was [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo … and President Trump of course. But I’m not getting into the personality changes in this administration,” he told Israeli Channel 20 in an interview. “So I am convinced, I have no doubts at all, that in any situation—with talks, without talks—President Trump and his administration will be very, very tough with Iran.”

Other Israelis said Netanyahu would clearly miss Bolton.

“There’s no doubt that there’s sadness in Jerusalem” due to Bolton’s firing, Amos Yadlin, the head of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv and a former military intelligence chief, told Foreign Policy. “He greatly amplified the prime minister’s positions [on the issue]. But even with Bolton, Washington’s Iran policy wasn’t heading in a direction that Netanyahu wanted.”

News of Bolton’s departure caught Israel in the middle of its own political firestorm. Two hours earlier, Netanyahu announced his intention to annex wide swaths of the West Bank if he was returned to office after next week’s general election; two hours later, at a campaign rally in southern Israeli, Netanyahu was hustled offstage by his security detail after rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip.

The various steps taken by Washington since Bolton took his post in April 2018 read like a Netanyahu wish list, including the sanctions and the cancellation of the Iran nuclear deal. In that same period, Israel has expanded its campaign across the Middle East targeting Iran and its proxies with what is likely at least tacit White House approval.

This past June, Bolton arrived in Jerusalem for a trilateral meeting with his Russian counterpart and Netanyahu. It was, in retrospect, the waning halcyon days of Bolton’s tenure. Against the advice of his national security advisor, Trump had just refrained from responding militarily to the downing of a U.S. drone by Iran over the Persian Gulf.

“Neither Iran nor any other hostile actor should mistake U.S. prudence and discretion for weakness,” Bolton said, standing next to Netanyahu. “No one has granted them a hunting license in the Middle East.”

For his part, the Israeli premier referred to Bolton as a “great friend of Israel for many years and a personal friend of mine for many years” before touting the impact that “crippling American sanctions” and “unprecedented economic pressure” had wrought on Iran’s regional aggression.

Fast-forward less than three months, and Trump himself has made clear on multiple occasions he’s open to negotiations with Iran in a bid to resolve the nuclear impasse.

The latest instance came on Monday, when Trump told reporters at the White House that he had “no problem” with meeting with Rouhani. Earlier that day, Netanyahu unveiled what he said was a secret Iranian nuclear weapons development site and called on the international community to “wake up.”

“The only way to stop Iran’s march to the bomb and its aggression in the region is pressure, pressure, and more pressure,” he added.

Senior Israeli defense officials now acknowledge that a future U.S.-Iran meeting is likely a “done deal,” according to a story in the Israeli daily Haaretz—perhaps as early as the United Nations General Assembly meetings in New York later this month.

While Trump and Bolton differ over whether the latter was fired or resigned, it appears certain that Iran policy played a large role in their falling out. In his last two tweets as national security advisor, Bolton said “Iran is working overtime on deception” and, separately, that “We stand strong against regimes that sponsor terror & encourage violence against the US & our allies.” In the tweet explaining Bolton’s exit, Trump wrote that he “disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions.”

Yaakov Amidror, a former national security advisor to Netanyahu, told Foreign Policy that the U.S. administration was unlikely to limit the scope of Israel’s military action in the broader Middle East, no matter who replaces Bolton. “At the end Israel works opposite a president elected by American citizens and the team that he chooses,” Amidror said. “I don’t know whether [Bolton’s] replacement will be more or less comfortable” for the Israelis to work with.

Yet the question remains how Israel will respond if Trump moves ahead with an Iranian detente.

According to Yadlin, Israel must be ready for two likely scenarios: either a resumption of U.S.-Iran negotiations similar to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal brokered by the Obama administration—“a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action 2.0,” as Yadlin put it, referring to the agreement by its official name—or, conversely, a scenario in which Iran actually presses forward with its nuclear program.

“With or without Bolton, the need will always be there for close coordination with the U.S.,” Yadlin said. “But it seems that without Bolton the threshold is now higher for an attack.”

Yet Trump has made his aversion to increased military action clear. And even Israel is under no illusions: This U.S. administration, even more so than in the past, operates according to the vacillating whims of the president. As part of his reelection bid, Netanyahu has put up building-size banners and massive billboards all across the country of himself shaking hands with Trump, reminding the Israeli public of all the things the U.S. president has done for Israel (and for Netanyahu politically).

Bolton’s departure could be a symptom of a larger truth: Just as Trump giveth, he can also taketh away.

Neri Zilber is a journalist covering Middle East politics, an adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and a senior fellow at BICOM, a U.K. think tank. He is the co-author of State with No Army, Army with No State: Evolution of the Palestinian Authority Security Forces, 1994-2018. Twitter: @NeriZilber

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