Shai Franklin
Partner with Gotham Government Relations

Trump acts on embassy and Iran deal, but at what cost?

Congratulations! Trump has delivered on his two big promises, ditching the Iran deal and transferring the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. Just one caveat: All sales are final.

While the direct impact on Iran’s nuclear ambitions remains unclear, President Donald Trump’s decision to violate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (“Iran deal”) has definite consequences for Israel. And so will the embassy move.

These two decisions constitute lasting political wins for Trump and for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and might even help some Republicans in next November’s Congressional elections. The ramifications beyond Israeli Jews and American Evangelicals are less rosy.

Iran has gained far less than the $100-150 billion that opponents of the deal had warned, and not even close to the real estimate of $50 billion in frozen assets. In any case, Hezbollah and the Islamic Guard are relatively low-budget, and Iran’s fossil-fuel revenues don’t rely on U.S. markets. Neither France nor Russia wants a new Mideast war, which is much of the reason they will stick with the JCPOA as much as possible. But the United States will find itself even more alone on the world stage, and Israelis will find that Russia and China are increasingly calling the shots both figuratively and literally.

Withdrawing from the JCPOA and imposing harsh new sanctions would have been damaging enough, without Trump’s belligerent and threatening tone. When the world knows Iran has kept to the terms of the deal, such rhetoric unnecessarily bolsters the Iranian regime and its hardliners to crack down on dissent and recommit military resources. For all their defiance and bluster and terrorism, Iranians remain inherently concerned with their own rights to national security and self-defense. When Iran feels threatened and its leaders emboldened, Israel tends to be less secure.

Netanyahu’s last-minute release of files from Iran’s long-shelved and long known weapons program, and Trump’s own words, have repeatedly emphasized Israel’s significant influence into the decision to abandon the JCPOA. When the rest of the world holds Israel responsible for leading a U.S. President down this path, it won’t be so easy to dismiss the finger-pointing as anti-Semitism.

As ironic as it is – since most former Mossad chiefs and IDF chiefs of staff have warned against such a move – Trump can now reasonably claim that he has delivered for Israel and Netanyahu. If Trump asks Israel to stand down in Gaza and Syria, or to scale back settlements, Netanyahu will have little room to object. And when it becomes obvious that bombing a newly revived Iranian nuclear program won’t be effective, won’t be tolerated by alienated allies and will spark a major theater-wide conflict, Trump will face no backlash as he orders Netanyahu to stand down.

As Trump begins packing his bags to meet Kim Jong-un, the U.S. reneging on a previously signed nuclear deal with another rogue state will further doom the chances for any meaningful outcome there. In all probability, this high-stakes seat-of-the-pants tête-à-tête will only ease constraints on North Korea’s nuclear program, which affects all of us. Israel will be specifically disadvantaged when North Korea resumes its cooperation with Iran and with Syria, overseen by Russia – which, as with the Paris climate accord, can pass itself off as the superpower in compliance.

By withdrawing from the Iran deal without cause, Israel’s primary patron becomes even more of a rogue state, marching to its own drum and to the personal disposition of its President, diplomacy optional.

Defense Minister Avigor Liberman has said the embassy move “will come at a price and it is worth paying it” – evidently referring to Trump’s bid for Israel to withdraw from a few Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. For right-wingers whose goal is a Greater Israel where Palestinians miraculously get with the program, perhaps the price doesn’t seem so expensive.

Together with the Iran deal announcement, though, the embassy move locks in a long-term Israeli debt to the United States, which can’t be written off with Israel’s security value when these very actions make the region less secure.

It would be difficult to overstate the symbolic significance of Trump’s embassy decision within to the Jewish soul. Whatever the real-world consequences, it is no exaggeration to compare Trump to the legendary Persian ruler Cyrus and British Lord Balfour, who each sanctioned the return of the Jews. For generations to come, Democrats will have difficulty discounting the singular nature of Trump’s abandoning firm U.S. precedent. But those ‘real-world consequences’ won’t disappear on their own…

As with the U.S. invasion of Iraq, this time our “coalition of the willing” – those nations also moving their embassies to Jerusalem – is mostly second-tier nations like Guatemala and the Czech Republic. Much appreciated, but hardly G-20 or permanent members of the UN Security Council. And the world already sees that Trump is doing little to reward the countries that have bound themselves to the Trump train at the expense of global scorn.

Even worse, on the thinnest of justifications, the Administration has announced that 50,000 Hondurans will be deported. Aside from the indignity, that involves tremendous hardship and loss of significant remittances to a nation that is transferring its embassy to Jerusalem.

Nikki Haley’s repeated scolding her UN counterparts, like Trump and Netanyahu’s lectures to their fellow world leaders, bring joy to Israelis’ hearts but probably did no favors for Israel’s unsuccessful candidacy for a two-year seat on the Security Council. Ambassador Haley will find herself vetoing lots of resolutions against Israel, each veto underscoring the reality that we have no leverage or credibility anymore – just the built-in power to stop any Security Council resolution, even when it’s 14-1. That is not leadership, and that does not raise Israel’s stature.

The cost to Israel’s long-term security, which was always predicated on maintaining the status quo, is also incalculable.

On his first visit to the region as Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo said, ”We are certainly open to a two-party solution as a likely outcome…” ABC News ran that under a headline that Israeli-Palestinian peace is a U.S. “priority” – a naive misreading of his message that the Palestinian issue is not a priority, and that amateurs like Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt may no longer be driving U.S. diplomatic outreach in the Arab-Israeli space.

When a U.S. President washes his hands of serious efforts toward Israeli-Palestinian peace, which had never happened since 1967, that’s not good news. For Israel, it means being less relevant to U.S. foreign policy and becoming more of a liability to the United States long after Donald Trump leaves the scene. For American Jews, it means further difficulty in reconciling liberal values with support for Israel, which should worry Israelis much more than it does.

Israelis now feel ascendant and triumphant, on the right side of history, and Netanyahu’s political power will be unquestioned. Our hasbara has been so good and so consistent, for so long, that now we believe it. And we disregard Israel’s own intelligence and security elders who insist that the Palestinian issue is the existential threat and that the Iran deal is worth keeping.

In no tangible way, however, does canceling the Iran deal or moving the U.S. embassy add to Israel’s security. Much like when we invaded Iraq, Iran will be better positioned internationally and with fewer checks on its conventional and proxy forces, and Palestinians will be in ever greater disarray.

The Embassy relocation helps the powers-that-be pretend the Palestinians and a two-state solution don’t matter, which means this long-term challenge to Israel’s security, demographics and moral standing will only become harder to address with each passing year and with each successive wave of violence, unrest, and retaliation. And if, somehow, a future Palestinian leadership comes seeking substantive negotiations, neither Trump nor his successors may be in a position to guarantee anything, to anyone.

And keep the tab open, it’s just getting started.

About the Author
Shai Franklin, a consultant and lobbyist with U.S. and overseas clients, has served as an executive with American and international Jewish organizations.
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