On Tuesday night, hours after President Donald Trump announced his firing of National Security Adviser John Bolton, the Israeli Embassy in Washington hosted its annual reception ahead of the Jewish High Holy Days. The timing of the event made it more interesting than most other years, as many of the guests wondered what might be said about the dramatic personnel changes in the White House.
To the disappointment of some drama-craving guests, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, didn’t mention Bolton in his speech. He did thank and praise Jason Greenblatt, the other senior Trump aide who recently announced his departure from the administration, for his work — which made the omission of Bolton’s name all the more noticeable.
Greenblatt worked closely with the Israeli government over the past two and a half years on the administration’s Middle East peace plan, and he is well-liked and appreciated by Dermer and his boss, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But his warm relations with Netanyahu and Dermer pale in comparison to the pair's years-long alliance with Bolton, which began when Greenblatt was still working as Trump’s personal lawyer in Manhattan.
The day Bolton became Trump’s national security adviser in April 2018 was one of the best days for Netanyahu and Dermer since Trump entered the White House — second only to when the U.S. president declared his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and US National Security Advisor John Bolton, back right, get off a helicopter during a visit to the Jordan Valley, on June 23, 2019. Abir Sultan,AP
Bolton replaced H.R. McMaster, who was considered one of the more moderate voices around Trump and was known for opposing the drastic step of withdrawing the United States from the Iran nuclear deal. When Bolton replaced him last year, it became clear that Trump would indeed withdraw from the deal — presenting Netanyahu with a major public relations achievement.
Bolton’s assistance to Netanyahu didn’t end with his influence on Trump regarding the Iran deal. That was just the beginning.
For the past 17 months he was closely coordinated with Dermer on everything related to Iran and the Americans’ “maximum pressure” campaign against the regime in Tehran. Bolton made several trips to Jerusalem — including one in January, in the lead-up to this year’s first election, which Netanyahu used in his campaign propaganda to highlight his close ties with the Trump administration.
In recent weeks Bolton was the main contact point inside the White House for Netanyahu’s attempts to organize a last-minute “election gesture” from Trump — one that would help him secure another term in office. Netanyahu wanted to bring Bolton and his Russian counterpart over for a high-profile meeting in Jerusalem before Election Day. A similar gathering already happened in June, at the beginning of the “do-over” election campaign. Netanyahu publicly mentioned this idea just a week ago, when Bolton’s job was still considered safe.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with then-National Security Adviser John Bolton as they deliver joint statements in Jerusalem, June 23, 2019. POOL/ REUTERS
With Bolton out of the White House, it’s unclear if Netanyahu will succeed in getting any kind of public gesture from Trump before next Tuesday. The White House helped Netanyahu several time during the April election campaign, most notably with Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. This time, despite heavy pressure from the Israeli side, Trump still hasn’t delivered anything for Netanyahu — although there are still six days left, which is an eternity in Israeli political terms.
Perhaps that’s why on Tuesday night, despite the Israeli disappointment over Bolton’s dismissal, Dermer didn’t utter a single word about the friendly national security adviser. Netanyahu, who was quick to thank Greenblatt publicly when his departure was announced last week, also remained silent about Bolton on Tuesday and Wednesday morning, despite the gratitude he has for Bolton’s role on Iran.
One thing Dermer did say in his speech, however, hinted at the growing concern in Jerusalem regarding Trump’s wishes to start new negotiations with the Iranians. Dermer said now wasn’t the time to ease the pressure on Iran and instead urged Trump “to stay the course, stand up to Iran’s aggression and continue ratcheting up the pressure.”
Bolton isn’t the only Iran hawk inside the administration, of course.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was one of the toughest critics of the Iran deal when he was a member of Congress, and the State Department under his watch has taken a tough line against Iran in multiple arenas. But Pompeo is also a politician with his own personal ambitions, and at this point in his career he is viewed as personally loyal to Trump more than to any coherent ideological line.
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This was evident on Tuesday when, shortly after Bolton was fired and during a press conference announcing new sanctions against Iran and several terror organizations, Pompeo was asked if Trump could soon meet with Iranian President Hassan Rohani. His response was that such a meeting was possible and Trump would agree to it “with no preconditions.” Bloomberg reported on Wednesday that Trump had even floated the idea of easing sanctions on Iran to help with such a meeting – to Bolton's chagrin.
One can only imagine what Congressman Pompeo would have said in 2016 if President Barack Obama had agreed to meet the Iranian leader “with no preconditions,” less than 48 hours after the Israeli prime minister had released information about suspected nuclear sites in Iran.
The current assessment in Israel, as reported earlier this week by Amos Harel, is that a meeting between Trump and Rohani is a question of when, not if. But another question should also be raising concern in Jerusalem: Who will replace Bolton, and how different will that person’s views be from those of Netanyahu’s ousted ally.