JERUSALEM (JTA) — John Bolton, Trump’s third national security adviser, is a well-known quantity in Israel’s policy circles. In his previous capacities during the George W. Bush administration, he served in two prominent positions heavily related to Israel – undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs from 2001 to 2005, and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations for a year and a half, in 2005 and 2006.
Bolton’s Israeli counterparts, myself included, generally found him to be a skilled professional with very strong views on many issues. Most prominently, he seemed to focus on North Korea and Iran, both independently and jointly, suggesting possible covert collaboration on nuclear and missile technologies between these two members of “the axis of evil.”
The two Israeli ambassadors to the U.N. who served alongside him have described in recent interviews a very intimate modus operandi, whereby the U.S. ambassador would essentially serve as a canary deep in the tunnels of his administration. Former Israeli Ambassador to the U.N. Dan Gillerman recently told The Daily Beast that Bolton warned his Israeli counterparts about U.S. support for a French resolution that would go against Israeli interests.
“Condi Rice sold you out to the French,” Bolton said of the former secretary of state, according to Gillerman.
At such moments, the Israelis would then move quickly to curtail the American policy process by involving the two heads of state – at the time, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President George W. Bush, who had a very close relationship and personal rapport. Thus, politics would triumph over policy again and again.
There’s a Hebrew saying about right-wing extremists: “To his right, there is nothing but wall,” usually ascribed to hardliners on the Palestinian issue. It also describes Bolton’s hawkishness, which was often instrumental in shaping joint U.S.-Israel policies on Iran’s nuclear activities, its relations with Hezbollah and other issues.
Nowadays, after a rough period of unprecedented tensions during the Obama era, relations between the Netanyahu and Trump administrations are intimate. Above the surface, in front of the cameras and in public statements, it appears there is no daylight between them on most if not all policy issues.
But the real secret to the bond is political and personal, with the two leaders finding themselves in equally difficult circumstances. The similarity is striking: As law enforcement authorities are simultaneously closing in on Trump and Netanyahu, the president and prime minister are using nearly identical tactics: galvanizing their political bases, cultivating a highly personalized brand separating themselves from their parties, and lashing out against investigators, the mainstream media and the left.
When it comes to shaping the two national agendas, both leaders turn to Iran and North Korea, with Netanyahu emphasizing the former and Trump the latter. Bolton’s line of thinking, linking the two states’ nuclear projects – albeit without clear evidence – will therefore fit perfectly into the shared narrative.
“Others have chosen the easy, soft, diplomatic way,” both leaders will claim, “but we do not shy away from tough decisions, including the use of military force.”
Bolton is famous for his rejection of diplomacy and preference for military measures. The 2015 Iran nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, is an anathema for him, as much as it is for Trump and Netanyahu.
The defense and foreign policy establishments in the U.S. and Israel do not subscribe to this view, preferring to allow the JCPOA to take its course. The professionals’ rational is that the agreement, although imperfect, grants the international community a valuable window of 10-15 years in which to focus on Iran’s non-nuclear menacing activities. These include its ballistic missiles program, regional subversion in numerous Arab countries such as Iraq, Yemen and Syria, and its sponsorship of terrorism in Lebanon (Hezbollah) and Gaza (Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas).
The rift between political leaders and the military and diplomatic establishments is not new, but in the coming months will be starkly demonstrated. The May 12 cutoff for waiving sanctions against Iran — turned into an artificial deadline for keeping the deal by Trump, with Netanyahu’s enthusiastic support — is quickly approaching. Negotiations with the EU-3 (France, the United Kingdom and Germany) will most likely fail to satisfy Trump’s demands for “fixing” the deal.
In the run-up to the final decision, Bolton will be ideally positioned in the highest professional role, closest to the president’s ear. His credentials will assist the president and give his expected decision to unilaterally abrogate the agreement some professional backing. On the Israeli side, Bolton will be joined by current and former officials who will justify the departure and support the U.S. effort to reenact sanctions and design multiple pressures on the Iranian regime.
However, beyond the United States, Israel and some of the Arab countries – most notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — the other five signatories and the vast majority of the international community will lean toward Iran in an effort to pacify it and maintain at least most of the JCPOA’s provisions.
For Bolton, on the one hand it will be a very familiar setting, resembling decades of U.S.-Israeli uphill battles on the Iranian nuclear issue. But this time, to his right, there is nothing but the Oval Office wall.
(Eran Etzion is a diplomat and strategist with more than 20 years of experience in senior Israeli government positions. He was head of policy planning at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and deputy head of the National Security Council in the Prime Minister’s Office. Between 2005 and 2008, he was the coordinator of the U.S.-Israel Strategic Dialogue. He is a nonresident scholar at the Washington, D.C.-based Middle East Institute.)