When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released what he said was new information about Iran's nuclear-weapons development, his dramatic unveiling was beamed across the globe. But it was really designed for an audience of one: President Trump.
The president and Netanyahu have had a close friendship since the beginning of the Trump administration, with the U.S. siding with Israel on a host of policy issues that had long been on the back burner. But Trump’s announcement Tuesday that the U.S. was withdrawing from the landmark Iran nuclear deal cemented that relationship like nothing else in the past 16 months.
"Relations between the countries are pretty good and particularly between the two executives, it's very strong," said Lester Munson, former staff director to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who worked in the George W. Bush administration. "Trump needs vocal allies in the world and Netanyahu is willing to do that."
Trump’s decision to make good on a contentious campaign promise, siding with Israel over America's most trusted European allies, repaired some of the fraying of the U.S.-Israeli bond that occurred during the eight-year term ofhis predecessor. Barack Obama and Netanyahu didn't get along personally and the Obama administration was more willing to criticize Israel publicly — and to allow the United Nations to do the same — than any previous president since Israel's creation in 1948.
Trump visited Israel as part of his first foreign trip early last year and has decided to move the U.S. Embassy officially from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a change long sought by Israel to cement Israeli sovereignty over the disputed city. Such a move has long been championed in speeches by Republican presidential candidates, but was always put off once they reached the Oval Office because of the international norms that would break with the Arab world and its supporters.
Trump has dispatched his daughter and son-in-law, top aides Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, to Jerusalem next week to celebrate the embassy move.
On Tuesday, Trump announced the U.S. would withdraw from the 2015 Iran deal that was signed by the leaders of the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and Iran. But the Obama administration never sought to codify it as a treaty, which would have required congressional approval, so Trump simply could walk away from the deal by announcing he would no longer withhold economic sanctions against Iran.
His decision put him at the odds with some of U.S.'s closest allies — Britain, France and Germany — exacerbating a rift that began when Trump blasted them for failing to live up to their defense obligations and pulled out of the Paris climate agreement, a pact to combat global warming.
“It does put Israel and the U.S. on one side and so many of our other allies on the other side," said Heather Conley, a former deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau for European and Eurasian Affairs who is now a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. "It will look very similar to the decision when the United States agreed to recognize Jerusalem as the capital.“
Under the deal, Tehran's nuclear program wasreduced and closely monitored in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.
Obama considered the nuclear agreement one of his most important foreign-policy achievements, saying it would end the threat of Iran as a nuclear power. But during the presidential campaign, Trump vowed to rip up the nuclear pact or negotiate a better one, calling it “a disaster” and “the worst deal ever negotiated,” even warning that it would lead to a “nuclear holocaust.”
“President Trump clearly understands the importance of many issues that the Obama administration chose to ignore," said Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla. "The government of Iran, by their own admission, wants America and Israel destroyed."
In his speech, Trump credited Netayahu's presentation. "Today, we have definitive proof that this Iranian promise was a lie," he said. "Last week. Israel published intelligence documents, long-concealed by Iran, conclusively showing the Iranians' regime and its history of pursuing nuclear weapons.
I think that everybody recognizes the malign intentions of Iran, and I think everybody also recognizes Israel’s right of self-defense, which is really our common defense pic.twitter.com/tdhQSlOsk8— Benjamin Netanyahu (@netanyahu) May 8, 2018
A factsheet distributed by the White House Tuesday afternoon reiterated the significance of Netanyahu's presentation. "Intelligence recently released by Israel provides compelling details about Iran’s past secret efforts to develop nuclear weapons, which it lied about for years."
The administration called on Iran to "end its publicly declared quest to destroy Israel" and "end its cyber-attacks against the United States and our allies, including Israel."
The Republican Jewish Coalition immediately thanked Trump. "Iran continues to be an existential threat to Israel, and continues to menace Israel directly and through its proxies," it said in a statement.
Former GOP Sen. Norm Coleman, head of the RJC, said that on a recent visit to Israel, Netanyahu showed him two plaques on the walls of his office. One was President Truman's proclamation recognizing Israel; the other was Trump's proclamation to move the embassy.
"From an Israeli perspective, rejecting the Iranian deal and recognizing Jerusalem as the capital [show] support for Israel that is unparalleled and deeply appreciated," said Coleman, who will attend the embassy ceremony with casino mogul and GOP donor Sheldon Adelson.
Netanyahu's unusual power point presentation of what he said was 100,000 pages of documents about the Iranian nuclear capabilities dating back to 2003 included the words "Iran lied" in huge letters. Many experts said the documents provided no new information and failed to address what Iran had done since the deal was struck.
Matthew Heiman, who previously worked in the National Security Division at the Justice Department and is now a visiting fellow at George Mason University, said he suspects Israel, likely to have better intelligence in and around Iran than most countries, was very forthcoming with the United States, its most important ally. "That kind of thing can be very persuasive," he said.
The U.S. and Israel have had a strong relationship since the Cold War when the former Soviet Union often supported Israel’s regional enemies. The two countries share intelligence and conduct military exercises.
Netanyahu welcomed Trump’s win after a strained relationship with Obama — who didn’t visit Israel until his second term — following both the Iran deal and the U.S.'s decision not to block a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements.
Yet they, too, have had strains.
Israelis grew tired of waiting for Trump to act on his promises. They were angered after Trump allegedly disclosed highly classified intelligence gathered by Israeli officials to Russian officials. And they were offended when U.S. officials reportedly told Netanyahu he should not join Trump at one of Judaism’s holiest sites, the Western Wall.
Some Israel supporters suggest Trumps' decision will hurt the country, leaving it vulnerable to a stronger Iran.
"If the deal were to lapse, Iran would be free to develop its nuclear weapons capability immediately, not to mention continue its funding of terror, development of ballistic missiles, and threats against Israel," said Ron Klein, a former Florida congressman who is chairman of the Jewish Democratic Council of America.
Franco Ordoñez in Washington and Peter Stone, special McClatchy correspondent, contributed.