A look at Trump’s Israel policy and advisors
Nov 11, 2016 | Ahron Shapiro
As a rule, it is beyond AIJAC’s purview to analyse or comment on American political campaigns. Additionally, Israel was not a major policy issue during the US Presidential election campaign season. For this reason, you will note there were no AIJAC blogs on the topic. However, with the election passed, the time has arrived to examine the stated policies of President-elect Donald Trump, as well as take an introductory look at his Middle East Israel advisors.
Trump’s Israel Policy
As previously mentioned, Israel wasn’t much of an issue in the US elections. Both candidates kept it low-key (in the case of Hillary Clinton, we know from emails revealed by Wikileaks that she received advice to leave Israel out of her stump speeches and reserve the issue exclusively for talks with donors).
For the most part, Trump’s views on Israel were parcelled out in a piecemeal fashion during the campaign. However on November 2, his advisors on Israel, Jason Greenblatt and David Friedman, issued a 16-point policy statement that compiled his position based on all of his previous discussions and speeches.
“Each of these positions have been discussed with Mr. Trump and the Trump campaign,” they wrote, “and most have been stated, in one form or another, by Mr. Trump in various interviews or speeches given by him or on his social media accounts.”
AIJAC has also reproduced Trump’s policy points on our own Web site.
Rather than comment on every point, this blog will focus on a few highlights.
Of particular note is Trump’s explicit opposition to UN Security Council interference in Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution, and certainly against any attempts to impose a settlement between the parties. Trump also clearly promises to push back against any anti-Israel measures at the UN or any of its organs, going so far as to threaten to pull US funding from the UN Human Rights Council.
Furthermore, and very significantly, he introduces conditions for the creation of a Palestinian state as part of any peace agreement.
Finally – contrary to the belief that Trump will “tear up” the Iran nuclear deal, this statement says he will only “counteract” Iranian violations to the deal and issue new sanctions against Iran, if needed.
In regards to his views on the Security Council, Trump’s unequivocal statement could act as a deterrent for outgoing President Barack Obama to consider backing or abstaining from a long-rumoured French resolution that would effectively supersede the politically land-for-peace Resolution 242 by making the creation of a Palestinian state based on pre-1967 lines an objective endorsed by the Security Council.
Widely believed to have been delayed to avoid impacting the US elections, this resolution now would seem to be in jeopardy, as its success would require Obama to act in open defiance of the incoming president’s wishes, against all tradition and protocol. That, of course, doesn’t mean it’s impossible, but unlikely.
On the other hand, some very respected analysts, including Cifford May and Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, have come to the opposite conclusion – that Trump’s victory may very well increase the chances of such a resolution, with Obama’s support or acquiescence.
Trump’s stated policies vis-à-vis the peace process break new ground as a US president is signalling to the Palestinians that US support for statehood will be withheld unless Palestinians abandon violence and incitement, and permit Jews to live in their territory. Further, in what appears to be a first for a US President is Trump’s acknowledgement that the divided Palestinian leadership, as evidenced by Hamas control of Gaza, is itself a show-stopping obstacle to peace.
While it is not spelled out explicitly, the implication of Trump’s policy statement is tantamount to an endorsement of the separately voiced views of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog that peace progress with the Palestinians, at present, is impossible because Israel lacks a Palestinian partner to negotiate with, that is both willing and able to deliver a secure peace.
When it comes to Palestinian independence, Trump puts the onus on the Palestinians to negotiate directly with Israel and prepare their society for peace, while his views on the borders of a future Palestinian state place the needs of Israel’s security over Palestinian territorial aspirations.
It should be added that Trump, like several other US presidential hopefuls over the years, has promised to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US embassy to Jerusalem. However, previous presidents who have made that promise as candidates have found reasons to avoid doing so once in office, and it remains to be seen whether Trump will act differently than his predecessors.
Iran and Syria
As stated before, Trump’s statement on Israel policy takes a tough line on Iran in stark contrast to the Obama Administration. However, while he briefly mentions that Iran backs the Syrian Assad regime (and this is presented as a bad thing), he conspicuously avoids discussing his overall policy towards Syria.
And here is where things get sketchy for Israel. Trump has repeatedly said during his campaign that his goal in the Syrian conflict is to stop ISIS rather than confront Assad.
As he told Reuters on October 25:
“Assad is secondary, to me, to ISIS,” Trump said, using another term for Islamic State.
He also suggested that Democratic rival Hillary Clinton’s strategy for the region would lead “to World War III,” because of the potential for military conflict with a nuclear-armed Russia, which is backing the Assad regime.
“What we should do is focus on ISIS. We should not be focusing on Syria,” said Trump over fried eggs and sausage at his Trump National Doral golf resort. “You’re going to end up in World War III over Syria if we listen to Hillary Clinton.”
Russia backs its client Assad and Trump apparently doesn’t want to risk confrontation with Russia over Syria. However, as Trump himself admits, Iran backs Assad as well and benefits from a land bridge through Syria for Hezbollah to southern Lebanon and the Mediterranean.
Many Israeli analysts, including BESA Center Director Efraim Inbar (who was just speaking on this very topic, among others, in Australia) maintain that the Syrian-Iranian Axis represents a significantly bigger strategic threat to Israel than ISIS.
It’s too early to tell whether standing up to Iran will be an exception for Trump, though again, his minimal, weak Syrian policy hints at a somewhat contradictory stance at this point.
Trump’s Israel advisors
Trump’s Israel Advisory Committee is co-chaired by Jason Greenblatt and David Friedman. Both are real estate lawyers who have worked closely with Trump for many years and have risen to top levels of his businesses.
While he has not taken a prominent role thus far, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner co-wrote Trump’s well-received speech to AIPAC earlier this year and should be included among Trump’s trusted advisors on Israel.
Greenblatt, 49, is the chief legal officer at the Trump Organisation and an executive vice president. A yarmulke-wearing orthodox Jew, Greenblatt is a graduate of Yeshiva University.
In August, he was interviewed by Katie Glueck from the website Politico in a fairly hostile piece which questioned how a real estate lawyer with no foreign policy experience should be put in an advisory position for a presidential candidate.
In his defence, Greenblatt suggested that perhaps a fresh approach wouldn’t be a bad thing:
“There are lots of experts, over decades, who have lived in the policy world, have lived in the world of diplomacy and government,” Greenblatt said, speaking in a gold-hued conference room on the 26th floor of Trump Tower in Manhattan and waving off questions about his inexperience. “Not to diminish their role, but are we any closer to achieving the peace process? Are we any closer to achieving peace?”
Not surprisingly, this attitude annoyed the people who have trained their whole lives to be political advisors.
“To me it’s almost degrading to say, just because you’re Jewish, you know this,” said Lisa Spies, who ran Jewish outreach for Mitt Romney in 2012 and works extensively with pro-Israel donors. “This is degrading to people who actually do this professionally.”
Friedman, 58, who tells reporters he has acted as Trump’s attorney many times. He works at the New York law firm Kasowitz Benson Torres & Friedman LLP and counts former U.S. Vice-Presidential candidate, Senator Joe Lieberman among his work colleagues at the firm.
Friedman owns an apartment in Jerusalem and is rumoured to be a top contender to be the next US ambassador to Israel.
In a wide-ranging interview with Media Line’s Felice Friedson on August 3, he stressed that Trump’s tougher position on a Palestinian state should not be misconstrued as an endorsement for a one-state outcome.
His position is not a one-state solution. His position is that he’s observed the obvious, which is that a two-state solution over the past generation has been attempted over and over again and has been a failure. The definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again expecting a different result – and he’s not insane. To blindly embrace a two-state solution because it’s been an American policy for the past 25-years is not something he’s going to do, any more so than one would have expected a president in the 1970s embrace the Vietnam war because it was a 20-year policy of the United States. Policies are only good if they work.
During the last months of the Trump presidential campaign, Friedman wrote four op-eds for the Jerusalem Post defending Trump on Israel and Jewish issues.
They can be accessed here.
Contenders for Secretary of State under Donald Trump
As widely known, for a variety of reasons beyond the scope of this blog, a significant fraction of Republican lawmakers and strategists either refused to accept Trump as their candidate or distanced themselves from him at some point during his campaign.
In perhaps the most telling example, a month before the election – amidst the backdrop of embarrassing recordings of Trump saying lewd remarks about women – House Speaker Paul Ryan said he would no longer campaign for Trump.
For this reason, in choosing the all-important cabinet position of Secretary of State, Trump will likely limit his choices to those eligible candidates who were most loyal to Trump during his campaign.
Pundits have thus far focused their attention on three individuals: Former US ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
While much could be said about the world view and professional resumes of these candidates, of particular interest to AIJAC readers is the fact that Bolton and Corker have been outspoken in their criticism of the Iran nuclear deal, while Newt Gingrich is known for his hawkish views on Israel.
Rafael Medoff of the Jewish News Service has just published a profile of these candidates from the perspective of Israel which can be accessed here.
Other prominent Jewish voices close to Trump
In July, journalist Armin Rosen, writing for the Web site Tablet, published a series of short profiles of prominent Jews associated with Trump.
Besides Friedman, Greenblatt and Kushner, Rosen included short profiles of Trump’s Jewish family including his daughter (Kushner’s wife and Jewish convert) Ivanka, and Trump’s father-in-law (and campaign donor) Charles Kushner.
Within his corporate inner circle, Rosen profiled his special counsel, executive vice president Michael Cohen (a Democrat, it should be noted). Finally, rounding out the review were Jews who helped Trump finance his campaign, including Trump’s national fundraising chairman Steven Mnuchin, and Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.
Postscript – A campaign controversy: Antisemitism among Trump supporters
While Israel wasn’t a major issue in the campaign, Hillary Clinton supporters strongly criticised the Trump campaign for not doing enough to distance itself from endorsements by neo-Nazis and other extreme-right elements. At times, this criticism extended to promotional materials produced by the Trump campaign itself.
Trump’s Jewish advisors vehemently rejected the accusations.
“The danger in the U.S. is on the left, not on the right,” Friedman told the JTA in a story published on October 25. “I’m not saying that there aren’t neo-Nazis floating around in the United States, because I’m sure there are. But the movement we ought to be concerned about is on the left.”