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Trump Officials Offer Conflicting Views on Israel Policy During Transition

A day before Trump enters the White House, it remains to be seen who will have the most influence over the next president's policy on Israel, the Palestinians, Iran and other regional issues.

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
Washington, D.C.
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Rex Tillerson at his Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing to become U.S. Secretary of State on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S.  January 11, 2017.
Rex Tillerson at his Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing to become U.S. Secretary of State on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. January 11, 2017. Credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON, D.C. - It's been nine days since the Senate began holding confirmation hearings for President-elect Donald Trump's nominees for cabinet positions. One thing that has emerged from the hearings thus far, is that the new Trump administration might find it difficult to speak in one voice on a series of foreign policy issues, including Israel.

As of Thursday morning, three of the president-elect's nominees for senior positions have been grilled by members of the Senate over issues including support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, and the fate of the nuclear deal with Iran. Their answers show that the administration could be headed for a fierce internal battle over these issues, pitting some of its senior cabinet members against the president-elect's nominee for the post of ambassador to Israel, and possibly also against a number of his most senior advisers.

The first of Trump's cabinet nominees to face questions on Israel-related issues was Rex Tillerson, the nominee for secretary of state, whose confirmation by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee still hangs in the air. Tillerson's hearing on January 11th was mostly devoted to intense questioning on his policy towards Russia and the ties he forged with the Kremlin in his previous position as the CEO of the oil giant Exxon Mobil. Israel was first mentioned four hours into his hearing, when Tillerson answered a question on the situation in Syria, saying that "the first step we have to take [to solve the Syrian crisis] is to re-engage with our traditional allies and friends in the area and reaffirm that we are back with our leadership," including "establishing a clear statement of how important Israel is to us and the role they play in this region of the world, for our benefit as well."

Later on, Tillerson was asked about the recent UN Security Council resolution against Israeli settlements in the West Bank. He called it "not helpful," a relatively weak choice of words as denunciations go, and added that it "actually undermines setting a good set of conditions for talks to continue." Tillerson was also asked about past attempts to reach a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and what they can teach about the future. "I think there have been many opportunities for progress to be made, and those have never been seized upon," he replied. "So I do think it is a matter to be discussed and decided between the two parties. To the extent America's foreign policy engagement can create a more fruitful environment for those discussions then I think that's the role we can play."

Gov. Nikki Haley during her Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill, January 18, 2017 in Washington, D.C.Credit: MARK WILSON/AFP

Tillerson called the two-state solution a "shared aspiration of all of us," and also said that it was "the dream that everyone is in pursuit of. Whether it can ever become a reality remains to be seen." He also explained, however, that in his view, much depended on the Palestinian leadership's ability to disrupt terrorism and violence against Israel. "I would say in the case of the Palestinian leadership, while they have renounced violence, it is one thing to renounce it and another to take concrete action to prevent it. I think until there is a serious demonstration on their part that they are willing to do more than just renounce violence, it is very difficult to create conditions at the table for parties to have any productive discussion."

As for the nuclear deal with Iran, Tillerson didn't speak in favor of scrapping the agreement, as Trump and some of his top surrogates promised to do during the election campaign. Instead, Tillerson said the administration should "examine our ability to clarify whether Iran is complying," adding that "the real important question is what comes at the end of this agreement." In other words, Tillerson is in favor of "policing" the agreement, not destroying it. A similar position on the nuclear deal was expressed by General James Mattis, the nominee for secretary of defense, at his hearing last week before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Mattis called the deal "an imperfect arms-control agreement, not a friendship treaty" and added that "when America gives her word, we have to live up to it and work with our allies."

Mattis, however, spoke more powerfully than Tillerson on the importance of solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, calling a solution to the conflict a "vital interest" for the United States. He added that he would support a two-state solution "if it brings peace to the region." The biggest headline from his confirmation hearing was his insistence that under current American policy, Jerusalem isn't recognized as the capital of Israel, and that the Jewish state's capital was actually Tel Aviv. Mattis called Tel Aviv "the capital I go to," explaining that "that's where all the government people are." Mattis has visited Israel multiple times during his military career and it's very likely that most of the meetings he had with Israeli officials were in fact held in Tel Aviv, which is home to the Ministry of Defense and the command center of the IDF. When asked if he supports moving the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, as Trump has promised to do, Mattis said the question should instead be presented to Tillerson, since embassies are under the responsibility of the State Department.

Mattis has spoken even more sharply on these issues in the past, famously warning in a speech in 2013 that Israeli settlements in the West Bank could lead Israel to become an apartheid state. Despite this statement, Mattis is viewed by senior defense and intelligence officials in Israel as a trusted partner, who shares Israel's concerns regarding Iran's harmful influence across the Middle East. Mattis was a strong critic of President Obama's Middle East policy, and blamed the outgoing president of being nave and allowing America's enemies in the region to grow stronger. It's less clear, however, how Mattis will be viewed by the current right-wing government in Israel, which includes many politicians who have spoken about Trump's rise to power as an opportunity to finally bury the two-state solution.

Defense Secretary nominee, retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis speaks during his Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill, on January 12, 2017 in Washington, DC.Credit: MARK WILSON/AFP

On Wednesday, it was Trump's nominee for ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, who faced a similar round of questions in her confirmation hearing before the Foreign Affairs Committee. Haley, like Mattis, said she supports the two-state solution and is committed to the bi-partisan consensus against settlements. She added that she can understand how the settlements "can hinder peace." Haley, however, took a tougher line than Tillerson and Mattis regarding the recent anti-settlements Security Council resolution, calling it "the ultimate low" and "a kick in the gut." On the other hand, Haley said she was against cutting U.S. funding to the United Nations in response to the resolution's passage, as a number of prominent Republicans have recently suggested.

The positions staked by Tillerson, Mattis and to a lesser extent also Haley during their confirmation hearings, contradict previous statements by a number of Trump's closest aides and advisers, including Vice President-elect Mike Pence, National Security Adviser Mike Flynn, and above all, Trump's choice for ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, who was also his main adviser on Israel during the election campaign.

Pence has publicly talked of ripping apart the Iran deal (as has Trump himself at times), and Flynn said in 2014 that the United States shouldn't invest more efforts in trying to forge Israeli-Palestinian peace. Pence, for his part, enjoys from strong support among evangelical Christians, many of whom believe in unconditional support for Israel and oppose any attempts by the United States to advance a two-state solution.

The contrast is even clearer when the statements of Trump's cabinet nominees are compared to those of David Friedman, the designated ambassador to Israel. Friedman is a staunch opponent of the two-state solution, has accused President Barack Obama and the U.S. State Department of Anti-Semitism, and said during the elections that undoing the Iran deal would be "a core foreign policy objective of the Trump administration." Friedman has also called Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas an illegitimate leader, and has speculated that most Palestinians would rather live under Israeli control than have their own state.

President-elect Donald J. Trump, daughter Ivanka Trump, and Trump's choice for Israel Ambassador, David Friedman, at a New Jersey court on February 25, 2010.Credit: Bradley C. Bower / Bloomberg

A day before the Trump administration enters the White House, it remains to be seen who will have the most influence over the next president's policy on Israel, the Palestinians, Iran and other regional issues. If Mattis and Tillerson set the tone, that could lead to disappointment among the Israeli right, which has been envisioning the Trump administration as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to eliminate both Palestinian statehood aspirations and the nuclear deal with Iran. If, on the other hand, Trump adopts policies advanced by Pence, Friedman and other more ideological members of his staff, it will be interesting to see how Mattis and Tillerson carry out a policy that goes against what they both had just told members of the Senate.

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