U.S. President Donald Trump's national security adviser, Michael Flynn, resigned Monday under scrutiny over his connections to the Russian government. On an operational level, it’s clear that Flynn’s sudden resignation on the eve of White House meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has disrupted the development of policy and coordination between the two countries that was well underway. Flynn was a key participant in establishing the terms of the bilateral relationship between Israel and the new administrations, which are meant to be the focus of Trump’s first official sit-down with Netanyahu on Wednesday.
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Mossad chief Yossi Cohen and acting National Security Adviser Jacob Nagel had already made two secret visits to Washington – one in December and one in January – to meet with Flynn and other senior aides in order to coordinate policy between the Israeli government and the new U.S. administration. Last week, senior officials told Haaretz that the two meetings aimed at devising policies on Iran, the situation in Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In an optimistic scenario, acting National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg will be well-positioned to quickly step in and minimize any damage caused by Flynn’s absence due to his previous role as chief of staff and executive secretary of the National Security Council – and Trump’s campaign adviser on national security and foreign policy before that. But realistically, the change in leadership and the distraction of energies by the Trump team as they scramble to manage the crisis is likely to have a price. What is supposed to be a substantial meeting could potentially be emptied of importance and end up as little more than a photo opportunity.
In the bigger picture, the loss of Flynn on Trump’s team will surely come as a deep disappointment to those in Israel who counted on his uncompromising stance on Iran and Islamic terror to influence the direction of Trump’s policy. But to those who prefer a more pragmatic approach over Flynn’s hot-under-the-collar ideology, the three former generals being put forward as Flynn’s possible replacements are likely to be seen as a desirable check on other members of the Trump administration and on Trump himself.
The Israeli hard right loved Flynn. When he was first named to his post, right-wing pundit Caroline Glick wrote in a celebratory piece that he “is far-sighted and determined, and locked on his target: Iran.” She expressed her belief that “Trump intends to bring down the Iranian regime as a first step toward securing an unconditional victory in the war against radical Islam.”
Flynn, former director of intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and intelligence chief for the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, has held strong and often controversial opinions which he has shared widely. He has been a tough and relentless critic of the Obama administration’s approach to the Middle East, most prominently the Iran nuclear deal, its approach to the fight against the Islamic State and what he viewed as an insufficiently hard line against “radical Islam.” His public remarks had been criticized as attacking the Muslim religion as a “cancer” and a “political ideology” that “definitely hides behind being a religion” – views he laid out in his book, “The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and its Allies.”
But left-wing American Jewish organizations expressed concerns about Flynn’s attitudes – not only toward Muslims, but toward Jews as well. After Flynn was named to his post, four liberal Jewish groups joined a drive calling on Donald Trump to rescind the nomination, citing the general’s hostility to Islam and his retweeting an anti-Semitic tweet.
J Street, Americans for Peace Now, T’ruah and the National Council of Jewish Women joined 49 other groups to pen an open letter stating that Flynn “continuously peddles the nonsensical fear of ‘Shariah law’ spreading in the United States.”
In an incident over the summer, Flynn was accused of anti-Semitic sympathies when he retweeted a post by a user called Saint Bibiana alleging that Jews were blaming the former Soviet Union for leaks published at the time from internal Democratic National Committee emails.
“CNN implicated,” read the tweet. “‘The USSR is to blame!’ Not anymore, Jews. Not anymore.”
Flynn subsequently retweeted the post with the comment, “The corrupt Democratic machine will do and say anything to get #NeverHillary into power. This is new low.”
Soon afterward, Flynn tweeted that he had meant only to share the link from CNN and apologized.
It didn’t help the perception of Flynn as an anti-Semite when, after Trump appointed him his national security adviser, KKK leader David Duke praised the nomination, tweeting: “Great pick! Gen Flynn’s retweet shows he knows that the Saudis, Isis, and the Jewish-NeoCons are the real enemies - NOT Assad and NOT Russia!”
Eyebrows were also raised during the Trump transition when it was reported in December that Flynn had met with Austrian Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache a few weeks earlier. Strache's party was founded by former Nazis and had recently signed what it termed a cooperation agreement with Russia’s ruling party, regarded as a sign of deep Kremlin involvement in European affairs through bonds with right-wing authoritarians.
Kellogg, who will be picking up the baton during security discussions at the White House, is also on the short list to permanently replace Flynn – he had been one of the leading candidates for the post before the latter was chosen.
Kellogg has extensive experience in the Middle East as chief operating officer of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, the interim governing body following the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. A Los Angeles Times article from that time described him as “ensconced in his new second-floor office in the toppled dictator’s palace,” trying to “ensure discipline and speed throughout a massive reconstruction program” following the Iraq war.
Many insiders were reporting on Tuesday morning that the frontrunner for the post is retired Vice Admiral Robert Harward. Harward, a Navy Seal, served as deputy commander of the U.S. Central Command when it was under the direction of General James Mattis, who is now secretary of defense. He sat on the National Security Council for President George W. Bush and commissioned the National Counterterrorism Center.
Upon retirement in 2013 after a nearly 40-year career in the Navy, Harward took a post as a CEO for defense and aerospace giant Lockheed Martin in the United Arab Emirates – a relationship that could cause some concern in pro-Israel circles.
The short list candidate that Israel would surely be most comfortable with is General David Petraeus, who for a short time was a candidate to become secretary of state. Petraeus lost his position as CIA chief in 2012 after it was revealed that he passed on classified information to his biographer, who had also become his mistress – a scandal that could also stand in his way of garnering the NSC post.
Israeli officials know Petraeus well. He is a regular visitor to the country and frequent participant in conferences and think tank gatherings. He spoke at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv just two days after Trump’s inauguration. In his conversation with INSS director Amos Yadlin, Petraeus observed that Gulf States no longer viewed the plight of the Palestinians as a top priority and that they were “far more concerned” about a long list of regional problems – first and foremost Iran, followed by ISIS, Yemen, the Muslim Brotherhood and Syria. The Palestinians, he said “used to be first, second and third.”
Petraeus said that when he was interviewed by Trump for secretary of state, they did not discuss Israeli settlements. When pressed on the issue of the future of the West Bank and settlement construction, he said that “in the Bush days, there was a pretty reasonable approach” and stated that “At the end of the day, I am one who is still persuaded that there is still not an alternative to the two-state solution.”
Petraeus said it was both “the best of times and worst of times" for Israel. On the positive side, he said, “Israel is on the threshold of becoming an energy superpower” and on the cutting edge of military technology. He noted that “tunnels to Gaza have been cut issues in the Sinai are being dealt with” and “violence in the West Bank has been reduced because of intelligence work of my old friends” in the Mossad and other agencies. He added that he had a personal stake in Israeli success due to his investment in two local startups.
At the same time, he was concerned about what was happening in the United Nations and other international forums, which he called an “international intifada” of pressure against Israel. He warned that when it comes to the Jewish state’s policies, “caution, prudence and pragmatism need to come to the fore.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.