Obama's Right-hand Man on How and Why Trump Messed Up on Jerusalem

David Axelrod was a special adviser to Obama and worked on the Mideast peace process. He believes Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital is indicative of a ‘confused’ foreign policy, which could have dangerous implications for Israel

Barack Obama’s former right-hand man believes that when U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as the Israeli capital earlier this month, he could have done so in a way that tried to advance the peace process.

Although David Axelrod calls Trump’s decision a “destabilizing” move that may have dangerous implications for the region, he also says that “if you were going to take this huge step – and this was an enormously valuable step [to Israel] – it should have been in the furtherance of the peace process.

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"There should have been some concessions relative to settlements or to other issues in exchange for it, and [Trump] didn’t do it and I think that was a mistake,” adds Axelrod, echoing Thomas Friedman’s recent op-ed in the New York Times.

Axelrod believes that not only will Trump’s move hurt the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, it will “certainly make the U.S. less able to act as a broker, as a force in bringing the parties together around any peace agreement.”

U.S. President Donald Trump with Vice President Mike Pence behind him during the announcement that the United States is recognizing Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, December 6, 2017.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Trump’s Jerusalem declaration dominated the start of Haaretz’s interview with Axelrod on Tuesday (two days before the UN General Assembly delivered its stinging rebuke to Trump by voting 128 to 9 on a resolution demanding that the United States rescind its December 6 declaration).

Axelrod says there’s a good reason American presidents never previously recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, noting that none of the leaders of the Israel Defense Forces ever advocated for such a move.

He was personally involved in U.S. efforts to advance the peace process, so he knows what he's talking about when he says Trump’s move and the way it was taken “clearly creates more distance between the U.S. and the Palestinians – and if the U.S. is to play a constructive role, that’s not a good development.”

When told that some in Israel saw Trump’s move as a response to Obama’s controversial decision in the last month of his presidency not to veto a UN Security Council vote condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Axelrod defends that particular decision. It was the result of “frustration at [a] lack of progress, perhaps even lack of good faith in the process and a concern about American credibility around the issue,” he says.

According to Axelrod, “This permanent state of occupation is going to continue to be an enormous burden for Israel in terms of how the world looks at Israel. That’s a concern, and it should be a concern. I’m sure that’s what motivated [Obama] in that decision.

“Obama’s strong belief is that Israel’s survival as a democratic Jewish state relies on the two-state solution,” he adds. “It’s important to resolve the issue. He tried in many ways to make the case to Netanyahu and the Palestinians – and there are disappointments there as well – but he handled that in a way that he thought left the greatest possibility of success.”

‘Self-hating Jew’

We were speaking a day after Trump unveiled his national security strategy at Washington’s Ronald Reagan International Trade Building on Monday. But while the U.S. media was analyzing Trump’s speech, the focus in Israel was on a report published on the Politico website, which claimed the Obama administration had undermined a 2013-2014 law enforcement campaign targeting drug trafficking by Hezbollah, in order to help secure the Iran nuclear deal.

“During the negotiations, early on, [the Iranians] said listen, we need you to lay off Hezbollah, to tamp down the pressure on them, and the Obama administration acquiesced to that request,” a former CIA officer told Politico. “It was a strategic decision to show good faith toward the Iranians in terms of reaching an agreement.”

Axelrod refuses to comment on the Politico report, which he says he hasn’t had the chance to read carefully. But when asked about some of the responses to the story in Israel – including one by Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid that “Obama must return his Nobel Peace Prize” if the Politico story is correct, and another by Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi that the report is not surprising given Obama’s “persistent efforts to give Iran, [Hassan] Nasrallah’s patron, legitimacy at any price” – Axelrod doesn’t seem at all surprised, even if he finds it hard to understand the negative attitude toward the president whom he describes as a big supporter of Israel.

A demonstration in Lebanon against U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, December 22, 2017.
Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP

”I speak now not just as an adviser or as an American, but as a Jew,” Axelrod says. “I know what motivated [Obama]. I know that he had deep feelings about Israel and support for Israel – it was reflected in the amount of aid he extended – and he desperately wanted to help bring about a resolution to this ongoing state of uncertainty that exists.”

Yet Axelrod admits Obama’s desperate desire to bring peace to the region was not met with such an enthusiastic response from the Israeli side, especially Netanyahu, whom Axelrod sees as one of the main reasons for the continued hostility toward Obama.

“I know that at times Obama aggravated Netanyahu, and Netanyahu was very vigorous in response politically,” Axelrod says. “I think his [Netanyahu’s] own comments helped to create some of the antipathy you hear expressed toward Obama, and I think it had some impact.”

Axelrod doesn’t stop there, and while he is careful not to accuse anyone of overt racism, he doesn’t seem to rule out that Obama’s color and background may have been a factor. “I would hope there were no other deeper, darker motivations to people’s attitude toward President Obama, but I would leave that to others to speculate,” he notes.

But it wasn’t only Obama who was the frequent target of Netanyahu’s negative comments. In one of the most heated and explosive demonstrations of the high tensions between the two administrations, Netanyahu was quoted in 2009 as calling Obama’s closest circle “self-hating Jews” – a comment many believe was directed at Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel, who was the White House chief of staff at the time.

“[Netanyahu] doesn’t know me, so I took it as just an ignorant comment,” Axelrod says now. “But leaving me out of it, Rahm’s name is Rahm Israel Emanuel; his father is an immigrant from Israel; he famously came to Israel during the Gulf War in 1991 to volunteer; his commitment to Israel and its security and its future is manifest, so it was an absurd [comment]. I think it’s fair to say that disagreement with Bibi Netanyahu doesn’t translate into either opposition to Israel or to one’s faith or legitimacy as a Jew. Those are separate issues, but Netanyahu seems confused about it.”

Short-termism

In that national security strategy speech on Monday, Trump repeated a common refrain from his first year as president, attacking his predecessors in the White House for engaging “in nation-building abroad, while they failed to build up and replenish our nation at home.”

The speech mostly focused on economic strength and defending U.S. borders. But Trump again slammed the Iranian nuclear agreement, calling it a “disastrous, weak, and incomprehensibly bad deal.” He also blamed previous leaders for allowing “terrorists such as ISIS to gain control of vast parts of territory all across the Middle East.”

Trump famously disavowed the nuclear deal in October when he blamed Iran for “not living up to the spirit of the deal” and spreading “death, destruction and chaos all around the globe.” But he passed the ball to Congress, which now needs to decide whether to draft new sanctions against the Tehran regime.

Axelrod says Trump’s Iran move is indicative of his entire presidential approach. “The things he does, it’s all about the impact it has in the moment and how it will play in the moment – it’s not about a long-term strategy.

“His stand on Iran is consistent with his fundamental habit of trying to eradicate all policies that were cornerstones of the last administration,” Axelrod says. “On Iran, he did take the steps that he took, and it’s not clear what it will mean. Now it’s about Congress acting, and it’s not clear if they will do anything about it.”

Despite Trump’s constant criticisms of the deal (“One of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into”), it’s important to note that Axelrod has no second thoughts on the Iran agreement – which is considered one of Obama’s main foreign policy achievements, but one that is often criticized by Netanyahu as a bad deal. “I strongly support the deal,” Axelrod says. “It did delay their nuclear ambitions. It did add much more intrusive inspections. It did take us away from the break we were at before the agreement – and nobody really argues that point.

Tourists kissing in front of a mural depicting U.S. President Donald Trump and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu kissing each other, Bethlehem, October 29, 2017.
Reuters/Mussa Qawasma

“The point Trump and Netanyahu make,” he continues, “is that there are other elements of what Iran is doing that the agreement doesn’t address. But it was never meant to address those things. It was meant to address the singular issue of whether Iran gets a bomb – and it delays that hopefully forever, [but] certainly for a long time.”

Time and again during our interview, Axelrod attacks Trump for his lack of understanding of foreign policy issues. He attributes the president’s objections to the Iran agreement as being motivated only by local politics. “There is more support than not in this country and in the Jewish community to the agreement,” Axelrod notes. “Trump didn’t do well with Jewish voters, but he did have the support of [billionaire and Republican megadonor] Sheldon Adelson and a faction within the community that strongly supports the actions he took [concerning the deal] – and I think that was one of the things he was responding to.”

‘A confusing year’

Asked if he could find any foreign policy doctrine laid out during Trump’s speech on Monday, Axelrod highlights the section where he discussed “rival powers” Russia and China. The “irony” of Trump’s speech, he says, is that “the centerpiece of it was his tough language about China and Russia, but his withdrawal from the TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership] – and in general from the world stage – has created an enormous opening for China and Russia, particularly China.

“And in terms of dealing with Russia, it has been a year of mixed signals,” Axelrod adds. “On the one hand Congress passes sanctions, and on the other the president doesn’t impose them. His ambiguous approach to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has sent mixed signals, and meanwhile Russia is emboldened to interfere in democracies and continues to destabilize the Western coalition.”

Axelrod sums Trump’s foreign policy up as “largely incoherent,” adding that this incoherence “has been reflected also in the disparity between the things he says and the things people say on his behalf – most notably Secretary of State [Rex Tillerson], whose comments on issues like North Korea” were “immediately undercut by the president himself.”

Obama visits Israel. March 2013
Avi Ohayan / GPO

It has been “a confusing year” in American foreign policy, Axelrod says, adding that the confusion arose “from the president himself.”

Don’t know much about history...

A year after Obama left the White House, and almost seven years after he himself quit his position in the administration, Axelrod is still involved in politics and is considered one of the country’s top strategists and political analysts.

After playing a key role in Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, Axelrod established the nonpartisan Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago, where he still serves as director. Around the same time, he joined NBC News and MSNBC as a senior political analyst, moving in 2015 to CNN, where he regularly expresses his views on Trump – whom he says resembles Netanyahu in many ways, none of them complimentary to either leader.

“Netanyahu is a much more experienced politician. He is a much more sophisticated student of history – which in some ways makes him more troubling, because he knows exactly what he is doing,” Axelrod notes. “Trump exploited division in a similar way to how Netanyahu exploited division for his own political benefit. They share an instinct for how to do that.

“But I don’t think Trump has any sense of history,” Axelrod continues. “He has a kind of disregard for democratic institutions, the media, the courts, the legislative process – even his own legislative branch. By his own admission, he never read a biography of any president. I don’t think he reads at all; I don’t think he reads history. He doesn’t have [an] appreciation for what the project of democracy is all about. I think Netanyahu does, so in that sense he is a much more sophisticated practitioner of the politics of division.”

But it’s not only the division, says Axelrod, who sees a real risk to the democratic natures of both countries under their present leaders. “The foundation of any democracy is the public faith in its institutions. And if the public faith in it erodes, the democracy is weakened,” he warns. “If on a daily basis leaders are delivering hammer blows to the institutions of democracy, there are long-term consequences for that. That’s my concern for Israel as well: Democracies require fidelity to the rule of law and an understanding that democratic institutions must play their role – and I would include a free media in that.”

We conclude the interview by discussing the concerns of the American-Jewish community over the rise of white nationalism and anti-Semitism that followed Trump’s election victory, plus his anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric.

“I’m a son of an immigrant from Eastern Europe who fled the pogroms and fled religious prosecution and tyranny to come to a country where his parents believed they could practice their faith freely and where they would be embraced,” Axelrod says. “So this embrace by the president of the anti-immigrant mantra, his coddling of these neo-fascist, ‘alt-right’ forces is offensive and deeply concerning to me and certainly to many of the Jews I know here.

“There are intimations in some of the rhetoric you hear: The marchers in Charlottesville [during a notorious rally there in August] were chanting anti-Semitic slogans, and yet [Trump] had a hard time denouncing them and was forced to do it and did it half-heartedly. That appalled me: The president of the United States has to stand up against hate – and I don’t think anybody feels that better than the Jews, who understand the danger of leaders who don’t do that.”