Why Did Trump Keep Obama's Senior Israel Adviser? Depends Who You're Asking

Yael Lempert, a Obama holdover, is bearing the brunt of right-wing frustration over Trump's Israel policy.

Yael Lempert stands next to John Kerry in Paris, June 3, 2016.
State Department Photo

She's a leader in the war against Israel; she's pro-Palestinian; she's poisoning the atmosphere and a radical leftist – these are just some of the epithets currently appearing on blogs and websites in Israel and the United States identified with the conservative right and the settler lobby. The target of these attacks, which began during negotiations between the White House and the Prime Minister’s Office on reining in settlement construction, was a relatively unknown U.S. diplomat called Yael Lempert.

Lempert, 43, held the Israel portfolio on the National Security Council during Barack Obama’s last two years as president. Her flagship project was to head negotiations between the Netanyahu government and Obama administration over the military aid package, in addition to her work on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The $38-billion deal, over 10 years, was the biggest the United States ever signed with any country.

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In the days after Donald Trump’s election last November, Lempert – a career diplomat for 20 years, during which time she served in such places as the U.S. embassies in Baghdad and Cairo, and the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem – began clearing her desk ahead of a planned return to her old workplace in the State Department. However, one of Trump’s advisers asked her to stay on for the transition and assembling of the new team.

Days turned into weeks and Lempert eventually discovered that, after the vast majority of her colleagues in the National Security Council building had left, she was the sole survivor of the changing of the guard at the White House.

Officials in the Prime Minister’s Office also noticed. Some of Benjamin Netanyahu’s advisers who participated in the preparatory talks in Washington, prior to the premier’s visit to the White House in February, were surprised to find Lempert attending some of the meetings.

Lempert also had a place at the table at the mid-February meeting between Netanyahu and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. The suspicions within Netanyahu’s office concerning anyone who had been within a five-mile radius of President Obama began working overtime.

A few weeks ago, senior officials in the Trump administration asked Lempert to remain at her post and help with advancing one of the new president’s main foreign policy goals: achieving “the ultimate deal” between Israel and the Palestinians. Lempert agreed and a few days later found herself on a plane with the president’s envoy, Jason Greenblatt, en route for another U.S. attempt to broker a historic peace deal in the Middle East.

“Lempert is an experienced and skilled diplomat,” said a senior official in the Trump administration, speaking on condition of anonymity. “She was asked by the Obama administration to come work at the White House because she is a professional, and she was asked by the Trump administration to stay at the White House because she is a professional. The Trump team asked most of the staffers from the Obama White House to leave, but they asked her to stay – this tells you they appreciate her knowledge and experience.”

Lempert did not participate in all of Greenblatt’s meetings during their visit to Israel last week. Netanyahu’s conversations with the new U.S. envoy took place mostly in private. Still, Lempert played a central role in selecting the people Greenblatt met in Jerusalem and Ramallah, and in putting together the positions he presented to the Israelis and Palestinians.

A senior minister in the security cabinet told Haaretz that Lempert’s presence during Greenblatt’s visit – and her involvement in talks between the White House and Prime Minister’s Office about reining in settlement construction – were a concern for Netanyahu and his advisers.

“The feeling I got was that the Prime Minister’s Office would rather distance her,” said the senior minister.

Coincidentally or not, websites identified with the right in Israel and the United States started writing articles condemning Lempert during – and especially after – the U.S. envoy’s visit. For example, writing in Makor Rishon – which is pro-settlement and religious Zionist – Ariel Kahana wrote that official Israeli sources were increasing the level of criticism toward Lempert. He said they claimed she was “poisoning the atmosphere” and constituting a negative influence on Greenblatt.

His article also claimed that Lempert tried to prevent the meeting between the U.S. envoy and two settlement council heads, which only took place in the wake of pressure by Netanyahu’s office.

A few days before that, writing in the online Jewish magazine Tablet, conservative columnist Lee Smith quoted a former Clinton official as saying that Lempert “is considered one of the harshest critics of Israel on the foreign policy far left.” The former official also accused her of trying to destabilize the Israeli-American alliance.

A similar critique appeared the very same day, March 15, in an article by Daniel Horowitz on the Conservative Review website.

“Lempert was literally Obama’s point person in the White House orchestrating his war against Israel,” he wrote. “This decision [by Trump to keep her at the White House] is Orwellian.”

Another article published a few days later in FrontPageMag raised the question of whether Lempert’s influence would cause the tense relations between Israel and the White House during Obama’s presidency to continue during the Trump era.

“Yael has unfairly become a lightning rod for people who don’t seem to like the direction the Trump administration is going in with regard to Israel,” said a former senior U.S. diplomat who served both Republican and Democratic administrations. “Rather than blame Trump, [Jared] Kushner or Greenblatt, it is much easier for them to blame her and tar her with the Obama label, rather than point to those more senior than her who are making the real decisions – be it on moving the embassy to Jerusalem, on settlements, or on the two-state solution. This is unfair: she is widely recognized as a consummate professional who is known for her positive, nonpartisan, can-do approach. And that seems to be the reason the Trump White House asked her to stay on rather than return to the State Department.”

Elliott Abrams, who served as deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy under George W. Bush, and who was nearly named deputy secretary of state in the Trump administration, also came to Lempert’s defense.

“It is a mistake to attack career foreign service officers and other career civil servants because they have implemented the policy of the president whose administration is in office,” Abrams told Haaretz this week. “Yael is a professional with great knowledge of the Middle East, and will give her best advice to political appointees of this administration as she gave it to political appointees of the Obama administration. They don’t have to take the advice but if their policies are to be effective, they will need the kind of detailed knowledge she has. The Trump team asked her to stay on after January 20 for exactly that reason, and they were right to do so.”

The publication of the articles created a feeling among many in Washington and Jerusalem that there was a coordinated campaign against Lempert, raising suspicions that Netanyahu and Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer were behind the briefings against her.

Netanyahu’s office denied taking any action against the U.S. diplomat.

The Israeli Embassy in Washington also denied the suspicions, and said Dermer and Lempert have had, and continue to enjoy, a good working relationship.

“We have no objections to working with Yael Lempert or with any other American official,” stated the Prime Minister’s Office. “President Trump sets the policy, and we believe this policy will allow us to reach understandings aspiring to advance peace. Members of the office and the embassy in Washington worked closely with Yael Lempert to complete the military aid agreement. She worked and continues to work vigorously to promote cooperation between the countries.”

Despite the attacks against her, Lempert has no intention of going anywhere. Earlier this week she participated in talks in Washington between Netanyahu’s advisers and Greenblatt about achieving understandings regarding settlement construction. She will probably return to the region soon for another round of talks in Jerusalem and Ramallah.

A senior U.S. official said that Greenblatt himself had good chemistry with her, and that Lempert was working hard for him.

Greenblatt himself also defended Lempert. “Since taking on my role as Special Representative for International Negotiations, I have been ably supported by the extremely hard-working officials at the National Security Council, including NSC Senior Director Yael Lempert, the State Department and U.S. missions in the Middle East region, who are enthusiastically working to advance the president’s agenda,” he told Haaretz. “I am grateful to those dedicated officials who continue to assist me in my role.”