Will Rex Tillerson Turn Out to Be Another George Shultz?

When George Schultz was appointed 35 years ago, Jews were worried but now he's considered to have been a great friend of Israel.

ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson and former US Secretary of State George Shultz.
DANIEL KRAMER/REUTERS and Noah Berger/Bloomberg

When George Shultz was appointed U.S. secretary of state, many American Jews and Israelis were concerned that as former head of a conglomerate heavily invested in the Arab world, he might be prejudiced against the Jewish state. That was almost 35 years ago. Today, Shultz is considered to have been one of the best friends Israel ever had in the U.S. administration.

That could explain why responses in Israel and the Jewish-American community to the nomination of someone even more deeply connected to the Arab world have been unusually restrained. In fact, the overall consensus about the appointment of Exxon Mobil chief Rex Tillerson to America’s top diplomatic post can best be summed up as follows: Let’s give the guy a chance.

The same cannot be said for John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, widely considered a leading candidate for the No. 2 position at the State Department. Bolton, unlike Tillerson, is a known quantity when it comes to the Middle East. Among the most prominent hawks in the Republican Party, he believes Israel can do no wrong and Iran no right.

Responses to Bolton’s possible appointment as deputy secretary of state have, therefore, been stronger and more varied, ranging from absolute delight on the part of Israelis and Jews who support the settlement enterprise to deep trepidation among those who believe in a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As Tel Aviv University Professor Itamar Rabinovich, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Washington in the 1990s, noted: “Bolton is undoubtedly very pro-Israel in the right wing sense. Opponents of the two-state solution, as well as those who support expansion of the settlements and a firm hand against Iran, would all be happy with him.”  

ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson speaks during the IHS CERAWeek 2015 energy conference in Houston, Texas April 21, 2015.
DANIEL KRAMER/REUTERS

Nonetheless, he observed, deputy secretaries are not always able to have their way. “We’ve had in the past some very dominant deputy secretaries and some who were complete unknowns,” said Rabinovich. “While Tillerson has no track record on Israel that I’m aware of, he certainly doesn’t come from the same school as Bolton, and in this system, the boss is the boss.”

As an oilman from Texas, Tillerson doesn’t naturally fall into the so-called “pro-Israel” camp, but as Rabinovich noted, that is less relevant these days. “We should remember that most of the Arab oil-producing countries today aren’t necessarily anti-Israel,” he said. “The Gulf countries now have fairly good relations with Israel under the table, so the oil people aren’t under pressure, as they once were, from their Arab trade partners.”

Those rejoicing over Bolton’s possible appointment to second-in-command at the State Department may be reacting prematurely, warned Chuck Freilich, an expert on U.S. Mideast policy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.

“Yes, he is very very pro-Israel and a hardliner on Iran, so he will certainly be easy for Israel to work with,” he said. “But the idea that this is a new era and that Trump is going to leave us alone about the settlements – I think it’s too early to make that call. Maybe he doesn’t care either way about the settlements, but we need to remember that Trump is a one-issue person and that issue is Trump.  If he comes to the conclusion that Israeli policy is an obstacle to something he wants, I don’t think he has a lot of sentiment here. He can come down on us in ways that no other president has ever done.”

Oded Eran, a former senior Israeli diplomat, concurs. “Major decisions related to Israel will always reach the desk of the president,” he noted. “History shows that the secretary of state is not necessarily the most influential voice when it comes to policy on Israel.”

Prime Minister Shimon Peres, U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir at a memorial service for WWII Jewish fighters, Jerusalem, Israel, May 10, 1985.
Herman Chanania / GPO

According to Freilich, it is also premature to draw conclusions about Tillerman’s leanings. “Before we prejudge him, we should give him a chance,” he urged. “Let’s not forget that there were similar concerns about George Shultz because he was the chairman of Bechtel, which was a major construction conglomerate that did lots of work in the Arab world. In the end, Shultz turned out to be one of the most pro-Israel secretaries of state ever.”

Even though Tillerson’s views on the Middle East conflict are unknown, Abe Katsman, a prominent Republican Party activist in Israel said he was not overly concerned. “What we do know are the pro-Israel views of President-elect Trump's other appointments – and of Trump himself and his closest advisors,” he noted. “In that light, Tillerson is entitled to the benefit of the doubt for now.”   

If Bolton ends up being part of the package, Katsman added, “that is a good sign.”

By contrast, Heather Stone, a Democratic Party activist in Israel, expressed concern about Tillerson’s lack of diplomatic credentials in general and his lack of experience in Israel in particular. “His business experience at Exxon Mobil has carefully kept him away from Israel,” she noted.  “There has never been a secretary of state in the past 40 plus years who has had no Israel experience before stepping into the job.”

Over in the United States, even the right-wing Zionist Organization of America was not quick to pass judgment on Tillerson over his connections in the Arab world.  “Since Donald Trump and most of his top aides are strongly pro-Israel, I don't believe they would have allowed this appointment if he were hostile,” said Morton Klein, president of the ZOA.

If Bolton is eventually appointed Tillerson’s deputy, said Klein, “that would add to our comfort level.”

Tillerson’s close ties to the Arab world could even work to Israel’s advantage, the ZOA president speculated. “Maybe his strong relationships with Arab countries and Russia would enable him to convince them to modify their hostile attitudes,” he said.

On the other end of the Zionist political spectrum, J Street – the pro-Israel, anti-occupation group – expressed strong opposition to the possible appointment of Bolton as second-in-command at the State Department. “J Street believes John Bolton is a completely inappropriate choice for Deputy Secretary of State, or any role related to America’s relations with the rest of the world,” said Jeremy Ben Ami the organization’s president. “We oppose his nomination and believe his confirmation would greatly set back American diplomacy, our country’s national standing and the foreign policy and security interests of the United States and our allies, including Israel. Bolton’s long track record shows to him to be hostile to the notion of diplomacy itself. He is an unabashed advocate for premature, unnecessary and dangerous use of military force in the Middle East and around the globe.”

The J Street statement warned that Bolton did not have Israel’s best interests at heart. “Bolton has shown little understanding for the challenges that Israel faces if it is to remain a secure and democratic homeland for the Jewish people,” it said. “He has opposed U.S. leadership toward a two-state solution and savaged the efforts the Obama administration has made to help bring Israelis and Palestinians closer to that bipartisan goal.” The statement urged the senate “to refuse to confirm such a reckless choice for one of our nation’s most important offices.”

Without specifically addressing Tillerson’s suitability for the secretary of state position, J Street called on senators from both parties “to question him vigorously to determine whether his views are consistent with decades of bipartisan U.S. support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and with upholding our country’s international commitments, such as the successful nuclear agreement with Iran, and whether he appreciates the importance of strong diplomacy as the first option for resolving conflicts abroad.”

In a statement, the American Jewish Committee said it “looks forward to working with the Trump administration’s secretary of state, as we have with previous secretaries for more than a century.” Noting that Tillerson had “distinguished himself in the management of one of the world’s premier corporations,” the AJC noted, at the same time, that “we are unfamiliar with his larger geopolitical view of the world and America’s place in it.” As such, the AJC expressed hope that during the confirmation hearings, Tillerson would clarify his views on several key issues, among them U.S.-Israel relations and Iran.

AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, refused to comment on the State Department nominations, saying it had “a longstanding policy of not taking positions on presidential appointments.”

In a statement, the National Jewish Democratic Council described Trump’s candidate for secretary of state as follows: “At best, Tillerson is an unknown quantity when it comes to Israel. At worst, his affinity for Putin and his business dealings with some of Israel's worse enemies add to the growing list of fears for supporters of the U.S.-Israel relationship."