Daniel Pipes: Will Trump Turn Against Israel?
Nikki Haley [recording]: Nowhere has the UN’s failure been more consistent, and more outrageous, than its bias against our close ally, Israel. In the general assembly session just completed, the UN adopted 20 resolutions against Israel and only six targeting the rest of the world’s countries combined.
Ezra Levant: That’s Nikki Haley at her confirmation hearing. She is now Donald Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, taking a very pro-Israel approach, a marked departure from President Obama’s approach. But other than Nikki Haley, how has Donald Trump done in terms of Israel and the Middle East? Has he kept the promise of being pro-Israel, moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, backing off of bullying the Israelis about their construction of settlements? Joining us now in the studio to talk about this is our friend, Dr. Daniel Pipes, up here from the Middle East Forum. Great to see you again!
Daniel Pipes: You too, Ezra.
Levant: Welcome to our humble studios. I like what Nikki Haley has done so far. She has kept talking about this anti-Israel bias, even now that she’s within the bosom of the UN, so I don’t think she’s being co-opted by the career diplomats and bureaucrats. How has Trump done on the other aspects?
Pipes: Nikki Haley’s been fantastic. The other aspects are not so good. When you look at the most important issue of all, the Iran deal, the JCPOA, which Trump called the “worst deal in history,” nothing in a little over two months has happened. Nothing at all.
Levant: What could happen? What could he do? What should he do? What did he promise to do?
Pipes: He never exactly said what he would do, but he called it very bad things. And the striking thing about the Iran deal is that it’s not a deal. It’s a one-sided proposal by the United States. No one else signed it, just the US government. No other government. Not the Iranian, not the other five states. So Trump could simply terminate it. He could change the enforcement of it. He could do all sorts of things, but he hasn’t. Nothing’s happened, at least publicly, that we know of.
Levant: As his rhetoric changed, I see that Iran’s rhetoric is getting tougher in the Persian Gulf. Has Trump or his secretary of state said a different kind of language? I noticed a change in language with North Korea. The secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has basically said there’s no more fruit to be found in negotiation. Have they said the same about Iran?
Pipes: No, but they have talked tougher, which isn’t hard because the Obama administration was very appeasing. So yes, there’s tougher talk, and I think the Iranians are being a bit more cautious, but the main thrust of the policy was to get rid of the deal – and it’s still there.
You mentioned the move of the embassy to Jerusalem. Mike Pence just reaffirmed it, but, in fact, nothing has happened. You also mentioned the Israeli building of housing units in the West Bank: there, it looks like more continuity than change. More importantly, on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, it looks, at this point, like there’s no real change. Furthermore, a number of key Obama administration personnel on the National Security Council and the State Department are in place and it looks like they have more power than ever. So, overall, other than the United Nations, it looks like continuity more than change.
This points to an interesting pattern that I have been following since the early 90s: that politicians and diplomats in the United States, and presumably elsewhere, who talk warmly about Israel receive such great thanks for this that they don’t have to actually do anything. In fact, they can do things which are otherwise anathema. In contrast, politicians who are not warm toward Israel don’t get any credit even when they do things which are good for it. So, for example, Barack Obama had, from Israel’s point of view, the best-ever weapons delivery, but he got no credit for it because he was nasty to Israel. Trump, because he and his team have been friendly in words, are getting credit even though they haven’t actually done anything.
Levant: Well, it’s only been a couple of months and, obviously, building the wall and the immigration issue are pretty core Trump promises. In their own way, they benefit Israel. Also, they name terrorism and call it Islamic. The word Islamic, Islamist, or political Islam has been said more in the last two-three months by the U.S. administration than in the last ten years.
Pipes: Yeah, but, again, it’s words rather than actions. It’s talking about radical Islam and terrorism. To be sure, a step forward, but the two efforts to control immigration have both failed.
Levant: Well, that’s at the feet of judges. Perhaps the executive orders could be more finely crafted, and I think eventually they will succeed.
But what do you think the time limit is? I mean, you say Pence reiterated America’s plan to move the embassy. (I trust that was said at the AIPAC convention on right now.) How long before people start calling him on that promise? It’s just been a couple, three months.
Pipes: I think so long as he makes the right sounds and has the right tone, he has a lot of time. From the pro-Israel point of view, the right music is key. The words are secondary. If you say nice things about Israel and talk about the strength of the American-Israeli relationship, you have credit that will take you a long way.
Levant: You know, we at Rebel Media just went on a mission to Israel. We took five or six of our team. I had been to Israel before, but no one else had. It was a real eye-opener. I didn’t think I would learn a lot because I had been there before – but one thing I learned that really struck me, and let me run this by you. Our guide said that in the total of modern history, like the last century of Arab-Israeli conflict, all the wars combined, all the terrorism combined, the total death toll, on both sides, he said, and you can correct me if this wrong, was less than a hundred thousand.
Now, that’s still an enormous tragedy. Every one of those is a tragedy, but compare that to the last six months in Syria, or to what ISIS is doing in northern Iraq. Compared to any other crisis in a hundred years, less than a hundred thousand casualties, and I’m not being condescending towards the gravity of that, but I’m thinking this is not the world’s greatest problem. This is not the world’s most intractable problem. This is not, I mean, Donald Trump said this is the deal to end all deals to solve this problem. No, it ain’t. In fact, it’s like a fake, or a distraction, or a placebo. Focus on Israel and lay off of Saudi Arabia, Iran, ISIS, all these other countries. Do you think Trump’s sort of ignoring Israel is a hidden plus because he’s not going to obsess over it like Bill Clinton did, he’s not going to try and push Israel into a deal like other presidents have?
Pipes: Two points. First, you’re absolutely right about the numbers. I co-authored an article with Professor Gunnar Heinsohn of Germany in 2007 in which we had found the total number of Arab-Israeli fatalities at that point since World War II numbered 51,000. Also, the conflict numbered 49th on the list of fatalities in international war. So yes, that’s fewer deaths than in four dozen other conflicts.
But I do think the Arab-Israeli conflict is the ultimate deal in the sense that this is the most complex and intractable international question. There’s so many parties involved, including the great powers, and the regional powers, and the Islamic states, and the Jewish community, and the other religious communities. It is the ultimate prize to get a Nobel Peace Prize. There’s nothing comparable to it, nothing as complex and long lasting.
As for Trump not focusing on it, I’m not sure that he won’t because he sees himself as the author of The Art of the Deal, and he has said this he wants to broker this one. He’s got other things on the plate now, as you’ve pointed out – immigration, the wall, the healthcare repeal that didn’t work, taxation, education, and so forth. But I think solving this is a luring prospect, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he turns his attention to this at some point.
I also wouldn’t be surprised if he turned against Israel, seeing it as the intractable party because that is what often happens. Look at Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama: they make efforts and they get frustrated that the Israelis don’t give more because there is an enduring belief that if only the Israelis gave more, the Palestinians would relent and stop being rejectionists and everything would be fine. So, I am worried.
Levant: Last question. I see criticism of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, Trump’s daughter and son-in-law, because they have an unusual relationship with the president. They have security clearance. They sit in on meetings. We all know that Kushner and Ivanka were parts of Donald Trump’s business empire and they’re trusted counselors. It’s not surprising to me that he would want his trusted advisers admitted. It’s not like Chelsea Clinton tagging along with mom and dad, when she was just a family member and not a deeply engaged adviser.
Kushner’s an observant Jew. Ivanka converted. They seem to identify in that way. They have some ties to Israel. Do you think that they are an important source of advice on Israel, and if so, how would you then classify them on the Israel-issue spectrum? Would they be right-wing? Would they be left-wing? Are they Peace-Now types? Are they Likud types?
Pipes: Allow me to extend your question also to include David Friedman, Trump’s bankruptcy lawyer who’s just been confirmed as U.S. ambassador to Israel, and Jason Greenblatt, a Manhattan real estate lawyer who serves as the president’s special representative for international negotiations. So, four people have no history of involvement in Israeli-Palestinian or other negotiations, are rank amateurs, bringing the freshness of amateurs and also their inexperience.
I don’t know exactly all their views. The only one we really know is Friedman, who has a history of writing about the conflict, and is very much on the Likud side of the spectrum, but the others we don’t really know about. Greenblatt, from what we heard about his negotiations in Jerusalem and Ramallah, seems to be fitting into the same old pattern of “put pressure on Israel and placate the Palestinians.” The daughter and the son-in-law? I don’t know what their views are.
Overall, I worry about this lack of experience. There is a theme in American history going back to World War I, of presidents appointing people who have no knowledge of a topic, with the idea being that they’re unbiased and will bring fresh eyes to the issue. It has never worked. It has always led down rabbit holes.
I would rather have people who have been doing this for a while. You know, if you went for heart surgery, would you want someone who’s never done anything like this before or would you prefer one that’s been practicing for a while? I worry about freelancing with amateurs. There’s a lot of experience in this area. It’s a very complex topic. I worry people are wandering in and being considered sudden experts.
Levant: Well, we’ll keep in touch in the months ahead, and it’s still early days, and the only substantive sign that I see is Nikki Haley. Everything else is a possibility, or a prospect, or a process, but I think we’ll probably know before the end of the year.
Pipes: Yeah, the UN is great, but the rest I worry about.
Levant: Dr. Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum, great to have you here in the studio.
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