MOMENT LIVE: Donald Trump and the Future of Israel

November, 16 2016
Nadine Epstein interviews David Aaron Miller

Moment editor Nadine Epstein and former U.S.-Middle East policy analyst Aaron David Miller.


Donald Trump and the Future of Israel

At Monday’s General Assembly, Moment Magazine editor Nadine Epstein and former U.S.-Middle East policy analyst Aaron David Miller discussed how Trump the candidate will translate into Trump the foreign policy president. Read excerpts from their conversation on the United States-Israel relationship below. (For more on the Iran Deal, the crisis in Syria and Putin, click here.)

The world has changed dramatically this week, and we have a lot to learn and a lot to process. We are going to talk about Trump foreign policy today, which is a great unknown to us—and perhaps to him as well. But it’s critical to the American future, and it’s critical to the Jewish future.

Let me just say something at the outset. I’m not a rabbi, I’m not a philosopher and I’m not a grief counselor. I’m not here to make you feel better, or to make you feel worse. I cannot say, with all due respect to my children—they’re not really children anymore, they’re in their 30s—who have been profoundly disturbed and upset by recent events, that I can tell you that everything is going to be okay. I, myself, am torn in part by the millions of my fellow citizens who are driven by fear and pain, on one hand, and by my own profound belief in the goodness of this great country and the durability and resilience of its institutions, however imperfect. I’ve worked with Republicans and Democrats, I’ve voted for Republicans and Democrats. My own view of smart policy for the United States is not driven by division between left and right, liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat. It’s driven by the difference between smart, on one hand, and dumb on the other. The only thing that matters, frankly, is which side of the line do you want America to be on, and trying to create circumstances and make wise choices to make sure America is on the smart side is critically important.

One other point: I am a follower, I guess—I am not a religious person, but I am a follower—of the great Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who argued (with great respect to America, or frankly to life in general) that the best you can do in business, in marriage, in friendship and in diplomacy is to come up with proximate solutions to insoluble problems. That, I would argue to you, is the story of America. I do not believe in transformations. I’m very weary of them, frankly, given the nature and the way we approach change in this country. So, I will do my best, without grossly speculating or driving off the highway, to answer some of these questions in a vacuum with respect to information that is clearly galactic.

We don’t expect you to be a prophet today. But all of us have to start processing, and we have to process as soon as possible, so we understand what is going on. Let’s start with the new president-elect. Does he really care about foreign policy to begin with?

Whether he really does or not, no president, including the ones I worked with and the ones that I’ve studied, can afford not to. I mean, the president’s primary responsibility is not just keeping Americans prosperous, but keeping them secure. And the security of this country is clearly going to be a critical agenda item for the next president, as it was for this one. I would suggest to you, though, that given the cruel and unforgiving nature of the world that our current president inhabited, and the cruel and unforgiving nature of the world the next president will inhabit, that the prospects of finding comprehensive solutions—certainly to any of the problems in the Middle East—are probably slim to none. In large part, I would advance the argument that the next president’s agenda will be domestic in character and nature. If you look at his speech at Gettysburg, you’d be hard-pressed to find a priority issue that didn’t have to do with—

Jobs, immigration and walls.

Any number of domestic priorities that could easily be undermined by the unpredictable world in which we live. But, by and large, I think that’s what this incoming administration will focus on.

Does he care about Israel? Because I think I want to talk about the conflict in Israel first, and then move to Iran and a few other places. From what he’s said, does he care about in any deep way?

Again, as much as I believe that a president’s personality and proclivities and inclinations are critically important in forming a president’s policies, having worked for a half-dozen administrations, both Republicans and Democrat, I basically advanced the argument that there is no way any U.S. president can inherit an office, and not wrestle with—and, frankly, care about—the future of security of the State of Israel.

Well, who are his advisors now? I’ve read a little about Jason Dov Greenblatt and David Friedman. These are real estate lawyers who work with Trump, his advisors on Israel. Do you have any idea what they’re advising him to do on Israel right now, and how to deal with the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians?

Well, rule number one, however disappointing it may be (at least in my survival guide to Washington), is I do not talk about personalities I know, let alone about personalities that I don’t. I do not know either of these individuals. I think it will be instructive to see, on the national security appointments, who ends up with Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, National Security Advisor.

I come back to the reality that, by and large, there will be much more continuity in American foreign policy, when it comes to Israel-related issues, than fundamental change and/or contrast. It’s been my proposition from the beginning, through any number of administrations where there have been many ups and downs through the history of this relationship, including an administration that was perceived to be one of the most anti-Israeli administrations, and I’ve had the privilege and honor of working for both George H. W Bush and James Baker. And I think that will be the case here.

So how should the Trump administration approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

On this one, I may in fact disappoint you. My own analysis, since leaving government 13 years ago, has been—these are my own words—annoyingly negative. I do not believe the man or woman in the middle—that is to say, the mediator—is nearly as important as the two (in this case) men on either side. You give me three things which do not exist right now, and I’ll give you a reasonable chance of creating circumstances for a serious negotiation, even leading to—with all of the hesitations and reservations—a two-state solution. Number one: You give me leadership. Leaders who are masters of their political houses, not prisoners of their constituencies. You give me ownership: the fact that Israelis and Palestinians care more about this conflict, and making the core decisions required to resolve it, than any external parties. And you give me effective U.S. mediation. I would even settle for one of the first two, which would potentially lead to the third. But of the three, leadership is critical; there is insufficient leadership on both sides. Ownership, I would argue, is even more critical. It was Larry Summers who said, and he was right, that, “In the history of the world, nobody ever washed a rental car. You don’t wash rental cars because you care only about what you own.” It may be a sad testament to the human condition, but it is in fact true. And unless Israelis and Palestinians own this in a way that they are prepared to engage on it, that it makes a difference to them, primarily and profoundly, then the odds of effective mediation by the United States, or any third party, chances of mediation will be—”

So we just give up on a two-state solution for the next four or eight years?

No, I don’t suggest we abandon and hang a “closed for the season” sign on any of these issues. Look, I’m with Elie Wiesel here: Without hope, there’s no life. But I’ll tell you one thing. My second rule of thumb, at least in my personal philosophy: I will not continue to harbor the illusions that I harbored about an American role during the 20-plus years I was working. I mean, it’s a moral responsibility not to abandon hope. But it is an imperative not to see the world only in the way you want it to be. You have to reconcile it with the way the world is.

I read an interview with Jason Dov Greenblatt, who I also haven’t met, who said Trump often uses money to settle conflicts, and that he thought this was a way to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Basically, it was buying the Palestinians off. And I was wondering what you thought about the role of money.

If I had a nickel for every time, during the 20 years I was working on this problem, that somebody came to me, or one of the administrations that I worked with, with a very well-intentioned and an understandably altruistic plan, a Marshall Plan. A plan to improve the economies, particularly on the Palestinian side. The fact is, economics, financial incentives, trade and aid are extremely important, but they cannot substitute for decisions in a conflict that is driven by politics, by religion, by psychology and by historical trauma and wounded on both sides. It simply will not compute. So, if you want to reduce America’s relationships abroad, and try to create opportunities by using incentives to reduce every relationship we have to a bottom-line business proposition, I don’t think you’re going to succeed. Look; in part, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in fact a real estate proposition, but it is only in part. And it can not be approached from that perspective.

How about this relationship between Netanyahu and Trump? We really have no idea what it is, and what it’s going to be.

I’ve seen American presidents and prime ministers interact with one another over the course of a 40-plus year period. There has been tremendous dysfunction in those relationships—lack of personal trust—and yet, the most dysfunctional of the relationships ended up creating productive outcomes. That’s the paradox. It was true of Begin and Carter. It was even true of Richard Nixon and Rabin, and Golda Meir and Kissinger. It was true of George H. W. Bush and Shamir. It was even true of President Clinton and Prime Minister Netanyahu in its first incarnation. You had dysfunction, but dysfunction led to production. I would argue, just to set things in context, that over the last eight years, we’ve had a dysfunctional relationship between the current president and the Israeli prime minister, and it has not led to production.

It led to a $10 billion military agreement.

$38 billion over a ten-year period, but remember the U.S.-Israeli security relationship is, in many respects, self-sustaining. The question is, when you join issues that require critically important decisions on the part of Israeli prime ministers and presidents, can you produce a productive relationship? And remember, we’re two months before any of these propositions can be road-tested. I wrote in the Wall Street Journal last week that there will clearly be a change in the tenure and tone and the style of the relationship between the next president and Mr. Netanyahu. I predict, for a very important reason, that we need to talk about it. That probably within a year, they will be annoying the hell out of one another. It does not essentially mean that there will be fundamental changes in that relationship. That does not mean that we will go back to the dysfunction that characterized the Netanyahu-Obama relationship. But there’s one fundamental point which needs to be stressed over and over again: I had two Israeli prime ministers, Yitzhak Rabin and Benjamin Netanyahu, basically say the same thing, which was this: You live in Chevy Chase, Md.; do not preach to me. Exact words: “Do not preach to me about what you believe is good for my country’s security.” And the reality is, I understand the downside of accepting the logic and implications of that argument. But I also never forget, which is why it is virtually impossible not to understand, and certainly not to trivialize, the fears and anxieties and realities of small powers with dark pasts living in dangerous neighborhoods. And let me be more precise. I’m not here to sound like a representative of the Israeli Ministry of Information. This is something that the United States has a very hard time understanding. We are in the most extraordinary geographic position of any country on the face of the earth. We have non-predatory neighbors to our north and south, and we have fish to our east and west, which one historian brilliantly had described—I wish it had been me—as our liquid assets. These two oceans, these liquid assets, in my judgement, if you want to explain American foreign policy, start with a basic proposition like the real estate business. I come from a real estate family. It’s all location, location, location. And where we sit largely determines where we stand. That is not the case for small powers, who are sitting in very dangerous places. I would just conclude by saying the following: We have freed ourselves, to a large extent, from two forces which will continue to affect the psychology and the worldviews of most of the countries in the world, which with we deal. We have freed ourselves from geography, and freed ourselves, in large part, from history. That is not the case with the Chinese; that is not the case with the Russians. That is not the case with the Palestinians, the Egyptians, the Israelis and the Iranians, and we must never forget that elemental fact. It does not mean that we need to simply sit back, but it does mean that the way we see the world has to be reconciled, to some degree, with the way other people see it, and this is a critically important point.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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