Danger Signs for Israel Coming From Parts of Trump Administration

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson exits a brief media availability before his meeting with Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al Thani at the State Department, July 26, 2017 in Washington, DC.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson exits a brief media availability before his meeting with Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al Thani at the State Department, July 26, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

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Israel and its supporters in the West are seeing danger signs coming from parts of the Trump Administration. Since taking office, the camp that views Israel as a liability and “root cause” of Islamic extremism has been gaining ground. That camp is at odds with those who view the Islamist ideology as the root cause and believes it must be defeated for there to be peace in the Middle East.

State Dept. Report Blames Israel, Exonerates Palestinian Authority

The biggest danger sign for America’s best ally in the Middle East came with the recent release of the State Department’s annual Country Reports on Terrorism. It blamed Israel for sparking terrorism while applauding the Palestinian Authority’s counter-extremism efforts.

The report frames Palestinian terrorism as a response to Israeli misconduct, with no attribution to an Islamist ideology or culture with a genocidal desire to wipe Israel off the map. Palestinian terrorism is essentially presented as a form of “resistance” motivated by legitimate grievances against Israeli actions. In other words, the terrorists are misguided freedom fighters.

The identified “continued drivers of violence” are listed as a “lack of hope in achieving Palestinian statehood, Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank, settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank, the perception that the Israeli government was changing the status quo on the Haram Al Sharif/Temple Mount, and IDF tactics that the Palestinians considered overly aggressive.”

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Photo: Christof Koepsel / Getty Images)

The treatment of the Palestinian Authority, on the other hand, was mostly positive. The report lauded its efforts in combating extremism and claimed that it had minimized the incitement of violence by Palestinian Authority officials and institutions. It went so far as to say that incitement is now “rare” and “the leadership does not generally tolerate it.”

The State Department report undermines President Trump’s position on Israel.

Trump yelled at Palestinian President Abbas for lying to him about the indoctrination of Palestinian children. Shortly before that meeting, Abbas had publicly stood side-by-side in Washington D.C. with Trump. Standing together, Trump said he genuinely believed Abbas was committed to peace. Abbas asserted that Palestinian children are being raised in a “culture of peace.”

It is very unsettling that Trump fell for Abbas’ lies at all and the White House permitted Abbas to deceive the world audience watching their event. However, Trump learned the truth, publicly changed his tune, and confronted Abbas face-to-face.

By publishing this report, the State Department is closer to Abbas’ position than its own Commander-in-Chief.

The Conservative Review compared the State Department’s report to the one published under the Obama Administration with Secretary of State John Kerry. It found the report by Tillerson’s State Department is even more hostile to Israel than the one issued under Kerry, who furiously blasted Israel on his way out of office.

In fact, the State Department report spends more time assigning blame for terrorism to Israel than to Qatar, a massive sponsor of terrorism and extremism. One cannot help but wonder if Tillerson’s pro-Qatar position and business ties to the Qatari regime had something to do with it.

The report prompted one pro-Israel organization to call for the resignation of Secretary Tillerson. Rep. Pete Roskam (R-IL) wrote a letter to Tillerson pointing out the report’s errors and omissions and asking for changes.

As of now, Tillerson has not publicly responded. He has not apologized. He has not revised the report. This is a major report that should have had his attention before publication and, if it didn’t, it should now. Blaming holdovers from the previous administration is no excuse.

Increasing Taxpayer Money to the Palestinian Authority

State Department
State Department (Loren / Wiki Commons)

Another danger sign is how the State Department is hoping to spend its money as it faces major budget reductions. While the State Department plans a 28% cut in foreign aid to places around the world, State is planning to increase its aid to the Palestinian Authority.

State Department documents leaked to the media in April show it plans a 4.6% increase to the West Bank run by the terrorism-inciting Palestinian Authority and the Gaza Strip run by Hamas. A total of $215 million in aid is allotted for 2018.

The Palestinian Authority uses half of the foreign aid it receives to sponsor terrorism. It is increasing its compensation for terrorists in Israeli prisons by 13% and its financial aid to families of killed terrorists by 4%. The total amount of these two allotments is $344 million.

It remains to be seen what will actually happen with the State Department’s budget. Republican and Democratic Senators described the proposed budget as “dead on arrival.”

Changing Positions

In February, President Trump called on Israel to “hold back on settlements for a little bit.” In an interview with an Israeli newspaper, Trump said that Israeli settlement construction is “[not] a good thing for peace.”

Whatever you think of the settlements, the issue here is that Trump correlated the prospects for peace with Israel ending settlement construction. But as Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu responded, settlements are “not the core of the conflict, nor does it drive the conflict.”

Trump’s statement indicated that the camp that sees Israel as part of the “root cause” of terrorism was advancing almost immediately after he took the oath of office. On the positive side, Trump’s speech in Saudi Arabia in May did not link the problem to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a powerful omission that was overlooked by most observers.

On June 1, the Trump Administration backtracked on his vow to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, at least for the time being. No firm commitment to moving the embassy was made, despite Trump’s campaign promise.

Secretary Tillerson’s influence is widely seen as being responsible for the flip-flop. In May, Tillerson set off alarm bells for friends of Israel by refusing to commit to fulfilling Trump’s campaign pledge. He said that Trump’s promise has to be weighed against the considerations of the parties involved in the peace process.

In other words, Tillerson would rather upset Trump’s voters who he made the promise to than upset Israel’s enemies, who are also America’s enemies.

Tillerson makes it sound as if an Arab government that genuinely gave up its genocidal ambitions would resurrect its genocidal ambitions because of where an American diplomatic facility is positioned. If that’s all it takes to trigger an Arab regime into a genocidal frenzy, then that regime was never truly interested in peace in the first place.

State Department Appointments

There are also danger signs in the staffing of the State Department.

Yael Lempert (c) with the Kerry team (Photo: State Department)

In June, Tillerson appointed Yael Lempert as the Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Egypt and the Maghreb. According to her bio, she was previously in the Obama Administration’s National Security Council from 2014 to May 2017, serving as the Senior Director for the Levant, Israel and Egypt and a Special Assistant to President Obama.

This means that Tillerson’s high-level appointee served as an official involved in the tension between the U.S. and Israel that reached its peak as the Obama Administration came to an end. She also was centrally involved in the Obama Administration’s policy towards Egypt that favored the Muslim Brotherhood.

One report quoted a former Clinton official as saying:

“[Lempert] is considered one of the harshest critics of Israel on the foreign policy far left. From her position on the Obama NSC, she helped manufacture crisis after crisis in a relentless effort to portray Israel negatively and diminish the breadth and depth of our alliance. Most Democrats in town know better than to let her manage Middle East affairs. It looks like the Trump administration has no idea who she is or how hostile she is to the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

In December 2014, when Lempert was on the Obama Administration’s National Security Council, she met with anti-Israel activist Michael Sfard. He has been paid by the Palestinian Authority to act as an expert witness in terrorism trials in its defense. He also works in an organization that seeks to put Israeli officials and soldiers on trial for war crimes.

Under Trump, Lempert was involved in putting pressure on Israel to suspend its settlement construction.

Another State Department official to watch is Michael Ratney, who was Secretary of State John Kerry’s consul to Jerusalem. In March, Jordan Schachtel broke the story that Tillerson appeared to have chosen Ratney to oversee the Israeli-Palestinian portfolio.

Ratney is currently the Special Envoy for Syria, so his reassignment either hasn’t happened yet or the administration has changed its mind. He is, however, currently involved in talks with Israel regarding Syria for the Trump Administration.

National Security Council Appointments

U.S. President Trump with NCA General H.R. McMaster (left) and US Ambassador to Israel-appointee David Friedman (R)
U.S. President Trump with NCA General H.R. McMaster (left) and US Ambassador to Israel-appointee David Friedman (R) (Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP / Getty Images)

National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster was asked twice whether the Western Wall is part of Israel and he refused to answer. He replied, “That’s a policy decision.”

The peculiar non-answer appears significant in light of how the National Security Council is being staffed as McMaster shapes the office to his liking.

Kris Bauman was chosen in May as the top adviser on Israel for the National Security Council. Tellingly, the person he was replacing was the aforementioned Yael Lempert.

Daniel Greenfield reviewed Bauman’s 2009 dissertation and found highly disturbing content.

He blamed Israel and the West for failing to see “Hamas’s signals of willingness to moderate” and turning Gaza “into an open-air prison” instead of engaging Hamas. He advocated a policy that includes “Hamas in a solution,” dismissing Hamas’ oft-stated pledge to destroy Israel and kill Jews until the end of time.

Bauman cites The Israel Lobby, a book that purports to disclose how Israel secretly manipulates the U.S. institutions of power from behind-the-scenes. He says the Israel Lobby “is a force that must be reckoned with, but it is a force that can be reckoned with.”

Bauman clearly depicts Israel as the aggressor and, as Greenfield points out, equates Jewish settlers in the West Bank with Palestinian terrorists.

“It is true that one could make an analogous argument regarding Palestinian terrorism, but there is one major difference between the two. Israeli government control over settlement expansion is far greater than Palestinian Authority control over terrorism,” Bauman writes.

He blames the peace process for failing on Israel and the West because each offer “overwhelmingly favored Israeli interests.” Prime Minister Netanyahu is blamed for “inciting Palestinian violence” and deliberately undermining the prospects for peace.

A consistent theme appears in Bauman’s thesis: Israel is the instigator of terrorism. To defeat terrorism, stop Israel. And now he is in a strong position in the National Security Council to try to make that happen.

Early Concern Over Secretary of Defense Mattis

President Trump’s selection of General James Mattis as secretary of defense was widely celebrated, particularly among those who appreciated his tough stands on Islamism, the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran. However, comments he made regarding Israel in 2013 received renewed attention.

Mattis seemed to express the opinion that U.S. support of Israel undermines the American military and national security.

“I paid a military security price every day as a commander of CENTCOM because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel, and that moderates all the moderate Arabs who want to be with us because they can’t come out publicly in support of people who don’t show respect for the Arab Palestinians,” he said.

Mattis also seemed to believe that Israeli settlement construction was a primary cause of the conflict with the Palestinians. He warned that Israel was headed towards “apatheid” if it isn’t stopped.

“If I’m Jerusalem and I put 500 Jewish settlers out here to the east and there’s 10,000 Arab settlers in here, if we draw the border to include them, either it ceases to be a Jewish state or you say the Arabs don’t get to vote — apartheid…That didn’t work too well the last time I saw that practiced in a country,” he said.

The good news is that Mattis has repeatedly expressed his disdain for the Iranian regime and is eager to give them some payback for killing American soldiers for decades. His comments on the Muslim Brotherhood and Political Islam show that he understands the ideological foundation of the threat.

Conclusion

Every administration struggles with the contentious debate over whether Israel is a liability that generates Islamic extremism or whether Islamic extremism is what generates and sustains the conflicts that Israel is in. And for some, the truth is somewhere in between.

We are seeing this debate play out inside the Trump Administration. And the first camp is gaining ground.

Ryan Mauro
Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org's Shillman Fellow and national security analyst and an adjunct professor of counter-terrorism. He is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio.