The White House.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
President-elect Donald Trump has nominated ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to be his secretary of state. Given his extensive involvement in the Middle East with the Arab oil producers and seeming lack of exposure to Israel, the immediate response of some in the pro-Israel community has been fear that Tillerson will embrace the anti-Israel positions of his former customers.
That is a possibility, although with a president as staunchly pro-Israel as Trump that would seem highly unlikely. But I think that Tillerson could actually be a catalyst for peace precisely because of his good relations with the Gulf Arabs.
In short, Tillerson’s extensive relationships with the Arab world can be leveraged to pressure and influence those governments to recognize and have diplomatic relations with Israel and to identify militant Islam rather than the Jewish state as the real enemy.
Given his business background, Tillerson is more likely to take a hard-headed, pragmatic view of the region rather than the romanticized notions of the “peace processors” who believe achieving peace between the Israelis and Palestinians is a matter of determined diplomacy and a cleverly formulated American blueprint. A man of his intelligence must see that the obstacle to peace is, and has always been, the refusal of the Palestinians to recognize the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in their homeland. If he knows anything about the region’s history, and his long experience would suggests he does, Tillerson is aware that the Palestinians have rejected offers of independence from 1937 until the present day, and that if they weren’t willing to compromise with the backing of the sympathetic Obama administration, there is little chance they will ever concede the existence of the Jewish state.
Tillerson has witnessed the destruction of the twin myths that peace will be achieved by Israel conceding land and that settlements are the obstacle to peace. In 2005, Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip and was rewarded with thousands of missiles directed at its citizens, rather than peace. Under pressure from President Obama in 2009, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to freeze settlement construction on the promise that this would bring Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the negotiating table and facilitate the conclusion of a peace agreement.
Alas, Abbas refused to negotiate not only during the freeze, but for the remainder of Obama’s term. He has made clear he is now committed to persuading the United Nations to adopt resolutions unilaterally declaring a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital; sanctioning Israel; and declaring that settlements are illegal. Moreover, even as he demands that Palestinian refugees be allowed to move to Israel to turn the Jewish state into a Palestinian state, he plans to make the West Bank judenrein.
Tillerson also may be better equipped to ignore the Arabists and their empirically unsupportable assertion that Israel is the source of all Middle East problems and solving the Palestinian issue by putting the screws to Israel will make them go away. If Tillerson has engaged Arab leaders on the Palestinian issue, he has undoubtedly learned how little they really care about the Palestinians. In fact, Gulf Arabs disdain the Palestinians as inferiors and as unreliable allies. The region’s leaders have not forgotten how the Palestinians cheered on Saddam Hussein after his invasion of Kuwait (which prompted Kuwait to expel 300,000 Palestinians, a fact ignored by their American sycophants) and how their corrupt leaders have squandered the Gulf states’ financial aid.
Given that peace with the Palestinians is a fantasy, Tillerson can use his ties with the Gulf states, now with the backing of the United States government, to encourage and, if necessary, pressure them to make peace with Israel and establish diplomatic ties. No one expects these Arabs to become Zionists, but normalizing relations is in the interests of all the parties as it will allow them to cooperate in confronting their common enemies – Iran in particular. During the Oslo era, some Gulf and North African states did establish ties with Israel, and strengthening those today will be mutually advantageous.
Those Arab states, which for all their wealth remain largely backward, could learn a great deal from Israel’s development into a technological superpower and benefit from the exchange of goods and information.
I understand the suspicions toward someone who has such extensive ties in the Arab world, especially an oil man. At a reception I recently attended for a pro-Israel group, I heard a huge amount of concern from the participants that Tillerson, as a petroleum executive, is closer to the Arabs than he is to Israel. But let’s not forget that two of Israel’s greatest friends were George Shultz and Dick Cheney. Before becoming secretary of state in 1982, Shultz served as president of Bechtel, an engineering firm with a huge financial stake in the region. Similarly, Cheney was chairman and CEO of Halliburton, one of the world’s largest oil field services companies, which has a headquarters in Dubai.
John Bolton, one of Israel’s staunchest friends, is reported to be Trump’s choice as Tillerson’s top deputy. As someone with extensive knowledge and experience related to the Middle East, he will be an invaluable adviser to the secretary and should reassure some of the cynics that Trump is indeed committed to strengthen US-Israel ties after eight years of Obama’s corrosive policies.
As is the case with many of Trump’s cabinet appointments, in choosing Tillerson he has eschewed the usual politicians and policy wonks for men and women with commercial records of accomplishment. It is hard to imagine him doing a worse job than his immediate predecessors, Hillary Clinton, who bragged about being “the yeller- in-chief” at Netanyahu, and John Kerry, the architect of the shameful Iran deal. The pro-Israel community should welcome Tillerson’s appointment, seek to influence him on the issues of vital concern to a vulnerable Jewish state, and work with him to pressure Arab governments into recognizing that Israel is their natural ally in combating militant Islam.Shmuley Boteach has just published The Israel Warrior: Standing Up for the Jewish State from Campus to Street Corner. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.