Nobody will admit it, but it is safe to assume Jerusalem was disappointed Tuesday when US President-elect Donald Trump announced the winner of his secretary of state sweepstakes.
It’s not because Jerusalem dislikes or does not trust Trump’s nominee, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson – policy makers in Israel, like those in most other non-oil producing countries, don’t know that much about him. It’s just that the Netanyahu government really liked some of the other candidates that were bandied about over the last five weeks: Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and John Bolton.
Giuliani, Romney, Bolton – these are men that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has known for years and with whom he shares a similar world view. Tillerson, however, is a largely unknown quantity.
Jerusalem knows that Tillerson is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and that he has worked intensively in Arab countries with which ExxonMobil does business. But no one seems to have any idea about where he stands on issues such as the settlements, Jerusalem and the two-state solution.
Trump to name Rex Tillerson as secretary of state
Some are making assumptions, however, that because he was highly recommended for the position by former secretaries of state James Baker and Condoleezza Rice, and because he is reportedly close to former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, that he doesn’t have a warm spot in his heart for either the settlement enterprise or Israel. But Tillerson has left no public record of comments on these issues to support that assumption. In short, his positions on the Mideast conflict are, at this point, anyone’s guess.
One thing it is important to keep in mind, said Danny Ayalon, a former Israeli ambassador to the US and deputy foreign minister, is that US secretaries of state “serve at the pleasure of the president, and we know that Trump is closer to Israel on issues like the settlements.”
In fact, Ayalon said that taking into account Trumps’ informal advisers, such as his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, “I don’t think we could have a better team than we have now with the advisers around him.”
Ayalon said Tillerson’s nomination fits in perfectly with Trump’s pattern, relying “more on his intuition and instincts rather than regular analysis and staff work. There is great chemistry, he trusts him, he is appointed.”
Ayalon served as ambassador from 2002-2006, and said the closest he got to Tillerson was at a meeting he held in Houston in 2003 with a delegation of officials from the energy sector. At the time, Tillerson was an ExxonMobil vice president.
It is clear, Ayalon said, that Tillerson has “extensive, extensive contacts in the Arab world.” But whether he will use that in Israel’s favor or to its detriment “remains to be seen.”
For instance, Ayalon said, it seems clear at this time that Trump would like to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem. But once he gets into office, he will get reports from the State Department saying such a move will upset US relations with the Arab world, and receive briefings from the intelligence community saying such a step would place US citizens and diplomats at risk around the world.
Given the extent of Tillerson’s contacts, Ayalon said, it is clear that he would hear from those contacts, and perhaps even from Putin himself, if Trump signals once he is president that he is serious about moving the embassy.
Ayalon added that Tillerson’s ties in the Arab world are – on their own – neither good nor bad, but that “it depends on how he will use them.”
These ties, he said, could actually be very helpful now that Jerusalem has converging interests with a number of Sunni countries – such as Egypt, Jordan and the Persian Gulf states. Put to proper use, these contacts could strengthen the under-the-radar cooperation between Israel and those countries, he maintained.
Jonathan Rynhold, a specialist on Israel-US relations at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, said Israel’s main concern with Tillerson has nothing to do with the Palestinians or his contacts with the Arab world.
“The main concern is about his closeness with Russia, and this primarily has to do with Syria and the sense that Russia provides an umbrella for the growth of Iranian power on the ground in Syria,” he said. “Obviously, that’s a problem for Israel.
“The fact that he has worked for oil companies is less of a concern,” Rynhold continued. “So did [former secretary of state George] Shultz and [former vice president Dick] Cheney. And they were very pro-Israel. That is less of an issue. The real issue is closeness with Russia, and that creates a potential clash with Israel.”
Asked why Tillerson’s closeness with Russia should be a problem for Jerusalem, which itself has good ties with Moscow, Rynhold said that while Israel has an understanding with Russia in Syria to ensure the two air forces don’t accidentally clash there, Israel does not have excellent relations with Russia.
“At the end of the day, every time that the US takes a step backward, forces that are either hostile or less friendly to Israel fill in that gap and Russia is one which is less friendly and creates an umbrella for the hostile,” he said. “And we are concerned about that.”