Lost in transition: Waiting patiently for two months

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman had some sage counsel for Israeli politicians this week: Don’t talk out loud yet about Trump’s Mideast polices.

November 17, 2016 21:09
RUDY GIULIANI, vice chairman of the Trump Presidential Transition Team, speaks at the Wall Street Jo

RUDY GIULIANI, vice chairman of the Trump Presidential Transition Team, speaks at the Wall Street Journal CEO Council in Washington.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman delivered some astute advice on Wednesday in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election.

“The smartest thing we can do, instead of giving declarations, is to sit patiently and wait to see who is in the administration, who is in the key jobs, and then coordinate positions,” Liberman said in a briefing with the country’s diplomatic reporters.

Liberman echoed what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said to his ministers at Sunday’s cabinet meeting, the first since the US election.

“I request that all ministers, deputy ministers and MKs allow the incoming administration to formulate – together with us – its policy vis-à-vis Israel and the region, through accepted and quiet channels, and not via interviews and statements,” the premier said.

Some ministers and politicians could barely contain their jubilation following Trump’s elections.

For instance, immediately after the vote was tallied, Education Minister Naftali Bennett said “the era of a Palestinian state is over.”

In his briefing on Wednesday, Liberman noted that on January 20 the Republicans will control both the White House and Congress, and added that “we should expect that we can come to understandings regarding the Middle East, the settlements and the Iranian issue. I hope we have the common sense not to run too fast and get overly excited.”

And then he ran too fast and got overly excited, issuing the very type of declaration he warned against.

Israel, he said, should aspire to getting the new administration to reaffirm the exchange of letters between George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon in 2004, during the run-up to the withdrawal from Gaza a year later. In line with those letters, he suggested, Jerusalem should agree to freeze construction in isolated settlements like his own community of Nokdim, outside the security fence, and instead only build inside the large settlement blocs.

Forbearance, it seems, is not the strong suit of Israeli cabinet ministers. Barely a week after Trump’s stunning victory, Israelis are already talking to themselves about the policy direction of his new administration, and all that without knowing for sure who is going to take up key national security positions in the Trump administration.

For instance, US foreign policy regarding the Mideast may look significantly different depending on whether Rudy Giuliani, John Bolton or Newt Gingrich became secretary of state, as opposed to whether Stephen Hadley, Bob Corker or Nikki Haley win that job.

While all are strongly pro-Israel, the former group may adopt a policy that would be more favorable to settlement advocates than the later three, who would likely tow a more conventional Republican line toward the settlements, similar to one taken under the administration of George W. Bush.

And remember, it was secretary of state Condoleezza Rice who strongly took exception to Israel’s settlement policies, including publicly criticizing building in neighborhoods in Jerusalem beyond the Green Line. While President Barack Obama demanded an end to all settlement construction, the Sharon-Bush years were marred as well by disputes over the scope of settlement construction, with endless discussions about where building could take place, such as inside the construction line of settlements inside the major settlement blocs.

Until the Trump national security team is in place, it is difficult to say where the chips will fall on this issue.

Neither Reince Priebus, whom the president-elect appointed as chief of staff this week, nor Steve Bannon – his controversial pick for chief strategist – are expected to deal much with Mideast diplomacy, concentrating instead on domestic policy.

The only person at this time who it is known for certain will have a say in national security discussions is Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who is emerging as a forceful figure in the new administration.

Pence has taken the reins of the transition team, and – because of his 11 years of experience in Congress, and three years in the governor’s mansion in Indiana, as opposed to Trump’s complete lack of government experience – is looming as a key and commanding player in the Trump team. His role is already being compared to that played by Dick Cheney in the Bush White House. And Cheney was one of the most powerful vice presidents in US history.

Pence, Liberman acknowledged in his briefing, is one the biggest supporters Israel had on Capitol Hill during the years he was in Congress from 2001 to 2012. He also said that this support carried over to Pence’s days as the governor of Indiana, a term that began in 2013.

Israel is a high priority for Pence, the defense minister said. Pence spent a decade on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Pence was last in Israel in December 2014, and at a public event in Jerusalem said that America should not aspire to be an “honest broker” in the Mideast, but rather make it known that while it wants an honest and fair solution to the conflict, “we are on the side of Israel.”

While the US can “deal honestly with people on all sides of the equation,” it can also make clear what “side of the table” it is on, he said.

In an interview with The Jerusalem Post at the time, Pence – an evangelical Christian who came to Israel then partly to spend Christmas in the Holy Land, and partly on official business – said he told Netanyahu that “Israel is not just our strongest ally in the region, Israel is our most cherished ally in the world. If the world knows nothing else, let it know this: America stands with Israel.”

Pence also said at the time that the US must “reject any effort by the United Nations Security Council to impose conditions on negotiations that would undermine Israel’s security.”

That position is surely known to the Obama administration, as it continues to contemplate whether to take any measures on the Mideast in the final two months of Obama’s term.

After months of concern and speculation that Obama might take some final dramatic action on the Mideast during the interregnum between the election and when he leaves office on January 20 – be it supporting an anti-settlement resolution at the UN, Palestinian membership in that body, or new UN Security Council parameters to govern diplomatic negotiations – Trump’s victory has seemingly taken some of the momentum out of those possible moves, especially since Obama has pledged a smooth transition. Smooth transitions are not made by taking significant foreign policy decisions that run contrary to what is known to be the positions of the incoming administration.

Asked by the Post what action he expected Obama to take during his last act in the White House, Liberman said that Obama has many challenges now to protect his domestic legacy – including his signature health care program – and that he doubts the Israeli-Palestinian issue is at the top of his to-do agenda in the days remaining in his term.

When asked Tuesday during a video hook-up to the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America meeting in Washington whether he expected a UN resolution any time soon, Netanyahu said that he “very much” hopes that Obama will continue the “longstanding” US policy of advocating direct negotiations, and not supporting efforts to impose peace from the outside.

One such effort, an international conference on the Mideast in Paris which the French had hoped to convene by the end of the year, has already lost a considerable amount of traction as a result of the Trump election. Israel fervently opposes the conference, and made clear it would not attend.

On Wednesday, French President François Hollande told the Post’s sister publication Maariv that Trump’s election has put the conference in jeopardy.

“The chances to hold the peace conference in Paris are not good,” Hollande said while attending the Marrakech Climate Change Conference. He said that following Trump’s election, the US was unlikely to take part in the parley, something that dooms its chance of getting off the ground. The conference was to be the start of a process, but with a new administration in Washington, there are no guarantees it will support such an undertaking.

Transition is currently the buzzword in Washington, but not only there. As indicated by Hollande’s acknowledgment that a French peace conference is now very unlikely, Trump’s election also means there will now be transition in the Mideast diplomatic process.

During that transition period, as Liberman said, Israel will need to quietly coordinate its policy with the new administration. The question is whether he, and other members of the government, can actually just wait patiently and let that happen.

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