Danny Ayalon has enjoyed a varied career both inside and outside the government of Israel. A foreign policy adviser to three prime ministers, he also served as Israel’s ambassador to the United States from 2002 to 2006. In 2008, he joined Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, and a year later, he entered the Knesset, where he served as deputy foreign minister for four years. Ayalon founded Truth About Israel, a non-profit organization that promotes hasbara, or Israeli advocacy, through a website and social media platforms. Ayalon was in Toronto in mid-March as a guest of Canadian Friends of Yeshiva University. He spoke to students from two Jewish high schools and delivered two Shabbat lectures on “Israel and the Trump administration.”
It’s only been a couple of months since Donald Trump became president of the United States. How have relations between America and Israel changed in that time, and what are your expectations for the relationship going forward?
First, let me say that the bonds between Israel and the United States are not dependent on who sits at any given time in the White House or the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem. Even under [former president Barack] Obama, our defence co-operation was excellent. Intelligence co-operation was a two-way street.
Personal relations matter, and in that case, unfortunately, there was no chemistry between [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and Obama. There was no trust, unfortunately, or mutual respect, which you need.
I happened to be in Washington for 4-1/2 years when George W. Bush was president and Ariel Sharon was prime minister. And the mutual trust and respect was really a very good currency on which we could build, including the disengagement from Gaza and other things.
Where is Trump on that spectrum?
Now we can see a marked change in the sense of chemistry. Whether this will translate into a change of policy remains to be seen. I think right now the policy and politics of the new administration is still a work in progress.
Trump prides himself in being a great negotiator. Do you expect him to try his skills at resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute?
Absolutely. What is apparent from the first meeting of Netanyahu and Trump is that the president would like to have a deal. He said in the campaign that it’s the most difficult and persistent conflict in the world, and if he makes a deal, and I quote, “it will be the mother of all deals.”
Now we see he’s in the initial steps of trying. This is why he met with the prime minister. This is why recently he met with the defence minister of Saudi Arabia – the heir apparent and son of the king. This is why he met with King Abdullah of Jordan. This is why he sent Jason Greenblatt, his senior adviser, who is a graduate of Yeshiva University and was a professor at Yeshiva University until he got this job in Washington. He recently travelled to the Middle East. They will analyze the results of his trip and then we will know better if there is any traction for resuming political negotiations with the Palestinians.
Is the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians resolvable by a good negotiator, or does it go beyond that?
It goes much beyond that. We have seen now probably eight or nine American administrations fail from 1967 on. The failure was not because of lack of resolve and failure of diplomatic competence. It was because there was no real partner for peace.
So far, the Palestinians consistently refuse to acknowledge and recognize our right to self determination. Whether Trump can make such a paradigm shift, I’m not sure. But there are things that are helping Trump.
First of all is his own personality. I think he is re-establishing America’s deterrence in the region, also vis-a-vis the Palestinians, who will listen to him more carefully than they listened to Obama.
Second, he doesn’t leave any daylight between Israel and the United States, and that’s helping us be more certain about the United States having our back.
And third, and maybe the most important thing, is the convergence of interests between Israel and the relatively moderate Sunni countries – the Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan – which are realizing the main threat to them is Iran. They look to us as their main ally against Iran.
Given that, the idea right now, and I believe Trump buys into it, is that we should change the mechanics of the process, not in-out, which means Israel and the Palestinians sign an agreement and then go to the rest of the Arab world, but quite the contrary. Bring the Arab world first. Maybe this will succeed.
In the United States, Trump is a very polarizing figure. How is he seen in Israel?
From the Israeli perspective, it’s very important to keep bipartisan support in the United States – both Republicans and Democrats. I don’t think it was in our favour to get into the crossfire between Democrats and Republicans during the last election. In that respect, we are not to judge Trump. This is for the Americans to judge. We see him, in his approach to the region, as a very friendly president, one that can be trusted.
One of his campaign pledges was to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Do you expect that to happen?
I think the question should be not why Trump wants to move the embassy to Jerusalem, but why did it take so long?
In any case, not only did he make a promise, so it’s a matter of his own credibility, but it’s more than that. Once the Muslims and the Palestinians have threatened the United States not to do it, they cannot cave or yield under pressure, because that could be a slippery slope with far reaching consequences vis a vis Iran and North Korea and Russia.
Diplomacy always comes to try to square the circle. So in that respect,maybe he should do it in a gradual way. America already has a piece of land in west Jerusalem, an empty lot. They can break ground. It could take years before you build, but once the commitment was made and once threats were levelled at the Americans, they cannot back down.
If the Americans move their embassy, do you expect other countries to follow suit?
It’s hard to tell. It will take some time. I don’t think we’ll see the Europeans or other countries hurrying up. But I think it will be very important political step, a symbolic step, which will really correct a wrong. The fact that most countries in the world don’t recognize our capital, singles out Israel. It’s outrageous.
With regard to Iran, Obama negotiated the nuclear deal and transferred billions of dollars to the regime. How do you see Trump dealing with Iran? Could he possibly reverse the deal?
No. Realistically I don’t think he can reverse it. We have to remember that the agreement was not just between the United States. It was the P5 + 1, the five powers of the Security Council plus Germany. So they cannot do it single-handedly.
But it also was not a treaty, so wouldn’t it be easier for the president to do it unilaterally?
Theoretically, yes, but I don’t think he wants to do it before he gives the Iranians a chance, and so far, they are failing it. Part of the arguments of the Obama administration was that by this agreement, the moderates in Iran would prevail over the extremists. We see quite the contrary. We see how brazen Iranian behaviour is with the long-range ballistic missile tests, with continuing provocations against American navy ships in the Persian Gulf. We see them doubling their efforts to undermine all the regimes allied with the United States, whether it’s the Saudis, Yemenis, the Jordanians or the Egyptians. They are the single biggest threat to the security and stability in the region, and beyond.
So in that respect, I think what the United States can do now is make sure the Iranians abide by the letter and the spirit of the agreement. And for any breach – and they will try to test the world – there will be severe consequences.
The nuclear deal is not an end goal for them. It’s only a means to be able to continue with terrorism, with threats, so they can become hegemonic and undermine and threaten all the regimes, and maybe replace them. So it is a very bad agreement.
Can you to comment on some of the key members of Trump’s administration with respect to Israel: Defence Secretary James Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley?
I think Nikki Haley showed herself to be one of the staunchest supporters of Israel. In her first speech at the UN, she made the case as good or better as any Israeli could. She’s a great friend, and she’s also very influential, although she said U.S. policy is for two states.
About Mattis and McMaster, we don’t know yet. McMaster I don’t think has any record. Mattis has a record. Mattis was the commanding officer of Centcom [United States Central Command], and he worked very intensively with Arab leaders, so certainly he got some views of the Arabs. Whether this will be reflected in the policies of the Pentagon, I’m not sure, and I certainly hope not. And we have to remember, all those people you mentioned serve at the pleasure of the president.
What about Tillerson?
I think he’s very friendly.
Because of his Exxon job, he was very much associated with the Arab world. I think we see so far that he has so many other bigger fish to fry – China, North Korea, Russia, NATO, etc. – that I don’t think he will deal very much with the Middle East. So far, we see it is under the jurisdiction of the White House. That’s why you see [Special Representative for International Negotiations] Jason Greenblatt there, and we know [Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser] Jared Kushner is very much involved.
What about them? Does that mean he’s going to get advice that’s pro-Israel?
Absolutely. I think what we will see probably are two camps. We see the very pro-Israel camp, which is emotionally tied to Israel, and we will see the bureaucrats, which will have maybe a more “pragmatic” way, without any emotions attached, and then you have the president to make a decision, to synthesize between the two things. n
You’re involved in hasbara efforts. Why did you set that up and what are the main challenges faced by pro-Israel advocates in Canada and the United States?
I set up “The Truth About Israel” only because I realized the government of Israel cannot defend itself, for many reasons.
One is external. We are outnumbered,. In every capital there is one Israeli ambassador and 22 Arab ambassadors.
Also, there is a dedicated campaign by the Palestinians to render Israel a pariah state, to deligitimize, weaken and isolate her.
A second reason is an internal one. We are a great democracy and as such we criticize ourselves. There are organizations in opposition to the government. We have a very biting press. And on top of that, because our politics is Jewish politics, our government does not talk in one voice, but in many voices, and all the Palestinians fight with the same language.
So to try to level the playing field and be on message, to be proactive, not let the Palestinians frame the debate, I set up The Truth About Israel.
Campuses are very important. It was more cost effective to reach the students before they even set foot in campuses, to catch them on their keyboards, on their iPhones and iPads, through social media, because social media is where everybody is, certainly the younger generation.
To give you an example on how we are proactive, we started the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab countries.
When I was deputy foreign minister, I brought in all the stuff from the archives, and put it on the table in the UN, in New York, at the UN High Commission for Refugees in Geneva, and since then, we made real traction, and every year there is a day for Jewish refugees from Arab countries. This is something we started that caught the Palestinians by surprise. They thought the refugee issue was theirs, that there were only Palestinian refugees, and all of the sudden, they realized there were more Jewish refugees than Palestinian and the Jewish refugees were peaceful. They were thrown out without doing anything. The Arab refugees, most of them, were violent. So it was kind of civil war.
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