The future of the U.S.-Israel relationship is a question that renews itself with the arrival of each new president. Since Donald Trump has taken office, politicians, pundits and the public have been painstakingly analyzing his statements in an effort to piece together his policy regarding Israel. A panel held by Yeshiva University on March 15th, featuring former senator Joseph Lieberman and former ambassadors Daniel Kurtzer, Daniel Ayalon, and Dan Arbell, discussed the relationship.
“If you ask what Trump’s position on the Middle East right now is in one word, I’d say uncertain.” said Lieberman, a former Democratic senator from Connecticut, kicking off the discussion. “I’d say pro-Israel, but not certain where it’s going,” he clarified.
Kurtzer, a former United States ambassador to Israel and Egypt, echoed Lieberman’s sentiments, adding that he believed that policy was being run by “neophytes,” citing Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and “dangerous ideologue” Steve Bannon. “It’s particularly problematic when, fifty days into the administration, there’s no indication that there’s been any learning curve and no indication that expertise has been called upon to provide some grounding for what policy emerges,” he explained.
Ayalon, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States and current political science teacher at YU, had a different interpretation. He said that he believes President Trump just wants to keep everyone guessing.
The panelists proceeded to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and their views on the two-state solution, which President Trump has recently wavered upon. “Saying ‘one-state solution’ is an oxymoron,” declared Arbell, former deputy chief of mission at the embassy of Israel in Washington D.C. “‘One-state solution’ is not a solution in my opinion. One state undermines either the democratic character of the Jewish state or the Jewish character of the Jewish state.”
The panel was presented by the Schneier Program for International Affairs and was moderated by Dr. Bernard Firestone, who asked about the possibility of peace in the region and whether the president should be directly involved. “I have to tell you that there are a bunch of us who over the years have been called peace processors…there is not one of us in the United States right now that thinks that the president should devote significant time and attention to this issue.” replied Kurtzer. “The timing is not right, the situation on the ground is not right and yet, in a counterintuitive way, the president has decided to do so.” Ayalon said that, while he believed the involvement of President Trump will be important, it is the leadership of the two parties that is more significant.
The experts’ opinions often did not coincide. Regarding a final settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, Ayalon pointed at the futility of a zero-sum gain. “It may not be necessary to finalize the borders at this point,” he said.
“Just to make it interesting, I don’t agree with Ambassador Ayalon.” Kurtzer said in response. (Ayalon joked that he was shocked.) “If there are not going to be defined borders of the state of Israel, which has never had internationally recognized borders, and a state of Palestine, then we don’t know where we’re going,” Kurtzer went on to explain.
Another topic of contention was the recently confirmed nomination of David Friedman. Lieberman, who is senior counsel at Friedman’s law firm said, “David, who I love, who is actually a very good guy and I think will be a good ambassador, said some things that I totally disagree with, particularly in this column he wrote for Arutz Sheva. And all he could do [in response to the controversial things Friedman has said] was what he did at the hearings, which was to apologize.”
Kurtzer explained that he sought to look at the situation through an ambassador’s perspective, and said that Friedman “may be a nice guy, but he is a polarizing figure.” He addeded that Friedman’s comparison of J-street to Kapos was “beyond acceptable.” Lieberman replied that he believed Friedman would perform beyond his expectations.
The panelists capped off the event by taking questions from the audience. Lieberman replied to a question about the disillusionment of Israelis regarding any future peace and explained that, although a plurality of people have given up hope, peace is possible with the Palestinians. “It’s hard to be an optimist right now about peace, but I preserve the dream.”