Brace yourself for a new style of American presidency, Dan Senor told more than 350 attendees at a Jewish Week forum on “U.S.-Israel Relations in the Trump Era” last Wednesday evening at Central Synagogue in Midtown.
Donald Trump may well perform in “more of a ceremonial role, traveling around the country” speaking to supporters, and “letting others run the country,” he said.
Senor, co-author of “Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle” (Hachette Book Group), a best-seller about Israel’s technology industry, was an adviser to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012, and did not support Trump this year.
“This is like therapy for me,” he confessed, in trying to readjust to the way Washington may function under Trump. “It’s easy to be skeptical, but maybe it’ll work,” he told moderator Abigail Pogrebin, a journalist and frequent host of public programs.
David Makovsky, a Mideast expert who served as a senior adviser to Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace team in 2014, was less sanguine about the prospect of a president removed from day-to-day affairs.
If, in contrast to the very centralized White House of the Obama years, “we find a model like an Arab royal court,” where the monarch follows the advice of the last person who spoke with him, it would be highly problematic because “it matters a lot who is in that chair” at the top of government, he said.
“Otherwise it’s like faking a book report when you haven’t read the book,” Makovsky said, adding that he doesn’t trust a president who doesn’t read, something that Trump has admitted to.
The forum, held in collaboration with UJA-Federation of New York and Central Synagogue, featured a wide range of insightful comments from the two Mideast experts who found themselves agreeing more than they, and Pogrebin, expected when it came to Israel’s prospects in the next four years.
“You’re both optimistic, but we’re not feeling it,” Pogrebin told Makovsky and Senor after they described Israel’s increasing business and political contacts with countries like China and India, and, under the radar, with Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. (Makovsky quipped that Israel was “the first Jewish Sunni state” in the region due to a strong, if secret, alliance over the common threat of ISIS and Hamas.)
Makovsky and Senor agreed that a Trump administration may well mean less pressure on Israel to resolve the Palestinian impasse. That’s part of the reason, they said, that many Israelis seem pleased with Trump succeeding President Obama, who was viewed as too tough on Jerusalem. (The forum took place two days before Trump tapped bankruptcy attorney David Friedman, who has close ties to the settler movement, as his choice for United States ambassador to Israel.)
But Pogrebin said that for many American Jews, more than 70 percent of whom voted for Hillary Clinton last month, there is a real “sense of instability” about President-elect Trump.
Senor suggested that with no prospects at the moment for Israel-Palestinian peace talks, Trump may well leave the two sides alone, in effect giving Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas the same message a frustrated Secretary of State James Baker gave Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir in 1990: “When you’re serious about peace, call us.”
Makovsky asserted that whether or not the U.S. puts pressure on Jerusalem, it’s in Israel’s own interest to initiate movement on the Palestinian front. “I see it as imperative for Israelis to push their leaders” toward “decoupling issues of security and ideology.”
He noted that three different major American Mideast peace efforts failed in recent years, most recently under Kerry, and that, in baseball terms, it was time to “try for singles and doubles rather than going for the fences.”
Incremental steps to build trust could include land swaps, since 80 percent of Jewish West Bank settlers live on 5 percent of the land, he said, adding that if Trump gives Netanyahu carte blanche on settlement expansion, the prime minister would find himself in a tight spot.
The Israeli leader has used Obama as his cover, telling his right-wing coalition that U.S. pressure is too great. But if Trump is not opposed to expansion, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, on Netanyahu’s right, could call his rival’s bluff and demand more settlement building.
“Until now, Bibi has never had to decide between policy and politics,” Makovsky said.