CFR experts analyze the outcomes of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's recent visit to the United States, including U.S. President Donald J. Trump's formal recognition of Israel's sovereignty over Golan Heights, tensions surrounding the American Israel Public Affairs Committee Conference, and the recent airstrikes between Israel and Gaza.
KURTZ-PHELAN: All right. Thanks so much. Thanks so much, everyone for being here today for a Council on Foreign Relations conference call. I’m Dan Kurtz-Phelan. I’m the executive editor of Foreign Affairs magazine. We’ll be talking about the U.S.-Israel relationship today, which obviously very topical, lots to talk about, so we’ll get right into it. I would just remind you this is on the record. All of you should know that and appreciate that. So with that, we’ll go straight to our two speakers.
The first is Phil Gordon. Phil is the Mary and David Boies senior fellow in U.S. foreign policy here. He was, as most of you probably know, special assistant to the president for the Middle East from 2013 to 2015, which made him the most senior White House official focused on the Middle East during the second term of the Obama administration.
Next we have Martin Indyk, who is a distinguished fellow here at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations from July 2013 to June 2014 and during the Clinton administration held a slew of the most senior policy jobs on the Middle East in the U.S. government, including as ambassador to Israel.
So, Martin, I’d like to start with you. I was hoping you could give us a quick recap of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent visit to the United States. What did he hope to achieve? And did he achieve what he hoped to achieve?
INDYK: Thanks, Dan. Good afternoon, everybody.
Netanyahu’s visit was part of a, I would say, the high point—the climax of a carefully orchestrated campaign of showing the Israeli electorate that he’s popular on the world stage. He organized a conference in Poland—in Warsaw—with about forty nations present, including a lot of Gulf Arab foreign ministers to show that he was leading the charge against Iran. Of course, Vice President Pence was there too to underscore that.
He’s had a variety of high-level visitors and confabs in Israel in the last few weeks during the height of the election campaign, and so his trip to Washington was designed as the kind of crowning achievement in which he would gain the—not only the endorsement of President Trump, who is very popular in Israel—70 percent or more Israelis view him positively—but also it would gain him the recognition by the United States, a proclamation by President Trump that would then recognize the Golan Heights as Israel’s—recognize Israel’s sovereignty there.
That was the plan. It became a cropper essentially because a rocket was fired out of Gaza north of Tel Aviv and he had to race home, and that became the issue rather than the great meeting with President Trump. He had to cancel his speech at AIPAC, where he’s always regarded as a great hero and treated as such. And so, in a sense, that, coming on top of a range of other troubles he’s had, has somewhat dented his campaign, slowed his momentum at this critical moment, which is, like, two weeks out.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Martin, can I say a quick follow-up? The Golan announcement—the U.S. announcement of recognition of Israeli sovereignty in Golan—got a lot of attention here. Am I understanding you correctly when you—that are you saying that it did not have quite as much of an effect on debate in Israel as you might have thought?
INDYK: Yes, that’s right, because it was dwarfed by the much more immediate concern about rockets coming in to civilian areas from Gaza, and this is a kind of chronic conflict that flares up from time to time. But when it flares, the civilian population of major cities in Israel are vulnerable. They have this Iron Dome protection but, nevertheless, it’s the thing that focuses everybody’s attention, so much so that Netanyahu, when he got off the plane, complained to reporters bitterly that they’d failed to cover the Golan story, as if that was more important than the insecurity that people were feeling in their homes at that moment.
KURTZ-PHELAN: I want to come back to the Gaza issue a bit later. But, first, I wanted to turn to Philip Gordon.
Phil, stepping back a bit, the debate about Israel and Israel policy in Washington has changed quite a bit over the first two-odd years of the Trump administration with the Jerusalem announcement, the Golan announcement, obviously, the debates about Israel and Israel policy within the Democratic caucus. I’m wondering if you can step back and describe the extent to which there’s been a qualitative change in the relationship under this administration and what you think that means.
GORDON: Sure, Dan. Thank you, and thanks to everybody for joining.
I do think that it has changed and is changing significantly before our eyes. I think you could say that at the top-level government-to-government relationship our countries have never been more aligned and, you know, Martin mentioned the visit and what Prime Minister Netanyahu accomplished on this visit. Bibi got a South Lawn arrival ceremony with—accompanied by President Trump’s support for his agenda right before an election. And that’s a sort of, you know, political alignment on top of the strategic alignment on issues, which revealed some differences. In the previous administration—in the Obama administration, which Martin and I served, it was no secret that there were real tensions and differences on issues obviously like Iran, the Iran nuclear deal. Nobody forgets, you know, Bibi’s big speech to Congress, taking issue with President Obama’s signature foreign policy accomplishment. But also on Egypt there were differences over pushing Mubarak out. On settlements. You know, in the last months of the Obama administration, the U.S. abstaining on a settlements resolution at the Security Council. These were—I mean, the relationship was still strong, and U.S. assistance to Israel was greater than ever in terms of security and military assistance, but it was no secret that there were political difference between the two governments.
That is now changing. You know, arguably if you care about the relationship in a positive way, in the sense that the alignment on those issues—political and strategic—is greater than ever. That said, I think on another level, on a deeper level, the relationship is much more troubled and problematic and changing. And by that, I mean if the two leaders are more closely aligned than ever, I think arguably the two societies are becoming less aligned on a number of the same issues that I just mentioned. And these Israeli policies that are so popular with the Trump administration are gradually, as you move, you know, down into the U.S., less popular with America as a whole. Certainly less popular with the Democratic Party, which is something you flagged, Dan, in your introduction, and becoming more and more clear. And even less popular with the American Jewish community.
So I do think that one of the big implications of this government-to-government alignment is that it is reinforcing a partisan divide on Israel which is really new. I mean, the great strength of the U.S.’s relationship over the years has been its bipartisan nature. And leaders in politics, Congress, and throughout the public on both sides broadly supported—I mean, lots of debates, obviously—but similar aspects of the relationship. And that really is changing. You know, part of it is just the Trump phenomenon, and, you know, Trump is obviously so unpopular among Democrats that anything he’s close to Democrats are less close to, and Israel falls into that camp just because Trump is supportive of Netanyahu.
But it goes beyond that, into specific policy issues. And whether it’s—you know, you look at this in the polling numbers, which show real trendlines toward the partisan split on Israel. Where they were either in the past similar or even having Democrats being more supportive of Israeli policies, now they’re diverging on the question of do you sympathize more with the Israelis or Palestinians, what do you think about settlements, what do you think about the move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. It’s becoming just much more partisan, which is obviously a deep problem for the relationship.
And I’ll just end with the thought that I fear that it could be headed even more in that direction. And the partisan trendlines are already clear, but, you know, it could get worse. And part of it’s, of course, when you look down one further layer into those polling numbers you see that Israel and its policies are even less popular among African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans, and young Americans. And guess what? That’s the Democratic Party, increasingly. And so that just reinforces those trends. And if policies go in a direction—I’m sure we’ll talk about some of these issues—but already with the move of the embassy to Jerusalem, the Golan annexation, cuts to assistance to Palestinians, and if that’s followed by an Israeli annexation of the West Bank that the U.S. endorses, I fear that that partisan split is only going to grow in the future.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Great. Thank you. I want to ask both of you about the peace process before going to questions from folks on the line.
Martin, we’ve been waiting for a while for the long-promised peace plan from the Trump administration. Do you have any sense of what’s coming? And more importantly, is there any actual chance of a peace process making any momentum over the course of the administration? And if there’s not, what does that mean for the future of the two-state solution?
INDYK: Hmm. Well, it’s been more than two years since the Trump deal of the century has been much touted and speculated on. The one thing they’ve done a good job is keeping it very close to their chest. And so we don’t really know what the content is, except for occasional statements from people like David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, who recently said that it would have autonomy for the Palestinians, as opposed to the expectation there would be a two-state solution proposed. So I think that the plan is going to be different from anything that we’ve worked on or that’s been developed over the last twenty years since Oslo. But what exactly what form it’s going to take is just speculative at this point.
There is the issue of timing and the day after. The timing is problematic because they decided to—when I talk about “they,” of course, I’m talking about Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt and David Friedman, Trump’s peace team, as it were. And they decided that they should hold it over until the Israeli elections. Then they talked about putting it down before—after the elections but before the Israeli government is formed. Israel has a coalition government arrangement, and that has to be negotiated after the elections, and so that can take anywhere from two to three months. They were thinking of putting the plan down and, thereby, if Netanyahu won, giving him an opportunity to try to get parties behind this plan as a condition for their joining the government. But they seem to have given up on that idea at this point, probably because—and I’m speculating here—but I suspect it’s because putting the plan down would immensely complicate Netanyahu’s prospects of bringing right-wing parties into his coalition, which he’s promised to do—he’s promised to form a right-wing government—because it may have things in it which they cannot accept.
And so, in that context, I think they’re now talking about putting down their economic plan first and leaving the political plan till later. How much later is a very big question mark, because as we get into the presidential campaign season here, I think that the political people on Trump’s side are going to be wary about putting a plan down that might alienate Evangelicals, who are as hardline on the issues, when it comes to territory, as the right wing in—Netanyahu’s right wing.
The question of what happens the day after, though, is highly fraught, because they’ve managed to drive the Palestinians away from the table by their decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem, and to do it in a way that allowed for no Palestinian aspirations, recognition of Palestinian aspirations, in Jerusalem. As Trump is fond of saying, we’ve taken Jerusalem off the table, which signaled to the Palestinians that there was nothing there for them, something that’s just unacceptable. But as well as driving them away from the table, they’ve now gone into a punitive phase of cutting all of their aid for one reason or another. And so I think that the negative view of what Trump intends to do is very high, and it’s hard to imagine how that’s going to be turned around by what it is he’s going to put on the table, especially if he isn’t committed to an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, based on the 1967 lines, which is kind of the minimum that Palestinians have come to expect.
On top of that, there was a big focus and a big hope that Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt had that the Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, would support this effort. But not only did the king of Saudi Arabia take strong objection to the move of the embassy to Jerusalem, condemned it and organized a summit against it, and has said repeatedly, publicly and privately that anything less than an independent state for the Palestinians with East Jerusalem as its capital is not going to get the support of Saudi Arabia. And on top of that, the Saudis have now condemned the Golan, recognition of Israel’s sovereignty on the Golan, as have all the other Arab states, so I think that the problem they’re going to face is that the Palestinians are unlikely to welcome this plan, the Arabs are unlikely to be willing to support it or press the Palestinians to support it, and on the Israeli side—and here’s the ultimate irony—that by intervening, as Trump has done to try to get Netanyahu reelected, he will actually help Netanyahu form a right-wing government in which the likelihood of their acceptance of the plan is low to nonexistent as well. So it’s almost as if Trump has taken a series of steps designed to ensure the failure rather than the success of the plan.
KURTZ-PHELAN: And does that have consequences beyond just a plan that goes nowhere? Will that, either regionally or in the West Bank and Gaza, mean further instability or violence?
INDYK: Well, it’s always dangerous to predict further instability or violence. One thing that Trump’s advisors are crowing about these days is that everybody predicted there would be violence after they moved the embassy and there wasn’t, so therefore, you know, we can do these kinds of things and not have to worry about it. It’s always possible because of the frustration. Of course, Gaza is on its own dynamic and could blow with or without a plan.
But I think that it really matters what’s in the plan. If the plan, as it seems likely now, goes against all the fundamental principles or parameters of the two-state solution, then I think that it will increase the disappointment. And given the circumstances in which the Palestinians find themselves now, it is possible that people will stand up and say let’s go back to violence, we’ve got nothing to lose.
I think Abu Mazen will resist that; the Palestinian leader will resist it mightily. He’s very against the use of violence because of what happened in the past and the price that the Palestinians paid. But he’s old and failing. His leadership is failing. And so, you know, it’s very hard to predict. I’m not going to say that violence will break out, but they need to be wary that those—(inaudible)—wary of the potential negative consequences of a plan that falls far short of Palestinian expectations.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Fair enough.
Phil, please add anything you’d like to Martin’s take or disagree where appropriate. But I also wanted to get your take on the situation in Gaza and the risk of further escalation there.
So I don’t think you’re going to find me much more optimistic on the peace process issues than Martin. And I also happen to think that it is possible we never see this plan, because frankly there will not be a good time for it. And if the idea is to wait for a good time, it just may not come about.
The only thing I’d add to what Martin said—and look, with the preface obviously that this was always going to be hard and we’ve all failed at this, and nobody has a solution to Israeli-Palestinian relations—and frankly, the conditions now are even less ripe than the last time we made a run at this in 2014. You have an even harder-line Israeli cabinet, the majority of which doesn’t even believe in a two-state solution, and even less popular and legitimate Palestinian leadership that couldn’t even sell a plan if somehow it were to agree to one. So I think the conditions are really poor for the deal of the century under any circumstances.
But I also happen to think there is such a thing as playing a bad hand badly, and I think the administration is making it even harder. Their theory of the case seems to be somehow that these tough unilateral actions by the United States of moving the capital to Jerusalem and quote-unquote “taking up the table” that way, cutting assistance to Palestinians, annexing the Golan, will just lead them to realize they have no choice but to agree, and that that theory of the case seems to be based on the notion that somehow their leaders care about all these political things, like Jerusalem and refugees and territory, but the people just want better economic livelihood, and once they see that in the plan they’ll go for it. I question that assumption. I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that the Palestinian public will be more flexible on these political issues. In fact, it may well be the case that it’s the opposite: the leaders would do a deal, but they’re afraid of their public. And therefore, I think that we’re going to find, if they do release this plan, that that theory of the case is going to be proven faulty.
Don’t underestimate the degree to which the Trump administration approached the Palestinians. It was actually quite radical. I mean, Martin mentioned this, but just to make sure no one loses sight of that. In additional to unilaterally moving the embassy, we’ve cut all of the assistance to their refugee agency, all of the economic assistance that went to schools, hospitals, infrastructure. We closed the consulate in Jerusalem that dealt with the Palestinians. We closed the Palestinian representation offices here. We passed and the president signed a law on terrorism that made it impossible for the Palestinians to accept security assistance. And then somehow, in that context—and, you know, let alone the Golan annexation—somehow that—and the Palestinians haven’t talked to us on a political level since the embassy move.
So that just doesn’t feel to me like an administration that’s genuinely preparing the ground for a successful peace process. And therefore I think that it’s just as likely that either, A, they never actually released the plan, or B, more likely, they do, and the Palestinians immediately reject it for all of the reasons I just said. And that just gives the Israelis and the Trump administration the ability to say, well, there you go. You can’t deal with them. We might as well just go ahead with other measures, including settlement expansion and annexation of the West Bank.
And my answer, Dan—I’ll end with this—to your question on implications, and then Martin addressed the question of whether that could lead to violence, and obviously who knows? But what I think it certainly would lead to is a further strain in the U.S.-Israel relationship that I referred to in my earlier remarks, because if we do get to the point that the Palestinians are just seen as rejectionists and the U.S. and Israel go ahead with these sorts of steps, including annexing the West Bank, it just becomes harder and harder for many Americans to support an Israel that might be one of Netanyahu in coalition with a far-right party that is annexing West Bank territory and ruling over millions of Palestinians.
So my greatest worry—obviously we should all be worried about violence—but that it just further strains the ties between the United States and Israel.
Very briefly, because you asked the situation in Gaza, obviously it seems to me that this violence, this latest round of violence, started with Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups deliberately trying to provoke Israel into a response. There have been a lot of protests in Gaza. The population of Gaza is not happy with their own leadership. And a great way to distract attention from their own failings and mistreatment of their own citizens is to provoke Israel into a response that leads to civilian casualties and puts pressure and criticism on Israel rather than the Palestinian leadership in Hamas and Gaza itself.
So I think and hope Israel will handle this carefully. They obviously have the right and duty to defend themselves against this indiscriminate bombing of suburban areas. But I hope they also will be able to avoid falling into the trap that I think Hamas is seeking to set for them in Gaza.
And then obviously it underscores the broader political issue of the need for political and strategic settlements. It underscores what happens when you don’t have a settlement. And you can manage it for some time, but inevitably it blows back up into violence if there’s not a more fundamental approach that deals with the problem.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Great. Thank you.
Because I’m not going to be able to resist asking you both to tell us who’s going to win the upcoming elections if I get to ask any more questions, I’m going to hand it over to people on the line for their questions.
So, operator, could you let us know who’s in the queue?
OPERATOR: Yes, sir. Thank you.
At this time we will open the floor for questions.
(Gives queueing instructions.)
Our first question comes—
KURTZ-PHELAN: As we’re waiting for—oh, I’m sorry. Go ahead.
OPERATOR: Oh, go ahead, sir. You can go ahead.
KURTZ-PHELAN: No, no, no. Go ahead. Go ahead.
OPERATOR: Thank you.
Our first question will come from Stewart Ain of New York Jewish Week.
I apologize. One moment, Mr. Ain. You may begin.
Q: Yes. A question for Martin Indyk.
I wanted to see if you would agree with Gordon that the divide between the American Jewish community and Israel might grow even wider, depending what we see in this next election.
INDYK: Yeah, I do think that is highly likely if we have a Netanyahu-led right-wing government. There’s also a potential for a Netanyahu-led more center government, more national-unity government. But I don’t think that’s very likely. And before I go to explaining what the impact would be, I would just like to explain the logic of what is likely to emerge if Netanyahu succeeds in getting the nod from President Rivlin to form a government. He is facing indictment on three charges, I think you’re aware of that, of breach of trust, fraud, and, most importantly of all because of the seriousness, bribery. And that indictment is likely to come down. There has to be a hearing first, but I think that’s fairly perfunctory. That indictment is likely to come down within a year of his election, if he—if he wins. And in order to fight off the consequences of that and stay in office, because that’s the way that he can deal with the indictment—best deal with it—he’s going to want to form a government that’s reliable. And the only parties that are reliable are the parties of the right wing and the religious parties. Any other parties, if they are willing to join him—which most are not—will leave once the indictment is finalized because they won’t accept him staying on as prime minister.
So I think he’s bound to what he’s said he will do during the campaign, and that is to say form a right-wing government. As Phil explained, a right-wing government is going to be pushing for annexation of part of the West Bank, particularly that 40 percent—excuse me—60 percent of the West Bank that is still in—under Israel’s control. The other 40 percent is nominally under the control of the Palestinian Authority. And the right-wing parties have made clear, including his own Likud Party, that annexation is their priority precisely because they believe this is the moment to do it, because they have a favorable President in Donald Trump. The fact that Donald Trump has now recognized Israel’s sovereignty on the Golan, and Netanyahu has turned around and said, this shows that if we take territory in a defensive war we get to keep it, is just basically flashing a bright green light to the annexationist within his own party and the other right-win parties to go for it. And I believe that they will. I believe this is their moment.
And that—to get at your question, Stuart—is—really goes to the heart of the difference between the bulk of the American-Jewish community, which supports the two-state solution and does not want to see Israel annex the West Bank because that will highlight the dilemma that Israel is facing as time goes on, which is: Is it going to be a Jewish state or a democratic state? But it’s not going to be able to be both if it annexes territory, and the Palestinians within that territory. Israel will over time—the Jewish majority of Israel will diminish almost to a minority status in the next, you know, ten, fifteen, twenty years. And that worries a lot of American Jews. I would say the bulk of American Jews worry about the future of Israel in that regard. So that’s why I think that the gap is going to be exacerbated if Netanyahu wins and forms a right-wing religious government.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Great. Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Excuse me. Participants as we join you into the questioning queue please make sure that you either mute your line or hold off on typing so that you won’t interrupt your call with any background noises.
Our next question is going to come from Terence Smith of PBS NewsHour.
Q: Thank you. Can you hear me now?
OPERATOR: Yes, sir.
Q: Yeah. OK. Remarkably, I agree with every single thing Martin and Phil said—(laughs)—which on this topic in this day in age is amazing. I think it was Philip who said—who just a sidewise reference there to the trap that Hamas is laying for Netanyahu in this recent outbreak of rockets. And I wanted to just see if he would elaborate on that.
GORDON: Sure. That’s—you know, to the question, why now? Why did Hamas out of the blue—and it’s been a while since rockets were fired at civilian sites—do so? And it’s hard to avoid the conclusion—or, at least it seems to me that the most plausible explanation of the timing beyond the election is the protests that we’re seeing in Gaza, which are very serious and raising questions about Hamas’ own legitimacy and performance there. And as I think I said, you know, from their point of view, there’s no better way to distract from that or distract, put it this way, from them taking the blame for the horrific conditions in Gaza than to put that blame on someone else. And if you can provoke the Israelis into responding in a way that leads to criticism of Israel for civilian casualties and so on then you sort of have a twofer in getting out from under the blame yourself and putting that on others.
And, you know, with the spotlight on Israel and otherwise Israeli progress towards their strategic aims, right? So they’re—you know, the U.S. recognizes Jerusalem as the capital, and the Golan Heights get annexed, and Trump is basically endorsing Netanyahu, they’re sort of on a roll. And from a Hamas point of view, maybe the only way to interrupt that and bring criticism on Israel from the international community is to provoke them into violence. So that does seem to me to make sense as an explanation for what we’re seeing. It’s also no secret to the Israelis, I think. Obviously the Israeli government and security establishment is well-aware of that trap. So I’m not, you know, breaking any news here. But it does seem to me the most consistent explanation for at least part of why now and why this.
INDYK: I’d just like to add on this one that it puts Netanyahu in a tight corner because he knows—he’s always been very cautious, particularly in an election period, about using force. And particularly in this environment with Hamas in Gaza, because if he tries to contain the violence, as he’s doing now, he gets attacked from the right for being weak in response, especially if the calm that he first purchases with some kind of concessions or money from the Qataris—(inaudible)—which he’s done only recently. On the other hand, if he responds and looks like Mr. Tough Guy, then the prospect of rockets falling on Tel Aviv and other cities in Israel and causing civilian casualties, causing further escalation, and causing Israeli military casualties as they go in, on top of the international condemnation and so on, there it’s going to be a real problem for him politically once those Israeli casualties go up.
He’s had to face this situation. He hasn’t resolved the situation, because he can’t. There is no good solution to it. And so it becomes very problematic for him. And it’s especially problematic because he’s up against not one, but three generals who are former IDF Israeli Army chiefs of staff. That’s Gantz and his wingmen Gabi Ashkenazi and “Bogie” Yaalon. And these three generals posing a challenge because they have security credentials. Bibi likes to pose himself as Mr. Security. They have much more credibility. And if they start attacking him from the right in these circumstances, then he’s going to have a real problem. So he’s kind of damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t. And I think Hamas knows this.
But more importantly than Hamas, to the extent that you can keep your eye on Palestine Islamic Jihad. PIJ (as we call them ?), are the partners of Hamas in Gaza. But PIJ is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Iranian intelligence services. And I experienced this when I was ambassador in Israel in 1996, and Bibi was running against Shimon Peres as prime minister. And the—PIJ was responsible for the bus bombings that gave Netanyahu a huge boost. And then Hezbollah, also under Iranian control, starting raining rockets on Israel. And Peres responded by going into Lebanon. And that cost him the Arab vote. And as a result, Iran had great success with that.
Today I believe that the Iranians see an opportunity to screw Netanyahu because he’s been trying to screw them. And there’s an element here—dimension here which could not—could be independent of Hamas and something that Hamas doesn’t entirely control, which could exacerbate Netanyahu’s dilemma here.
Q: I think that’s absolutely right, and with this anniversary coming up this Friday—the one-year anniversary of the protests in Gaza—Hamas has been planning for that for some time. There is likely military activity around that, which would seem like the perfect invitation for Hezbollah in the north.
Q: So that—
INDYK: Well, I think Hezbollah will be a little careful, and I think they’re going to—and I’m not sure that they’re going to engage. They might, but I think it’s more likely to come out of Gaza. They’ve just got too much to lose up in the north.
Q: They do, indeed.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Thanks, Martin. Let’s go to the next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you again, Mr. Smith.
Our next question comes from Judy Miller of the Manhattan Institute.
Q: Hi. Excellent presentation to both of you. But I want to ask each of you a separate question.
One, Martin, since you know Israeli politics so well, at this point, if you had to guess do you think that Benny Gantz or the others can beat—can Bibi be beaten because of things like his union with the extreme right-wing party, which is so unpopular in some parts of Israel, and also the new allegations of corruption surrounding the submarine sales to Egypt? And, you know, is that likely, in your view?
And, two, Phil, talk about the strains a little bit more, if you would—the strains within the Democratic Party. I mean, you—under how much pressure now are Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer—the centrists—on holding the line on Israel and do you see a possibility of serious defections at our coming election—2020—to Donald Trump among and by Jews?
KURTZ-PHELAN: Martin, do you want to go first?
INDYK: So Benny Gantz—yeah, if I could—I think Benny Gantz definitely poses a credible challenge to Netanyahu and the fact that he’s been able to unite with Lapid, the other center party candidate, and these two generals, Yaalon and Gabi Ashkenazi, is—makes him even more credible. Then as I said, Judy, Bibi has the problem of the indictments hanging over his head for corruption and there’s this new story about the submarine scandal that’s coming—new old story—but it just reminds people of Netanyahu’s corrupt practices, particularly in this case because he seems to have gained $4 million from an interesting share sale. Four million dollars for Israelis is a lot of money and, unlike Trump’s base, who seem to appreciate the fact that he’s a billionaire, Israelis don’t really—with the socialist background of the whole country, don’t really admire millionaires who are making—becoming millionaires while they’re prime minister. So I think that’s compounded the difficulty he’s facing.
Having said that, even though Gantz now leads Netanyahu by anything from two to four seats in the polls, what matters, in the end, is the size of the blocs because the right-wing bloc—the right-wing religious bloc—is just larger than the center-left Arab bloc. It just has been that way for the last twenty years and, certainly, the polls indicate that that is still the case.
Now, the polls have a margin of error of 4.4 percent or so. The parties have to pass the threshold of 3.25 percent of the vote in order to get any seats in the Knesset. And so, you know, the smaller parties, whether they’re above or below the threshold, is anybody’s guess. The polls are not reliable in that regard because of the margin of error.
And so it really will depend, in the end, on which of the smaller parties pass the threshold and it could come down to if one right-wing party doesn’t and one left-wing or Arab party does, it could flip the election in Gantz’s favor, and of course, vice versa.
So when we look at the results, we have to look at what happened to the smaller parties before we can predict how the outcome—how it’s going to work out in the end.
Q: Thank you.
GORDON: So shall I jump in?
KURTZ-PHELAN: Phil, you want to take the Democrats question?
GORDON: Yeah. Sure.
So the second question was about how serious the strains in the Democratic Party are. I think and I said they are quite serious and growing. I mentioned these polling numbers. Pew does this more or less every year, and the most recent ones I saw—I mean, there are a lot of different indicators, but on this one about whether you sympathize more with Israel or the Palestinians: thirty years ago, that was pretty much even between Republicans and Democrats, with about 45 to 50 percent of both parties sympathizing more with Israelis than Palestinians. But last year, in 2018, I think it was 79 percent of Republicans sympathized more with Israel, and 27 percent of Democrats sympathized more with Israel. So both parties, you have more who sympathize more with Israelis than Palestinians, but a massive divergence in the degree of that relative sympathy.
On the questions of attitudes towards Bibi Netanyahu: It’s a similar sort of split. I think you saw the slight majority of Republicans who have a favorable view of Netanyahu, and among Democrats, it’s less than twenty percent, and among liberal Democrats, it’s less than ten percent. And, you know, I could go on and on, issue by issue—settlements, Jerusalem, and so on—but the split is really becoming quite stark. I think you saw it in a sort of symbolic way in the last Democratic primary; if you’ll recall, in a New York primary, Bernie Sanders took a remarkably different position on this and really expressed sympathy for the Palestinians and questioned unquestioned American support for Israel. And it—I mean, who knows if it hurt him overall, but it sure got him a lot of support within wings of the party, which, as I said, these views of these different views are particularly stark among minorities in U.S. demographics. And I think—which, obviously, you know, as the parties get more divided along demographic lines, then the split over Israel gets more divided on demographic lines as well.
And in addition to all of the sort of policy things I mentioned, if Netanyahu really is running for office in coalition with what you can only call a racist party, that’s just not going to go over particularly well or make it easy for those minority groups who are very sensitive to such issues to support Israel in traditional ways. So by that, I mean, there are other reasons for this gradual shift in the Democratic Party, but I think it’s fair to say that Israel and the Netanyahu government are not making it any easier for Democrats to maintain support. So I think that trend is clear and quite serious.
And I think, Judy, you also asked about, does that mean defection from the Democratic Party to the Republicans. I think you added that, and certainly Trump is talking about that. I haven’t seen any signs of that yet. I think that the more likely outcome of that is strains and troubles between Democrats and questions about Democratic support for Israel, than it is in a shift—obviously, you know, at some point, if the Democratic Party really starts to be less supportive of Israel, you might get some Democrats who would go to the Republicans, but frankly, they’re probably already there, if that’s their main issue and they’re more sympathetic to current Israeli policies. But I think otherwise, even in, you know, polling numbers on American Jews, they are also, and I think we already said this, uncomfortable with the trend on settlements and Israeli politics, so less likely to defect from the Democratic Party but just be less comfortable with the direction Israel’s headed, particularly if that seems to be a direction that puts strains on Israel’s ability to remain a democratic country as well as a Jewish one.
INDYK: Can I just add one thing here, Dan? I don’t think it’s generally appreciated here that Netanyahu has made a strategic decision, some time ago, actually, to basically focus on cultivating the support of Republicans and Evangelicals. And he views the bulk of the American Jewish community as liberals, as progressives, and therefore not well-inclined to his right-wing agenda. And so, rather than try to balance and pursue what previous prime ministers have normally done, including him in the past, which is to seek bipartisan support, he’s actually—has developed a strategy to seek partisan support from the right in the United States, and particularly from the Evangelicals.
And that is, I think, a kind of stunning conclusion. I found it hard to believe until I heard the words from his own mouth, including just in the last week, and, of course, his behavior as well, starting with his speech against Obama and the Iran policy from the floor of the House.
So I think, you know, that means that instead of a break on this process, there’s an accelerator going on. And Trump and Netanyahu are kind of in cahoots in this regard to build right-wing support for Israel and essentially write off the American Jews, who, as I’ve heard one of Trump’s advisers say, put their politics before their Judaism.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Thank you.
I think we’ve got time for a couple more quick questions, so let’s go to the queue.
OPERATOR: Thank you very much.
(Gives queueing instructions.)
Our next question comes from Tod Robinson—Robberson—of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Q: Yes. Can everybody hear me?
INDYK: Yes, yes.
Q: OK, you can hear me. All right.
Yeah, so I was wondering if either one of you can zero in on the question of Jared Kushner. I’m just curious—I know this is a bit speculative—but how much influence you believe Jared Kushner is playing in Trump’s decisions, particularly on Jerusalem and the Golan Heights? And do you think this is part of a deliberate strategy? Or is it more motivated just kind of like everything else Trump does internationally, on ignorance and emotion?
KURTZ-PHELAN: Martin, do you want to take that?
INDYK: OK. Well, I’ll start. I’m sure Phil has some views on it too.
Look, first of all, I think that Jared Kushner is highly influential when it comes to this file. He owns this file. And he has a presence here. But he’s also reinforced by Ambassador Friedman, the U.S. ambassador in Israel, who is more knowledgeable about the Israeli politics and the lay of the land out there and the issues. He’s been more involved in it than Jared Kushner has in the past. And—but Kushner is really leading the policy.
Now, when it comes to the embassy decision, I think he played a critical role. Trump was very frustrated with the idea that, having promised he would do it—particularly promised the Evangelicals and Sheldon Adelson, who said this was the critical issue—condition for his support, his financial support, to say moving the embassy. But Trump is frustrated with the idea that he could—he shouldn’t do it, having promised it. So he wanted to go ahead.
The one concern, as I understand it, was that Tillerson, who was then secretary of state, and Mattis, who was then secretary of defense, were essentially arguing the age-old argument, the Arabs won’t like it. You’ll lose the Arabs. And since you’re depending on the Arabs for supporting your peace plan, you shouldn’t do it because of that.
And essentially, as I understand it, Jared had a conversation with his good friend, the other crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, and he essentially—MBS told him, look, there’ll be some reaction, but it won’t be too bad. Don’t worry, it’ll all quiet down, which proved to be essentially correct with one exception, which I’ll come to in a minute. But—so that meant that Jared was able to argue within the counsel around the president that it’s OK because MBS said it would be OK; not to worry about it. So that really, really kind of neutralized the arguments coming from his secretary of state and his secretary of defense.
The problem was in the aftermath was, yes, there wasn’t a great reaction, except for one critical player. Leave aside the Palestinians for a moment. We already talked about them. It was MBS’s father, the king, who unlike MBS cares about Jerusalem. As the custodian of the holy mosques of Mecca and Medina, he cares about these issues. He cares about Jerusalem. He’s the old guard in Saudi Arabia. And he said: This is not acceptable. And he condemned it. And he organized a summit—Jerusalem summit to condemn it, as an Arab League leader. So I think that you saw there how Jared’s influence played, I think, a critical role.
And so it is up to this moment, when it comes to the plan, the development of the plan, the way in which he’s going around trying to sell at least the economic parts of the plan in the Arab world, and the issue of timing where I think he plays a critical role.
GORDON: And, Dan, can I—
KURTZ-PHELAN: Operator, can we take one more?
GORDON: Hey, Dan, can I just have one thought on it?
KURTZ-PHELAN: Sorry, Phil. OK, go ahead.
GORDON: Yeah, just briefly. Because I agree with all that, but just going one step beyond Jared Kushner’s role, what Martin described on Jerusalem applies more broadly to the Trump administration’s foreign policy. And not to get too deeply into that at the end of this call, but Jerusalem was, like, the first thing—Trump chafed under the constraints of the so-called adults in the room on the Jerusalem decision, but also on a whole bunch of other stuff his whole first year. The Iran nuclear deal, he promised to get out and wanted to get out, and they told him, well, he couldn’t get out. Steel and aluminum tariffs. NATO Article 5 commitments. Getting out of Afghanistan.
And he let these advisors persuade him he couldn’t do that, and he really chafed under that, until the Jerusalem thing broke the dam. And then finally, you know, at the end of 2017 he just said I’m going to do it anyway. Despite all of the naysayers and warning. And then when it went largely without violence, I really think that fueled this notion that he shouldn’t listen to these so-called experts and naysayers all the time. And then it flowed from there, and you got steel and aluminum tariffs on China and Europe, and pulling out of the Iran deal, and other steps including, you know, taking us all the way up to the present day, Syria and Golan annexation.
And this theory that the president should do what he promises to do and others just need to accommodate that is really guiding the way they’re approaching this issue as a whole. And I think I described that earlier. And their theory of the case is that you just lay down the law and the Palestinians are just going to have to accommodate that, which is why I worry that it extends all the way to a potential annexation of the West Bank with U.S. support. So the other brief point is that just to reinforce on the Arabs, I think that it is obviously true that Arabs and Israel—both Arabs and Israel see the region much more in similar terms these days, and that the Arabs don’t prioritize the Palestinian issue in the way a previous generation might have. But it’s easy to overstate the degree to which they are therefore going to get in line for a peace plan along the lines that we think we might see from the Trump administration, particularly in the wake of decisions on Jerusalem, Golan, et cetera.
And I don’t think it’s just King Salman. He clearly has a particular passion for this as part of that older generation. But even the next generation of leadership understands that publicly and visibly supporting Israel on issues that are might deny Palestinians not just rights but any say in Jerusalem is just something that would give them a further headache at home, and also a further headache regionally as countries like Iran, and Qatar, and Turkey would seek to take advantage of it. So the hope that somehow the Arabs are going to bail us out, and we put forward the Kushner plan, and the Arabs are going to twist the Palestinians’ arms and they’re going to go for it, I think is misplaced, to say the least.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Operator, do we have a very quick final question?
OPERATOR: Thank you, sir. There are no further questions in queue.
KURTZ-PHELAN: OK, great. Well, that’s good because we’re out of time.
Well, thank you, Phil and Martin for that. And thanks, everyone, for joining. We will be watching the next couple weeks with great interest.
GORDON: Thanks, everybody.
INDYK: Thank you. Thank you all.