Hoenlein: Trump administration rhetoric positively changing international climate toward Israel, says Malcom Hoenlein

Malcolm Hoenlein, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

The US-Israel “special relationship” has played a starring role in international headlines in recent years – first on the heels of tension between Prime Minister Netanyahu and former US President Barack Obama, and more recently featuring the close relationship between Netanyahu and Obama’s successor, current President Donald Trump.

With the American Jewish community, things have been equally rocky, with Orthodox and non-Orthodox groups battling for recognition at the Western Wall, in local conversion courts and expressing dismay at Knesset legislation that many American Jews feel undermines Israel’s democratic underpinnings.

TPS Deputy Editor Andrew Friedman sat down with Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, for a one-on-one chat about Israel, the United States and the Middle East.

TPS: Let’s start off with a general question about the state the Israel-US relationship. From here it looks like Israel is increasingly becoming a wedge issue between Republicans, who broadly support Israel, and Democrats, who increasingly don’t. As someone who spends a lot of time in both countries, and with the leaders of both countries, what’s your take?

On a governmental level, the relationship is amazing. And it’s not just (the) Trump -Bibi (relationship). If you look at every level – military, intelligence.  But it was good doing under Obama, too.

Even more than that there are many other levels of levels of cooperation. Department secretaries feel free to come to Israel. On the congressional level it is still very strong, on both sides of the aisle. You have some erosion but there always was some of that – on the hard democratic left, you have some people who boycotted Bibi’s speech (in 2016), who didn’t applaud (President Trump’s comments on) Jerusalem.

Mostly on the state level it’s very supportive. You’ve got (anti-) BDS legislation in 40 states. (States are) buying Israel Bonds, if those are ways to measure it.

And what about Jewish support? There have been a series of crises in recent years, over issues like the Western Wall agreement, Palestinian issues, now the deportation of illegal immigrants from Africa. How strong is support in the Jewish community?

Support is generally very strong but we have erosion among young Jews ,who are following the overall trend. Yes, there can be differences over issues. Nothing is monolithic, not within any of the streams or within the organizations themselves. But we can usually build consensus on most issues and even where there are differences, they can usually be contained.
The overwhelming preponderance of positive stuff doesn’t get covered because you know, dog bites man is not a story. And the polls still show that two-thirds of Americans support Israel overwhelmingly over the Palestinians.

(At the same time) we have to prevent this from becoming a wedge issue or partisan issue. Israel should not be liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, young or old. We need everybody…when it comes to being supportive of Israel we can’t afford to lose people. We did a very intense study of this and first finding was that among the younger sectors there was so much alienation. It wasn’t so much opposition (to Israel) as indifference.

(If you look at much of the anti-Israel movement, you see that things like BDS are really) a tool. These people don’t believe Israel has a right to exist. It’s not about policy, it’s not about changing something.  So you can’t explain a particular policy or talk about it. And these people have a right to have differences over particular policies of Israel. But that’s not what this is about. This is about Israel’s right to exist. (They aren’t interested in the fact that Israel has taken in 5,000 Syrians and treated them and spent hundreds of millions of dollars for West Bank and Gaza Palestinians coming to be treated here.

That’s a good segue into another area I wanted to ask you about: The Arab world. I know you’ve travelled extensively in the region and held many talks with Arab leaders. I’d value a window into those conversations.

Sure. In some cases (the United States has been) desensitized to the needs of some of the Muslim countries who do not get the attention from the United States that they should and who are critical frontlines against Iran and Russia under pressure. Many countries who don’t have advocacy groups in the United States who don’t know how to do it and have developed very close ties with us.

Obviously we consult with the government on these issues a lot – I believe you open as many doors as possible. You have to do it smartly, you know you can’t just throw open the door and say ‘everything goes’. We don’t believe that. For instance we just had the third Eastern Mediterranean Initiative between Greece, Cyprus and Israel. We met with the presidents and prime ministers and defense ministers there

And many countries have come to us and said they want to be part of it, including Muslim countries. They want to see much more of an American involvement; they are afraid of the Russian expansion on the Syrian side; Iran building bases all over the region extending its tentacles, undermining the regimes, building the Shiite Crescent.

And Turkey is doing even more. Turkey has bases in Somalia… in Qatar. There are 29 foreign bases in Syria today – Russians, Syrians, Americans, the French, the Germans. Everybody is there. I think we’re seeing the redrawing of the Middle East, and America’s role is very critical. (Countries are) look(ing) to America. And more of them are looking towards Israel.

The Arab states determine the degree to which they can have confidence in America with how strong the US- Israel alliance is, because they believe that American Jews are powerful. They say that if Israel can’t rely on them, what chance does it give us?

In that light, how much of an impact do you think President Trump’s reversal of Barack Obama’s policy, and especially of his tone, has had on the region?

I think what the administration has done at the UN, and what he has done vis-à-vis Israel says “I stand by my friends. You want to fight against America?  You’re going to pay a price for that. That’s an important message maybe one that they don’t want like, let’s say the Europeans. But you see on JCPOA [the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear agreement with Iran], they are all scrambling to find sanctions that they can impose on non-nuclear areas because they’re afraid that Trump would really walk away from it, and then it collapses it all, and all the deals they are making are done.

I think Nikki Haley’s statements  have certainly changed the climate (at the United Nations). People think twice about the anti Israel stuff, about anti-American things that they used to take for granted. That they could get away with it. So I think America has gained credibility in the Middle East.

“We need to be able to do much more. I agree that we have to hold people to account for human rights but we have to put it in the context that we have an ally facing life and death struggles against terrorism against enemies against the pressure that they get from Iran, from Turkey, to Russia…(They are coming to see) Israel in a very different light. They see that Israel is the source of stability in the region, not instability. And many of them are sick and tired of the Palestinian issue.

Andrew Friedman/TPS :