(January 18, 2017 / JNS)
After raising some pro-Israel concerns early in his campaign by saying that he would remain “neutral” in navigating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, President Donald Trump has increasingly taken positions that mirror the Israeli government’s views, including his vows to dismantle the Iran nuclear deal and move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
But upon his Jan. 20 inauguration, Trump’s emerging Cabinet contains a mix of assurances and mysteries when it comes to the appointed officers’ pro-Israel credentials. JNS.org examines the Israel-relevant statements, records and associations of seven Trump Cabinet nominees and one appointee with Cabinet-level status.
Secretary of State: Rex Tillerson
Tillerson’s record on Israel was unknown when Trump announced his appointment as America’s top diplomat. The former ExxonMobil CEO has spent years forging deep oil industry ties with Sunni Arab Gulf states, but Israel is a relative newcomer to the world energy market.
In his Senate confirmation hearing, however, Tillerson revealed some of his views on Israel policy. He said that a “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “has to be a shared aspiration of all of us,” but that “under the conditions today, it’s extremely challenging to do that.” He also singled out the Palestinians for the current deadlock in the peace process, saying that “in the case of the Palestinian leadership, while they have renounced violence, it is one thing to renounce it and another to take concrete action to prevent it.”
Regarding the Iran nuclear deal, Tillerson said he would recommend “a full review of that agreement” with Trump.
Secretary of Defense: James Mattis
Mattis, a retired four-star Marine general whose nickname is “Mad Dog,” said in 2013 that the U.S. pays a “military-security price” for supporting the Jewish state because “the Americans are seen as biased in support of Israel, and that moderates all the moderate Arabs who want to be with us, because they can’t come out publicly in support of people who don’t show respect for the Arab Palestinians.” Mattis also warned that the settlement movement would turn Israel into an “apartheid” state.
In his nomination hearing last week, Mattis said he considers Tel Aviv—not Jerusalem—to be Israel’s capital.
“The capital of Israel that I go to, sir, is Tel Aviv, sir, because that’s where all their government people are,” Mattis said, adding that he would “stick with the U.S. policy” that currently does not recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Asked if he would support moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, Mattis replied said he would “defer to the nominee for secretary of state” on that issue.
The Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs has praised Mattis’s record of “advocating for a more robust U.S. military posture to counter, contain and deter Iran,” adding that his “outlook on these issues aligns perfectly with Israel’s.”
Secretary of the Treasury: Steven Mnuchin
A former partner at Goldman Sachs and a film producer, Mnuchin has past ties to billionaire George Soros, who has poured millions into funding anti-Israel organizations.
Mnuchin, who is Jewish, served as finance chair of Trump’s 2016 campaign. According to the Wall Street Journal, Mnuchin left Goldman Sachs in 2002, when Soros hired him to run a credit fund. In 2009, Mnuchin and a group of billionaire investors, including Soros, bought the failed California-based mortgage lender IndyMac.
Secretary of Energy: Rick Perry
While serving as the governor of Texas from 2000-2015, the former Republican presidential candidate was a strong advocate of business ties between Israel and his state. In October 2013, Perry attended a water technology conference in Israel to speak about the mutual challenges Texas and Israel face in water management. In the 1990s, when he was Texas’s agriculture commissioner, Perry took money out of his own budget to ensure the survival of the Texas-Israel Exchange Program when state funding was phased out.
Appearing at a pro-Israel unity rally in Dallas in August 2014, Perry called for an end to the Obama administration’s “policy of calculated ambivalence” toward Israel and a renewal of “our commitment to a strong Israel.”
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development: Dr. Ben Carson
Carson, a retired neurosurgeon who is also a former GOP presidential candidate, told the Associated Press during his first visit to Israel in December 2014 that he wished to “make it very clear that Israel and the United States have a long, cordial relationship, and I don’t think we should ever leave the Israelis in a position of wondering whether we support them.”
In a March 2015 interview with Bloomberg Politics, Carson offered an unexpected proposal for establishing a Palestinian state in Egypt.
“I don’t have any problem with the Palestinians having a state, but does it need to be within the confines of Israeli territory?” he said. “Is that necessary, or can you sort of slip that area down into Egypt? Right below Israel, they have some amount of territory, and it can be adjacent. They can benefit from the many agricultural advances that were made by Israel, because if you fly over that area, you can easily see the demarcation between Egypt and Israel, in terms of one being desert and one being verdant. Technology could transform that area.”
Attorney General: Jeff Sessions
Sessions, who has served on the Senate Armed Services and Judiciary committees, has staunchly opposed the Iran nuclear deal and has supported Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas rockets. In 2015, Sessions was honored by the Alabama Jewish community for his efforts as a “friend of Israel.”
Ambassador to the United Nations: Nikki Haley
While the U.N. ambassador is not a member of the Cabinet, the role has Cabinet-level status. Haley, the Republican governor of South Carolina, was praised by the pro-Israel community in 2015 for signing a bill opposing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, making South Carolina the first U.S. state to enact an anti-BDS law.
Haley blasted U.N. bias in her Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday, saying, “Nowhere has the U.N.’s failure been more consistent and more outrageous than in its bias against our close ally Israel.” Referring to the Obama administration’s refusal to veto last month’s U.N. Security Council resolution against Israeli settlements, Haley vowed that she “will not go to New York and abstain when the U.N. seeks to create an international environment that encourages boycotts of Israel. I will never abstain when the United Nations takes any action that comes in direct conflict with the interests and values of the United States.”
Israeli Ambassador to the U.N. Danny Danon called Haley “a true friend of Israel” and expressed thanks “for her unequivocal support and her clear statement regarding the U.N.’s discrimination against Israel.”