By David A. Lehrer and Janice Kamenir-Reznik
There are few policy arenas in which President Donald Trump has been more successful in his misdirection of the nation's attention than the Middle East. For many in the Jewish community - including many in its leadership - there is a reticence to speak up about the outrages of the Trump administration, in large measure because of the president's perceived "support" for Israel.
After all, he recognized Jerusalem as the nation's capital, he moved the American embassy to Jerusalem, he has been a staunch advocate for Israel in international bodies, and he embraces Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while making virtually no demands on him. It looks so appealing.
But the reality is that much of what Trump has done vis-a-vis Israel is, in fact, a superficial performance - rhetorically, diplomatically and symbolically - that is at odds with the very policies that will help the Jewish state in the long term. In fact, his policies put the nation, and what exists of an international order striving for calm, in greater peril than it has been in many years.
Community Advocates, in partnership with Jews United for Democracy and Justice ("JUDJ"), four major synagogues (Valley Beth Shalom, Temple Israel of Hollywood, Stephen Wise Temple, Leo Baeck Temple), and the Jewish Center for Justice recently hosted an event at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino featuring Dennis Ross, former Middle East envoy and special adviser for Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia in several administrations.
Ross is among the most knowledgeable experts in the world on the diplomacy of the Middle East. He has served as the point man in negotiations between the Arab states, Israel and the United States in every administration since President George H.W. Bush (under Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama). He facilitated the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty; he brokered the 1995 Interim Agreement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the 1997 Hebron accord, and intensively worked to bring together Israel and Syria in a peace deal. He is also the author of several authoritative books on the region and the peace process.
If one wants a thoughtful, fact-based, nonpartisan analysis of what is transpiring in the Middle East, what the future portends and what the real-world implications of policy decisions are, there is no one who knows more and has more experience in the region than Dennis Ross. He is the best of the Middle East mavens.
In describing Trump administration policies toward the region's issues, Ross spoke of a "crisis of values" and "a real Russia problem." Trump has made the situation far worse than it has been in decades.
"Trump's world view - much like his domestic agenda - in its simplicity and absence of grounding in facts is dangerous to everyone involved. "
For example, Russian President Vladimir Putin recently announced plans to provide Syria with S300 surface-to-air missiles as well as sophisticated electronic counter measures, which the Trump administration has not objected to. Those moves, combined with "malign Iranian activities," has put Israel in a nearly impossible, precarious and potentially existentially dangerous position. Ross observed that until now,
the Russians have given the Israelis a free hand to carry out operations (in Syria) and they (the Israelis) have carried out more than 200 operations in Syria against Iranian and Shia militia targets. They no longer have a free hand and the Iranians have been given a free hand. ... The Israelis won't allow themselves to be put in a position where they are threatened in almost an existential way by what the Iranians are introducing into Lebanon and Syria. ...so far, they have had to manage the Russians entirely on their own. Do you think it's an accident that Prime Minister Netanyahu has made nine visits to Moscow to see Putin? (emphasis added)
Ross made clear how the Trump response to Russia's actions in Syria, to essentially absent himself from the conflict, differs from his predecessors and places Israel in peril.
Historically, there was a relationship that we had where we kind of said to the Israelis 'OK, you are responsible for dealing with the threats in the region, we will provide the material support, but when it comes to the Soviets and others outside the region that might threaten or inhibit you, that's on us.' That was the historic posture of Republican and Democratic presidents alike - and I know that since I served in most of those administrations. That has not been the case now." (emphasis added)
Ross laid out the steps that the administration should take to counter Russia, Iran and the Shia militias - none of which is happening. Rather, Trump has offered a vague pledge, "'I'll call Putin at some point.'" Ross sarcastically observed, "well, that's reassuring." The way to deal with Putin, Ross advised, is not to follow the Trump playbook. "He (Putin) is a transactionalist ... you have to speak his language, you don't tout him with incredible offers."
Trump's missteps aren't just related to Russia and the Middle East,
We have walked away from a 'rules-based international order. ... [Trump sees] no value in multilateral institutions. ... the essence of what Trump said to the U.N. is that national sovereignty trumps everything else. Well, we've seen what that means - that means that governments can do whatever they want to their own people and national sovereignty precludes anyone from the outside being able to intervene and do anything about it.
The whole import of 'Never Again' was that it wasn't supposed to be a slogan, it was supposed to be a principle. But when the principle is national sovereignty, you can forget 'Never Again.'
Ross couldn't have been clearer. He sees Trump as a huge threat to whatever equilibrium might exist in the Middle East by his inexplicable inaction vis-a-vis Russia. That failure of will increases the likelihood of escalation as the Israelis defend their interests against the Iranians, the Shia militias and the Syrians; all without the United States neutralizing the Russians.
In its simplicity and absence of grounding in facts, Trump's world view - much like his domestic agenda - is dangerous to everyone involved. As Ross observed, "what we are contending with now is really an assault on our values; by the way, it's not just an assault on our democratic values, it's an assault on our Jewish values."
Last week saw further confirmation of the Trump administration's denigration of the values that are intrinsic to the survival of the Jewish state: American moral leadership.
In his dismissal of taking action against the Saudis in the Oct. 2 disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Trump betrayed a disdain for America's leadership role in the world if it might exact a price on our economy - "they're [the Saudis] are spending $110 billion purchasing military equipment ... that doesn't help us" - he responded when asked about Khashoggi.
A far cry from President Harry Truman recognizing Israel in 1948 despite threats of retaliation from the Arab states, or President Richard Nixon sending arms to Israel in 1973 notwithstanding the Saudis' imposing a painful and costly oil embargo on us.
President John Kennedy once urged Americans "to bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty." Trump is brazenly rewriting our 60-year-old American creed.
Symbolic gestures, such as moving the embassy to Jerusalem, might bring momentary satisfaction, but too much is at stake to think in such short-sighted terms. Looking at the big picture, as Ross so eloquently stated, leads to the inevitable conclusion that Trump's failure of will with the Russians isn't good for Israel, for the international order, or for the prospects for a moderately peaceful world.
David A. Lehrer is the president of Community Advocates, Inc. Janice Kamenir-Reznik is a longtime community leader in Los Angeles.