An interview with the President
JNS FEATURE BY BOAZ BIZMUTH
In an interview with Israel Hayom Editor-in-Chief Boaz Bismuth, U.S. President Donald Trump says, “I have achieved more than I had promised” in his first year of term. “Israel has to be careful with settlements,” he says, adding that Israelis and Palestinians would be “foolish” not to make a peace deal.
“I expect to be here a long time,” Trump said to me when I asked him whether the ayatollah regime would still be in place in Iran when he leaves office. “We will see.”
When it comes to the leader of the free world, a remark like this can be taken as a semi-threat. One thing is clear: The U.S. no longer views Iran as a “stabilizing” power, or even remotely as one of the good guys in the region, the way Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama, often did.
I interviewed Trump before the latest escalation in Israel’s north, before Israel clashed with Syrian and Iranian forces at the Syrian border on Saturday. But even then, it was painfully clear that Syria and Iran are testing the U.S., checking how far they can push the Americans (including reports of chemical attacks and hospital bombings in recent days).
When I asked Trump if Israel is free to operate in Syria and in Lebanon against Iranian targets, he adopted an air of uncharacteristic ambiguity. But the message was clear — when it comes to Iran, it is best to let actions do the talking. The U.S. is keeping its cards close to its chest.
Q: Is it possible to prevent Iran from establishing permanent military bases in Syria and in Lebanon?
“You are going to see. You can watch [and see].”
Q: Do you think Israel has a right to defend itself if such bases are in fact established in Syria and Lebanon?
“I don’t want to comment on that right now. It is too soon.”
Unlike Obama, Trump realizes that actions are far more powerful than speeches (actions like bombing Syria or relocating the American embassy, for example). It appears that Trump understands the profound truth behind the iconic line: “When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.”
As someone who has personally met Trump on a number of occasions, including three times in the Oval Office, I could sense a change in him this time. In my view, the change was for the better. He was more serious, more thoughtful, considering my questions before firing back, and also more inquisitive, asking me far more questions for a change.
Not only has he fulfilled his campaign promise on Jerusalem (officially recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on Dec. 6), it was apparent that the very question regarding the meaning of his Jerusalem recognition took him by surprise. To him, the meaning of the move is self-evident. Anyone with a brain should be able to understand it, even if they don’t agree with it.
Like his predecessors, Trump was dragged into the Middle East at the very start of his presidency. But unlike the others, Trump had a particularly challenging inheritance to confront, bequeathed to him by the former occupant of the White House: a massive Russian and Iranian presence in the heart of the Syrian conflict, which by then had transformed from a local to a regional strategic problem.
Anyone trying to gauge Trump’s policy in the region on the basis of the last year must keep in mind two key events: Trump placed Iran under caution over its ballistic missile test, and earlier, bombed Syria in response to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. Both maneuvers resulted in the desired effect, at least in the short term. And this was just a taste of what Trump is expected to do if the provocations continue.
Contrary to the reputation he gained during his campaign, Trump actually prefers actions over talking. When he identifies an opportunity, he doesn’t hesitate — he strikes. Iran and Syria should take that under advisement. He has maintained this stance despite the fact that Obama complicated matters for his successor when he stood idly by while the Russian started entering Syria in 2015.
Q: Do you feel at home in Washington, now, after a year in office?
“I do, I really do. I feel very much at home, we have had great success and a great first year.”
Q: Do you think your presidency has achieved most of what you had hoped to achieve in your first year in office?
“I think, actually, that I have achieved more than I had promised, in a certain sense. We got certain things done that I am not sure anyone thought were possible, including the biggest tax relief ever, and ANWR [drilling permits], and the [scrapping of] the individual mandate [under Obamacare], and regulation cutting like there has never been. So we have done very well. Beyond expectations.”
Q: What was the highlight of your first year, what was the highest point?
“I think Jerusalem was a very big point. And I think it was a very important point. The capital, having Jerusalem be your great capital was a very important thing to a lot of people. I have been thanked, and in some cases not thanked, to be 100 percent honest about it. But it was a very important pledge that I made and I fulfilled my pledge.”
Q: I think the entire nation of Israel says one big thank you, sir. Was the decision on Jerusalem one of your goals for your first year in office?
“That’s right. I said that I would like to be able to do it in the first year. I can understand why many other presidents bailed on their promise, because tremendous pressure was put on them not to do it. The other presidents, all of them have failed in the promise even though they made it as a campaign promise but I understand it because I will tell you, the lobbying against it was tremendous.”
Q: What did you mean when you said recently in Davos that Jerusalem was off the table because of your decision?
“By taking Jerusalem off the table I wanted to make it clear that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and as for specific boundaries, I would support what both sides agreed to.”
Q: Will Israel have to give something in return for the decision on Jerusalem?
“I think both sides will have to make hard compromises to reach a peace agreement.”
Q: Obviously there is suspense in Israel about the imminent peace plan. When will the U.S. unveil its peace plan?
“We are going to see what goes on. Right now, I would say the Palestinians are not looking to make peace, they are not looking to make peace. And I am not necessarily sure that Israel is looking to make peace. So we are just going to have to see what happens.”
Q: Will settlements be part of the plan?
“We will be talking about settlements. The settlements are something that very much complicates and always have complicated making peace, so I think Israel has to be very careful with the settlements.”
Q: How do you see the future relationship between Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, and Israel?
“They are getting much better. I think they respect me and they accepted what I did [on Jerusalem]. But the Gulf countries, I have had very good relationship with many of them, but I think time, when people look at all of the death and destruction … years of death, destruction, wealth gone and dissipated, massive amounts of wealth dissipated. I think people are tired of it. That is why making peace is so smart for Israel and for the Palestinians, and it can lead to more than that. But I think Saudi Arabia and other countries have come a long way.”
Q: I’m guessing that Egypt and Cairo are supposed to play a key role in the peace plan. Are they willing to play that role?
“I think they will, I mean at the right time. I am right now interested in the Palestinians and Israel. I don’t know frankly if we are going to even have talks, we will see what happens, but I think it is very foolish for the Palestinians and I also think it would be very foolish for the Israelis if they don’t make a deal. It’s our only opportunity and it will never happen after this.”
Q: Are you willing to cut off support for countries that boycott Israel and to come out against the BDS movement?
“I don’t want to say that because you know, some countries maybe and some countries not. I just don’t want to talk about that.”
Q: What are your thoughts about U.S.-Israel relations right now?
“I think they are great. I think Bibi [the popular nickname for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is a terrific person, a terrific leader, I think the relationships are good, but I think they will be a lot better if they ever get to making a peace deal.”
Q: Will Vice President Mike Pence also play a role in this relationship?
“Yeah. He is going to play a very important role. He has played an important role.”
Q: Would you say that our nations are closer than ever?
“I think we are probably closer than ever before. But I feel much better if we can actually make a deal in terms of peace. I mean you certainly weren’t very close with Obama, he gave you the Iran deal, which basically is a deal that says let’s ultimately do bad things to Israel. Obama was terrible. He was absolutely terrible for Israel. I think our relationships are very good. I think they are probably as good as they have ever been.”
Q: We in Israel think the 2015 Iran deal effectively recognized the Iranian revolution.
“The Iranian deal for Israel is catastrophic. Nothing less. I think it is catastrophic for Israel, in how it was done, how it was allowed to be done, how it was signed, how it was agreed to, it is rather incredible to me. It is a terrible deal for many parties, but I think in particular it is bad, really, for Israel.”
Q: But having inherited Obama’s reality, can Iran be contained now?
“Absolutely, sure. You see what is going on, they are having riots in the streets.”
Q: Are you worried about the political climate in Washington and inside law enforcement agencies?
“I think we have learned a lot over the last three or four weeks. We are learning a lot and we are continuing to learn a lot. I think it will end up very well.”
Q: Have you noticed any change in Iran’s behavior since you put them on notice?
“I have noticed very much a change in their behavior. But I am not going to comment as to what the change is. But there has definitely been a change.”