INTERVIEW: Dov Zakheim on Trump’s Tumultuous Start

Dov Zakheim, former undersecretary of defense in President George W. Bush’s administration and one of the over 50 top Republican national security officials who signed the anti-Trump letter in the presidential election, shared his thoughts about the first three weeks of the Trump Administration and the President’s conduct on foreign policy issues in a phone interview with Jewish Insider on Monday.

“They’re clearly disorganized. They’re running very, very far behind,” Zakheim said with regards to the tumult surrounding Trump’s first weeks of his presidency. “They don’t have undersecretaries, they don’t have assistant secretaries, so they don’t have the people that are meant to really execute whatever the cabinet, the National Security Council, and the President want to have happen. They’re relying on civil servants and our holdovers so you already have a problem there and you have a second kind of problem because a lot of these people are not necessarily loyal to Trump, which is why you’re getting the leaks.”

On Trump nixing the appointment of Elliott Abrams as Deputy Secretary of State: “It’s very clear that either the President or his top three advisors, Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner, and Stephen Miller, are holding hard and fast to the idea that anybody who said anything negative about the President during the campaign is ‘treyf’ (non-kosher). I mean, you know, I signed these letters, but from the minute he became President, my feeling has been he’s the only President we’ve got, we have to support him and I’ve gone on the record to say that. For the point of view, those people who are being considered for jobs, evidently that’s not sufficient, and it’s not just happened to Elliott Abrams, it seems to have happened to others. These are the people that really have a lot of expertise, and if you’re going to eliminate those who wrote articles, you’ve probably eliminated 150 of the most experienced, talented, knowledgeable national security people.”

On Trump’s emerging traditional stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “I’m not surprised. If the President gets briefed, he finds out the realities of things. He’s got three very, very sophisticated senior advisors. James Mattis, Rex Tillerson, and Mike Pompeo are clearly much more nuanced and understanding of the situation in the region. Then, of course, he’s met with King Abdullah of Jordan. Abdullah is no enemy of Israel. He’s just telling the President the reality and the reality is that moving the embassy or supporting the settlements is going to make it much more difficult for the Arabs who are already dealing with Israel, whether openly like Jordan or maybe less openly like some of the others in the Gulf, it’s going to make it more difficult for them to continue.”

“Netanyahu, in particular, has to decide what he wants more. Does he want the embassy in Jerusalem? Does he want more settlements to satisfy the settlers or does he want to build upon the relationship he’s already got with the Arabs and maybe use that to reach some kind of understanding with the Palestinians? He can’t have both and I think that that’s where Mr. Trump is backing away. Not because he’s not sympathetic to Israel, but because he recognizes that if he wants to really get some kind of deal with the Arabs, he’s got to back away on some issues.”

Q: Could Netanyahu come out of the meeting with Trump with an understanding on settlements, such as reinstating the Bush-Sharon letter?

“I think people may be overreacting to the President. They expected that he would back every settler to the last inch of whatever the settlers want and that was an unrealistic expectation. What he has done is not only changed the tone of the relationship, but he seems clearly to have reverted back to the Bush-Sharon agreement, which, by the way, was quite acceptable to Israel for quite some time. The only reason the whole thing blew up was because Obama blew it up.”

On Jared Kushner’ role as ME envoy: “Arab leaders are used to dealing directly with the President. They don’t even deal with Secretaries of State. And so you send Jared Kushner to, say King Salman of Saudi Arabia, who’s old enough to be practically his grandfather, where he’ll be polite to him, he’ll entertain him, he’ll escort him to his airplane, but he’s not going to make the deal with him. These people make deals with the President and to the extent that they deal with anyone else, they’ll deal with a Tillerson because they know him from Exxon. They’ll deal with a Mattis because they know him from Central Command. As long as these people are not in the lead on dealing with the Middle East, I don’t think anything much is going to happen.”

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