Lee Zeldin contrasts Trump’s record on Israel with Obama’s in reelection pitch

A second Donald Trump administration would “do even more to strengthen the relationship between the United States and Israel,” Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) said in a pitch to participants at a virtual candidate forum hosted by the Orthodox Union on Wednesday, highlighting the administration’s Mideast policy achievements.

Zeldin praised the Trump administration’s record on Israel, contrasting it with the way the Obama administration handled the U.S.-Israel relationship since he entered Congress in 2015. 

“Finally our country was starting to treat Israel like Israel and Iran like Iran, and I do not want to go back to my experience of my first term,” Zeldin, who is running for reelection in New York’s 1st congressional district,, told the group. “I would love to see us build on his progress.” 

“Israelis know that President Trump has had their back every step of the way,” Zeldin continued “Just think of the possibilities if President Trump has four more years in office. Because, with President Trump, he does not wake up the next day and look to just move on to the next unrelated battle. When he scores a win, he asks himself and asks his advisors, ‘What else can we do?’ That’s why we’ve had so many successes in strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship — because the president wakes up the next day saying that he wants to accomplish even more.”

Earlier this week, the OU hosted a conversation with surrogates from former Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. 

In a separate Zoom call hosted by the Biden campaign on Wednesday, Israeli-American mogul Haim Saban said Trump’s moves on Israel were largely symbolic. He compared the Jerusalem embassy move to a “bar mitzvah,” noting that only one country, Guatemala, followed the U.S. lead and moved its embassy to Jerusalem. 

Another Central American country, Honduras, is expected to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem before the end of the year, according to a social media post from Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández last month. 

Saban was also skeptical that the president’s withdrawal from the Iran deal had bolstered Israel’s security.

“In the test of results — where are we from a security standpoint — we have Iran opening a new front against Israel from Syria and we have Iran with three times more enriched uranium,” Saban explained. “You draw your own conclusion.”

Saban, who has maintained close ties with Trump’s son-in-law and White House senior advisor Jared Kushner and reportedly helped broker the recent normalization deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, suggested that the president was only a participant of a “photo op” and did not deserve credit for the Abraham Accords. “All the credit should really be going here to Jared Kushner and [Mideast peace envoy] Avi Berkowitz, who worked really hard on it,” Saban said.

After staying on the sidelines during the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, Saban, a major Democratic donor and bundler, endorsed Biden in September, hosting a virtual fundraiser in support of the Democratic nominee.

Highlighting Biden’s longstanding support for Israel, Saban said, “The facts speak for themselves. Facts, you know, are a very stubborn thing. Look at the track record. Andall Jews in America [who] care about the U.S.-Israel alliance know that they can sleep peacefully as far as Israel’s security goes under a Biden presidency.”

In new book, H.R. McMaster describes White House debate over Iran deal

In a new book looking back at his time in the military and in several presidential administrations, former national security advisor H.R. McMaster expounds on what he thought were “fundamental flaws” in the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and why he tried to persuade President Donald Trump not to withdraw from the deal. 

In Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World, released on Tuesday, McMaster called the original JCPOA negotiated by former President Barack Obama “an extreme case of strategic narcissism based on wishful thinking” that led to “self-delusion and, ultimately the deception of the American people.” 

Yet, when Trump wanted to make good on his campaign promise to leave the deal, McMaster made clear his opposition to withdrawing from the accord. In the book, McMaster explains that he wanted the U.S. to maintain leverage to punish Iran for its behavior on matters unrelated to the Iranian nuclear program and to get the parties in the agreement to fix the deal’s flaws. McMaster said he also wanted to avoid giving Tehran the opportunity to portray itself as a victim. But as he attempted to work on a comprehensive Iran strategy, McMaster wrote, Trump grew “impatient.” 

McMaster details how he intervened in former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s efforts to certify the deal in April 2017, and how he successfully lobbied the president to recertify the agreement over the next two 90-day deadlines as required under the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act. “We had created a window of opportunity for our allies to demonstrate the viability of staying in the deal while imposing costs on Iran,” McMaster writes. “That window closed soon after I departed the White House.” A month after McMaster left the administration, Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the deal. 

The former national security official accuses the Obama administration of ignoring Iran’s behavior in the region and avoiding confrontation in an effort to preserve the accord. According to McMaster, Obama officials “focused on selling the deal rather than subjecting it to scrutiny” by using a “red herring” talking point — the Iraq War — to pose “the false dilemma” of either supporting the deal or going to war with Iran. 

McMaster also offers his view on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Trump peace plan announced in early 2020. Trump’s moves on Israel, he writes, “communicated support for Israel, but also removed incentives that might have been crucial in a future agreement.” While he described the rollout of the peace plan as “dead on arrival” due to lack of participation from Palestinian leaders, McMaster posits that the plan itself may at some point “help resurrect the possibility of a two-state solution.” 

The book itself is not a tell-all on the Trump administration. McMaster does not write about being excluded from Trump’s meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the president’s trip to Israel, or his disputes with Trump and Jared Kushner. “This is not the book that most people wanted me to write… a tell-all about my experience in the White House to confirm their opinions of Donald Trump,” McMaster writes in his preface. “Although writing such a book might be lucrative, I did not believe that it would be useful or satisfactory for most readers.”

McMaster accuses the Russians and the alt-right movement of leading a campaign against him, under the hashtag #FireMcMaster, because they viewed him as a threat to their agenda of undermining America’s national security. McMaster writes that the attacks against him were “often inconsistent” in nature. “For example, one caricature on social media portrayed me as a puppet of billionaire George Soros and the Rothschild family (both of whom were frequent targets of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories), while articles in the pseudo-media charged me and others on the NSC staff as being ‘anti-Israel’ and soft on Iran,” McMaster recalls.

Behind the scenes of the tweet that announced history

White House Mideast peace envoy Avi Berkowitz had the honor of posting President Donald Trump’s tweet announcing a groundbreaking normalization agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates last Thursday, White House senior advisor Jared Kushner revealed in an interview published on Wednesday. 

“[Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications] Dan Scavino was sitting in the back, and he let Avi push the button,” Kushner detailed in an interview with Ami Magazine, a weekly print-only publication widely read in the Orthodox community. “Avi has been working around the clock, and it’s really an incredible deal. He did a great job, so we all thought it would be an honor for him to do that.”

The presidential tweet came after a 15-minute phone call between Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed. “HUGE breakthrough today! Historic Peace Agreement between our two GREAT friends, Israel and the United Arab Emirates!” A follow up tweet by Trump read. 

Kushner shared with the publication what went on behind the scenes in the Oval Office ahead of Trump’s public statement: “We made the call in the Oval Office with a bunch of people on our team who wanted to be there. After we hung up, everyone in the room started to applaud. Then the president stood up and started clapping too, because he realized that we were all clapping for peace. As we were getting ready to bring in the media, we sent out the tweet which was all set up and ready to go. Dan Scavino was sitting in the back and Avi pushed the button. Then we brought the press in and shared what had happened with the world.”

The White House senior advisor noted that this was the first time Trump had given someone from his wider team the permission to tweet out from his account. “The president never lets anyone do it. It’s always either the president or Dan [Scavino],” Kushner noted. 

Berkowitz and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman also spoke to Ami, which featured them on the front cover as “the peacemakers.” 

The two seemed to offer differing views on the shelving of Netanyahu’s annexation plan as part of the U.A.E.-Israel accord. “The application of sovereignty to areas of the West Bank is something that our vision for peace accommodates, as we don’t fundamentally disagree with it,” Berkowitz told the magazine. “We believe that for the next few months it’s worthwhile to continue advancing the cause of peace and suspend the discussion about what the application of sovereignty and recognition by the United States would look like. We were in the middle of those discussions, and quite honestly we would still have some work to do should that path be opened up in the future.” 

The administration official suggested that Netanyahu “understands the historic achievement” of shifting gears away from his plan to annex parts of the West Bank and take the route of peace with the Arab world and “that for the foreseeable future the Israeli people are going to be excited about following that path.” 

Friedman, however, noted that the deal “doesn’t require that the sovereignty efforts that have begun be reversed. They’re just going to be delayed a little bit… We were on the path of support for the application of sovereignty to the settlements, and we were certainly moving along that path, when this opportunity came along. We had the intellectual flexibility to say, ‘Let’s shift gears a bit, because this is better.’” 

The ambassador also expressed his dismay at the ongoing political crisis in Israel. “The unity government hasn’t really created the unity I would have hoped for,” Friedman explained. “Jewish unity around the world is important, and Jewish unity within Israel is very important. I think we are still challenged in that regard, and because those political currents are still working their way through the system, those who see political advantages or disadvantages to making strong statements will continue to do so.”

This post has been updated to clarify Ambassador Friedman’s remarks on Israel’s political crisis.

High-stakes Republican runoff in Texas attracts national attention

Tony Gonzales recently spent two years in Washington, working as a Department of Defense legislative fellow for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL). Now, the former Navy master chief petty officer is looking to return to the nation’s capital — as the congressman representing Texas’s 23rd congressional district.

Gonzales, who comes armed with the endorsement of President Donald Trump, is likely to win Tuesday’s runoff against another veteran, Raul Reyes. Gonzales came out on top in the March 3 primary, taking 28% of the vote to Reyes’ 23%. The winner will go up against Gina Ortiz Jones, who handily beat her opponents in the Democratic primary.

Jones narrowly lost her 2018 bid against Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX), who announced last August that he would not be seeking a fourth term. This year, Jones is favored to win in the district that The Cook Political Report rates as “Lean Democratic.”

But Gonzales is up for the challenge, telling Jewish Insider that he can deliver a victory against Jones in November where Reyes cannot. “I have the experience of being on Capitol Hill, drafting legislation, staffing, hearings, doing constituent services,” he said. 

Mark Jones, a political science fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, agreed that Reyes would be unlikely to win in November.

“Whoever wins [the runoff]… will have a real uphill struggle against Gina Ortiz Jones,” Jones continued. “It’s going to be really tough for Gonzales to win that seat.”

But Gonzales is optimistic that voters in the district, which has flipped between Democratic and Republican control in recent years but was held by Republican Rep. Henry Bonilla for 14 years, will turn out for him in November. He pointed out that he’s a Hispanic candidate running in a majority-Hispanic district, an advantage over Jones.

***

Should he win, Gonzales would bring to Congress a font of Middle East policy expertise. While in the military, he was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. And while working for Rubio, he focused on defense, national security and intelligence issues, with a particular focus on the Middle East.

“I spent my entire adult life basically at war,” he said. “A big part of my message is taking care of veterans, on one hand. The other aspect of it is for America to be firm. I believe in peace through strength.”

In 2018, as a national security fellow for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Gonzales visited Israel, which he said helped shape his view of the region and understanding of the geopolitical situation.

“I read about the Golan Heights and studied it and I understood its strategic importance,” he said, explaining that seeing the situation on the ground allowed him to realize that the area was more than a military interest. “But when you visit it, the part that is left out is there’s this amazing winery just miles from the Golan Heights. So in my eyes, yeah, of course Israel would never give up that area.”

Julia Schulman, senior director of special projects at FDD, told JI, “Gina and Tony are both members of FDD’s non-partisan national security alumni network. Both are dedicated public servants who were actively engaged in our programming. Both have exciting careers ahead and we look forward to seeing how they continue to serve our country.”

Gonzales said he does not believe the U.S. should dictate any specific peace plan for the region, nor should it dictate whether Israel should be allowed to unilaterally annex portions of the West Bank.

“The Israelis and the Palestinians, I think, should lead the way,” he said. “I think [America’s] role is to bring those [actors] together and open up a dialogue, not necessarily dictate what that peace process should be like.”

He added, however, “my experience in the military has taught me that you really can’t have peace unless you have partners that are willing to have that discussion. So I think it starts there.”

Although Gonzales believes that peace negotiations also are the best way to resolve the U.S. conflict with Iran, he did not support the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with the regime.

“I’d love nothing more than Iran to come to the negotiating table and have a dialogue and a discussion. That’s, I believe, how we solve a long-term solution,” he said. “In the meantime, though, that region of the world views strength through power.”

In this sense, Gonzales said, the Trump administration’s tougher posture toward Iran, including the strike which killed Gen. Qassem Solemaini, has been a net positive.

Gonzales — who was a Navy cryptologist — said Iran, as well as Russia and China, pose major cyber threats to the U.S., including U.S. elections.

“Our greatest [external] adversaries are China, Russia and Iran,” he said. “The number one thing is having the dialogue and saying, ‘Yes, China is trying to impact our elections. Yes, Russia is trying to impact our elections. Yes, Iran and others are trying to impact our elections.’ Why? Because they’re our adversaries. They’re trying to undermine us. And I think just being able to say that is already a win that we don’t have on Capitol Hill.”

***

What was anticipated to be a fairly quiet runoff in southwestern Texas between two military veterans has become the site of a high-stakes clash between major players in the national GOP. 

Gonzales has the support of Trump, Hurd and other GOP leaders, while Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) broke with the party to support Reyes, boosting him with a massive ad campaign that raised eyebrows at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. 

And on the eve of the primary, Trump’s campaign sent a strongly worded letter to Reyes’s campaign, admonishing him for using the president’s name and image on a mailer. 

“President Trump and his campaign do not support your candidacy in TX-23’s July 14 runoff primary,” Trump campaign executive director Michael Glassner said in the letter, which was first reported by Politico. “Your campaign’s efforts to make voters believe otherwise are deceptive and unfair.”

Reyes’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Jones said Trump’s endorsement helped shore up Gonzales’ campaign by shielding him from Reyes’s claims that he’s too much of an establishment Republican.

“I think Gonzales is going to [win that runoff] pretty easily,” Jones told JI.

But if he doesn’t, Jones predicts the race will drop off the radar of the GOP. “If Reyes wins, I would expect national Republicans to pull the plug on [TX]23,” Jones told JI. “If Reyes wins, [the district] will cease to be a real priority.”