National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster on Sunday told a Jewish audience that Israel and America’s Arab allies are undergoing a reassessment of their shared interests.
“Today their interests are converging,” he said at the American Jewish Committee Global Forum in Washington. “This is an opportunity.”
These shared interests a long-sought peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians and opposing Iran, which McMaster accused of “acting through a proxy network to keep its Arab neighbors engaged in sectarian conflict.”
He said President Donald Trump hopes unity in the region will be a result of his visit there last month.
Trump “emphasized that now is the time to come together, to defeat terrorist organizations and extreme ideology, and to take on Iran’s destructive actions in the region,” McMaster said.
McMaster said that Trump used that kind of rhetoric at Jerusalem’s Jewish and Christian holy sites to promote unity between religious groups.
Trump “said that people of all faiths must prioritize our common humanity and denounce those who foment hatred to rationalize violence,” McMaster said.
McMaster said that he understood criticism of Trump’s visit, due to a history of broken American promises, but stressed that Trump is a man of his word.
“None of us, the president least of all, will be impressed by mere words,” he said. “We expect to see action.”
McMaster spent much of his 17-minute address comparing Israel’s current difficulties to the threats it faced 50 years ago from Egypt, Jordan and Syria — enemies it defeated in the Six-Day War. He said he thinks that conflict should serve as an important history lesson in guiding the United States and its allies toward solving today’s crises in the Middle East.
“In June 1967, Israeli Defense Forces officers saw that Egyptian divisions, so formidable on paper, were built up in defensive belts along the major road through the Sinai,” McMaster said. “The Israeli officers saw the spaces between them as gaps to be exploited. By bold maneuver, they seized and retained the initiative. That creativity and ingenuity should be a model for us today in all battlefields.”
McMaster said that as a young officer in the 1980s, he studied the actions of Israeli commanders and how the war ultimately led to the adaptation of the “air-land battle doctrine.”
“It was a desperate situation for Israel,” he said. “The battles that ensued not only changed the map in the Middle East, they also changed our understanding of modern warfare.”
McMaster said if nothing else, the biggest lesson from the war 50 years ago is that no matter how dire the circumstances, opportunities are present.
“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes,” he said. “By understanding the past, we can ensure that we ask the right questions and take fundamentally sound approaches today’s problems and opportunities.”
Panelists talk Trump
During a panel discussion, Bill Kristol, editor-at-large of The Weekly Standard, said having McMaster take over as Trump’s national security adviser on Feb. 13 after his predecessor Ret. Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn was fired for failing to disclose his contacts with the Russians during Trump’s campaign was a welcome change.
“I honestly would be very worried about the future of U.S.-European relations, U.S.-Israel relations and the liberal world order if Donald Trump were there with Gen. Flynn,” Kristol said.
Kristol, a conservative political analyst and outspoken Trump critic, elicited applause when he said that electing a president who ran on an “America first” platform is dangerous for the world. McMaster and other Trump appointees have had a calming influence, he said.
“We just take so much for granted, that 75 years of relative peace, of relative progress in many ways … we basically have a decent world order,” he said. “And so I think H.R. McMaster understands that, I think [Defense Secretary] Jim Mattis understands it. I think [CIA director] Mike Pompeo understands this. I don’t think Trump really understands it, but look, he appointed those people.”
Posing questions to panelists was CNN’s David Gregory.
Notable audience response came when Gregory asked the panelists whether they thought Trump’s promise of the “ultimate deal” between the Israelis and Palestinians would materialize. Although chuckles could be heard from the back of the room, the subject was no joke to Israeli lawmaker and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, another panelist. She is a member of the Zionist Union, a political party that opposes the current Israeli government.
“You know, you ask this question with a smile on your face and I heard people laughing,” she said to Gregory. “It’s about our life.”
“My question is about anyone who would approach something that is so difficult and so complex and say ‘oh no, I can get the ultimate deal,’ as if no one else had been trying,” Gregory said. “So that’s why I ask you, is there something different in this moment?”
The game-changers are Trump’s election and a less intense focus by Europe on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Livni replied. For many years, she said, the Palestinians refused to negotiate with the Israelis unless certain conditions were met, such as the creation of a Palestinian state and Israel reverting to its pre-1967 borders. These demands were long backed by most European countries, she said.
“The Palestinians, when Trump was elected, they felt that, ‘OK, now he’s going to support Israel,’” she said. “Until last year, when they didn’t negotiate with the Israelis, they could go to Europe and get the support of Europe on everything they wanted. … But now Europe is focused on Europe, and the Palestinians are less important to the Europeans. Now they [Palestinians] want to negotiate, because Trump is in and nobody wants to say no to Trump.”
Kristol’s answer to the same question was less optimistic.
“History works in funny ways,” he said. “I don’t like Trump. I think it’s childish to say, ‘I can do this when no one else has done it.’ But you know, the stars could line up in such a way that it could happen, I suppose.”
Kristol said Trump’s presidency has a 50-50 chance of being “disastrous.” But he offered a caveat: “I’m Jewish, so I’m entitled to be a little pessimistic.”