Paul Ryan — Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mitt Romney’s 2012 running mate, and the Republican Who Didn’t Run for the Presidency this time — broadly holds to the principle of not being too critical of the US government when traveling abroad. But his very decision to come to Israel on Sunday and Monday — on the first days, that is, of his first foreign trip since taking the Speaker’s job last October — is an implied rebuke to President Barack Obama, and an overt reassertion of American solidarity with Israel.
Talking to The Times of Israel from the balcony of his Jerusalem hotel room, Ryan’s first order of business is to make clear that he very deliberately chose to visit Israel now so as “to reinforce our alliance” and to underline his conviction that the US-Israel partnership should and will grow stronger in the future.
The 46-year-old father of three from Wisconsin, who was last in Israel late in Ariel Sharon’s prime ministership in 2005, emphatically endorses Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s view that Palestinian terrorism directed against Israel is ultimately no different from the Islamic terror afflicting Europe and threatening the United States, and that the civilized world must unite to fight it. “They’re coming at Israel but they’re ultimately coming for us,” he says. “So we are partners in this war on terror, radical Islamic terrorism. Israel is an indispensable ally in that. Israel is on the front line in so many ways with respect to it.”
Rather than wishing the Islamist extremism away, or seeking desperately to avoid calling it by its name, Ryan sets out an agenda for confronting it — not only militarily, when it rears its violent head, but at the grassroots level, where the brainwashing and indoctrination are taking place. “We need a generational strategy about winning hearts and minds in the Muslim world,” he argues, and specifies the imperative to form “a coalition of governments in moderate nations” to prevent the creation of the next generations of killers. “We don’t have a current strategy to deal with ISIS right now,” he laments, “let alone how do we prevent the five-year-old in Pakistan from becoming a radical.”
Almost everything that Ryan says in our interview — on Iran, on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, on fighting terror, and on US-Israel ties — will be music to Netanyahu’s ears
Almost everything that Ryan says in our interview — on Iran, on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, on fighting terror, and on US-Israel ties — will be music to Netanyahu’s ears.
He endorses the goal of a two-state solution but believes that Israel doesn’t have a Palestinian partner at present, so “I don’t know how much progress can be made.”
He is adamant that it is not for the United States, or for any other outside player, however well-intentioned, to try to coerce Israel into taking steps along the path to an accommodation. “I’d leave it up to your government,” he says, when asked about the Obama Administration’s encouragement of Israeli territorial compromise. “We shouldn’t try to force Israel into an insecure position.”
As a prominent opponent of the President Barack Obama-led nuclear deal with Iran, furthermore, he remains adamant that it was a dreadful agreement, intent on holding Iran to its (albeit inadequate) terms, determined to resist any further concessions, and convinced that the regime in Iran will expose the foolishness of those who supported it. “I think the ballistic tests (were an early indication). I think what Iran is going to end up doing is going to make people rue the day they voted for that deal,” he says bitterly. “As we move forward in the future, I think people who supported the deal are going to regret that support.”
And encouragingly for Netanyahu, he also takes the view that the prime minister’s lobbying against the deal, and essentially against Obama, in Congress in March 2015, has not alienated parts of the American political spectrum in the long-term, or turned Israel into more of a partisan issue in the United States. “I’m not a Democrat,” he confirms helpfully, but he says he believes the intensity of that battle was a passing “moment.” Overall, he advises, “I would not as an Israeli be worried about the future of our relationship. I think it’s going to strengthen.” The alliance with Congress is extremely warm and firm, he elaborates, and ordinary Americans understand “that our ties with Israel are deep and strong, and that they’re mutual… We need Israel for our own national security. We need Israel to keep ourselves safe as well.”
Acknowledging the challenge of BDS, and anti-Israel activism on campus, Ryan is adamant, nonetheless: “There is a nasty strain of anti-Semitism. You read more about it in Europe. But (in the US) this is infinitesimal. The support for Israel is deep in America.”
All in all, there’s no mistaking that a president Paul Ryan would be unstintingly supportive of Israel, and a far more comfortable White House partner for Netanyahu than the incumbent. Except, of course, that Ryan isn’t running. He says he has no regrets about that, even as the Republican race has turned so acrimonious and divisive. The GOP had a more than ample 17 contenders when the race began, he was enjoying his career on the Hill, and wanted to have enough time to be a good husband and father for his young family.
Even now, Ryan says, should the Republican campaign deteriorate into still more vicious in-fighting at a contested convention, he’s not prepared to sally forth as the unifying savior. “I’ve already said that that’s not me,” he insists. “I decided not to run for president. I think you should run, if you’re going to be president. I think you should start in Iowa and run to the tape.”
Ryan on Monday visited his Knesset counterpart Yuli Edelstein, and met with minimal fanfare with Netanyahu — the prime minister presumably anxious not to be vulnerable to allegations of partisan interference in the US presidential campaign. (Netanyahu hosted Romney in 2012, to no shortage of subsequent criticism from Democratic circles.) The Prime Minister’s Office on Monday afternoon sent out two photographs and issued a two-sentence statement on the visit, which was closed to the media: “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this morning met with a bi-partisan Congressional delegation led by US House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan. The delegation expressed its firm support for Israel.”
From here, Ryan is heading on to other parts of the region — visiting several nations that are partners with the United States in the fight against Islamic State.
Our interview was conducted on Sunday evening. What follows is the lightly edited transcript:
The Times of Israel: This is your first time here since 2005.
Paul Ryan: Let me tell you why I’m here. It’s important for me to say this. It’s my first trip as Speaker. The first place I wanted to come, on the first day (of the first trip): I wanted to come to Israel. For very important symbolic reasons — to buttress and reinforce our alliance and my belief in a stronger alliance between our two countries.
Because that needed doing?
It’s something that needs to be done. It needs to be buttressed. I think there’s room for improvement.
I was at AIPAC. I heard you speak. I heard some of your thoughts on the Iran deal. (Ryan’s full speech is here.) You think it’s “terrible.” That it legitimizes them as a threshold nuclear power.
But how does it play out now? There are elections in the United States. There will be a new leadership in the United States. Can it be reversed? Will it be rolled back? What’s your best-case scenario?
My thoughts are well known on the Iran deal. I fought it in the House. We did not prevail because of the way the vote was structured. The question now is one of enforcement — keeping Iran to its word. And making sure that we don’t backslide on any other sanctions. So, enforcing, monitoring and watching all the other sanctions — making sure there are no other sanctions that are being loosened. And that’s what brings me to concern about the clearing houses and the dollarization — giving (Iran) access to cash, to dollars, and to the US financial system. That’s not part of this deal, and it shouldn’t be. That falls into the category of concerns about backsliding or even giving more concessions and sanctions relief.
The ballistic missile tests — ultimately, they’ve got away with it.
Yes, so that was anther UN resolution (defied).
My thoughts have not changed on the Iran regime. We need to have a stronger posture with our Iran policy. It’s a difference of opinion we have with the administration.
Where we go from here is to make sure that we don’t backslide on sanctions. That we’re tougher on sanctions. We’re looking at other things in the House. The last thing we want to do is see backsliding.
The speech Donald Trump gave at AIPAC (last month) included an internal contradiction. He said at one point that he’d dismantle the deal, and then he spoke about needing to enforce it very strongly. Those who think that it can be dismantled are (deluding themselves)?
It’s going to be determined by circumstances in the future as to the conduct of Iran. Do they cheat? Do we catch them at cheating? Other things like that.
I didn’t hear his speech. I spoke before him. I thought about saying in the middle of the speech, Is it me or is the room spinning? (Speakers at AIPAC’s main sessions addressed 18,000 in a basketball stadium from a central stage that rotated slowly — DH) I’ve given a lot of speeches, but I’ve never done anything like this before. (Laughs.)
Israelis are incredibly invested in the relationship with the United States. Israelis are really worried about Iran, and consensually think this is a bad deal, but many wonder if maybe Israel could have fought it without being quite so in your face — because of the danger of Israel becoming more of a partisan issue (in US politics).
I don’t see it that way. I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.
First of all, if you come to Congress, the bi-partisan support for Israel is very strong. Before I did this job, I chaired the Ways and Means Committee. I put in the Trade Promotion Authority Legislation, which is what you need to make trade agreements, (including) the anti-BDS language. No problems. Easy bipartisan win. I had support from both sides.
So I do believe that our relationship is strong, will get stronger. Republicans disagree with the administration’s policy in this area. A lot of Democrats do.
In this area: You mean the Iran deal?
I would not as an Israeli be worried about the future of our relationship. I think it’s going to strengthen. Because I can speak for Congress, knowing that we have a very strong alliance. Again, that’s why I’m here (in Israel).
And what about Americans generally? You mention BDS. We’re aware in Israel that there’s a battle on campus. And it’s nastier than it has been.
It’s true. There is a nasty strain of anti-Semitism. You read more about it in Europe. But (in the US) this is infinitesimal. The support for Israel is deep in America. I don’t have a big Jewish diaspora in my district. But I have huge pro-Israel supporters in my district. The evangelical churches. The common American citizen understands that our ties with Israel are deep and strong, and that they’re mutual. We need Israel for our own national security. We need Israel to keep ourselves safe as well. That’s important.
We have international terrorism that is threatening the civilized world. It’s threatening us. They’re coming at Israel but they’re ultimately coming for us. So we are partners in this war on terror, radical Islamic terrorism. Israel is an indispensable ally in that. Israel is on the front line in so many ways with respects to it. So (the alliance is crucial) just for security cooperation. (Additionally,) we share the same values. You are an oasis of democracy in a tough neighborhood. And it’s very important to us to keep these alliances.
And you don’t think the battle over the Iran deal… You lost that battle in the House; Netanyahu failed to sway enough people (with his speech to Congress). There is a concern here that maybe Israel alienated some parts of the Democratic Party spectrum.
I’m not a Democrat. I can’t necessarily speak to that. I don’t see that. I think that was a (passing) moment.
I think the ballistic tests (were an early indication). I think what Iran is going to end up doing is going to make people rue the day they voted for that deal. As we move forward in the future, I think people who supported the deal are going to regret that support.
You think reality is going to force…
Yes. I won’t go any further than that. But I think people will regret it.
So now let’s talk about this presidential race that you have.
I’m neutral. (Laughs)
Of course you are. I’m used to coming to the US, with Israel in the midst of political battles and all kinds of chaos at home, and now I came to the United States…
Yeah, I know.
How do you think it’s going to play out?
Actually in my state (of Wisconsin) on Tuesday, (there’s a crucial primary).
Do you have some Wisconsin insight?
Well, Cruz is doing pretty well. He’s pulling ahead in polls. Bernie might win it. The enthusiastic Democrat in Wisconsin is a pro-Bernie Democrat.
Wisconsin is a fairly important signal as to whether we’re going to have an open convention or not. If Trump wins it, then he’s putting himself on a pretty good path to clinching (the nomination) — the 1,237 (delegates) before the convention. If he loses Wisconsin, there’s a two-three week gap. It makes it more likely — though I don’t know (for sure) — but it makes it more likely that it’s an open convention. Then we’ll see what happens. I’m the co-chair of the convention, so I’m perfectly neutral on this.
That takes me out of the next two questions you were going to ask me. (Laughs.)
But it’s possible, isn’t it, that people might prevail upon you to…?
No, I’ve already said that that’s not me.
You’re not interested in being…?
I decided not to run for president. I think you should run, if you’re going to be president. I think you should start in Iowa and run to the tape.
So why didn’t you?
Oh, lots of reasons. Phase of life: I have a young family. I thought I could make a meaningful difference where I was in Congress: At the time I was chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. I focused on economic issues quite a bit. So I thought I could make a huge difference where I was, and still be the kind of dad and husband I want to be.
And we had a deep bench., We had 17 people running. We had a deep bench of qualified people. So I thought we had that fairly well taken care of.
What does it say about America that the Trump campaign has done as well as it has? And that the Sanders campaign has? The anti-establishment or non-establishment candidates.
Deep anxiety. Our economy has been flat since the recession. We have been under 2% growth. We have 45 million people stuck in poverty. Wages are flat. And ISIS is on the rise.
When we saw Paris and then San Bernardino, it really brought a wake-up call. People are really anxious on both national security and economic insecurity. They believe that the government is failing them. Because it has.
I find myself giving a lot of civics lessons as I travel the country to my constituents. They think, why didn’t you stop this? Or why didn’t you do this? Which is the constitution: You know, you have to have enough votes to override a veto, to be able to pass things, to get to a filibuster. (People are unhappy) that we didn’t change or stop what had happened in the last four years.
What would they have wanted done?
Repeal Obamacare and fix national security.
Tell us more about national security. That’s so resonant for us.
I’ll give you an example. We passed a Defense Authorization Act. The guy who wrote it is here with me. Mac Thornberry, chairman of the Armed Services Committee. We passed it requiring a comprehensive plan to defeat ISIS. We still have yet to see one. That got people really anxious. Including ourselves. The Executive Branch executes foreign policy. We fund it. But we don’t think we have a comprehensive strategy to defeat ISIS and to keep us safe.
That, plus our border is porous. And we have those concerns. That compounds people’s concern that the government is not keeping them safe and doing what it needs to do.
Did America seek to pull away from the Middle East in the hope that it wouldn’t follow you home?
Not intervening in Syria, for example. I don’t know how to fix Syria. But don’t be surprised a few years later when people try to flee because they’re being massacred in the hundreds of thousands.
Of course, looking at the refugee problem. I’ve been fairly clear in my criticism of the administration’s policy on all of these issues. Syria, of course — the red line (which President Assad crossed by gassing his people in 2013, but which President Obama allowed to pass without a promised punitive response).
What we’re witnessing in some respects — not all, but many respects — is the (consequences of the) administration’s foreign policy, which I’m a strong opponent of. They’ve got their foreign policy wrong. Normally, Congress doesn’t run on foreign policy. But we think it’s risen to the level of needing attention, that it’s one of the five points that we’re going to be running on this year: economic growth; health care entitlement reform; welfare reform; foreign policy; and restoring the constitution. On foreign policy, we want to have a foreign policy doctrine and a military equipped to carry out that doctrine, to keep us safe. We don’t think we have suitable foreign policy to advance America’s interests — which, chief among them, is protecting our national security.
Do you have specific suggestions on tackling Islamist terrorism — things that need to be done; that are overdue to be done?
I don’t think we have a comprehensive strategy. We need a generational strategy about winning hearts and minds in the Muslim world. How do we figure that out? Tony Blair has done some great work in this area: How do we embrace moderates. How do we lead a coalition of governments in moderate nations and win hearts and minds. And to confront the madrasas, to confront the extremism, while we have a much more effective national security policy, and a military that is not being drained. I can go on about the budget with the military. We need to improve our military strength; we need more ships, we need more brigades, we need more combat-ready brigades.
(We need) a foreign policy doctrine — an actual strategy to defeat ISIS which is the current problem, and a long-term strategy to confront extremism, and an engagement plan with Muslims themselves and moderate Muslim nations. And our allies in Israel are our partners in that.
Anti-Semitism is on the rise. Anti-Americanism is on the rise. Terrorism is on the rise. They’re kicking out generations of young kids — look at the knife intifada you have here.
Our prime minister would say it’s all part of the same thing — we’re dealing with extremists; we’re dealing with people who are being brainwashed. This is all one and the same.
Yes, I see it that way. I see that we have to have a long-term strategy. My kids will be working on this — their generation. (We need) a long-term strategy to deal with this. And we don’t do that. We don’t have a current strategy to deal with ISIS right now, let alone how do we prevent the five-year old in Pakistan from becoming a radical.
What do you have to say on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — an area where the Obama administration made a lot of effort and ultimately failed to achieve any kind of substantive progress — not for a lack of good intentions, I’m sure?
Every administration puts a very substantial effort. We agree with the two-state solution — we agree with the goal. But you have to have the kind of security situation that you need to put this together, and you don’t have that. It’s not my place to say, but you have to have the kind of partnership in order to have a lasting peace, and you don’t have that. So, until you do, I don’t know how much progress can be made.
Whereas the current administration has sought to say to Israel, we think you can afford to take more risks.
I’d leave it up to your government. What we should not do are premature resolutions at the UN, if that were to come. We shouldn’t try to force Israel into an insecure position.
Do you see any realistic likelihood that in the last months of this administration there might be something nasty going through the UN that America wouldn’t veto?
No… I pray that there isn’t. I don’t have any reason to believe that there is. And I do know that Congress the next day would be doing something about it. We would do whatever we could from our capacity to prevent such a thing from happening. I can’t imagine the administration would do that. Then again…
You’ve been wrong in the past? … There is a concern here. There is so much mutual mistrust there, that nobody is completely sure.
It’s justifiable. I get it.