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US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman at the US embassy, Jerusalem, May 30, 2018, posing ahead of a Times of Israel interview (Matty Stern, US embassy Jerusalem)
US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman at the US embassy, Jerusalem, May 30, 2018, posing ahead of a Times of Israel interview (Matty Stern, US embassy Jerusalem)
InterviewThe candid views and positions of Trump's man in Jerusalem

Ambassador David Friedman: Republicans support Israel more than Democrats

US envoy discusses Israel as a partisan cause, Trump's peace plan, settlement legality, Palestinian refugees, and a pastor who invoked Jesus at the Jerusalem embassy opening

Main image by Matty Stern, US Embassy, Jerusalem

Republicans are undoubtedly better friends of Israel than Democrats are, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said Wednesday, lambasting the Democratic Party for failing to sufficiently mobilize its constituents to support the Jewish state.

“The argument that I hear from some Democrats that Republicans are seizing the pro-Israel mantle is true, to a certain extent. There’s no question Republicans support Israel more than Democrats,” Friedman told The Times of Israel.

“What the Democrats are not doing is looking at themselves critically and acknowledging the fact that they have not been able to create support within their constituency for Israel at the same levels that the Republicans have,” he went on.

Democrats may claim to be pro-Israel but merely saying so doesn’t make it true, he argued. Indeed, “there is a large Democratic constituency right now that is not pro-Israel,” the US envoy said. “They have to acknowledge it, and they have to fix it, or try to fix it.”

In a wide-ranging interview in his new office at the US embassy in Jerusalem, Friedman, 59, also discussed the administration’s upcoming peace proposal, as well as his thinking on the two-state solution, the legality of West Bank settlements and what he believes should happen to Palestinian refugees seeking to “return” to Israel.

Friedman, an observant Jew, explained why he was perfectly comfortable with having Pastor Robert Jeffress — who in 2010 said Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Mormons will go to hell — address attendees at the May 14 embassy opening. He also defended Jeffress’s concluding his remarks by hailing Jesus, noting that nobody was forced to answer amen.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman speaks at the official opening ceremony of the US embassy in Jerusalem on May 14, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In the course of our nearly hour-long conversation, the lawyer-turned-top US diplomat in Israel stressed several times that maintaining bipartisan support for Israel was very important to him, and vowed to continue working with politicians from both sides of the aisle on strengthening bilateral ties.

But he was outspoken and blunt when asked about concerns that supporting Israel is increasingly becoming a partisan issue in the United States, especially since Donald Trump entered the White House.

“It’s very disturbing to me. Israel should never be a partisan issue. Everybody, on both sides, says that Israel should be a bipartisan issue. I am going to continue to work as hard as I can to keep it bipartisan,” Friedman began.

“But bipartisan does not mean finding the lowest common denominator and pursuing that just in a blind effort to find consensus,” he continued. “The argument that I hear from some Democrats that Republicans are seizing the pro-Israel mantle is true, to a certain extent. There’s no question Republicans support Israel more than Democrats.”

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman speaking to The Times of Israel at the US embassy, Jerusalem, May 30, 2018 (Matty Stern, U.S. Embassy Jerusalem)

Elaborated Friedman: “Just because you want to make something bipartisan doesn’t mean that it becomes bipartisan… Democrats can say, ‘We want to be bipartisan on Israel,’ and I wish them every success in doing so. But there is a large Democratic constituency right now that is not pro-Israel. They have to acknowledge it, and they have to fix it, or try to fix it.”

Democrats cannot blame the GOP for its popularity in pro-Israel circles, he insisted. “That’s not an answer to the fact that the progressive left in the Democratic Party has disappointed many who are pro-Israel.”

At the same time, Friedman rejected claims that the May 14 opening of the new embassy, in the capital’s Arnona neighborhood, was a partisan affair. Earlier this week, six Democratic lawmakers published a letter they sent to Friedman complaining that they weren’t invited and warning the Trump administration against a “dangerous effort to politicize the US-Israel relationship.”

The fact that several lawmakers from the GOP but none from the Democratic Party attended the event was entirely due to the fact that no Democrats made an effort to come, Friedman responded.

“The members of Congress who came were the ones who chose to come. That’s it. The ones who didn’t come were the ones who chose not to come,” he said.

“But the White House did absolutely nothing to advantage or invite the Republicans. Or to disadvantage or disinvite the Democrats. It was their choice. Everyone who came chose to be there.”

The ambassador knew in advance that only GOP legislators would be present, but did not think it was appropriate to reach out to Democrats to create the appearance of bipartisanship.

“No, because there are 535 members of Congress, and once I start calling — I don’t know where to start and where to stop. It’s not something where you just pick a bunch of names out,” he said.

Friedman pointed out that Republican Congressman Joe Wilson, who attended the embassy opening, this week said that he himself called several Democrats to invite them to join the delegation to Israel he was leading, but was turned down.

Friedman, a former bankruptcy lawyer from Long Island, New York, is currently splitting his time between his brand new but relatively small office in the Jerusalem embassy and his old headquarters in the Tel Aviv branch office, where most American diplomats are still working.

His new office in the capital is adorned with an enormous painting by an elderly Jerusalem artist depicting a biblical scene of the 12 spies Moses sent after the Exodus from Egypt to scout out the Land of Canaan, with the holy Tabernacle in the distance.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman with Times of Israel editor David Horovitz at the US Embassy, Jerusalem, May 30, 2018 (Matty Stern, U.S. Embassy Jerusalem)

Ten spies sinned by reporting that it was impossible to conquer the Holy Land. Two went against the flow and advocated for an attempt to take possession of the land.

“The spies all saw the same facts, but ten of them were faithless and without vision, while the two others were confident they could enter Israel and make it into a homeland for the Jewish people,” Friedman said after the interview. “For me, this painting is a reminder that if you have vision and faith and perseverance, you will end up having great success.”

Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation:

The Times of Israel: How does it feel to be the first US ambassador to have an office in Jerusalem?

David Friedman: It’s an incredible feeling. But I need more time to process it. I am still too close to it. You’re not the first person that asks me that question. And I don’t have a good answer yet because I think the enormity of it is still somewhat lost on me because of the day-to-day follow-up that I’m engaged in. But I’m sure at one point, hopefully not too far from now, I’ll be able to reflect and appreciate how significant this event is.

How often do you come here, as opposed to your old office in Tel Aviv?

It’s not fixed. I go back and forth depending upon where I am most useful. It is too early to have a running average. But even before the embassy opened I was in Jerusalem two to two-and-a-half days a week. So my guess is it’ll be roughly half the time.

Most of the staff is still in the branch office [on Tel Aviv’s Hayarkon Street] and will transition over time. Don’t ask me when; we’re working on the transition plan. But just because so much of what affects the relationship between the United States and Israel happens in Jerusalem, I expect to be here about half the time.

In the meantime you’re commuting from your residence in Herzliya?

There’s the house in Herzliya and I have a residence in Jerusalem. Over time there will have to be a transition where the chief-of-mission residence moves to Jerusalem. But that’s also going to take some time and planning.

So you are already looking at an official residence in Jerusalem?

We’re looking at it, yes.

On a day like today, on which one can be happy about the situation ‘only’ being tense and not escalating into full-scale war [with Gaza], how optimistic can you be that the US administration can clinch the ‘ultimate deal’ in this term? You have three more years, for now.

Whether it’s done or not done is not a function of time. There’s plenty of time. You see how quickly the administration is able to pivot, just using North Korea as an example, from a point of “no discussions” to a point of “discussions.” We’ve plenty of time, that’s not going to be the problem. The Obama administration had eight years. They certainly had plenty of time.

The question is whether or not we’re able to put something on the table that captures the imagination and the hopes of the Palestinian people, without jeopardizing Israel or its security, its own objectives.

It’s sort of self-evident that the Palestinian people can have a better life than they have now

I’m optimistic that such a proposal can be put on the table. And I am also optimistic that ultimately people are smart enough and of sufficiently good will that they will choose something more attractive, more opportunistic, more hopeful, if given the opportunity. So those are the principles that drive our thinking.

The jury is certainly out on the Palestinian Authority and its ability to deliver. They have had difficulty delivering under far different circumstances, where there were, I think, easier choices for them to make, and they were not able to get there. And so I can’t speak for them. I can speak for the leadership in Gaza and say they’re absolutely the wrong leadership to accomplish anything productive.

US President Donald Trump (L) and PA President Mahmoud Abbas leave following a joint press conference at the presidential palace in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on May 23, 2017. (AFP/Mandel Ngan)

But again, we’re trying not to limit ourselves in our thinking to the existing leadership but rather focus on what’s a good deal that makes sense for both sides.

We are two Israelis who are raising our kids here and worry about how things are playing out. We don’t agree with everything the Israeli government does but consider the vast majority of the blame for the absence of a deal lies with the Palestinians. We also don’t think time is on our side. What possible plan can the administration put forward that will change something on the Palestinian side? With all sorrow, we wonder how you can be optimistic. Are there things we haven’t thought of that are in this plan?

You know the famous Biblical expression, “There is nothing new under the sun.” I don’t know that we have anything to propose that no one has ever thought of in the past during all the discussions, back and forth. But I think we look at it with a holistic approach, the totality: Is there something that is better for the Palestinians than what they have now? There is. Of course there is.

It’s sort of self-evident that the Palestinian people can have a better life than they have now, under the right circumstances. Will that give effect to all the rhetoric we have heard over the last 50 years? No. But there is an optimistic path that can be followed.

There is also a lot of discussion we have within the region that gives us cause for optimism. Lots of people have observed how the region has changed. We’re certainly cognizant of that.

Does that mean that you think there are grounds to believe other regional players, like the Saudis, might help provide an envelope in which the Palestinians may be more ready to compromise?

We hope so. We hope that whatever we propose is something that garners not just support locally but from the region as well — some level of support.

You are known as a supporter of the settlement enterprise. Do you support the entire settlement enterprise, or some of it, like the blocs?

The administration’s stance has been that the settlement enterprise is not an impediment to a peace deal, but that unrestrained settlement activity is not consistent with the cause of peace. Where you draw that line or slice that, I am reluctant to go into now.

Look, I don’t believe the settlements are illegal. I think I’ve been clear on that for years

I have felt for years that there has been an oversimplification by the international community of the legal claims, if you will, within the West Bank. That came to a head in December of 2016, with UN Security Council Resolution 2334. It’s not a secret that the Trump administration does not support that resolution, would have vetoed that resolution, had Nikki Haley been the ambassador rather than Samantha Power. I think you can draw some insight from the administration’s views on that resolution.

All of us want to see Israel remain a majority-Jewish state, and we want Israel’s democracy to remain vibrant. Many of us would love to have sovereignty in Biblical Judea and Samaria, but we can’t have all three. And therefore the notion of some kind of two-state solution, of some kind of separation from the Palestinians, becomes crucial to keep Israel Jewish and democratic. What are your thoughts on that?

Those are all legitimate points. They are things we factor in when we think about the right way to construct a proposal. But it’s complicated.

Is the international community mistaken, in your view, when it claims, as it does so often, that any Israeli construction beyond the 1967 line is illegal under international law? You’re a lawyer, so you would know something about law.

I am lawyer and I do know something about law. I would just encourage people to do their homework and go back to 1967 and the circumstances that led to UN Security Council Resolution 242.

It’s the only document or agreement that was agreed to by all the relevant parties, to this day. Read the commentary by Arthur Goldberg, read the commentary by Eugene Rostow, get familiar with the linguistic debate that existed there between “territories,” “the territories,” “all the territories.” This was a heavily debated, litigated issue, and there was a compromise that was set out there. Most people, if they took the time to study the issue, would be familiar with it.

But the vast majority of the international community, really with very few exceptions, interprets the resolution one way — that settlements in areas Israel captured in 1967 are illegal. Are you suggesting that a more correct interpretation would be the other way around?

Look, I don’t believe the settlements are illegal. I think I’ve been clear on that for years.

President Reagan was very clear that he would never suggest Israel would go back to the 1967 borders. They were called the suicide borders; they were considered indefensible. So the notion that Israel’s presence over the Green Line is illegal is something the United States has through many leaders rejected, which is why that UN resolution in 2016 was so offensive to so many people.

Samantha Power, center, then the US ambassador to the UN, votes to abstain during a UN Security Council vote on condemning Israel’s settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, December 23, 2016 (Manuel Elias/The United Nations via AP)

The crafting of the peace proposal seems like it’s mainly Jason Greenblatt’s portfolio. How deeply are you involved in this?

We work on it together, we work on it collaboratively. I’ve seen some references in the media that somehow we have different views or that there is daylight between us. There is none. We’ve known each other a long time; we’re very close friends; we’re very closely aligned in a common goal, and we work together on that.

This is Jason’s mandate. This is what he does. He is the president’s representative for strategic negotiations. This is the most important strategic negotiation that he works on.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman (second left) and US President Donald Trump’s special envoys Jason Greenblatt (left) and Jared Kushner (center) meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, June 21, 2017. (Matty Stern/US Embassy Tel Aviv)

Jared [Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior advisor] has a larger portfolio and I have a different portfolio. We don’t do the same things on a given day, but on this particular issue we work collaboratively. It’s hard to discuss in the absence of people seeing the proposal, but on issues that we work on, we are coming to a consensus and there is no daylight between any of us on any of these issues.

How close are you to completion?

You have to define completion. If it’s just finishing the words of the paper… this is not a task that lends itself to perfection. So you’re constantly tweaking it and thinking about it and listening and considering other alternatives. And you just at some point get to the place you think is the best place.

But another part of the process is determining the means, the method, the timing of releasing it to the protagonists and to the world. And that’s a whole other level of considerations and thinking that we’re still engaged in.

But the main ideas are there? There are no open holes that still need to be filled?

The main thinking is there, but as people say, the devil is in the details. So we’re not finished.

Does the plan include a suggestion or a requirement that Israel relinquish sovereignty in certain areas of pre-1967 East Jerusalem to be part of the Palestinian capital?

I am going to take a pass on that. Because that is certainly a specific term and I don’t want to comment on it.

What should we make of reports that suggest that?

What I would say is that there were some reports recently that indicated that there would be a demand upon Israel to relinquish four neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. That’s incorrect. If there’s anybody out there reporting on what the plan provides — they’re mistaken.

I saw recently a piece of paper that was attached to a reporter’s tweet with a bunch of terms on it. The question was, are these the terms? The answer is an unequivocal no. I never saw that piece of paper before.

Friedman was referring to a tweet veteran journalist Ben Caspit addressed to Jason Greenblatt:

There is a lot of misinformation spread. The reality is that you can count on two hands the number of people who really are familiar with this and engaged in it. And none of us have been talking to the press.

Is it your personal position that millions of Palestinians have a “right of return” to what is today Israel?

I don’t think I ought to be advertising personal views at a time when I am representing the United States government. I don’t want to risk speaking for people other than myself, even though I can offer my own personal views.

I would put it this way: Every war creates refugees. The War of Independence [in 1948] created hundreds of thousands of refugees that left Israel for other lands. It also created a roughly equal number of Jewish refugees who were unceremoniously booted out of countries from Morocco all the way to Egypt, many of whom lived middle class or upper middle class or even wealthy existences and were kind of thrown out without shirts on their backs.

I certainly believe that the definition of refugees that is adopted by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees is a far more appropriate definition than the definition that’s used by UNRWA. I’d be very surprised if anybody in the administration had a different view

There are refugees all over the world — it’s an unfortunate and at times a heartbreaking situation. As to every refugee, the goal ought to be to enable them to acclimate and to enter society in wherever they landed. That’s really what I think is the appropriate treatment of refugees. Jewish, non-Jewish, Arab — refugees anywhere in the world. I believe that is generally the way the world deals with refugees. I think that’s the right way to deal with refugees.

Taking that forward, do you see the US trying to advance an international framework where the Palestinians are concerned that reflects the way refugees are designated and defined everywhere else?

I certainly believe that the definition of refugees that is adopted by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees is a far more appropriate definition than the definition that’s used by UNRWA. I’d be very surprised if anybody in the administration had a different view.

Illustrative: A Palestinian stands outside the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) headquarters in Gaza City, Sunday, Aug. 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

You have been said to ask the State Department to change designations from “occupied Palestinian territory” or “West Bank” to “Judea and Samaria.” Is that progressing?

There are two different issues. One is the nomenclature, the other is the policy. So far, what has changed is the nomenclature, and I was certainly in support of that.

I believe this is a highly controversial issue and we ought to be using terminology that doesn’t prejudge issues. Most places in the world are identified by name. Paris. England. You don’t put an adjective in front of them. You don’t say, Beautiful Paris. You say Paris.

Adjectives are really unnecessary in geography. My view is: Call it the West Bank. Everyone knows what the West Bank means. There’s no advantage in the nomenclature to putting an adjective in front of the geographic location. That was my primary point.

Not necessarily changing “West Bank” into “Judea and Samaria”?

I was perfectly happy with any geographic identification that people could commonly understand that didn’t involve an adjective. West Bank is fine, Judea and Samaria would have been fine. If there’s another name that would do it justice, that would have been fine. I didn’t think it was appropriate to use “occupied territories,” because I just found it to be unnecessarily political and judgmental on an issue that was still unsettled in many people’s minds.

The policy is for the president and the State Department to make. I’m happy to offer my thoughts and views in a discussion that I anticipate will continue to be held internally within the government.

You mentioned daylight. The one time we saw significant daylight between the Trump administration and the current Israeli government was in February, when Netanyahu said he had discussed possibly annexing the West Bank with the Americans, a claim the White House quickly denied as “false.” Could you shed some light on that episode?

I don’t remember all the circumstances of it. We have not had discussions with Israel about annexation. But I don’t remember the prime minister’s points and whether it was misconstrued.

You personally never discussed possibly annexing all of or parts of the West Bank with the Israeli government?

I don’t think I have, no. I have had so many conversations. I’ve certainly listened to many Israeli politicians explain to me why various outcomes for the West Bank were appropriate. There’s lots of different views, as I am sure you know better than me. And I’ve heard them all. I’ve done lots of listening, so those discussions have taken place, but not in the sense of planning or seeking to execute a strategy, just in the context of enabling me to hear everybody’s views.

Let’s discuss your feelings about Israel seemingly becoming a partisan issue in America. Are you worried by that? And haven’t both the Israeli and the American governments exacerbated this trend?

I’m very disturbed by it. We can talk about what happened this week with the letter I received from six congressmen. It’s very disturbing to me. Israel should never be a partisan issue. Everybody, on both sides, says Israel should be a bipartisan issue. I am going to continue to work as hard as I can to keep it bipartisan.

Democrats can say, ‘We want to be bipartisan on Israel,’ and I wish them every success in doing so. But there is a large Democratic constituency right now that is not pro-Israel. They have to acknowledge it, and they have to fix it, or try to fix it

But bipartisan does not mean finding the lowest common denominator and pursuing that just in a blind effort to find consensus. The argument that I hear from some Democrats that Republicans are seizing the pro-Israel mantle is true, to a certain extent. There’s no question Republicans support Israel more than Democrats.

What the Democrats are not doing is looking at themselves critically and acknowledging the fact that they have not been able to create support within their constituency for Israel at the same levels that the Republicans have.

Just because you want to make something bipartisan doesn’t mean that it becomes bipartisan. Democrats can say, “We want to be bipartisan on Israel,” and I wish them every success in doing so. But there is a large Democratic constituency right now that is not pro-Israel. They have to acknowledge it, and they have to fix it, or try to fix it.

They can’t blame the Republicans for their popularity in the pro-Israel community. That’s not an answer to the fact that the progressive left in the Democratic Party has disappointed many who are pro-Israel.

Let’s take the May 14 inauguration of the US embassy in Jerusalem. In their letter to you, these six congressmen complained that no Democrats were invited.

An effort was made to make the ceremony bipartisan. The president whose name was mentioned the most, other than President Trump, at the ceremony, was president Truman — a Democrat. I don’t think any speaker got up and didn’t mention their thanks to president Truman [for having recognized the nascent State of Israel in May 1948].

Embassy staff prepare the stage ahead of the inauguration of the US embassy in Jerusalem on May 14, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Menahem KAHANA)

If you got here early you had the privilege of seeing the 35-minute slideshow, which went through the entire history of the American relationship with Israel since 1948. And it included some very flattering pictures of Democratic presidents, Democratic secretaries of state, engaged with Israeli leaders.

You had pictures of Barack Obama and John Kerry [engaged] with people like Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin. Jimmy Carter. Not out of the Republican Hall of Fame. People that in some respects I personally disagreed with.

It was important to me to make sure that every president was portrayed in a flattering way to show that, for better or worse, every president of the United States has contributed in some way positively to the American-Israel relationship. This was our mantra. This was not about politics.

Getting back to the people who attended: the presidential delegation consisted of six people, there was a press release about it, there is no dispute about it. It was led by Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, and included Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Jason Greenblatt, and me. That was the presidential delegation. Not a single member of Congress.

The members of Congress who came were the ones who chose to come. That’s it. The ones who didn’t come were the ones who chose not to come.

US President’s daughter Ivanka Trump (l) and her husband Senior White House Adviser Jared Kushner are seen during the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem on May 14, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Menahem KAHANA)

By the way, there are a hundred good reasons for not coming. I would never suggest that anybody who doesn’t come is any less pro-Israel than anybody who does. It was a long trip, and a lot of people couldn’t come, and that’s fine. They can still be just as pro-Israel as those fortunate enough to attend. But the White House did absolutely nothing to advantage or invite the Republicans. Or to disadvantage or disinvite the Democrats. It was their choice. Everyone who came chose to be there.

If you know how congressional delegations work, any member of Congress, at any time, can reach out to the State Department and say we would like to travel to this place, we think it’s important. And the State Department is obligated to provide transportation, security, support.

PM Netanyahu (center) with a congressional delegation led by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, March 26, 2018 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

I have met numerous congressional delegations from both sides of the aisle, just in the past year. A month and a half ago Nancy Pelosi came with 10 or 11 Democrats. We meet them. I usually meet them at the airport. I met with them privately. I met them with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. I sat with them. I answered all their questions. I was delighted to do so.

Every member of Congress knows how to get here. It doesn’t cost them any money. They know how to arrange a congressional delegation. I don’t think it was a secret that we were opening the embassy on May 14.

Were you aware ahead of time that there were some Republican legislators coming, and no Democrats, or were you taken by surprise by that?

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman at the US embassy, Jerusalem, May 30, 2018 (Matty Stern, US Embassy Jerusalem

These congressional delegations are arranged by the State Department. The State Department knows who’s coming and the State Department informs the embassy, because the embassy has to provide support. We provide security and transportation for them; we have a point of contact for them; we make sure they have a place to stay and a place to eat. Our embassy takes care of members of Congress who come — anyone, on either side. So of course we knew who was coming.

When you saw that only one side would be represented, given your concern about Israel being perceived as a partisan issue, did you not think, I should call up some of my friends, or somebody should?

No, because there are 535 members of Congress, and once I start calling — I don’t know where to start and where to stop. It’s not something where you just pick a bunch of names out. Look, I know a lot of the six people who signed the letter reasonably well. One is from the district next to mine, where I used to vote. I’ve met Eliot Engel numerous times. I’ve met [Brad] Sherman. I’ve met [Brad] Schneider at AIPAC.

By the way, these are all strong supporters of Israel. But the letter was in my view inappropriate. Because, first of all, it suggested that I had told Axios [website] that Democrats were invited. And they said, well, you got your facts wrong. But if you read the Axios interview, I said exactly the opposite: I said no one was invited. I never said Democrats were invited.

So you’re saying their letter is a little disingenuous?

Yes, because number one, there was no inconsistency between the facts and the Axios interview. Secondly, here’s where I come from, from the private sector. You have an issue with somebody, you want to accomplish something — you pick up the phone and you call them.

Every one of these congressmen has my phone number. They could’ve called me up and said, Listen, we want to go to this thing, can you get me in? Just like a thousand other people, who I know from former lives, who called me up. I couldn’t take all their calls, because it was [too hectic]. But anybody who wanted to come knew how to reach me or the embassy and say we want to come. Anybody.

Where I come from, you want to accomplish something, you pick up the phone and you call. You don’t write a letter to somebody and then publish it in the newspaper before they even have a chance to respond. I don’t do business that way.

The people you did invite also sparked some controversy, especially Pastor Jeffress. Mitt Romney said he was the wrong person to address the event, given his controversial statements about other religions.

Everybody should just enjoy the ceremony for the wonderful, optimistic, uplifting experience that it was.

To ask a Christian pastor not to invoke the name of Jesus would be trying to inhibit his free exercise of religion. Why would I do that?

I don’t understand the point of getting into specific speakers. Pastor Jeffress spoke at the president’s inauguration. I didn’t hear anybody making these comments then. This wasn’t his first public speech at a United States event. So when somebody jumps in now, and didn’t jump in before, I start to smell politics. I am not interested in getting into the politics.

Pastor Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Dallas Church Choir introduces US President Donald Trump during the Celebrate Freedom event at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, July 1, 2017. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Pastor Jeffress has an enormous following in the United States. As does Pastor [John] Hagee [who also spoke at the embassy opening]. The evangelical community has been a strong advocate for this move, as have members of the Jewish community as well. I wanted to recognize their efforts and their contribution and we chose two pastors who are well respected within their communities to speak.

My view about people’s religious beliefs is that they’re entitled to whatever religious beliefs they want, as long as they don’t seek to impose them on anybody else. And to the best of my knowledge, Pastor Jeffress has been pretty clear that he believes what he believes — and it’s a belief that many people share — but he respects those who hold different beliefs. And I think that’s what we can ask of any religious leader.

Some people were taken a little aback when Pastor Jeffress hailed “the Prince of Peace, Jesus our Lord.” Many Jews felt they could not say amen to that. Were you surprised that he chose to invoke a religious figure many people in the audience did not feel they could identify with?

That’s his religion. As I said, I respect people’s religion. To ask a Christian pastor not to invoke the name of Jesus would be trying to inhibit his free exercise of religion. Why would I do that? I wouldn’t do that to a Jewish leader or to a Christian leader. No one is forced to say amen. This is the beauty of the United States: We don’t impose religious practices upon other people. I don’t know why anybody wouldn’t just be perfectly comfortable listening to a pastor, or a cleric of a different faith. Let them say whatever they want to say that’s consistent with their religion. And they can say amen or not say amen. It’s their choice.

Finally, let’s discuss Iran and Syria. Some Israeli politicians are talking about a possible US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Many people argue that it doesn’t make sense anymore to pretend that the Golan is not part of Israel and should be returned to Syria. The US understands Israeli security concerns. It has already recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Is the Golan next?

I don’t want to speak for the administration. I am sure it will be discussed. It has, to my knowledge, not been discussed recently. People should recognize the US has a lot more on its plate than Israel. Obviously in Israel, we think about this a lot, and so do I. But I would prioritize North Korea and Iran over this issue. And I would expect it will be dealt with in due course.

The Obama administration said all kinds of things that they might do, and nobody believed them, including a military option for Iran

Of course, nobody would expect the Golan Heights to be returned to Syria. I don’t think that’s a terribly controversial point. But how all that plays out is something that will be dealt with in the ordinary course.

It’s not part of the peace proposal?

It may be. I don’t want to get into the specifics.

Let’s speak about Iran. Both President Trump and Secretary Pompeo have, in their respective speeches on Iran, remarkably refrained from coupling economic sanctions with a credible threat of military force in case Iran doesn’t comply with America’s demands. Even the war-averse president Obama said repeatedly that all options are on the table. Why does the Trump administration hesitate to state that if Iran doesn’t play ball, it will take military action?

The administration is hoping that crippling sanctions will be sufficient. That’s certainly their goal. And the second point I’d make is: the Obama administration said all kinds of things that they might do, and nobody believed them, including a military option for Iran. Not a single person — in Iran or anywhere else — thought that the Obama administration was serious about having that on the table.

When the Trump administration has a red line, they lay it out, and they enforce it. They don’t make these statements lightly. Beyond that, in terms of how, when, if the military option will be exercised, you’d have to ask the president or the secretary of state.

In the meantime, there are no discernible red lines on Iran. There is a list of demands, but no red lines.

Let’s see how the sanctions program works, and I am sure the administration will respond as a function of how that works. I wouldn’t draw any conclusions one way or the other by the administration’s choice of words in terms of sanctions.

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