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Interview

For top policy wonk Peter Berkowitz, 18 months of Pompeo and circumstance

The former State Department policy director thinks Trump’s legacy is now trashed, but is sticking behind the ex-secretary of state’s moves he helped craft on Israel, Iran and more

Peter Berkowitz. (US State Department)
Peter Berkowitz. (US State Department)

Peter Berkowitz never planned on becoming the US State Department’s top policy adviser. The conservative political scientist planned on leaving Stanford University’s Hoover Institute for a year to focus on Israel policy under former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, and then leave.

Close to three years later, including a year and a half as director of Policy Planning at the State Department, Berkowitz is finally back in the ivory tower, with the knowledge that policy wonks make plans and God laughs.

From his own career plans, to realizing that the State Department would not lead on the Middle East peace process, to unintended consequences of Washington pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, to misunderstandings regarding the Trump administration’s West Bank stance — Berkowitz knows not everything has to go according to plan for it to work out.

Though he remains a firm supporter of many of the Trump administration’s policies, Berkowitz believes the legacy of former president Donald Trump has been forever trashed by the events of January 6, 2021, when throngs of Trump supporters, egged on by the president himself, stormed the United States Capitol.

“January 6, the day of the attack on the Congress, represented a terrible day for the United States of America,” Berkowitz told The Times of Israel via Zoom, in his first post-Trump interview, just 48 hours after the inauguration of US President Joe Biden.

Berkowitz noted that Trump had the right to challenge the election results, but once the states certified the results in mid-December that went out the window and he should have dropped his protests and changed tack.

“He could have said, look what we’ve achieved, for example, obtaining the vaccines within nine months. Instead, he revved up his staunchest supporters, by using the kind of language he did, and he helped bring down a kind of catastrophe on his party, on himself, and on the country. He stained his legacy, no doubt,” Berkowitz said.

Berkowitz adds a caveat, though, noting that though Trump used “rabble-rousing rhetoric,” he also told his followers to remain peaceful. He rejects the notion that Trump used doublespeak to incite his less respectable backers while retaining the ability to disavow them, as when he said a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville included “very fine people on both sides.”

“In my view the president’s words on Charlottesville have been misreported,” Berkowitz said. “It’s clear from the transcript that he didn’t say the ‘Nazis were good people,’ that he clearly denounced the Nazis and said that in the crowd, there were some good people.”

Tikvah fellows meet with political scientist and Hoover Institution Senior Fellow Peter Berkowitz, right. (courtesy: Tikvah Fund)

Berkowitz, 62, is a former law professor and is now the Tad and Dianne Taube senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where he has returned, though he lives in Washington, DC, his hometown for the last 20 years. (Due to the pandemic, all classes and research are done online anyway.)

His academic resume includes a bachelor’s in English literature from Swarthmore College, a master’s in philosophy from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and both a Juris Doctorate and PhD in political science from Yale University.

Before joining the Trump administration, he served as the dean of students for the Public Interest Fellowship, which awards fellowships to conservative intellectuals,  and taught at the Tikvah Fund, which promotes Jewish conservative ideas and funds Israeli right-wing ventures such as the Mida news website, the Kohelet Forum and the Institute for Zionist Strategies.

Unlike most foreign policy, big issues were directed out of the White House

Berkowitz was invited to join the State Department policy planning staff in the fall of 2018 and came on for a single year with a specific task: to advise Pompeo on Israel-related matters. But about seven months into his tenure, Kiron Skinner was forced out as director of policy planning over her abrasive management style and Berkowitz was asked to step into the role.

He thought hard about turning it down, he said.

“Many voices in my head said, ‘You’ve got other things to do. Do you want to be the director? Enormous responsibilities. You came here to focus on one matter.  You’re going back and you have many tasks and responsibilities back at Hoover at Stanford,'” he said. “But the one voice that came out of my mouth said, ‘It would be an honor to serve, sir.’”

The policy planning staff he headed at the State Department functions as a sort of special operations unit within Foggy Bottom, reporting directly to the secretary and keeping him apprised on long-term policy matters.

What follows is a discussion with Berkowitz, edited for space and clarity:

The Times of Israel: When you were at the State Department, were you able to craft long-term policy on Israel?

Peter Berkowitz: My specific responsibility was to keep the secretary informed about Israel matters. But as you know, almost immediately, the president placed the Israel portfolio in the White House, led by Jared Kushner; Jason Greenblatt initially was part of that team and Ambassador [David] Friedman was a part of that team. And Secretary Pompeo was part of that team, but unlike most foreign policy, big issues were directed out of the White House.

How did Pompeo grasp the constantly recurring elections in the Middle East’s only democracy? Is this something you discussed with him? There was a comment from Trump between the first and second Israeli elections, where he remarked he thought Netanyahu had won the election, not understanding that there was no immediate final result.  

Secretary Pompeo had a detailed and acute understanding of the Israeli political system and the challenges that Benjamin Netanyahu faced, and the significance of the various kinds of opposition to him. By the way, not just from the center-left, but from the right-wing. I actually was in Israel during one of the election cycles and remember a radio interview regarding the proposed annexation [of the West Bank] and an MK from the right-wing saying, “I’m not pleased at all with the suggested annexation, I don’t even understand what the Prime Minister means by annexation. How can he suggest annexing something that already belongs to us?”

To emphasize, I believe Secretary Pompeo had an accurate, sophisticated understanding of those complexities that Netanyahu faced. But in general, the tensions within the body of Israeli politics, which received expression in the elections, would have been part of any assessment of the chances for success of the White House peace plan. That understanding of Israeli domestic politics was the sort of thing that Pompeo was interested in, in order for him to make a reasoned judgment about the plan.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo deliver joint statements at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem, March 20, 2019. (Sebastian Scheiner/AP)

One of your missions was to focus on long-term US policy with respect to China. We know Pompeo pressed Israel on its relationship with China in a meeting with the prime minister. What did he say privately to Netanyahu?

One of Secretary Pompeo’s big achievements, during his time in the State Department, was to reorient American foreign policy around the China challenge, that is, to see the People’s Republic of China governed by the Chinese Communist Party as the No. 1 threat to freedom around the world, to the free and open international order, to liberal democracies also.

Workers roll up a red carpet after a welcome ceremony held by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Wednesday, May 8, 2013. (AP/Alexander F. Yuan)

The newspapers certainly reported last spring that the secretary came to talk about the peace plan, came to talk about Iran, and came to talk about China, the Haifa Port, and so on. And here’s the point to emphasize. That’s not singling Israel out. One aspect of this long paper that the policy planning staff published in November, “The elements of the China Challenge,” is that China has been undertaking efforts of economic coercion, co-optation, in every region of the world. So what we’re concerned about, we were concerned about in Israel, and I hope the Biden administration will continue to be concerned about in Israel, are matters that we are concerned about everywhere, in the Indo-Pacific, in Central Asia, in Europe, in Africa, in the Western Hemisphere, and in the United States.

So what did he say to Netanyahu? There were reports he was unhappy about Israel’s committee to vet Chinese investments in Israel.

I’m not in a position to say what Secretary Pompeo said to Prime Minister Netanyahu. But I can repeat this. Everywhere Secretary Pompeo has gone, and many of his closest advisers carry the same message with them, and the message is, the Chinese Communist Party, with its deals, represents something very dangerous. Because by building infrastructure, or maintaining infrastructure in your country, it will increase its ability to engage in surveillance and cyberwarfare, and that will create problems for the United States in terms of interoperability, in terms of sharing information with you.

‘A cost to every policy’

In May 2018, Pompeo laid out his 12 points — 12 tough demands of Iran for it to meet in order to restart negotiations for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal. Some saw the tough stance as impossible for Iran to meet and meant only to justify new sanctions. Did those tough demands accomplish their goals? 

We withdrew from the JCPOA and we imposed a maximum pressure campaign, the purpose of which was to persuade or impel the Iranians to return to the negotiating table. There’s no doubt that the maximum pressure campaign had a big impact in depriving Iran of funds that would have been used for exporting terror, for building missiles, for expanding its military. In addition, we took out [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps general] Qassem Soleimani. And this is an important achievement for the Trump administration — we solidified our relationships with Gulf countries. In fact, it was part of the Iran policy, solidifying relations with Gulf countries, that helped lay the foundation for the normalization that emerged this summer. So from our point of view, the Iran policy notched some significant successes, but certainly not our ultimate aim, which was a better deal with the Iranians.

US President Donald Trump signs with US Vice President Mike Pence(R) and US Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin at the White House on June 24, 2019, ‘hard-hitting sanctions’ on Iran’s supreme leader. (MANDEL NGAN / AFP)

On the downside, the outcome of your policy is that the Iranians, who stopped enriching following the 2015 JCPOA, are now back to enriching up to the dangerous level of 20 percent enrichment.

Yes, this is very much a downside. Although one might have expected them to pursue this in clandestine manner under the JCPOA because of its defective provisions for monitoring the Iranian nuclear program.

Centrifuge machines in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran, November 5, 2019. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP,

You didn’t have any intelligence showing they were doing it during the JCPOA?

Well, I can’t speak of any intelligence we might have had.

From a policy standpoint did you actually have any expectations for a dictatorship such as Iran to change course?

Look, there’s a cost to every policy. If you pursue a more conciliatory path, there’s a chance that the countries that you’re dealing with will interpret that as a sign of weakness and take advantage of your efforts at conciliation. If you pursue a tougher path, it’s a possibility that the countries will thereby be emboldened or feel pushed into a corner and lash back or redouble their efforts, the efforts you were trying to prevent. It’s never enough to focus only on the benefits of the policy you favor, or only on the costs of the policy that you oppose. You have got to see the cost and benefits of both and then make the best decision of both.

What do you think is going to happen with the new administration coming in and incoming Secretary of State Anthony Blinken?

It seems to me that now Secretary of State Blinken not only must process the new intelligence on Iran, but he must incorporate into his understanding the events of the last four years. He was a supporter of the JCPOA. He presumably opposed the decision of the Trump administration to exit the agreement. But he’s not inheriting the world he left [as Biden’s national security adviser] in 2016.

‘A decision by the Biden administration to somehow rejoin JCPOA will bring Israel and the Gulf Arab countries even closer’

Presumably, the Biden administration will pursue a new agreement with Iran. What can that look like given the new circumstances? Seems to me these are the two features of the new circumstances that Secretary of State Blinken will undoubtedly take into account. One is the progress Iran has made in pursuing a nuclear weapon and two, the new realities presented by the normalization of relations between Israel and the Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Morocco, and the potential there is for Israel to normalize relations with other Gulf countries.

In this June 19, 2019 file photo, a U.S. Navy patrol boat carrying journalists to see damaged oil tankers leaves a US Navy 5th Fleet base, near Fujairah, United Arab Emirates (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili, File)

You know, it seems to me that the normalization of relations does impose some constraints. This is, I believe, a tremendously positive development for stability in the Middle East. But what brings the Emirates, Israel, Bahrain closer, and what brings Israel closer to Saudi Arabia?

One factor that has brought Israel closer to Bahrain and the Emirates is the concern about the Iranian threat. A decision by the Biden administration to somehow rejoin JCPOA, to somehow trust the Iranians, look away from their production of missiles and their sowing of terror, it seems to me, the implication of that is to bring Israel and the Gulf Arab countries even closer. It will confirm their sense that they have increasing responsibility for their own security.

At State, you moved to change the legal status of settlements and lower the chance for Palestinian statehood. Was the goal of the policy to take the two-state solution off the table for a future administration?

It’s really important to emphasize that the White House peace plan involves a proposal for a two-state solution, indeed, a two-state solution in which the Palestinians would retain control over approximately 70% of the West Bank. There are also land swaps.

An Israeli airforce Blackhawk helicopter carrying US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hovers over Psagot Winery, in the settlers industrial park of Sha’ar Binyamin near the Israeli Psagot settlement in the West Bank north of Jerusalem on November 19, 2020. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

We have to be very careful about the policy that the State Department and therefore the Trump administration adopted concerning the settlements. It is often misstated, but Secretary Pompeo was very careful in his language. He did not say that settlement activity is consistent with international law as often cited. He said “settlements in the West Bank beyond the Green Line are not per se inconsistent with international law.” What is the difference in those two formulations? It’s huge. One says that automatically everything that Israel builds is automatically consistent with international law. The other formulation, which was secretary Pompeo’s, says that whatever Israel builds is not on its face illegal. It’s a matter of dispute and each case has to be examined on its own merits.

As a person who loves Israel, a frequent visitor here, sometimes 2-3 times a year, are you concerned by our political instability and the fact that we have not had a state budget for two years?

Yes, it’s very disturbing. It’s very urgent, I think that both of us, the United States and Israel, get our houses better in order. I think, actually — it’s interesting, we face parallel problems. In the United States, a large part of the right hates the left, and a large part of the left hates the right. They think that the other side is un-American and is destroying the country. Something similar could be said of Israel, though I understand that right and left in Israel has gotten jumbled up over the last couple of years. No liberal democracy can prosper when big segments of the society on either side of the political aisle scorn the other side.

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