The head of American Jewry’s main umbrella group warned that Iran and Turkey are working aggressively to carve up the Middle East, much as Britain and France did in the Sykes-Picot agreement of a century ago, and that the whole world will be adversely impacted for decades if they are able to do so.
Two empires — the Ottoman and the Persian — are being “resurrected” and are “redrawing the lines of the Middle East,” Malcolm Hoenlein said. “We’re reliving the 1920s. What happened with Sykes-Picot is happening now. But it’s not the French and British, it’s Iran and Turkey… We’re seeing a redrawing of the Middle East which could impact us for decades to come…This affects Africa. This affects Asia. It’ll affect Europe. It’ll affect everybody.”
To face up to the threat, Hoenlein urged the US to more visibly support its friends and allies, notably including Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, and to ratchet up sanctions on Iran, among other steps.
Interviewed by The Times of Israel on Monday, ahead of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organization’s annual leadership mission to Israel later this month, Hoenlein also said he believes US President Donald Trump has a realistic chance of brokering Israeli-Arab peace, and that his bid to do so marks a real opportunity for Israel.
“A strong president can deliver for everybody, if it’s done right,” said Hoenlein, the Conference’s longtime executive vice president. “We haven’t tested the capabilities really, but he certainly is invested, he’s appointed people to do it. For Israel it’s a unique opportunity. So, could he? Yeah. I think strong leaders are the ones who can get things like this done.”
At the same time, however, Hoenlein assessed that Mahmoud Abbas’s bitterly anti-Trump and “anti-Semitic” speech in Ramallah last month marked a “turning point” in the US president’s attitude to the Palestinian Authority president. Trump, said Hoenlein, is furious with Abbas for, as he sees it, “walking away” when he was trying to initiate a process, and now regards Abbas as “just not interested in talking, not interested in negotiations” and as having insulted the US.
Hoenlein also argued that the situation in Iran is less stable than is widely perceived, given that the economic situation outside the major cities is dire, and that average Iranians feel they have seen none of the promised economic benefits of the Iran nuclear deal.
In the interview, Hoenlein also related to concerns that Israel is increasingly becoming perceived as a partisan cause in the United States, and urged: “Israel has to be a bipartisan issue. Israel cannot be seen as a left, right, conservative, liberal, Republican or Democrat [cause].”
Hoenlein acknowledged falling support for Israel on “the Democratic left in particular,” and insisted that “the answer is not to write it off and just to condemn it.” Rather, the pro-Israel community had to ask itself how best to reach out to key demographics that are becoming less supportive of Israel.
Where the rival US political leaderships are concerned, he said, “We have to show appreciation for what this administration has done, for what the president has done and the vice president and others, and at the same time keep in mind, about the larger population, that we want to keep all Americans behind Israel.”
Hoenlein also talked about recent visits he has made to Qatar and the UAE, and other encounters with Arab and Muslim leaders, including Syria’s President Bashar Assad. And he explained how he has striven to avoid being lumped in with certain other visitors who “put on shows” when on trips to the Middle East, and are regarded by leaders in this region, he said, as “the clowns.”
The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.
The Times of Israel: Israel is talking about potentially closing several embassies worldwide and consulates in the US for budgetary reasons. Is that something you would want to weigh in against?
Malcolm Hoenlein: We have tried to advise about the potential implications. I understand the budgetary constraints. But their presence in these communities are pivotal — really the link to Israel. And so I would urge that, wherever possible, this be reviewed and considered.
Sitting outside, it’s very easy to tell Israel to spend money in these places. But I think generally, right now, the foreign service, the Foreign Ministry, are seen by many as diminished, and internally I know there are very bad feelings. And it’s a mistake: The Foreign Ministry is a critical agency and the role they play, at a time when we’re fighting for the hearts and minds of people, is very important.
There is a lot of talent in the Foreign Ministry that is not fully utilized. There are a lot of really good people with whom we work closely. There seems to be a wholesale rather than a retail approach to assessing what is important and what isn’t.
“Fighting for the hearts and minds of people.” We’ve spoken often about the relationship between the US and Israel, American Jewry and Israel. It seems that Israel has now become a partisan issue in the United States. How concerned are you by that?
Israel has to be a bipartisan issue. Israel cannot be seen as a left, right, conservative, liberal, Republican or Democrat [cause].
We can’t afford the move — which I think is more towards indifference than it is towards hostility, although we do see the negative numbers in the Democratic left in particular.
The answer is not to write it off and just to condemn it. The question is how do we educate, how do we reach out to them? We have several programs that are targeting those audiences.
We had the chairman of the Democratic Party come to the President’s Conference; we talked with him about outreach. He was very sympathetic and supportive of it. We have seen that others who have gotten involved in the Democratic Party were able to achieve significant accomplishments. So the mistake would be to write it off and to just say that, They’re against us and therefore we don’t deal with them.
We have to work with Democratic members of the House and Senate. I will tell you honestly, I sense from some of them more edginess because of the polarization that’s going on
I think we have to be more creative. We have America’s Voices, [a program] that tries to bring people [to Israel] who can appeal to those audiences and give the personal testimony of what they see — [including that this is] no apartheid state. They come here and they say, This is 180 degrees different than what we expected. And when they say it — these are non-Jews, movie actors, sports stars, others to whom young people can relate — when they say, Guys, you’ve got it wrong, [that makes a difference]. We did a very extensive study of this and we found that there are ways to counter the [anti-Israel] arguments.
BDS is a symptom, it’s a tool. It’s not the problem. We have to focus on the campuses, we have to strengthen our efforts there and the pro-Israel groups that are doing more. We’ve got to get faculty more motivated, we’ve got to get administrations to understand their responsibilities; we have a legal apparatus now, the Lawfare project and others, and they’re making a difference. They’re putting administrations on notice that you can’t just get away with it anymore. The Jewish students — their rights, their protection — is going to be an uppermost priority for us and for the community as a whole and it better be for them.
After some of the tough years recently, there’s a real sense of relief to see the public statements [made during Vice President] Pence’s visit, and the president’s visit before
We have to work with Democratic members of the House and Senate. I will tell you honestly, I sense from some of them more edginess because of the polarization that’s going on. That is permeating American society as a whole, but also the political process.
President Trump has been extremely pro-Israel. The question is whether Israel is over-embracing Trump. In American politics, pendulums swing. He won’t be the president forever. From the Israeli government’s point of view, it seems we’re becoming a partisan issue and they sometimes seem quite happy about it.
Look, I think after some of the tough years recently, there’s a real sense of relief to see the public statements [made during Vice President] Pence’s visit, and the president’s visit before. I was with [Trump] at the Western Wall. It was truly amazing. You see the change in atmosphere and attitude.
Frankly, America leads. There is no doubt. Whether it’s a peace process, whether it’s negotiation. What America says, [matters]. Even if they don’t like the president, as most Europeans and others do not, they have to take into account that America is saying, We’re drawing the line here: No more anti-Israel bias at the UN or you’ll pay a price for it.
When we had the [UN anti-settlements] resolution at the end of the Obama administration [that the US allowed through by choosing not to veto], in contrast to what we’re seeing now, I think Israeli officials and others have a right to be appreciative and to want to foster it, to build on it. At the same time, there’s always a question of balance and how you go about it.
I think we have to show appreciation for what this administration has done, for what the president has done and the vice president and others, and at the same time keep in mind, about the larger population, that we want to keep all Americans behind Israel.
Do you have a sense of what the president meant when he said he took Jerusalem off the table, and also what he meant in saying that Israel would have been asked or would be asked to “pay more” or give up something down the road? And how this might play out?
On putting Jerusalem “off the table,” he was saying, Look, it’s not a question of whether we’re gonna move the embassy — we are. But he was talking about moving it to West Jerusalem. And in that [December 6] statement, he talked about a two-state solution. He talked about many other things that got overlooked in the context of the reference to the embassy, and the vice president reinforcing it, saying it would done by the end of next year.
The real key here is that it doesn’t change anything on the ground. If they had put up a plaque the first night, and declared an embassy, it would’ve been over with and that would’ve been it.
What I think he meant [about Israel paying later] was that if we get the process going — he’s a deal-maker — that concessions are to come from both sides. He was saying to Israel, Look, you know, if I gain these things [for you], we’re gonna ask of you things as well. I don’t think anybody could expect, in negotiations, that Israel was never going to be asked to make any concessions or contributions to the process. That’s what the president was saying to the Palestinians: Look, it’s not gonna be a one-way street. You come to the table. I did this [Jerusalem move] to try and defuse this issue. Because the fact is that that part of the issue is irrelevant — you know, recognizing West Jerusalem. Everybody recognizes it.
[I think the administration is interested in] coming up with creative solutions to the problems. Just like it’s been true here that Likud governments are generally those that reach accords, I think a more right-wing [US] government may have it easier getting to an accord and may be able to bring the Congress and others behind them to a meaningful resolution, or at least progress towards a resolution.
Hence his anger at [Palestinian Authority President] Abbas for walking away, when he saw it as initiating a process, and [now] says that this guy is just not interested in talking, is not interested in negotiations, that he insults us. [Abbas’s] speech, I think, was a real turning point.
The Ramallah address, talking about the illegitimacy of Israel?
When you’re president of the United States and you say, I’m giving this guy hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars every year. We gave [Abbas] a bye. The truth is the Obama administration did not hold him to account in the way they should have. So your pendulum is swinging. We are now finally seeing him held to account. But it’s not unfair. Even the Scandinavian countries are now cutting aid because they are using that money to build tributes to martyrs, to killers and to terrorists.
You have to think of it in the mindset of a president like Trump who comes out of real estate and who really values the deal, considers deal-making an art. I think he really hoped for and wants to see a negotiated deal. I don’t think it’s peripheral for him.
You think he was only recognizing West Jerusalem? That’s what this was?
I’m saying it didn’t go beyond that in his statement. I hope he was talking about the unity of Jerusalem, but I don’t think, in his statement…
He didn’t rule out a Palestinian part…
He didn’t rule out anything. He talked about a two-state solution.
What the president did, when he went to the Kotel [the Western Wall, last May] and put on a yarmulke — after the UNESCO votes and after what had happened in the months before — and declared this a Jewish holy site and said a psalm, I think that that was a bolder move than the statement on Jerusalem. And yet there wasn’t one demonstration anywhere, not one protest against it, in the whole Arab world. Why? Because you do it the right way. You just do it.
It’s often how you do it, how you present it. He just did it as a fait accompli and said, Listen, this is a Jewish holy site. He recognized it. He didn’t diminish anybody else’s rights by doing it. It was a very dignified event. I went there because I wanted to see the dynamic. I wanted to see how he and the others acted in the context. And I have to say, it was very impressive. And the fact is that you didn’t have a protest anywhere about it.
[The opposition to Trump’s moves regarding Jerusalem] is largely manufactured. It’s used, as you know, “Al-Aqsa is under siege.” They know that that brings people to the streets and that can incite violence.
It sounds like you think this president actually could make peace if there was a genuine will on the other side, that he would be willing to push for the kinds of compromises that are necessary?
[There’s a] confluence of factors, including the changes in the Arab world — the fact that they are pressing Abbas to come to an accord, and will be able to support him and help him if he does… You saw the demonstrations in Iran, where they said, We will not die for Palestine, we will not die for Hamas, we will not die for Hezbollah. People are getting tired of the issue. So that’s one factor.
And then you have a president who’s really strong. But a strong president can deliver for everybody, if it’s done right. We haven’t tested the capabilities really, but he certainly is invested, he’s appointed people to do it. For Israel it’s a unique opportunity.
So, could he? Yeah. I think strong leaders are the ones who can get things like this done.
Let me ask you about American Jews and Israel. The CEO of the Jewish Agency [Alan Hoffmann] spoke recently about an event where he had an appearance, and all the questions that he had from young American Jews were about pluralism in Israel, or rather the ostensible lack of pluralism in Israel. So, I’m asking you about the alienation of young American Jews.
Are we concerned about the alienation of young people? There are many issues that could exacerbate it — the immigrant issues, [arrangements for pluralistic prayer at] the Western Wall, other things. But it’s more fundamental. It means that we haven’t done a good enough job, starting at age 3, inculcating kids, educating them in understanding Israel, building ties to Israel. Birthright is great. There are other efforts. We have to do it when they’re younger, when they formulate a lot of their attitudes, earlier on. We have tremendous kids on campuses, working day and night, with incredible devotion. The good guys don’t get the notice. The bad guys get the notice.
I think [the stance on Israel] is reflective of the general trend amongst young people in American society today, towards indifference, towards, you know, “it is what it is.” And then you have the devoted few who are on the extreme left — the Students for Justice in Palestine, and Jewish Voice for Peace or whatever it’s called, these groups, who are not necessarily very large but they are very vocal, very extreme. Young people who are not inoculated, who don’t have the confidence to stand against it, become vulnerable to it. So we have to inoculate them much earlier. You have to educate them.
It’s not to enforce on them, it doesn’t mean they can’t have differences with Israel, or be critical of certain aspects of Israel and policy. It’s the feeling of connection, relationship [that we need to instill]. We have a lot of programs that are ongoing to try and counter it. There is an awful lot that has to be done. We need more creativity, we have to learn to use social media more effectively, we have to reach them where they are and to find the vehicles to get them.
Tell me about your recent, controversial trip to Qatar.
I was in Qatar 20 years ago. Our visit there led to Shimon Peres’s visit and the opening of the [Israeli] interests section. I’ve had contact with the Qataris periodically — I was sort of alienated when they turned more hostile to Israel. I went there primarily on the MiA issue, just as I went to see [Bashar] Assad in Damascus [in 2011] and President Erdogan and many others, because families have asked and because I feel we can’t leave any stone unturned. They do have influence. So far we have not seen them deliver on it, but we hope they will.
There are other issues too [with Qatar]. I went for one day. I wanted it to be clear that it was only business, I had meetings from early morning — 7:30, straight through until late at night — until I went back. I never discussed it publicly, it only became public because of some of the people who were involved. I don’t think that’s the effective way of doing things.
I visit a lot of Arab countries. I meet a lot of controversial people, in the interest of the Jewish people and the Jewish state, and I think the record of these past decades and my doing it speak for themselves. But I never speak about it because I think that’s what gives me credibility with them and effectiveness: They know they can talk to me in confidence and that I am not interested in exploiting it or grandstanding it. I am only interested in what we can accomplish.
You were at a conference in Azerbaijan not too long ago, attended by numerous Arab and Muslim leaders.
Yes, Azerbaijan is a remarkable country. It’s a great friend of Israel, a great friend of the Jewish people. A Jewish community of 2,600 years; no history of anti-Semitism. You can walk in Baku with a yarmulke on your head and have no problem whatsoever. I was invited by Sheikh al-Islam, the head of the Muslim community there, and by President Aliyev to participate — it was the end of an inter-religious solidarity conference, and the Muslim leaders from 42 countries [were there] plus other religious leaders, from the Pope’s representative to the Greek Orthodox, etc. They invited me to speak and participate.
The Iranian spokesman, representing [President] Rouhani, gave a really vicious diatribe and there were others who gave pretty tough speeches, but I responded equally toughly.
What was interesting to me was that I got a smattering of applause but no interruptions and no booing to my remarks, and they were really tough. I said I spoke as a Jew, a Zionist and an American, and [responded to the Iranians and others as to] why their effort to denigrate other religions does not build up theirs. It doesn’t give them more credibility. I went through the whole history of the Jewish connection [to the land of Israel] and answered almost all the points that the Iranians and others had made, but in pretty tough terms. Afterwards, many [of those present] wanted to take pictures with us and people came to talk to us — leaders from many Muslim and Arab countries. That’s a message about the need to be present, to be able to talk, to communicate. You never know what good comes out of it.
What do you make of what’s unfolding in Iran now? Is the regime stable?
We try to stay in touch with a lot of people from inside Iran and from outside Iran. You need to speak to a lot of people to try to get an accurate assessment. I think that the internal situation is much more disruptive than is communicated. The economic conditions are terrible. When the deputy minister of environment says, We’re water bankrupt. When you see the unemployment [rate] among young people, 30-40% — amongst women, even; among college graduates, I think it’s 40%. The economic condition outside the big cities is terrible. They feel that they were lied to about the [nuclear] deal — that they derived no benefit. Especially when 40% of the economy is controlled by [Supreme leader] Khamenei and the IRGC, so they already take off the bulk of anything that comes in.
We’re reliving the 1920s. What happened with Sykes-Picot is happening now. But it’s not the French and British, it’s Iran and Turkey, that are redrawing the lines of the Middle East, with Russia
They resent the involvement with Hezbollah and with Hamas. You saw that in the demonstrations, as was true during the Green Revolution, when they were yelling in the streets, We will not die for Hamas, we will not die for Hezbollah, we’ll die for Iran.
The internal situation is not as stable as it is portrayed to be. They’re negotiating a lot of deals. They’re trying to make deals.
Their aggressiveness is expanding all the time. There are bases in more and more places. They’re building military facilities in Syria. But also the Lebanon-Syria-Iraq highway, and the crescent that they have established. Now there are two. One that goes through Lebanon. One that goes through the Persian Gulf. Their presence now in the base in Qatar. There are many others — places where Iran is establishing itself, a military and an economic and other presence.
Every African leader, when you meet them — they used to talk to us about China, and now they talk to us about Iran, about the fear of Iran, of Iran’s infiltration, of Iran’s efforts to infiltrate the regime.
And by the way, [there’s] a parallel in terms of Turkey: What I see happening, and what seems to escape people, is that we’re reliving the 1920s. What happened with Sykes-Picot is happening now. But it’s not the French and British, it’s Iran and Turkey, that are redrawing the lines of the Middle East, with Russia. They’re party to this too. Russia building bases in Sudan. Turkey putting $50 million in a base in Somalia. You see them in Afghanistan, in Qatar. All of them fighting for bases in Libya. Twenty-nine foreign bases in Syria. We’re seeing a redrawing of the Middle East which could impact us for decades to come.
The Russians — with almost nothing in terms of their own investment — are expanding that influence constantly. I don’t know how people can look at all of this and not notice this dramatic change.
You have two empires — the Ottoman and the Persian empire — being resurrected. The aggressiveness, with Erdogan building mosques — thousands and thousands of mosques all over the world. The eighth in Sweden opened up. And every Friday they send a message to the imams with what they’re supposed to say. I was in one Muslim country, and I asked [a leader] about it. And he looked out the window of his home, and he said, You see that, you see that, you see that, all new mosques, sponsored by Turkey. Even the Saudis [are doing the same] in some places.
People don’t look at the aggressive outreach which is still emanating from the Middle East, and the potential [consequences] of this. This affects Africa. This affects Asia. It’ll affect Europe. It’ll affect everybody.
And the US should be doing what about that?
The US should be supporting our friends more visibly — especially central Asia countries like Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, others that want to be pro-West, that are standing against the pressures from Iran, Turkey, Russia, others. We should be continuing to build our presence, because it was the absence of the United States that gave free rein and license to everybody.
We have to increase the sanctions on Iran. They do work. They do have an impact.
We should be doing more work with the broadcasts. We have to reform Radio Free Europe and Voice of America, who often become tools for our enemies and [who] broadcast against friends and allies in the region.
There are many things that we could do: Standing up for [Egypt’s] President Sissi. You can criticize and you can push for human rights and do all those things. At the same time you’ve got to recognize the realities that these countries face, and the danger of the collapse of any one of them and the ripple effect that would have.
We don’t have the resources to do everything. But early investment at a much lower level can help prevent you having to invest a great deal later on because we ignored or allowed a situation to metastasize to the point where you needed to have hundreds of billions of dollars in expenditures.
Coming back for a moment to the conference you attended in Azerbaijan. The speaker [on behalf of Iran] was Mahmoud Vaezi, who read out a speech from Rouhani as you said. He attacked the US and Trump, for doing everything for the Zionists. There was nothing explicitly anti-Semitic [in what was published].
What is “Zionists”? It is a code-word for Jews… He doesn’t say Jews. He said Zionists. He saw us sitting in the front row. He attacked “the Zionists” all the time. He talked about the conspiracies — the United States and the Zionist conspiracy. This is classic anti-Semitic rhetoric.
They would assert that their opposition is to Israel, not the Jews. They would say, as they do, Look at how well we treat the Jews [in Iran].
Well of course. But it doesn’t matter. When you’re talking in a public international forum like this, and you talk about conspiracy theories — the way he described the United States and the Zionists’ “collusion” and all that, this is classically anti-Semitic. The terminology and references. There was no attempt to cloak it or to hide it, and say, We don’t mean the Jews, we don’t mean anything else. They didn’t say anything like that. It was really very blatant.
At an international forum like this, that’s supposed to talk about solidarity, and you had all the Christian leaders there, and others, sitting there, it would have been an opportunity to send a different message if you’d wanted. But [Iran] didn’t. And there were Muslim leaders there who were very upset by the message, who came out afterwards and said to us that the hostility in his message, that it’s not reflective of our views and it’s not reflective of who we are.
What do you think of the Trump administration’s responses to the recent protests in Iran?
It was better than saying, We don’t get involved in internal political manifestations. But it has to be a sustained effort. We have to do more to be supportive of the young people. I don’t mean weapons. Fax machines matter. Just the expressions of support, so that they know they’re not alone. That was the biggest criticism we got after the Green Revolution [in 2009]. They’d say: We put our lives on the line and you abandoned us.
They got rhetorical support this time?
Rhetorical support — that’s so important… This way at least they know that you have a president who supported them. I’m sure previous administrations also have sympathy for the Iranian people. But you’ve got to manifest it. You’ve got to say it. Because they have to hear it. They have to hear that you’re willing to take a public stand in support. Was it enough? Maybe not… This has to come from within. But it will only come from within if they know there is support from without.
And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s repeatedly supportive response to the recent protests?
For Israel to show friendship, its messages to the Iranian people get a tremendous response. A tremendous number of people watch it. I actually did the first one, many years ago. We got a lot of response to it. Because I said, We are not against the Iranian people. We are for you. We want to support you. But the regime is one that is not serving your interests, is not serving the region’s interests.
You were also in the UAE a while back.
I was in the UAE in the past year. There are opportunities. The dialogue is very important. We look at the map and we see this one mass. It’s not so. Each country is unique. Each one has its own interests. Having the channels of communication open, having the opportunity to see first hand, you get a very different understanding. You go to this massive air force base and you see the UAE and the Americans, and see how intense is the amount of action, because of Iraq and Syria, flying out of these places.
When I met Assad, I sat three hours [with him]. The first hour, he was really probing me. The second hour he opened up and told me incredible things, once he felt confident enough
To hear their concerns and their perception gives you a much more fully rounded view of what is happening in the region and an opportunity to share our perspectives. Sometimes, they’re really taken aback by how much we know or by the fact that we follow all this so closely. It gives us more credibility. The only way we’ll have sustained relationships is if our facts are correct, if it passes the test of time, if they see that we can sustain what we say, and the legitimacy of the case that we make.
Every Arab leader I’ve ever met spends the first period [of conversation with us] testing us. Are we serious? To see whether you guys know what you’re talking about.
When I met Assad, I sat three hours [with him]. The first hour, he was really probing me. The second hour he opened up and told me incredible things, once he felt confident enough. And I never talk about [the specifics of what he said, or what other leaders tell me in confidence]. I never discuss it. And they know it. Some of them have said it.
I’ve said to them: Why me? I’m not the most likely candidate for this. I wear a yarmulke. I have my views. They say, That’s exactly it, because we want people who know who they are.
You know they have a term — “the clowns” — for some of the people who get involved and who put on shows about all of it. But they don’t take them that seriously.
You met [ex-Mahmoud Abbas Gaza security chief, and now Abbas rival, Mohammad] Dahlan when you were in the UAE.
I met with Dahlan.
What did you make of him?
It was an interesting discussion. I wasn’t overwhelmed. I can’t say that anything much came of it.
You didn’t come away thinking, this is a guy…
Who’s going to take over? No.
With whom we can make peace? You didn’t come away with any definitive sense?
He has an operation. He brought in advisers from Europe, and advisers, his people, from elsewhere. But I knew Dahlan from before. I was very impressed with him when I met him the first time, when he was a boss in Gaza. This time I did not get a sense that this is a guy who is in a position to take over.