WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald Trump’s reported choice for secretary of state is no stranger to the Middle East, yet when it comes to Israel he has very little experience.
Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, who is expected to be formally named by Trump as his top diplomat Tuesday, has spent his career fostering deep ties to Sunni Arab and Gulf states. Since rising to the top at one of the world’s largest companies on January 1, 2006, much of his professional life has involved working with Israel’s petroleum-rich neighbors.
Throughout his career, the Wichita Falls, Texas, native cultivated relationships with leaders of countries including Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Qatar. He even injected his company into the middle of a power struggle between the Kurds and the Iraqi government.
As an oil executive, though, he’s never had much reason to invest time or money in the Jewish state.
On Israel, Tillerson contrasts starkly with several of the other top candidates considered for the position in what was an unusually long and public process, including Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and John Bolton.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Romney, for example, has had a friendship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dating back to 1976.
Over the course of his 2012 bid for the White House, he repeatedly emphasized his support for Israel and antipathy toward the Iranian regime, a posture the incoming president shares. Giuliani and Bolton are also staunch Israel supporters as well as frequent visitors.
Tillerson, on the other hand, should he be confirmed, will be operating from a knowledge base that derives from his connections in the Arab world.
Another touchy issue is his warm relationship with Russia, which has generated considerable controversy since it emerged over the weekend that Trump was favoring him for the post.
As US Jewish leaders monitor the formation of the nascent administration, some regard Tillerson, given his background, with a degree of wariness.
“Tillerson clearly has established business relationships with many of the Arab states,” the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington’s executive director, Ron Halber, told The Times of Israel. “There is no evidence that he has any understanding or sympathy for the US-Israel relationship.”
“Of even greater concern,” he added, “is the fact that he apparently rejects sanctions as a tool in international diplomacy, the key tool in our arsenal that brought the Iranians to the negotiating table.”
In the past, Tillerson has indeed expressed doubt about the necessity and efficacy of US sanctions against Russia, which have impeded ExxonMobil from raking in billions of dollars from various projects in the country.
On the subject of sanctions, there are other potential conflicts at play. Throughout the campaign, Trump repeatedly vowed to dismantle the Iran nuclear accord — which he termed a “disastrous deal” — forged in 2015 between world powers and Tehran. Since his election win, he hasn’t closed the door on abrogating the landmark pact, even if he hasn’t appeared overly eager to do so.
If Trump and Tillerson were to tear up or amend the deal, hamstringing Iran’s oil industry, the move could be construed as designed to benefit American and Russian energy companies by muscling out some of their stiffest competition.
When it comes to decisions with potentially explosive geopolitical impact in the Middle Eastern sphere, Tillerson is no neophyte.
In 2011, he struck a deal with the Kurds for an Exxon oil project in the northern part of Iraq, inflaming hostilities in an already fierce power struggle in the region.
Tillerson was unhappy with the terms of an earlier deal set out by the central Iraqi government in Baghdad, so he went behind its back and worked directly with the semi-autonomous Kurds, gaining Exxon billions of barrels more in oil while drawing State Department disapproval for violating its “one Iraq” policy.
At the time, according to The New Yorker, Tillerson explained to US officials that the choice was meant “to do what was best for my company.”