two men sit on stage talking
Moderator Robert Rosenthal (left) and Israeli commentator Yoaz Hendel at the Commonwealth Club in S.F. (Courtesy/Israeli consulate)

Trump impact on peace ‘a huge mystery,’ says Israeli analyst speaking in S.F.

President Trump’s election could present opportunities for Israel to try new approaches to Middle East peace and achieve the ever-elusive goal of getting the United States to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a former aide to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

Hendel smiling with an Israeli flag in the background
Yoaz Hendel (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

But Yoaz Hendel, who served in 2011-2012 as Netanyahu’s director of communications and is now a political commentator, warned that Israel also risks being marginalized by a Trump administration more focused on domestic issues and other global concerns.

“I think Netanyahu probably hoped Hillary Clinton would be president, because you could predict what she would do,” Hendel said in a Feb. 13 discussion at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club. “Trump as president is a huge mystery. I can see Trump waking up one morning and saying to Netanyahu, ‘Let’s make Israel great again, let’s cut a deal.’ ”

Trump promised repeatedly during the presidential campaign to move the embassy, though as the new president prepared for a meeting with Netanyahu this week he hadn’t made any moves toward such a switch. Palestinian leaders and others have warned moving the embassy would trigger global outrage.

Trump also has tempered his support for Israeli settlements since becoming president, and Hendel said it’s unclear how much the U.S. president is willing to focus on the always-tricky Middle East.

“I think President Trump can [aggravate] this complicated situation by talking about great things and great deals instead of talking about small steps,” Hendel said. “Israelis are in a very pragmatic period. We understand our limitations. I think we need to ask for pragmatic steps, otherwise Trump will be without anything to put on the table.”

Hendel said his understanding of the Middle East peace process was forged in large part in 2012 when he participated in a month of peace talks with Palestinians in Amman, Jordan. There was good food and coffee, he said, “but not good peace.”

“My conclusion from these meetings was that it’s almost impossible to bridge the gaps between the sides, not because both sides have very strong and tough demands but because there are cultural and other gaps that are very hard to bridge,” he said. “For me, the biggest gaps were the differences between the declarations of what all sides were saying and the reality of what was actually happening on the ground.”

Israelis are in a very pragmatic period. We understand our limitations. I think we need to ask for pragmatic steps, otherwise Trump will be without anything to put on the table.
— Yoaz Hendel

Hendel, chairman of the Jerusalem-based Institute for Zionist Strategies, said the situation in Israel is far different now compared with a generation ago. Israel is economically and militarily strong, he said, and doesn’t face threats from neighboring nations’ armies. Instead, he said, there’s a balance of power among the region’s three strongest entities — Israel, Iran and Turkey.

“Today, wars no longer are about winning and capturing territory, but about if you can convince the international community of your narrative,” he said. “It’s a war of narratives, not of weapons.”

If Iran becomes a nuclear power, though, Hendel said that would pose a direct threat to Israel and the rest of the region.

Hendel, who co-authored the 2012 book “Israel vs. Iran: The Shadow War,” criticized the Obama administration and European powers for “removing the military option from the table” by signing the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.

Trump, who attacked that deal during his campaign, earlier this month put the Iranians “on notice” and imposed new sanctions after Iran test-fired a ballistic missile.

Hendel spoke the same day that Amos Yadlin, a former Israel Defense Forces intelligence chief, wrote in a position paper that the Trump administration should start pushing for a United Nations Security Council resolution banning such Iranian tests.

Hendel said in an interview before the Commonwealth Club speech that he supported such a move, because “we all understand Iran is a threat to the world.”

“I am in favor of any effort to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons,” he said. “It is in my interest as an Israeli to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power in any way.”

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster z"l was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.