Interview: Scholar on Middle Eastern Affairs Discusses Netanyahu’s Visit

March 5, 2018 Updated: March 6, 2018

WASHINGTON—NTD’s Kitty Wang sat down with the Heritage Foundation’s James Phillips to discuss Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Washington. Phillips is a senior research fellow on Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation. He has written numerous articles on the Arab-Israeli conflict, Islamic radicalism, Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Syria, Sudan, Tunisia, and Turkey. He has testified numerous times before congressional committees on these issues.

NTD: What is the background of the visit of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to Washington?

James Phillips: OK. Prime Minister Netanyahu has come to Washington, I think primarily for the AIPAC conference, which is a conference for pro-Israeli supporters. But he’s also meeting with Donald Trump and the two leaders have known each other since I think at least the 1980s when Mr. Netanyahu was the Israeli ambassador to the U.N. And I think he may have run into Donald Trump down in New York City. But since then they’ve become very close and they’re strong allies. And I think Prime Minister Netanyahu will probably want to speak about the impending move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. It’s known that he wants President Trump to come visit Israel and be there for that event and he also probably wants to talk about Iran and the war in Syria.

NTD: What is Prime Minister Netanyahu’s goal for his meeting with President Trump?

Mr. Phillips: Well, Prime Minister Netanyahu is probably very interested in finding out what President Trump has in mind for the Iran nuclear deal. In January President Trump threatened to pull out of the entire deal unless the U.S. Congress and European allies agreed to changes in the deal. Unilateral changes that would fix the deal in the administration’s eyes. But it remains unclear whether that can happen. And so President Netanyahu will definitely be interested in finding out what the future U.S. policy will be on the nuclear deal.

And I think he also has been critical of U.S. policy in Syria because the Israelis argue that the U.S. has focused too much on ISIS and not enough on Iran and Hezbollah. And Iran and Hezbollah have used the civil war in Syria to creep closer to the Syrian border with Israel, and Iran is using the Syrian civil war as cover to send many more rockets and missiles to Hezbollah, which will probably open up a two-front war against Israel the next time they fight—they fought back in 2006. But the next time it’ll probably be a war not only along the Lebanon-Israeli border but along the Syrian-Israeli border. So I think Syria will be a big topic as well.

NTD: On the Iran nuclear deal, what is the difference between the U.S. and Israeli positions?

Epoch Times Photo
James Phillips. (Heritage Foundation)

Mr. Phillips: Well Israel is concerned because it’s already within range of Iran missiles and in fact last month Iran flew a drone from Syria through Jordan and into Israel. It was shot down and that led to the Israeli bombing of Iranian military positions inside Syria. But Israel sees Iran as its chief enemy in the Middle East, and it’s very concerned about Iran’s growing power. Israel would like to see the U.S. end the nuclear deal and confront Iran because the problem with a nuclear deal from Israel’s point of view is that it does not block Iranian nuclear progress, it only delays it. They temporarily have agreed to reduce the amount of enriched uranium they have. The rate at which they enrich it and the level of purity that they enrich it to. But after eight more years of those restrictions Iran can ramp up its nuclear program, and Israel doesn’t want to see that. And Israel also is concerned about Iranian missiles and limiting those missiles so I think those will come up for discussion.

NTD: Will the Israeli and Palestinian peace talks be on the agenda?

Mr. Phillips: I think that’s still on the agenda. But I don’t think they’ll spend much time on that, because the peace negotiations are going nowhere. The Palestinians and the Israelis—neither one is able at this point to make the very deep concessions that would have to be made politically. Prime Minister Netanyahu is under fire because of these corruption probes, and it would be very difficult for him to make concessions because most of his cabinet is even more hard line on the Palestinian issue than he is. And President Abbas is in his last years of power. He’s very isolated. He’s very weak. He cannot make the concessions he would need to make. And so both sides have stepped back from negotiations. And I think the U.S. moving its embassy to Jerusalem gave President Abbas a reason not to go to negotiations. I think that you know he used that as something [to justify what] he was going to do anyway. But in that sense, the Jerusalem Embassy move short-circuited the hopes for peace.

NTD: What is the importance of officially moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem?

Mr. Phillips: This is a longstanding goal of the U.S. Congress. It passed a law, I think in 1995, calling for the movement of the U.S. embassy, and every president since then has signed a waiver saying the move of the embassy is too dangerous for national security reasons. President Trump decided to go ahead and actually fulfill his campaign promise. I think it was primarily a campaign promise, but it was also I think a favor that he did for his friend Prime Minister Netanyahu. So there was you know both the domestic political [angle] and kind of a personal angle on that for President Trump. But it looks like the official move will be coming in time for the anniversary of Israel’s creation in May.

NTD: Many people predicted big protests in response to the embassy move, but the situation seems not so violent after all.

Mr. Phillips: Yes, I think President Trump was correct in the sense that the potential risks involved in moving the embassy, as far as riots and anti-American demonstrations go—those risks were overstated. But there are other risks in that. And part of that we saw when the Palestinian Authority stepped back from the negotiations. But you know the negotiations were going nowhere anyway in the short run in part because the Palestinians aren’t willing to give up some of their long-held goals to make concessions. So I think all in all the move to the embassy to Jerusalem didn’t have as many downsides or negative repercussions as many people thought. So, I think U.S.-Israeli relations are probably stronger now than they’ve been any time in the last 20 or 25 years. I think they were pretty strong under President Reagan and President Begin also back in the early 1980s. But I think President Trump’s relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu is much closer than any president has had with any Israeli leader.

NTD: What is the importance for Netanyahu of his speech at AIPAC?

Mr. Phillips: The Israeli prime minister I think often comes to the conference although I think last year he appeared by video link. But I think it was important this year for President Netanyahu to come in part because he’s in political trouble at home. And this demonstrates to the Israeli people that he is a respected leader in Washington and that he has excellent contacts with the White House that no other Israeli leader has and that that would strengthen his case at home against having to step down because of these investigations and also because it’s a very critical time in the evolution of Syria. And that’s a very important issue for Prime Minister Netanyahu. So I think that also brought him to come to Washington to discuss with President Trump.

NTD: Does Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, play an important role in U.S.-Israeli relations?

Mr. Phillips: I think he has in the past, but it’s unclear if he will play as great a role in the future. His family has personal ties with Prime Minister Netanyahu. And he is in a position to be an important conduit for messages between the Trump White House and Prime Minister Netanyahu. The Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have died off, and I don’t think they’re going anywhere, and that will take away some of Jared’s role in focusing on the Middle East. I think he still is an important conduit and a link between the U.S. and Israel but not as much on the broader policy now that he’s lost his security clearance

NTD: Would you like to add anything?

Mr. Phillips: Just that this is a very important period for U.S.-Israeli relations in part because Israel sees itself as fighting what it calls the wars between the wars. That is the low-intensity conflict against Hezbollah in Syria that doesn’t rise to the level of a war but soon could. And because of rising tensions between Iran and Israel and Hezbollah and Israel. I think that’s a strong reason Prime Minister Netanyahu came to Washington

NTD: Do you think that the United States and Israel can work out some strategy?

Mr. Phillips: I think they need to, if only to discuss what each will do even if they’re doing things separately—but just to get on the same page. And there may be things they’re doing together against ISIS or perhaps against Hezbollah. I know the U.S. and Israel have worked together on sanctions against Hezbollah, but the U.S. has not wanted to be drawn into a shooting war with Hezbollah because it’s already fighting ISIS and al-Qaeda. And that is an important difference between the two.

NTD: Thank you.