After a warm impromptu welcome from Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer, Steve Bannon may have found another Israeli defender.
Moti Kahana, an Israeli-American businessman who has spent the past five years working on humanitarian relief for Syrian refugees, is willing to vouch for the former Breitbart chief, who, according to Kahana, not only has a warm spot for Jews and Israelis, but was also keenly interested in getting his boss, Donald Trump, to support a Syrian relief plan.
The story dates back to September, when Bannon was already on Trump’s team and Kahana, founder of Amaliah, an American-Israeli humanitarian assistance organization, tried to get U.S. political backing for the idea of establishing safe zones for refugees along Syria’s borders with Israel and with Jordan.
Safe Zones, an idea being tossed around for several years by experts looking at the Syrian crisis, could provide a protected environment for Syrians fleeing the civil war front lines without having to leave their country. Kahana said that his attempts to approach the Clinton campaign and get the former secretary of state on board was turned down by her staff. He reached out Oz Sultan, a conservative Muslim pundit and Trump supporter to try and get the Republican candidate interested in the idea. Sultan, according to Kahana, made the connection with Bannon.
Kahana, a New Jersey- based entrepreneur born and raised in Israel, has been working tirelessly in recent years to assist Syrian refugees, mainly through the work of Israeli humanitarian groups. Much of his work is now focused on the idea of setting up safe zones, the first one being in the Golan Heights, along Syria’s border with Israel.
The idea he presented to Bannon was far reaching. Trump, Kahana and Sultan suggested, could visit Israel in late September and make a trip to the Golan Heights alongside Israeli prime minister Netanyahu and the Jordanian ambassador to Israel. A photo op on the Syrian borderline would cement the image of Trump as a leader with a clear vision for solving the Syrian crisis.
The plan never took off. Netanyahu was heading to New York for the United Nations General Assembly that same week and eventually met with Trump and with Clinton privately. Kahana didn’t give up and shot another idea to Bannon: Why not arrange for Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner to visit Israel for the Jewish High Holidays? This idea, too, didn’t fly.
But Kahana has only words of praise for the former Breitbart boss.
“We became friends, and now I want to introduce him to the Jewish community,” he said in an interview. “I want to explain to American Jews that from my experience, Bannon has worked for the aligned interests of America, Israel, and the Syrian people. I don’t see here any anti-Semitism.”
And what is Bannon’s interest in setting up safe zones for Syrians?
The selling point presented by Kahana and Sultan to Trump’s adviser wasn’t only humanitarian. For the cost of resettling one Syrian refugee in America, they argued, America could keep 12 Syrians out of harm in safe zones along the borders.
“I think he wants to help the Syrians and I think he doesn’t want more Syrians coming to America,” he said.
Trump’s transition team did not respond to requests for comment.
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman