President Donald Trump about to embark on his first Middle East trip. News that he may have shared valuable Israeli intelligence with Russian officials has raised questions about the future of Israeli-American information sharing. Pro-Israel advocates in the Jewish world feel they are needed and sense an opportunity to influence policy. But the White House has shut them out, they say.
“Now is the time to get people on a conference call and explain what’s happening,” said an official with a Jewish organization after news broke that Trump revealed secret Israeli intelligence information to the Russians. The official said he still hoped to hear from he White House before Trump leaves for the region. “Our members want to know what’s going on and we need to be able to provide answers.”
But they have no easy line into the White House, many Jewish groups have found, disappointing expectations that insider allies would give them access to the halls of power. The administration has yet to forge a Jewish outreach operation, and is relying on a handful of Jewish billionaires and inner-circle advisers instead of the organized Jewish community.
“When it comes to Israel issues, we’re not needed in this White House,” said a representative of a major Jewish organization. “Jared, Greenblatt and Friedman think they don’t need any advice.” The representative, who would not speak on record due to the need to maintain future contacts with administration, was referring to Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, his adviser on global negotiations Jason Greenblatt, and the new ambassador to Israel David Friedman. All of the three are Jewish.
Other officials in Jewish organizations who spoke to the Forward shared this sentiment. Breaking with tradition set by previous presidents, both Democratic and Republican, Trump and his advisers had not organized a meeting with Jewish leaders before his upcoming trip to Israel or to brief representatives on policy issues relating to U.S.-Israel relations.
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations has not gathered its members for a White House pre-visit briefing and groups with national presence such as the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Federations of North America have not been involved with the administration in high-level discussions about either the upcoming visit or the latest spat over Trump’s disclosure of Israeli intelligence information to the Russians. Dovish groups and those viewed as critical of the Trump administration have been cut out altogether from access to the White House and according to an official with one of these organizations, they were not even invited to ceremonial events such as Vice President Mike Pence’s reception marking Israel’s independence day.
AIPAC, the largest pro-Israel lobby, maintains an ongoing robust relationship with the administration and is not as vulnerable to changes in the White House’s engagement policy with Jewish organizations.
Previous administrations made a point of maintaining relations with the organized Jewish world, even convening under Obama an unofficial “Jewish community kitchen cabinet” in which government officials dealing with issues of relevance to the community would strategize and coordinate their outreach efforts. Conversations with the Jewish community were initiated before presidential trips to the region, before major policy decisions regarding Israel and at times of crisis such as the second Lebanon war.
It was also a common custom to invite Jewish leaders to be part of the president’s formal delegation on trips to Israel. Contacts included, for example, a roundtable discussion with then secretary of state John Kerry before a visit to Israel, and conference calls with top White House aides dealing with the Middle East, as well as frequent briefings from the peace process envoy. The mechanism was never perfect, and during the Obama years outreach to Jewish activists was shut down at times to avoid controversy, including during the secret negotiations with Iran and before the U.N. Security Council vote condemning Israel’s settlement activity.
“There was always an extra value placed on prior consultation with the Jewish community,” said Scott Lasensky, a former senior official who dealt with Israel and Jewish issues in the Obama administration. Engagement with Jewish leaders before major trips and decisions, he added, is needed, “not just to provide a preview, but also to hear their input or their anxieties.”
In part, the break in communication could be pinned on a bureaucratic reason: Trump has not gotten around yet to appointing a liaison to the Jewish community. This position, part of the White House office of public liaison, centralizes engagement with the community and provides organizational leaders with an address for their questions, qualms, and requests. The lack of a full time Jewish liaison means Jewish leaders have to rely on previous contacts and acquaintances to reach the White House.
Some have found this new order advantageous. Morton Klein, leader of the Zionist Organization of America, whose views on Israel and the Middle East were at odds of those of the Obama administration, has already visited the Trump White House three times.
So who does have the president’s ear on issues relating to Israel?
In the first circle, Trump relies on Kushner, who is entrusted with the Middle East peace portfolio among his many responsibilities, and on his former business lawyer and current negotiations adviser Jason Greenblatt. Jewish organizational representatives noted that while Kushner is out of reach, Greenblatt has been accessible and open to discussion in personal communications, though these communications, according to one official, were mainly in the form of a “listening tour” rather than a policy briefing.
Outside the White House, two Jewish billionaires are providing their input. Las Vegas Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and New York businessman Ron Lauder each have their own separate yet direct channel of communication to Trump and his senior staff. Each comes with a different approach to the Israeli - Palestinian conflict and it is not clear whether either have succeeded in swaying Trump to their direction. Adelson, a hardliner, was reportedly disappointed with Trump’s refusal to move the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, and Lauder, who is advocating the renewal of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, has yet to see tangible results to his efforts.
The White House did not respond to inquires regarding talks with Jewish groups relating to President Trump’s relations with Israel.
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