Jerusalem, Iran and US Diplomacy

David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee, addresses LAWAC members and guests at the Luxe Sunset Boulevard Hotel.

David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee, gave a spirited defense for President Trump’s declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, while delivering a broader critique of the current administration’s neglect of American diplomacy. Speaking at a LAWAC lunch on December 12th, Harris said he thought every nation should have the right to decide on its own capital: “Why of the 193 member states of the UN should only Israel be denied the right to decide its own capital?”

Harris said that he was aware that “to say Donald Trump has a point I lose 90% of my audience – at least on the coasts – but I am going to say that President Trump has a point on Jerusalem and the sky hasn’t fallen.” He said the counterargument that it would disrupt the peace process and cause violence in the streets did not hold up. “What peace process are we disrupting?” he said, and added “When have Palestinians not been angry and taken to the streets?” He acknowledged that Jerusalem had been declared a corpus separatum (separate entity) by the UN Resolution 181 in 1947, dividing Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. But Harris also pointed out that while Israel accepted Res 181, “it was rejected by the Arab states and they went to war – and wars of aggression have consequences.” In the end, Harris said, the US has not “prejudged the ultimate disposition of Jerusalem as a whole… all we are saying is that Jerusalem will be home to the US Embassy in two years or so.”

President Trump also has a point in his critique of the Iran cuclear deal, Harris argued. “The Iran deal is a flawed deal… we bought time, but there are things missing.” He mentioned the sunset clause that allows Iran to “sprint” towards the wrong destination the day after the deal elapses. He also criticized the deal for not addressing Iran’s ballistic missile program, and more generally for saying nothing about Iran’s regional behavior, which “has only got worse in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain.” Harris said that the US had a strong hand to play against Iran and failed to play it deftly, while Iran played a weak hand brilliantly. “I would teach the Iranian negotiating strategy – not the US strategy – at Harvard Business School!”

But then Harris turned to a broader critique “where Trump doesn’t have a point – and the list is fairly long.” He said the AJC has long supported the liberal world order put in place by the US since World War II, which includes the launching of the UN, the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift, NATO, the IMF, the World Bank – “the basic rules and regulations of managing the world… without the US, none of that would have happened.” Under the current administration, Harris said, these basic rules are being devalued. “This frontal assault on the liberal international order to us is a catastrophe. It’s a catastrophe because it throws everything into flux and disarray. Our allies and our adversaries no longer can be sure of where we stand.” He said the attacks on NATO and the decision to pull out of the TPP trade pact in Asia were disastrous. “What has happened to American diplomacy? Where is it? Diplomacy is the first line of defense around the world. Our military of course backs our diplomacy but it should never be seen as a replacement or substitute for diplomacy.” Forty-five US embassies still have no ambassador, and 18 out of 23 Assistant Secretaries of State have not been replaced: “Our State Department, our ambassadors and their support staff are not just luxury items – they are essential.” He warned that the loss of senior personnel and the reluctance of young people to apply to join the State Department could “damage a generation” of American diplomacy. “The world needs the United States and the United States needs the world.”

Asked about the rising nationalism and xenophobia in Europe, Harris said, “We had a sneak preview of the Trump revolution in the Brexit vote.” He said there were two core issues – one economic and one cultural. “Trump and Sanders are similar in their analysis. They have different policies but they came pretty close in analysis.” People felt left behind in this economy, and “Donald Trump was able to tap into that anger, Brexiters were able to tap into that anger, of those left behind, neglected…. Hillary by contrast called them deplorables, which had a tone of condescension and contempt.”

Harris ended by calling for the US to take a broader view of its place in the world. “We are a nation in need of restoration, revitalization, yet we cannot agree on the time of the day....we play a zero sum game in which if I agree with you, I devalue myself. The nature of American democracy requires compromise. If we get America’s future wrong, it can’t be restored easily.”