US President Donald Trump told Jewish leaders that the US would not give aid to the Palestinians until they reach an agreement with Israel. He also said the Iranian regime had “lost their mojo” since he withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal, and was now fighting for its survival. In quitting the deal, he said, he had done “a great thing for Israel.” 

In a conference call with several dozen American Jewish leaders ahead of Rosh Hashanah, Trump noted that he had recently slashed immense amounts of US aid to the Palestinians — a reference to the administration’s recent cuts in overall aid to the Palestinian Authority and its complete defunding of the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA. The US would resume funding, he said, but only if the Palestinians reached a deal with Israel.

“What I will tell you is I stopped massive amounts of money that we were paying to the Palestinians and the Palestinian leaders,” Trump said to the Jewish leaders. “The United States was paying them tremendous amounts of money. And I say, ‘You’ll get money, but we’re not paying until you make a deal. If you don’t make a deal, we’re not paying.’”

“I don’t think it’s disrespectful at all” for US aid to be utilized as a bargaining chip, the president added. Rather, “I think it’s disrespectful when people don’t come to the table.”

Also in the call, the US president expressed confidence that an Israeli-Palestinian deal would be done. 

Asked by Prof. Alan Dershowitz: “Should the Jewish community be optimistic that you can help bring about a peaceful resolution of the conflict that we all pray for all the time?,” the president replied: “The answer to that is a very strong yes — you should be. It is, as I said before, really considered to be one of the toughest deals to make of any kind. I don’t kind what kind of a deal you’re talking about. If you look at Israel and the Palestinians, it’s always top of everybody’s list in terms of levels of difficulty.”

Trump also said that he had removed the first obstacle to a deal: Jerusalem — which Trump last December recognized as Israel’s capital and where in May he moved his embassy. Further ahead, Israel would have to do something for the Palestinians, he said, without specifying.

“The fact is that I took something off the table,” said Trump. “If you go back and look at your negotiations with the Palestinians over the years, the first thing was Jerusalem and moving the embassy to Jerusalem, thereby making it the capital. And I will tell you, we’ve taken that off the table.” 

He added: “Now, does that mean Israel is going to do something that will (inaudible) for the Palestinians? Yes. What is it going to be? I can’t tell you. But I can tell you that by doing what I did, Alan, we took the biggest bone of contention, a point that nobody ever got beyond for the second dilemma — for the second problem — they never got beyond it. We took it off the table. And I think it’s actually going to help a lot in making a deal, as we say, with the Palestinians.

“Now, most people think just the opposite. They said, “Oh, you did a mistake.” Well, I disagree. I disagree. So I think that we have a very good chance of doing it.”

US President’s daughter Ivanka Trump (L) and her husband Senior White House Adviser Jared Kushner are seen during the opening of the US Embassy, in Jerusalem, on May 14, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Menahem KAHANA)

On dealings with Iran, Trump said that when he came into office, the question was when Iran would take over the Middle East, probably including Israel. Now, however, since he withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal, he said, the Israelis were feeling more safe. He also said he believed the Iranians would be in touch soon about a new deal.

“From the day I did it [quit the 2015 deal], they’ve lost their mojo… The day before I took over as president, Iran — it was not a question of how big and how strong they were; it was a question of when will they take over the entire Middle East. And that probably includes Israel, in the mind of a lot of people,” he said.

“And if you look at them today, they’re not looking at the Mediterranean any longer,” said Trump. “They’re not looking at places that they were going to routinely take over. And I think Israel feels a lot safer than they’ve felt in many, many years.

“Iran is fighting for their own survival,” he went on. “They’ve got demonstrations in every city. This is far worse than it was years ago when President Obama could’ve maybe crushed Iran if all they needed was a positive statement — the people that were demonstrating. Well, these demonstrations are larger, but they’re more widespread. They’re all over the country. 

“So Iran is no longer the same country. I would imagine that they’ll be calling in the not-too-distant future to try and make a deal. If we can make a real deal, we’ll do it. If they don’t call, that’s okay too. Eventually, they’re going to have no choice…

“I can only say from the standpoint of Israel, what I did was a great thing for Israel. And what I did was also a very good thing for world peace, because everywhere we went — especially in the Middle East — where there was a problem, Iran stood behind that problem.”

In summation, said Trump, “I terminated the deal, like I said I would during the campaign. It turned out to have a much bigger impact than I thought. I did it primarily because of nuclear, but I knew it wouldn’t be great for their economy. I had no idea how devastating it would be… That is not the same country that was in existence when I took over as president of the United States.”

At the start of the call, which was hosted by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, Trump spoke of his own links to the Jewish people: “My connection to Judaism is also personal. I am the very proud father of a Jewish daughter, Ivanka, and my son-in-law, who I’m very proud of also — I will say that very loudly — Jared, and my several Jewish grandchildren, namely three beautiful Jewish grandchild that I love.”

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman at the US embassy, Jerusalem, May 30, 2018, posing ahead of a Times of Israel interview. (Matty Stern, US embassy Jerusalem)

US Ambassador David Friedman, who was also on the call, meanwhile, said that the US Embassy in Jerusalem would be double its current size by next summer.

“We have a beautiful campus. We have continuously operated our embassy since May 14th. We have about 150 people working there already. We’re beginning phase two of the construction period, which is beginning in a week or two. And we will roughly double the size by June of 2019. After that, we’ll consider what final steps to make to complete the transition,” said Friedman.

“We are looking for a site, and we have — we think we have that site located for the Ambassador’s Residence — something near and dear to my heart. And we’ll have further announcements on that.

“But I would tell you that the embassy in Jerusalem has become a major tourist site in Israel. People — I’m there almost every day, and people just pull up their cars to the front of the embassy, they get out, they take pictures,” said the ambassador. “I’ve seen some people praying there. I’ve actually seen many people crying there.”

Written by: TOI STAFF
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