For the Jewish News February 15 2017
Malcolm Hoenlein’s business card must have words falling off the edges, given his title and the organisation he represents.
As executive vice-president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations, Hoenlein is arguably the world’s most powerful official Jew. He travels from the US three weeks out of every four, with a punishing schedule which would defeat many, and has unparalleled access to global leaders which depends heavily on Hoenlein’s mantra of never leaking the contents of his discussions. What happens with Hoenlein, usually, stays with Hoenlein.
Yet this Philadelphia-born Orthodox Jewish leader has plenty to say. The Conference of Presidents, as it is usually referred to, is an umbrella group of more than 50 US Jewish organisations, running the gamut of the political spectrum, so Hoenlein has to tread a delicate line in articulating policy.
“I have a rule”, Hoenlein drawls, “that I don’t deal with any [US] administration until they find out where the bathrooms are”. Thus his refusal to be over-drawn on what might be the relationship between US Jewry and the evidently volatile President Trump. It’s too soon, says Hoenlein, not all the appointments have been made and there is a need for the new White House to settle in.
“Clearly Trump is a very independent person, but we’ll see how he balances things”. He is sure that the new president cannot sustain the pace of executive orders with which he began his four year term in the White House, and counsels a “wait-and-see” response. “The test is in the real world, facing real world choices. We’ll have to see what is deliberate and what is the early White House trying to find its footing.”
As far as Trump’s much-vaunted pledge to move the American embassy to Jerusalem goes, Hoenlein has no doubts. “There should be no question about the principle of this. Everybody should recognise that this is correcting a historic wrong. But it has to be done correctly, and it has to be done smartly. You can’t just move an embassy, which has hundreds of people working for it, It’s a huge operation and it’s going to take time.”
He says this a lot, does Hoenlein, that an issue has to be dealt with “smartly”. It’s obvious, talking to him, that there is an unexpressed exasperation when either the American or the Israeli governments fail to do the smart or clever thing. Of a potential embassy move, he advises an initial approach to Arab governments and the Palestinian Authority. “Put down a marker, say this is something we’re doing, we expect you not to incite the population; and, on the other hand to reach out to other countries and say, why don’t you follow suit?”
He’s not yet ready to have a meeting with the new administration. “My interest is not in the show, it’s in the substance, and I want them to see us [the Conference of Presidents] as people of substance.” But top of his agenda, when the meeting does take place, is Iran — “not just the nuclear programme, but the other things, the violations of human rights, the missile tests…”
Hoenlein is keen to talk to President Trump “about what can be done and how we can build [links] with the dissidents of the Iranian regime.” He thinks it’s important for the US to speak to its allies in the region, “send them messages to give them confidence to stand up against Iran and tell them that we will be a reliable ally for them.” One Muslim leader, Hoenlein claims, “told me that by America’s actions [in the last administration] we were driving him into Putin’s arms. You can’t alienate people like that”.
The Arab world, he says, “is very open to confidence-building.” He believes that potential discussions to bring Israel into a Mediterranean alliance will have a good reception in the Arab world. Some Arab countries, he suggests, “are very critical of the Palestinian Authority, feel that it’s a kleptocracy, they are tired of just pouring money endlessly into the PA, recognise the incitement that they’ve engaged in”.
Hoenlein believes that Iran remains the central problem in the Middle East. “You solve Iran and Hizbollah won’t be Hizbollah, Hamas won’t be Hamas, the war in Yemen will come to a close… there are so many issues that are directly related to Iranian support, involvement, and the goals of its regime. But I don’t believe, and I would not give Iran credit for, being an existential danger to Israel. I do not believe that Iran could destroy Israel. Could they do damage? Absolutely. But don’t give Iran credit for what it doesn’t deserve, and empower it. I also believe very strongly in working with the young people in Iran. There are ways to support them and undermine the regime.”
He’s all for presenting a “crazy-slash-smart” perspective. “That is, crazy meaning thinking out of the box. If people don’t know what to expect, it puts us in a better position, you have leverage.”
When Hoenlein meets Arab leaders today, he says, the way they talk about Israel “is very different from a few years ago. Muslim leaders, not just Arab leaders — Asians, Africans. Israel is seen as a goldmine for them because of what it’s developed, from hydroponics, to hi-tech, to water self-sufficiency. And they look at the region and they see one little island of stability there. And they also see Israel as the one muscle that would stand up against Iran if it became necessary.”
He won’t say everything is wonderful “but more Israelis travel to these countries than people acknowledge. There are more interchanges than people know. The Arab leaders are concerned about the street, and decades of incitement and hatred will take a long time to root out. But things are changing. For example, President Sissi changed the textbooks, so that they now talk about the Egyptian-Israel peace treaty. That’s a big development, and not enough credit is given for that.”
Malcolm Hoenlein smiles. “Loose lips sink ships, and people have meetings with us [the Conference of Presidents] because they know we will never leak anything. That gives them confidence to trust us.” And that, as he would say, is playing it smart.