David Schenker, who was Levant country director in the Office of the Secretary of Defense in the US administration in the period 2002-2006, under Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, returned to a senior administration position six months ago. He was appointed Assistant Secretary of Near Eastern Affairs in the US Department of State, which is responsible for US policy in eighteen countries, from North Africa to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Israel, and including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the Gulf states. His job includes promoting US economic interests, cultivating democratic values, and assessing US foreign aid in these places.
The interview with him took place about an hour before US President Donald Trump was due to reveal his peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians. At the time of the interview, the interviewee knew the details of the plan, while the interviewer did not. Schenker revealed no insider information, but on the other hand he was very keen to talk about the desire on the part of the US to stem the rising tide of Chinese power, particularly in relation to Chinese penetration of near-eastern countries.
Globes: What brought you to Israel?
Schenker: "I was invited to speak at a conference here, the thirteenth annual conference of the Institute for National Security Studies, and I planned to talk about China and the things that disturb us, the US administration, in various aspects of relations between Israel and China, in high-tech, telecommunications, and so on. My attendance at the conference was arranged five or six months ago, but now it coincides exactly with the release of the president's plan, and I don't know if there'll be much interest in China at the conference."
What disturbs you?
"We think that in certain sectors, such as technological development or development of telecommunications systems and countries that are considering launching fifth generation cell networks, there are aspects that put at risk national security, information security. Other things that concern us are in weapon sales, tech sales, cooperations. We think this gives China a leg-up and we have no interest in seeing China with advance information on Israeli inventions and innovations and those of other countries."
Will you give details of the technological developments or the names of Israeli companies that particularly disturb you, given what you say of the concern about advance information the Chinese have?
"No, I won't go into specifics. I won't give names of companies. One of the things we would encourage Israel to do is to develop a regime of rules in connection with security in terms of how they determine what kind of deals can be done with China and how these deals impact Israel's national security, while Israel takes into account the impact on the national security of its allies, including the United States."
How is this done in the US?
"The US has a general regime like this called CFIUS, which stands for the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US, which examines the impact on US national security of inward investment in the US by foreign countries. This means that large deals undergo some kind of check, a process that decides whether there are problems with the investment. In Israel, there are the beginnings of such a system, but it's preliminary, voluntary, and insufficient."
Do you refer for example to Chinese involvement and investment in Haifa Port?
"Haifa Port too, but not just the port. It's a concern for many, we did our homework on it. It raised questions in several parts of government, because of the Chinese manpower involved, the close proximity to naval vessels. This raised flags for some in the government. We're doing our homework, and we're getting reassured by the Israeli government on this."
We have heard in the past, and we have reported on this in "Globes", that getting the Chinese out of the port was a condition of the Trump administration for progress on a defense pact between the US and Israel.
"I don't want to talk about Haifa Port so much, but the security relationship between Israel and the US is amazing; it's deep, it's broad, it's entrenched, and it's very valuable for both countries.
"One of the few instances in which we have had serious differences in the past was over China. If you recall, I was then an adviser at the Pentagon. There were claims against Israel over sales to the Chinese (year 2000, the cancellation of the Phalcon AWACS deal, when Israel paid $350 million compensation to the Chinese - T.S.). In the Pentagon, people who were very pro-Israel, like Paul Wolfowitz, Doug Feith, Donald Rumsfeld, were so upset at what Israel was doing that, as you know, the then Israeli Ministry of Defense director general Amos Yaron, was declared persona non grata. That's not something that we want to repeat ever. I don't say that's the direction we're going in at the moment, but out of an over-abundance of caution and because of value we have for the relations between the two countries, we're dotting every i and crossing every t."
Is the Israeli side responsive to your demands?
"I think that the message has been delivered, and Israel has been responsive."
"Never a good time for a vision"
On the Palestinian question, if the assumption is that there is no Palestinian partner, that Mamoud Abbas is too old, lacks the capability, and that there is corruption in his environment, if all that is true, why is the US administration proceeding with publication of a plan and why does it want him to be part of it?
"There's never a good time to put forward a proposal and a vision. There is always something that is problematic, not opportune, not ripe. In the current administration, if we wait, we get into our election season as well, and we don't want it to be a distraction. There was a very small window of opportunity here, and I think that the administration very much wanted to put it on the table, and let the parties and our allies in the region examine the content for themselves."
But Trump told Israeli reporters in September 2018 at the UN General Assembly that the plan would be released with a month or two. Then you waited out of consideration for Netanyahu at the beginning of 2019 and after that you acted out of consideration for him again in the second election campaign, and now the administration comes out with it, this time because Netanyahu needs it after two losses. Many Israelis feel that this is more a question of political timing than the content of the plan itself.
"I don't think so. Some people said here were political considerations in the timing, but I just don't buy it. In the US, we don't want to do it right next to our election, so that it won't become a distraction. On the other hand, with three or four Israeli elections on the horizon, there will never be a good time. We waited for the party lists to be in, so that there would be less of an internal impact in Israel, but beyond that, it could have waited for ever."
You have met the candidate for prime minister, Benny Gantz. What did you think of him?
"I haven't met him recently. It was years ago, when he was a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Like many Israeli generals, Gantz is very impressive. As far as his meeting in the White House is concerned, before the plan was released, I think that both sides agreed to accept the plan and work with it, and the administration is waiting for the Palestinians to read the document before they reject it out of hand."
Have you any contact with the Palestinians these days?
"I'm in contact with Palestinian businesspeople. I have had meetings with them on previous visits. I won't mention names. I've met with a group of Palestinians from various sectors, and they maintain contact with the US administration. They keep it secret. Clearly they're frustrated with the Palestinian president, who is now sixteen years into his four year term. Clearly they would like a more democratic and representative administration. What I heard from them is that they want to capitalize on opportunities. They have criticisms of their own government and of the Israeli government for blocking opportunities. They have criticisms concerning visas for Palestinian businessmen and businessmen coming from other countries. As far as people in the Palestinian administration are concerned, it happens, but it's something we don't advertise. On the official level, the Palestinians have been hesitant for many years, but there are ties and contacts."
Russia's influence in the region is growing: goods and weapons pass from Russia to Syria, to the militias. On the one hand, Putin is given center stage here, at the ceremony at Yad Vashem, and on the other hand he controls weapons dispatches that can be used against us and arms our enemies.
"This dates back to the welcoming of Russia into Syria. The Obama administration believed it would be a quagmire for the Russians, and it turned out to be a reversal of 40 years of US policy of keeping the Russians out of the Middle East. I think it was a blunder by the Obama administration, because the Russians have not played a productive role in Syria. It was a serious mistake by the previous administration, letting the Russians station forces. They came in, and saved the Assad regime with forty fixed-wing aircraft but also with atrocities and slaughter of the Syrian people. The Russians played a key role in changing the course of the war. Now, the Assad regime is not on the ropes any more, they control parts of the country, while the Russians are making forays into other parts."
Schenker has plenty of work to do at the State Department. While relations with Israel are chiefly conducted from the White House (the National Security Council) and less so from the Department of State, current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is a very dominant figure in the administration. The interview with Schenker took place just before the US peace plan for the region was unveiled, and it was therefore not possible to obtain explanations from him about the wide gaps concerning publication of the plan between the White House (Jared Kushner), the Secretary of State (Pompeo), and US ambassador to Israel David Friedman.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on February 3, 2020
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