In an interview with JNS, the former secretary of state chides Biden for policies on Israel, calls the FBI probe of Shireen Abu Akleh’s death “political” and says Netanyahu has the right to choose his cabinet ministers “full stop.”
(JNS) Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo oversaw the foreign policy of the most pro-Israel administration in American history. His policy, which came to be known as the Pompeo Doctrine, reversed long-standing American wisdom that Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria were illegal.
Pompeo, an Iran hawk, was also a champion of President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure campaign” of sanctions on Tehran.
This weekend, Pompeo took to the stage of the Republican Jewish Coalition Leadership Meetings in Las Vegas, among a number of high-profile Republicans thought to be potential challengers to Trump in 2024. Before addressing the crowd on Saturday evening, he sat down with JNS CEO and Jerusalem Bureau Chief Alex Traiman for an extended conversation.
JNS: Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for being with us. Obviously, here in America, a lot of Republicans were hoping that there would be a red wave or a red tsunami. We didn’t get one in the United States. But in Israel, we did get a red tsunami and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is returning to power, and it looks like he’s going to form a stable, right-wing coalition. Tell me what that means, not just for Israel, but also for the United States and the entire world.
A: Well, the Israeli people made this choice. And I think it will be great for them. To your point, we worked closely with Prime Minister Netanyahu during the Trump administration’s time. Israel was an amazing partner and friend to the United States. I think we were great partners and friends to Israel as well. But you’re right, it was unstable. We had multiple elections [in Israel] during those years. And now, he has a coalition that is stable and conservative, and I think that will be great for the people of Israel. It’s also good for Arab nations and good for America. This will present a pillar inside of Israel that can push back against the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism in Iran. And that’s good for all of us, not just the people of Israel. And I always think, too, about the next generation of Iranians who want to live outside of being under the jack thug boot of the ayatollah [Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei] and [Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi], and having Prime Minister Netanyahu clearly articulating his vision for the nation of Israel and for peace and stability in the Middle East is a good thing for those people in Tehran as well.
Q: Well, speaking about Iran, obviously, the foreign policy priority of the Biden administration has been to reenter into the Iran nuclear deal. Looking at the protests that are taking place now inside Iran, what do you think the U.S. policy should be? Should it be to take out the regime in Iran?
A: It’s been crazy to watch as the Biden administration tried to give the Iranians the money to continue their terror regime, to build out their missile systems—not just the nuclear program, not just enrichment, but their missile systems, their delivery capabilities, everything that goes around having a full-on weapons program, the Biden ministration has tried to give them a pathway to. That’s not good for the Iranian people. It is terrible for the nation of Israel. I’m glad to see that it hasn’t happened. But not because of the administration. But because the ayatollah has chosen not to reenter what would be a fantastic deal for them.
But sadly, we’ve already begun to ease the enforcement of sanctions. You can either lift the sanctions or not enforce them—it has the same effect. The regime and its economy will grow at 6-8% this year, and that’s devastatingly dangerous. The Biden administration’s policy of trying to counterbalance the Sunni Arabs is a mistake. What the United States should be focused on is creating friendships between the Arab states and Israel, much like we did with the Abraham Accords, isolating the Iranian regime. They’re the bad actors there. They foster instability in the region. And I pray that those protests inside of Iran today are sufficiently deep, sufficiently diversified—regionally, ethnically, socioeconomically. And I hope that the Biden administration will encourage them so they can have the leadership that they want.
Q: You mentioned the Abraham Accords. And they were probably one of the crowning achievements of the previous administration, in terms of forging normalization agreements with four Muslim-majority nations [with Israel]. We’ve seen the momentum slow on the Abraham Accords and members of the previous administration and also the Netanyahu administration say that had the two been in office, potentially five or more additional countries could have joined into such normalization agreements. Why do you think the momentum has slowed? And what would it take to get it back on track?
A: I am praying that the momentum continues and that the nations that have signed normalization agreements will continue to increase their diplomatic ties, their economic ties, their military and intelligence relationships as well. I hope those will continue to strengthen. It takes great leaders to get a Muslim-majority nation to recognize Israel’s right to exist. It takes a great leader in the country that makes the agreement. It takes a great leader in Israel. And it takes an America that is prepared to back and support that and be functionally part of helping them get to the right place. And we didn’t have that in Israel. And we don’t have that in the United States today. And so I think that’s why we’ve not seen more countries join. The model that we had was the right one.
We want a better life for people everywhere, including those living in the West Bank. But we’re not prepared to have one conversation with a Palestinian leader who continues to kill people in Israel and pay the [families] of those who die killing them. We’re not going to work with terrorists. We’re not going to underwrite UNRWA and allow that money to go to Hamas and to Hezbollah. When you fuel those things, you deny Muslim-majority nations the opportunity to do the right thing and recognize Israel’s right to exist. And so it’s pretty straightforward how to get it back. I don’t do timing, so I don’t know when that day will come. But I am confident that an increasing number of nations will recognize Israel’s right to exist. And the connectivity between those countries and Israel will grow as well.
Q: You mentioned the West Bank. In Israel, we know it as Judea and Samaria, the biblical provinces. One of the strongest policy decisions that you made as secretary of state is actually now named after you, called the Pompeo Doctrine. It was to reverse the controversial Hansell Memo [a 1978 memo by State Department legal adviser Herbert Hansell], which called Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria a flagrant violation of international law. Current U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides just actually broke a boycott that he had installed against visiting Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria. He went to go visit a shivah—a mourning home of someone who was just murdered in a terror attack. Do you think that that policy of trying to avoid Jewish settlements is productive? Why did you reverse the Hansell Memo? And what do you think that reversing that memo can do for the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
A: I spent a lot of time in Judea and Samaria, not only when I was the secretary of state—I was the first secretary of state to actually visit there. I’ve been there on multiple occasions since. I had a chance to actually get to Hebron the other day. I had never been there before and got to stand between the tombs of Abraham and Sarah. There’s nothing more emotional and nothing more historical, both at the same time, right? You stand there and you cannot possibly deny that this has been the Jewish homeland for 3,000 years. I say that because I think that answers the question. I think that gets to what the right policy is.
The reason I undid what Hansell had done was because it is the case that Israel is not an occupying nation. It is not apartheid that is taking place there. Not every Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria is unlawful. That was essentially the statement that we made. These are basic truths. And so one of the hallmarks of my time as secretary of state was to try and recognize reality. And that truth was important. I had to fight the State Department legal team for an awfully long time. But we ultimately got to the right place. And [former U.S.] Ambassador [to Israel David] Friedman and I both deeply believed that this was the right policy for the United States of America. And to watch the Biden administration undo it, talking about potentially reestablishing a consulate in Jerusalem [for the Palestinians], it’s heartbreaking, because it fails to recognize the reality that is so important.
Q: The FBI recently announced that it was going to open an investigation into the killing of the journalist Shireen Abu Abu Akleh, who was killed during a firefight between the Israel Defense Forces and terrorists in Jenin. Tell me, why do you think the FBI would want such an investigation? Do you think that’s productive?
A: It seems political to me. I don’t know what the decision-making process was. But it’s not like the American government hasn’t already been engaged in evaluating this and the Israelis haven’t been transparent with respect to it. As best I can tell, they have. The departments of Defense and State both have issued reports or statements saying, this is essentially what happened, that we know those answers. I can’t account for it. They’ve done some of the same kinds of things, undoing the policy we had with respect to the ICC [International Criminal Court].
There is an anti-Zionist bias that is very deep inside of the administration, in a way that is unproductive not only for Israel but very unproductive for the United States of America. And in the end, we always put America first, right? We thought about how to deliver good outcomes for the American people, and recognizing Israel and its partnership with the United States was incredibly important to the people of our country. And to watch the Biden administration now say we’re going to have the Department of Justice investigate someone who was trying to protect the Jewish homeland reeks of a political prosecution. And I hope that if the investigation has begun, they will end it quickly or they will make a different decision.
Q: It seems like there’s also a lot of political pressure on incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to be careful about whom he selects as ministers in his government, particularly for the public security ministry, which may go to firebrand Itamar Ben-Gvir, as well as the defense ministry. Should the United States be playing a role in trying to determine whom Israel selects as ministers in the cabinet?
A: The people of Israel elected the prime minister, and it is a prime minister’s decision whom he selects for his cabinet. Full stop. I’m not sure what else to say. And it makes no sense to me that we try to pressure them on cabinet selections. It doesn’t surprise me that he’s feeling some pressure. But it seems inconsistent with our idea that he’s the prime minister. He’s the leader of the nation, along with the president, who’s the head of state. Those are the people that are responsible for making decisions inside of the country.
Q: One of the underlying storylines of the Russia-Ukraine conflict has been what will Israel’s position be vis-à-vis Ukraine. Will Israel send weapons to Ukraine? Why do you think that the media and the international community are so concerned about what position Israel takes, and what position do you think Israel should take?
A: No one should take a position that supports what Vladimir Putin has done. No country should. And Israel has not done that. Every nation should support the right of the Ukrainian people to defend their own sovereignty. I’m glad that the United States is doing an awful lot to support that. I support what the Biden administration has done. I frankly wish they had done it better and delivered it more effectively. I don’t know why the media picks it up. I don’t know why the United Nations behaves so badly with respect to Israel. I think there is at the United Nations a deep antisemitic bias. I don’t know if that’s true of the media in the same way. But it seems like more of a story than it is in reality. I think the Israelis have made pretty clear they understand human dignity, they understand minority rights. There’s no other nation inside of the Middle East where people of every faith can practice their own religion. I think Israelis look at Ukraine and see a nation that is much like that, fighting for the freedom and sovereignty of the country. And I’m confident that the Israelis support the Ukrainians’ effort to defend themselves.
Q: You mentioned the United Nations. There’s recently been a permanent Commission of Inquiry opened, led by Navi Pillay, into potential Israeli war crimes or human rights violations against Palestinians. As secretary of state, what kind of leverage would the United States have in order to counteract such an open-ended commission?
A: Not infinite, but a lot. They can actually have a real impact? I doubt the Biden administration will do that. We’ve watched both at the U.N. Human Rights Council, in the special rapporteur’s office, and in the U.N. more broadly, more resolutions condemning Israel than the rest of the world combined. That is anti-factual. That’s not based on reality. The United States ought to do its part to make sure that the United Nations doesn’t continue to head down that path. Among the reasons we ultimately left the Human Rights Council is it became hopelessly inconsistent with actual honest-to-G-d human rights.
Q: We’re here at the Republican Jewish Coalition. And there’s a number of high-ranking individuals here that may put their hats into the ring to run for the presidency in 2024—many of them worked together previously as teammates in the previous administration. Are you thinking about running for the presidency in 2024? And would you consider another role in a future administration, including potentially secretary of state?
A: It’s encouraging. We’ve got lots of good conservative talent, lots of conservatives who believe deeply in the Zionist project and in the fair policies that the Trump administration put in place. So that’s encouraging, and it’s great to be here at RJC to be part of that. The Pompeos are trying to figure their way through, to figure out if we’re going to actually go into the political campaign. We’ll make the decision sometime in the spring of next year. But you can be sure that the issues that I’ve worked on for 30 years now, and the issues that I worked on building the relationship with the United States and Israel, I’ll never walk away from. I don’t know if it’ll be in elected office. I don’t know if I’ll put myself forward in that role yet. Only G-d knows.