A New Order in the Middle East: Governor Huckabee Talks Trump

Exclusive interview with former Arkansas Governor, Mike Huckabee, on his support for Trump, the future of the Iran deal and whether the embassy will be moved to Jeursalem

המושל לשעבר מייק האקבי. Photo: Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0 via flickr

Did you know that Israel developed the cherry tomato? Did you know that Israel developed the seedless watermelon? Though I have been living in Israel for a decade and a half, I found myself being educated about some of the innovations Israel has brought to the world by former Arkansas governor, Mike Huckabee.  Huckabee, a Republican, served as Arkansas governor from 1996-2007, and ran for President in 2008 and 2016. Between 2008-2015, he hosted a number one rated weekend show on Fox called ‘Huckabee’.

Governor Huckabee first traveled to Israel after the Yom Kippur War and has since visited many times, either leading groups or as part of a mission to Israel.  He is well known for his defense and advocacy for Israel — especially of Judea and Samaria — on Fox and other media outlets. He became an early supporter of Donald Trump after dropping out of the Presidential race in February 2016, and his daughter worked for the Trump campaign.

Throughout the campaign, Huckabee was an informal adviser to Trump.  Speaking at a Knesset symposium, Huckabee said that he told Trump to ‘go big and go bold’ and not to let the quagmire of Washington DC drag him down into inaction. Huckabee was offered a position in the Trump cabinet. When I asked why he turned down the offer, he responded “I am happy in the private sector”.

I accompanied Governor Huckabee to Hebron and Sderot on a mission led by Dr. Joe Frager and Dr. Paul Brody. Though he has been in the limelight for many years, there are no pretenses with the Governor. We talked about an array of issues from the Middle East to Donald Trump’s personality. I even got tips on how to work with Congress.

Obama and Netanyahu

 You have harshly criticized the UN resolution 2334. However, many in the media, on the Israeli left and even some in America, are blaming Netanyahu for the fact that this resolution passed. They criticize the way he has handled his relationship with President Obama, and say that he brought this resolution on Israel due to his behavior and policies. Is Netanyahu to blame?

“It’s absolutely not Netanyahu’s fault. Number one, his coming to speak to Congress was an important moment that gave him the chance to articulate why Israel was so opposed to a deal with Iran. Congress, at least Republicans in Congress, were overwhelmingly opposed to such a deal. And many Democrats were too but they didn’t have the guts to stand up against Obama and say so, but they knew it was wrong and that it was foolish.

Secondly, people need to remember that the American system of government is that we have three equal branches, the president certainly has charge of foreign policy, but as far as Congress having no right to invite whoever they want to speak is nonsense, because they are an equal power within the American framework of government.

It’s also important to note that Obama, from the very beginning, starting from his Cairo speech, made it very clear that one of his big goals was to accommodate the Muslim point of view and he has shown an outward hostility toward Israel. I know how many times he has said ‘Israel has no better friend’ and ‘I’ve got your back,’  but all of his words say one thing but his actions say something differently.

The animosity that he has shown toward Israel, in things, not only like the Iranian deal, but putting so much more focus on demanding that Israel freeze any new neighborhoods and communities in Judea and Samaria, far more pressure than he has put on Palestinians to quit stabbing people, throwing rocks, naming streets after terrorists, and paying terrorists a salary if they kill a Jew.  Obama has never made a speech about that or about the education system under the PA that teaches kids to hate Jews and one day maybe kill some. Nor has he ever challenged the PA for not putting Israel on the maps they publish!

Start there, and then go to the personal vendetta that he had against Netanyahu, more than Netanyahu had against him.  Obama and his people got heavily involved in the attempt to defeat Netanyahu in the previous elections. I find it real interesting that Obama and so many people are ‘tearing their garments’ over the possible Russian involvement in an American election but it never occurred to them that their involvement in an Israeli election was more egregious because we don’t know for sure the Russians were involved, certainly they didn’t have any impact on the outcome, but we know darn sure that Obama and his minions were heavily involved to the tune of millions and millions of dollars that they invested to defeat Netanyahu. The hypocrisy is stunning.”

Donald Trump Plays Chess

Governor, not long after you dropped out the race you began supporting Donald Trump.  You mentioned at a debate that all the Republican candidates were qualified; they were the “A” list. What were the reasons that led you to support Trump specifically?

“I thought that 2016 would be an election year of solutions, and people wanted a governor, somebody not connected to Washington, somebody who had had successful experience of having governed in a tough environment and would be able to deal with that, obviously I was quite wrong. It became obvious to me that we were in a disruptive election cycle and that people were not interested in solutions. I found out on the campaign trail that people weren’t angry; they were in a seething rage.  Nobody said we want a solution, what they said was we want you to go to burn the place down, they were that angry.”

It was the grenade that Michael Moore talked about?

“Yes. Michael Moore was right when he talked about that, and he thought Trump would win, not that he wanted him to.

The workers were so disaffected.  These were people who have lost their incomes, pensions, health insurance, the future of their livelihood.  Their wages have been stagnant for years and they see everything they have worked hard for disappearing and nobody gives a darn up there.  This election was a bloodless coup d’état. I could see that happening and I wanted to lead that revolution, but I really thought that it was being led from the idea that we could do better and not just burn it down.

In my speeches from 2008, I was talking about the plight of the worker and how the middle class has taken the gut punch. I was saying then what Donald Trump ended up saying in 2016, but with more depth. But the people selected somebody else and I understand that. But because it was going to be a disruptive election, I knew we needed a disruptive leader who was not connected to the establishment and who was not obligated to the donor class, and that was very important the fact that Donald Trump was not obligated to a bunch of donors who were ultimately going to control him.”

Many people who have met Donald Trump claim that he is very different in a private setting as opposed to a public setting, can you explain the difference?

“Donald Trump is like a lot of people who understand the role he plays. I think he sees it that way. When he goes on the stage he has a very different job than when he is sitting in his office negotiating a deal or interviewing somebody for a particular position, and he knows how to play both roles very well. It’s not unlike many actors I have known over the years who are very quiet, bashful people, and when you are around them you are stunned by how quiet and timid they are. Hand them a script and then you say ‘who is this guy’. It’s because they know that’s their job, but that’s not necessarily who they are. They play a role, but that is not necessarily what they are off stage.

I don’t mean to say that Donald Trump is not a sincere person; he is absolutely sincere and says what he believes.  Trump is the kind of person who knows how to maximize his presence in whatever setting he is.  But he is a very thoughtful person and he is far more reflective in a personal conversation. He is a very serious listener, and not a guy who sits there and says ‘yeah, ah hah, ok.’  He listens, asks questions, penetrates with his questions and he is absorbing it all. He is a very smart guy, very shrewd.

Also, Trump is not uninformed. He may speak in very simple terms because he is speaking to the common denominator of people who don’t have PHDs. The press never understood this about him, they thought he was shallow. He wasn’t. He was smarter than they were. They were talking in ways nobody understood, he talked in ways that the guy that carried a lunch box to work totally understood. Can he speak more intellectually? Yeah, but why would he? His point is not to impress the academics; it’s to move the masses.

He is a very brilliant man, he is shrewd and he understands the big picture of what he is doing. I would also say this, when other people are playing checkers, he is playing chess. That is another thing he was totally underestimated for.”

President elect Donald J. Trump. Photo: Matt Johnson CC BY-NC 2.0 via flickr

A New US-Israel Policy

Throughout the campaign, Trump attacked the Bush and Obama foreign policy in the Middle East.  It can be summed up by the sentence: “We have spent 6 trillion, what do we have to show for it”. How will Trump’s foreign policy in the Middle East, on the one hand be one that leads, and on the other hand be one that doesn’t become entangled like his predecessors? 

“I think it’s a matter of being more strategic in what you are going to do.  One of the good things that happened was the appointment of General Mattis as Defense Secretary. Mattis is someone who is going to be the last one to start a war, but if he gets in one, he will be the guy that finishes it. I think that is an important worldview, because frankly we have been driven more by the industry of war than by the objective war. That is a harsh evaluation of American policy, but it was something that President Eisenhower warned in his farewell speech when he talked about the military-industrial complex. It was significant because he was the supreme allied commander, a five star general, before he served as President. He understood what was happening, that it’s not that the military strategy drives the defense contractors, the defense contractors drives military strategy, that is a dangerous thing, and he warned us and we paid no attention.

Vietnam was largely a morass because we really did not go into the war with an idea of saying here is the objective lets go in overwhelmingly and quickly win and get out. I’m not saying that the intent was to drag the war on to accommodate the military industry, but frankly that is what happened because of the extraordinary complexity of pressure that happens in the political world where people are pressured to make decisions.

Iraq and Afghanistan have been such a mess, because rather than clearly identifying the objective, accomplishing it and being done with it, we said we are going to topple Saddam Hussein, now what do we do? So we kept the military over there because there are so many contractors there that are making so much money, and they can’t just pull out because a lot of people are out of work, we’ll let’s rebuild the country, let’s turn our soldiers into social workers, it has been a disaster because of that.

This is what Trump needs to do: If ISIS is the target, go after ISIS. ISIS not a government, and thus you aren’t going to fight them in a conventional war. You are going to have to fight them using a combination of intelligence and surgical strikes. One thing I have never understood is why the US didn’t completely disable their ability to use social media, which has been their primary tool to recruit, train, give instructions for attacks. Social media, with all of its possibilities, is a great form of communications, but it’s like fire which it can either be used to cook my food or burn my house down.”

Iran, the Evil Empire

Trump has pledged to do something about the Iran deal, renegotiate or cancel it.  This seems to be another way of becoming entangled in the Middle East.

“I think Trump needs to destroy the agreement. There is nothing to renegotiate because these people can’t be trusted. You can negotiate with people who have honor, keep their word and keep their commitments. Anybody who believes that the Iranians intend to keep the agreement is incredibly naïve and in denial of reality.

I have heard the pushback saying that nations have lifted all these sanctions you will never get them to impose them again. First, I don’t believe it. Second, I don’t care. The EU can keep on doing business with Iran, I think they are stupid if they do, and I think it will come back to bite them in the butt. But the US needs to be a principled nation when dealing with the largest sponsor of terrorism in the world and we need to make it very clear that we are not doing business with you, you are thugs and murderers. If you do something that is helpful to us we will be grateful, we aren’t trying to run your business, but if there is an uprising, we will encourage it because you are an evil government.”

As Ronald Reagan did with the Soviet Union?

“No one wanted Reagan to say ‘Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall,’ it was taken out of the speech about six time by his speechwriters and the State Department and every time they took it out he put it back in, and in the final draft that they gave him it was not in there and he put it back in handwritten. It became one of the greatest iconic moments of the 20th century, and one of the most impactful statement of his presidency and probably the turning point of the entire cold war.

What made him successful was he saw things in black and white not in shades of grey. Politicians, unfortunately, tend to see things in shades of grey, (with) some things there are no shades, it is black and white. For me there are many Middle East issues that are black and white, especially the Israelis and Palestinians and the two state solution.  At some point you have to draw some lines and I think Reagan drew a line. With Iran you have to draw a line. It doesn’t mean we attack them, unless they threaten us and then we act. We can’t be the policeman of the world and go to every country that is oppressing people and try to fix it.  Americans don’t want to involve themselves in every injustice in the world, because it is not our neighborhood and we have to patrol our neighborhood before we patrol others. I’m in agreement with that, but it is sad, it means a lot of people die, and get hurt, but part of it is because they have chosen governments and religions that lead to that, we can’t fix that.”

Enhancing Cooperation With Israel

Trump strongly supports Israel and it seems like he will back up his words with actions. What is the source of his support for Israel? 

“I think it is a combination of things. Historically, Trump has employed a disproportionate number of Jewish people in his business. Here is a person who has been surrounded throughout his whole business life with Jews, so it is not like he is unfamiliar both on a business level and on a personal level with Israel. Secondly, huge influence from his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and he is mindful the fact that his own daughter, who is his favorite child, has converted to Judaism.

There is also a perspective that Trump has. Trump has enough capacity to see that the issues relating to Israel are pretty clear cut.  Here you have a nation with every right to be here, a people who have been chased all over the world. This is not only their haven, it is their homeland and has been for almost 4,000 years. It is imperative that they have the ability to have a safe and secure homeland for their children. They have also been our closest ally, the only free society between Africa and Asia, the only democracy where they elect their own government, criticize their own government, and boy do they ever. I often say to Americans who have never been to Israel, if you think our politics is a bloodsport and that our criticism of the government is a way of life, just go to Israel, we are amateurs.

A person in Israel is able to say whatever they want to say about the government and Prime Minister, they won’t be shot and won’t be put in prison because of what they said.  Try that in Tehran, or Riyadh, give it a shot in Baghdad, tell me how that works out for you, see whether you come out alive. That is what happens in a totalitarian society and that is why I’m angry that Americans do not appreciate not only that Israel is our ally and our friend, but they are the one country that most mirrors who we are, a shared value system, a shared understanding of the role and limitations of government, and most parts of Africa and Asia have no concept of that all.”

A US President may support Israel, but oftentimes, it is the Muslim countries in the Middle East which complicate this support.  President Bush, Jr became more involved in the Middle East due to pressure from the Saudis. Do you think President Trump will stay his course on Israel, or possibly change his policy due to pressure from Muslim countries?

“I hope it won’t happen to Trump. Let’s remember that Bush senior and junior were unduly influenced by the Saudis, the relationship was too close. We have allowed ourselves to be almost manipulated by the Saudis. And for what? Because they provided so much oil and therefore we were at their mercy? We have more oil than they do. One of the reasons that I want to see America finally decide to drill the heck out of our own soil is because I would love to tell them to go pound sand, and to tell them we don’t need your energy. We shouldn’t be held hostage to a government that helped finance 9/11, and I know that is a harsh statement, but they have been supporting, in an undercover way, activities that are not helpful to US for many years. It was their madrasahs that taught a lot of terrorists to hate the west. For us to go around and pretend they are our pals, or our friends, who are we kidding!

In a big picture perspective the Saudis, and the same goes for the governments of Jordan and Egypt, don’t want Israel to fall, maybe 15-20 ago they would say ‘let’s get Israel’ — not anymore, because their worry is not that Israel is ever going to attack them, they are not, and they know that. But they know this: that radical Islam could topple the house of Saud, and all that they have created in their wonderful kingdom which made them billionaires could go crumbling under the hands of radicals, they have watched it across Middle Eastern capitals, and they have seen what happens when the radicals take hold.”

So you don’t think that any of these nations will have an influence over Donald Trump?

“I think he is playing on a different level, I hope so. I think he tends to see things more black and white, like most businessman do, he sees a deal from a standpoint of it is good or bad, either you walk away or you make it. I don’t know if the new Secretary of State sees things in that kind of stark reality or if he is a person who will make accommodations to all these countries, I hope not, I hope he sees it more clearly, but I don’t know.”

But you do think that Trump will follow up on his commitments to move the embassy to Jerusalem and allow for building in Judea and Samaria?

“I’ll be shocked and extraordinarily disappointed if he doesn’t, and I will say it in public, but I really believe he is going to do it. I think he is going to do it because he knows it is the right thing to do and he is surrounded by people who will encourage him that it is the right thing to do. I also think he knows that doing it and doing it quickly resets the entirely table in the Middle East and specifically resets the relationship between the US and Israel which he knows has been strained under Obama.”

Governor Huckabee visits Hebron, Israel. Photo: Itzik Nissim

General Mattis and Israel

General Mattis has made comments about Israel saying that the US pays a price for its support of Israel, and Israel could potentially become an apartheid state. Were you troubled by the statements, and how will Mattis’ outlook affect Trump’s policy towards Judea and Samaria?

“He may get that counsel from Mattis, but historically the Defense Secretary has much less to do with foreign policy than he does with military policy. I think Trump will be more influenced by his palace guard and the Secretary of State than he will be by the Defense Secretary when it comes to this. Those comments were disturbing to me because I have great respect for him as a military person.

I don’t know how intimately he has been involved in Israel, or seen the situation first hand. Most people I talk to intuitively say they think the two state solution is the way to go, since it has been talked about at such great Iength, it’s like conventional wisdom, even if it is nonsense, it doesn’t matter, people just assume it must be right. Do people really understand what the two state solution is? Most people don’t.

I say let me explain what this would mean, there is the division of Jerusalem, narrowing even more the tiny little space Israel occupies, moving enemies closer, when you begin to explain what the Palestinians really believe about Israel, if you explain how many times Israel put specific concrete peace proposals on the table and the Palestinians walked away, most notably in 2000 when Ehud Barak basically gave away 95% of Judea and Samaria, which was a suicide pact, thank god Arafat walked away.

In America we tend not to think about things in proximity, and we have this huge piece of real estate and it’s hard for people to get their arms around how tiny Israel is until they get here and actually see it.  This is one of the reasons I keep on bringing people here. Their perspective changes when we take them to the Golan Heights and they stand in the Syrian bunker and I say to them ‘what if your children were playing down there and you have people up here with sniper rifles would you be okay with that? I don’t think so.’ If you want to give it up, you have to explain to me why you would be so stupid.”

What advice would you give Israeli politicians as how to influence General Mattis as to his opinions on Judea and Samaria?

“Spend time with him, invite him to come and view firsthand what they are doing, especially if he is not familiar with IDF strategy and what they are up against. I feel certain Mattis is, you couldn’t get to his level and not have some idea. But he needs exposure not only to military people but also to people like Dore Gold, he needs to truly get to know the deep thinkers of Israeli thought and strategy. I would recommend that Mattis get together with true policy thinkers because Mattis is an intellectual and he likes that repartee. I think that would be incredibly value to him, and he would get a perspective, people like Dore Gold who is as intellectually astute as anybody Mattis has ever spoke to, and is able to communicate in such plain language and perfect English.”

One the subject of joint cooperation, you have been to Israel so many times and seen up close the advancements that have been made in so many fields, and you know America well, what more can be done to create more cooperation that is not being done now?

“I don’t know all the things that are being done. I think there are specific areas where there is an incredible opportunity for great levels of cooperation. One area is advanced technology that Israel has developed, not only in communications technology, but the miniaturization of robotic technology that has been created largely out of necessity.  Many things that Israel has done have been done because it was a matter of survival. Yet, because of that, they have created unbelievable innovations, some of those would be very helpful to the US.

Some other areas would be intelligence gathering, biometrics, and agriculture. The Israelis are nothing short of genius when it comes to the science of hydrology. When I was Governor of Arkansas, I brought an Israeli hydrologist to Arkansas. We were largely an agricultural state and rice is one of our big crops; we are the largest rice producer in the US. Rice is a very water intensive agricultural product, and we were concerned in the long term effect of draining our aquifers to irrigate rice fields. I brought him over, he was very helpful.

Israel is on the cutting edge of desalinization and there are many places, California is one of them, that are in desperate need of water.  The San Joaquin valley in California is drying up, largely because of idiotic government regulations, Israel could help there.

Another field is anti-terrorism. Clearly Israel is target one for terrorist activity. I always believed when Iran would say that Israel is the little Satan but America is the great Satan that people need to take that very literally and understand that Israel is the appetizer but the US is the entrée, that whatever is done to Israel, we are next, and if we don’t understand that then we are stupid.”

The Democratic Party Shifts Left

Israel has always tried to keep support for it bi-partisan, but it seems that while the Republican Party moves closer to Israel, the Democratic Party is drifting from Israel. Can Israel keep the relationship bi-partisan?

“The world needs to recognize that in the US, the old Democratic party is gone, there used to be hawk Democrats, there aren’t any, there used to be conservative Democrats, there aren’t any, they were called the southern Boll weevils, they don’t exist, they are literally all gone.

People have to understand that the Democratic Party in America has moved not only further to the left but in doing so has embraced the agenda of the left, which is a pro-Palestinian and in a large sense pro-Muslim view. The fact they are about to choose a Muslim as the Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairman is remarkable; how tone deaf can you be to think that Keith Ellison should be the head of the DNC, I hope they do it, it’s a godsend to the Republicans.

The direction of the Democratic Party is changing, you still have some people who are pro-Israel, but they are also like most politicians – they react to their donors.  One thing people don’t understand is that in America a lot of the Jewish community is ethnically Jewish, but not observant. They are Jewish in the same way as a Christian in America who has never gone to church, and I think there are people who are ethnically Jewish, but they are not religiously Jewish and their Judaism is not something that they embrace religiously, they do it more as an ancestral connection, because of that they are Democrats and liberal first and Jews second. They are capital “D” Democrats.”

One of the mission’s participants whispered to me during our tours, that she was so impressed with the Governor, because he is always giving interviews, speeches, and he hasn’t repeated himself once.

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