Why did Trump keep Obama’s senior Israel adviser? Depends who you’re asking
Barak Ravid, Amir Tibon, Haaretz, Mar 24 2017
She’s a leader in the war against Israel! She’s pro-Palestinian! She’s poisoning the atmosphere! She’s a radical leftist! These are just some of the epithets currently appearing on blogs and websites in Israel and Pindostan identified with the conservative right and the settler lobby. The target of these attacks, which began during negotiations between the White House and the PMO on reining in settlement construction, is a relatively unknown 43-year-old Pindosi diplomat called Yael Lempert, who held the Israel portfolio on the NSC during Obama’s last two years as president. After 20 years’ service including the embassies in Baghdad and Cair, and the consulate in Jerusalem, her flagship project, in addition to her work on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, was to head negotiations between the Netanyahu government and Obama administration over the military aid package. The deal for $38b over 10 years was the biggest Pindostan ever signed with any country. In the days after Donald Trump’s election last November, Lempert began clearing her desk ahead of a planned return to her old workplace in the State Dept. However, one of Trump’s advisers asked her to stay on for the transition and assembling of the new team. Days turned into weeks, and Lempert eventually discovered that, after the vast majority of her colleagues in the NSCl building had left, she was the sole survivor of the changing of the guard at the White House. Officials in the PMO also noticed. Some of Netanyahu’s advisers who participated in the preparatory talks in Faschingstei, prior to the premier’s visit to the White House in February, were surprised to find Lempert attending some of the meetings. Lempert also had a place at the table at the mid-February meeting between Netanyahu and Pindo VP Pence. The suspicions in the PMO concerning anyone who had been within a five-mile radius of Pres Obama began working overtime. A few weeks ago, senior officials in the Trump administration asked Lempert to remain at her post and help with advancing one of the new president’s main foreign policy goals: achieving “the ultimate deal” between Israel and the Palestinians. Lempert agreed and a few days later found herself on a plane with the president’s envoy Jason Greenblatt, en route for another Pindosi attempt to broker a historic peace deal in the Middle East. A senior official in the Trump administration said:
Lempert is an experienced and skilled diplomat. She was asked by the Obama administration to come work at the White House because she is a professional, and she was asked by the Trump administration to stay at the White House because she is a professional. The Trump team asked most of the staffers from the Obama White House to leave, but they asked her to stay. This tells you they appreciate her knowledge and experience.
Lempert did not participate in all of Greenblatt’s meetings during their visit to Israel last week. Netanyahu’s conversations with him took place mostly in private. Still, Lempert played a central role in selecting the people Greenblatt met in Jerusalem and Ramallah, and in putting together the positions he presented to the Israelis and Palestinians. A senior minister in the security cabinet told Haaretz:
Lempert’s presence during Greenblatt’s visit, and her involvement in talks between the White House and PMO, are a concern for them. The feeling I got was that the PMO would rather distance her.
Coincidentally or not, websites identified with the right in Israel and Pindostan started writing articles condemning Lempert during and especially after Greenblatt’s visit. For example, writing in Makor Rishon, which is religious Zionist & pro-settler, Ariel Kahana wrote that official Israeli sources were increasing the level of criticism toward Lempert. He said they claimed she was “poisoning the atmosphere” and constituting a negative influence on Greenblatt. His article also claimed that Lempert tried to prevent a meeting between Greenblatt and two settlement council heads, which only took place in the wake of pressure by the PMO. A few days before that, writing in the online Jewish magazine Tablet, conservative columnist Lee Smith quoted a former Clinton official as saying:
She is considered one of the harshest critics of Israel on the foreign policy far left. She is trying to destabilize the USraeli alliance.
A similar critique appeared the very same day, Mar 15, in an article by Daniel Horowitz on the Conservative Review website. He wrote:
Lempert was literally Obama’s point person in the White House orchestrating his war against Israel. This decision is Orwellian.
Another article published a few days later in FrontPageMag raised the question of whether Lempert’s influence would cause the tense relations between Israel and the White House during Obama’s presidency to continue during the Trump era. A former senior diplomat who served both recent administrations said:
Yael has unfairly become a lightning rod for people who don’t seem to like the direction the Trump administration is going in with regard to Israel. Rather than blame Trump, Kushner or Greenblatt, it is much easier for them to blame her and tar her with the Obama label, rather than point to those more senior than her who are making the real decisions, be it on moving the embassy to Jerusalem, on settlements, or on the two-state solution. This is unfair. She is widely recognized as a consummate professional who is known for her positive, nonpartisan, can-do approach, and that seems to be the reason the Trump White House asked her to stay on rather than return to the State Dept.
Elliott Abrams, who served as deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy under Bush 43 and was nearly named deputy Sec State in the Trump administration, also came to Lempert’s defense. Abrams told Haaretz this week:
It is a mistake to attack career foreign service officers and other career civil servants because they have implemented the policy of the president whose administration is in office. Yael is a professional with great knowledge of the Middle East, and will give her best advice to political appointees of this administration as she gave it to political appointees of the Obama administration. They don’t have to take the advice … but if their policies are to be effective, they will need the kind of detailed knowledge she has. The Trump team asked her to stay on after January 20 for exactly that reason, and they were right to do so.
The publication of the articles created a feeling among many in Washington and Jerusalem that there was a coordinated campaign against Lempert, raising suspicions that Netanyahu and Israel’s Ambassador to Pindostan Ron Dermer were behind the briefings against her. The PMO denied taking any action against her. The Israeli Embassy in Washington also denied the suspicions, saying Dermer and Lempert have always had a good working relationship. The PMO said:
We have no objections to working with Yael Lempert or with any other Pindosi official. Pres Trump sets the policy, and we believe this policy will allow us to reach understandings aspiring to advance peace. Members of the PMO and the embassy in Faschingstein worked closely with Yael Lempert to complete the military aid agreement. She worked and continues to work vigorously to promote cooperation between the countries.
Despite the attacks against her, Lempert has no intention of going anywhere. Earlier this week she participated in talks in Faschingstein between Netanyahu’s advisers and Greenblatt about achieving understandings regarding settlement construction. She will probably return to the region soon for another round of talks in Jerusalem and Ramallah. A senior Pindo official said that Greenblatt himself had good chemistry with her, and that Lempert was working hard for him. Greenblatt himself also defended Lempert, telling Haaretz:
I have been ably supported by the extremely hard-working officials at the NSC, including NSC Senior Director Yael Lempert, the State Dept and Pindo missions in the Middle East region, who are enthusiastically working to advance the president’s agenda. I am grateful to those dedicated officials, who continue to assist me.