WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, criticized the outgoing Obama administration for its handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in recent days, answering questions before a Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday.
Facing hours of questioning over his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his attitudes toward Moscow’s role in the world, Tillerson briefly offered his perspective on the question of a two-state solution. Direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians are possible, and still the goal, Tillerson said. But a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel over its settlement enterprise made those talks less likely.
“Israel is, has always been and remains our most important ally in the region,” he said. “The UN resolution that was passed, in my view, is not helpful. It actually undermines a good set of conditions for talks to continue.”
Directly criticizing his likely predecessor, John Kerry, Tillerson then said that he found “quite troubling” the sitting secretary’s decision to give a speech devoted to the conflict shortly after the vote. The speech focused heavily on Israel’s construction activity in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
“The president-elect has already made it clear that we’re going to meet our obligations to Israel as the most important ally in the region,” Tillerson said, vowing to make a “clear statement” to that effect through policy actions should he be confirmed by the Senate.
“I think there have been many, many opportunities for progress to be made, and those have never been seized upon,” Tillerson said. “This has to be settled between the two parties.”
He questioned whether Israel could feasibly negotiate with a Palestinian Authority that refuses to recognize its right to exist as a Jewish state, and charged that, while the PA has renounced violence, “it’s one thing to renounce it and another thing to take serious actions to prevent it.”
Palestinian leadership has a duty to do “something to at least interrupt it or prevent it,” he said, referring to attacks by Palestinians against Israeli civilians. Such actions, he added, must occur before there can be “any productive discussion around settlements.”
Tillerson also spoke of his plans to advise President-elect Trump on the Iran nuclear deal, which he characterized as concerning in several specific respects. He will firstly recommend “a full review of that agreement,” said the former ExxonMobil chief, “as well as any side agreements that I understand are a part of that agreement.”
He expressed concern that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action– which was negotiated by Kerry and his counterparts from Iran, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany over two years– does not prevent Iran from purchasing nuclear weapons.
And “the real important question is what comes at the end of this agreement,” Tillerson said, calling for the US to return to a policy that calls for “no uranium enrichment in Iran.” The JCPOA, as it stands, tolerates low-grade enrichment of the material in Iran– a primary path to nuclear weapons, if enriched to a high grade– and under expansive monitoring.
At Exxon, Tillerson spoke out against sanctions as a diplomatic tool of exertion, characterizing them as harmful to American businesses. But on Wednesday he defended that tool as vital.
“Sanctions are a powerful tool, and they’re an important tool,” he said. “The Iran sanctions were extraordinarily effective because others joined in.”
When senators questioned him on whether he had ever lobbied on behalf of Exxon against sanctions– on either Iran or on Russia, after its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula– Tillerson said he had not.
But “when sanctions are imposed, they by their design are going to disrupt American business,” he noted.
The bulk of his engagement with senators was over Russia, amid swirling controversy over Moscow’s influence campaign targeting the 2016 US presidential elections. Tillerson offered a tough line, characterizing the former Soviet Union as eager to reclaim a position of prominence on the world stage.
While he said he had not yet spoken with Trump extensively on the issue of Russia– a remark that Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey called “pretty amazing,” given the public interest– Tillerson, over several hours, expressed a consistent view that the Russian government speaks in a language of strength. He suggested that American strength toward Moscow has been lacking under an Obama administration, and that Trump would redirect course.
He said he would have recommended NATO air surveillance and US military assets for Ukraine after Russia annexed Crimea– an act he said the US, under Trump’s leadership, would never recognize as legal– and would encourage a strong response to its hacking of US democratic institutions. He characterized Russia as an “unfriendly adversary” and a nation where there is “no respect for the rule of law.”
Trump has previously said he plans to “look at” recognizing Russia’s annexation.
As America’s top diplomat, the most important question he would ask his Russian counterpart is simple, Tillerson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: Do you want this to get worse?
“Russia today poses a danger, but it is not unpredictable in advancing its own interests,” he said. “NATO allies are right to be alarmed.”
Some Republican expressed satisfaction with Tillerson’s hearing, including the committee’s chairman, Bob Corker of Tennessee. But some others were skeptical.
When Marco Rubio of Florida asked him whether Putin’s actions in he Syrian city of Aleppo this year or in the Chechen city of Grozny in 1999 amounted to war crimes, Tillerson declined to adopt the term. And when the senator further pressed him to support legislation that would compel the president-elect to support sanctions on Russia for its hacking campaign, Tillerson replied: “I would have some concerns.”
Republican senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona have also expressed reservations over Tillerson, specifically over his ties to Russia, including his acceptance of the nation’s highest honor for foreign nationals, the Russian Order of Friendship, in 2009.