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Axelrod and Fleischer disagree agreeably on Jerusalem, Iran, other Trump policies

It was a tonic to see two prominent political figures of opposing parties demonstrating that it’s still possible to maintain your sense of humor and earthling solidarity while expressing opposing views.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Ivanka Trump standing next to the dedication plaque at the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem on Monday.
REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

“We’ve become so tribal that we don’t recognize the humanity of one another” across partisan lines, David Axelrod said in his opening remarks last night at Temple Israel in Minneapolis. But then he and Ari Fleischer spent the next hour or two undermining that diagnosis by disagreeing agreeably for an hour or two like old friends.

I have no idea whether they really are friends, but it was a tonic to see two prominent political figures of opposing parties, one from each of the two previous White House staffs, demonstrating that it’s still possible to maintain your sense of humor and earthling solidarity while expressing opposing partisan and ideological viewpoints about the Middle East and politics in America. It was a welcome change from much political discourse in these tempestuous times.

Axelrod, former counselor to President Barack Obama, and Fleischer, press spokesman for President George W. Bush, were both very funny. They ribbed each other gently and expressed opposing views about most topics in the news and from recent political history.

No news was broken, unless it’s news that people from opposing parties can evince comity.

Said Axelrod of the second President Bush, he disagreed deeply with many things “W” said and did, but he never doubted Bush’s “heart, his patriotism or his sense of duty to the country.”

Fleischer defends Trump policies, but didn’t vote for him

Fleischer defended so many things that President Donald Trump has done as president that it was a surprise when, late in the program, he mentioned that he had not been able to vote for Trump because of Trump’s various failures of character and decency. (He didn’t mention who got his vote instead.)

Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman, who moderated, asked about the week’s news, of special Jewish interest, that President Trump had moved the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, much to the anger and dismay of Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories, sparking violent protests.

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Fleischer said he was “delighted to see it.” Other presidents have promised to do it, then reneged. Israel is a country and gets to choose its capital, he said. That answer oversimplified the matter, and, if by any chance he assumed that the answer would be popular with the mostly Jewish audience, he was wrong. Axelrod made the familiar case against Trump’s move and got a much warmer reception from the audience.

That led Fleischer to note the irony that most American Jews vote for Democrats, because they are liberals, even though (in his view) Republican presidents in recent cycles have been more pro-Israel. This is touchy stuff, of course, and I’m oversimplifying, but some delicate matters were spoken of fairly bluntly, as when Fleischer said that Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular “need to make peace with Israel, or they will lose out.”

Axelrod opposed move of embassy to Jerusalem

Axelrod (big surprise) disagreed with Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy. He said he was glad that presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama all declined to move the embassy, which he said was merely a “symbolic” gesture. But the gesture was a “provocation” toward the Arab and Muslim world and a hindrance in the search for Mideast peace. He called the embassy decision “a step away from a two-state solution.”

He used it to launch a hymn of admiration to former Israeli Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin, who came about as close any Israeli leader to reaching a two-state solution. At the crucial time, Axelrod said, the question was raised what should be done about the Jews whose settlements would inevitably be in the Palestinian state if the deal was reached. Axelrod said that Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the opposition at the time, said that he would tell the settlers they could stay where they were. Shimon Peres, the leader of the peacenik faction on the Israeli left, said he would tell the settlers they have to leave their settlements. But Rabin, the former warrior who sought to be a peacemaker, said he would say to the settlers: “Peace has a price. This (evacuating the Jewish settlers) is part of the price” for peace.

Fleischer closed that topic with a statement that Israel hasn’t been able to reach a final settlement because it has never had Palestinian leader who wanted a deal enough to make the necessary concessions.

Axelrod’s last comment on the topic (which I hope underlines the point that this was a real conversation, not a recitation of talking points) was that yes, he agreed with Fleischer that the Palestinians leaders have been “disappointing throughout” the decades of tortured discussion. But he added: “When Netanyahu said there will never be a two-state solution as long as he is prime minister, I took him at his word.” Netanyahu has followed many policies, such as his support for the settler movement, that make the quest for peace harder, Axelrod said.

The issue of Iran

The conversation about Trump’s decision to withdraw from the multilateral deal to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons had a similar flavor. Fleischer defended Trump’s action, saying the deal was much too favorable to Iran. He tossed in a pretty cool saying that I hadn’t heard before, attributed to Franklin D. Roosevelt, that “you can’t turn a tiger into a cat by stroking its fur.”

Axelrod conceded that yes, Iran is a bad actor. But that’s all the more reason to find a way to keep it from getting nukes. The key fact is that Iran is abiding by the deal. To which Fleischer agreed dismissively, saying of course they’re abiding, because the deal is so favorable to Iran.

As I mentioned above, given Fleischer’s agreement with so many of Trump’s actions so far as president, it’s interesting that he couldn’t bring himself to vote for the guy. That, apparently, was all about the character test.

Both panelists were proud that the White House in which they worked was much less leaky than Trump’s is. They seemed to agree that this was because the important White House positions were held by people who believed the president was a decent person, listening to all sides, treating everyone fairly and respectfully, so that by the time a presidential decision was made, everyone had respect for the process that had been followed and the basic decency of the guy who had made the final decision.

Trump’s character

Fleischer doesn’t have that feeling about the chaotic, impulsive Trump, and both men felt that Trump lacks many of the qualities that command real loyalty among the troops. Axelrod said that the presidency is such a hard job that, if you went through that process of developing a decision, and your point of view didn’t prevail, you would have enough respect to fall in line and to keep your disagreements within the circle of advisers.

Fleischer subscribes to the view that the character of the president is “basic and fundamental.” He finds himself agreeing with many things the current president does but is disgusted by the way Trump does them. When Trump described the press as “the enemy of the people,” Fleischer went on Fox News and rebuked him for the comment. When Trump gave his infamous “there’s fault on both sides” reaction to the riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, Fleischer publicly expressed his disagreement.

Axelrod said that after experiencing the Obama presidency, he decided that anyone who sat in the Oval Office, listened to arguments on all sides of a question, then made a decision and took responsibility for it, was entitled to respect. Then he laughed and said: “Ask me in a couple of years if I still feel that way.”

In preparation for covering the event last night, I googled around for stories that linked Fleischer and Axelrod, I found this tweet from Axelrod:

“To Republicans, you tamper with the Mueller probe at your own risk. To Democrats, you must be prepared to accept the outcome of that probe, even if its conclusion is, as the @POTUS claims, that there was no disqualifying offense. That’s what the rule of law requires.”

And a retweet of that by Fleischer with the additional comment:

“Good for @davidaxelrod. I 100% agree with this and it’s why I continue to say the right thing is to let Mueller finish and report what he found.”