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

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

“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.

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.”

Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by Howard Miller on 05/16/2018 - 11:29 am.

    Should we Americans still watch what we say, and do, Ari?

    Just wondering if Mr. Fleischer’s thinking has evolved since he warned Americans we’re supposed to be careful how we act, post 9/11 attack, while serving as the WH press secretary.

    Meanwhile, how refreshing to have an utterly civil conversation between two Americans with rather different political leanings. More of this, less of condescension and derision will move us forward.

  2. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 05/17/2018 - 08:16 am.

    “disagreeing agreeably”

    You mean they did not call each other names? They did not call Trump names? They did not quote other “journalist” who called trump names that they did not think of?

    Real journalism!

  3. Submitted by Raj Maddali on 05/17/2018 - 08:23 am.

    Fake News

    Minnpost should be embarrassed to report this as some kind of actual debate. At least when it comes to the Israeli Palestinian dispute. Both sides agreed “Its the Palestinians” fault. And Minnpost dutifully reports its. Not an iota of challenge to the two “debaters” about the prison called Gaza, settlements and yes more settlements. Its all the Palestinian leaderships fault, Minnpost dutifully reports. Contrast this with the extensive hand wringing and commentary by Minnpost on any article about Donald Trump and his “facts”.

    Next time readers wonder why the main stream press has no credibility, they should read this article.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/17/2018 - 09:22 am.

      Fake comment

      Nowhere in Eric’s commentary was the term ‘debate’ used.
      This was a discussion held in a synagogue, moderated by a Rabbi.
      You’re beating a dead straw horse.

      • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 05/17/2018 - 10:00 am.

        Fake Rebuttal

        “while expressing opposing partisan and ideological viewpoints about the Middle East and politics in America. ”

        A formal discussion on a particular matter in a public meeting or legislative assembly, in which opposing arguments are put forward and which usually ends with a vote.

        I don’t care where it was held. But lets not pretend that both sides were represented in an equal fashion. If Donald Trump held a policy forum in a church and bleated a bunch of falsehoods should the press give him a pass ?

        • Submitted by Charles Holtman on 05/17/2018 - 02:58 pm.

          I believe that what Mr. Black is saying

          Is that he found it calming to observe a brief return to the pre-Trump days when Democrats and Republicans could carry out the rituals of Potemkin democracy by civilly trading views from slightly different places within the narrowly drawn and vigilantly patrolled establishment frame of discourse.

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/17/2018 - 03:02 pm.

          Donald Trump

          is not a private citizen.
          You’re still having category error problems.

          • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 05/18/2018 - 07:10 am.

            Public Forum

            It was a public forum, reported as news. Axelrod and Fleischer are public persona. You’re having acceptance of reality problems.

            • Submitted by Thomas Eckhardt on 05/18/2018 - 04:31 pm.

              Of course it’s news

              This was a straight forward account of an event that happened and what the participants said. It was not a debate about the situation in Palestine and Israel. And Axelrod, while he agreed that Palestinian leadership was lacking, he also commented on Netanyahu’s statement that a two state solution would never happen on his watch. If the two speakers didn’t toe your political line, just get over it.

              • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 05/19/2018 - 07:37 am.

                News can be fake news

                Minnpost characterized it as a debate. I’d be happy to post an Oxford definition of a debate.

                It was a debate that included a discussion on the Israeli Palestinian conflict. A debate which Minnpost editorialized above, just as it editoirializes about every Trump appearance , event , debate, ceremony. Breathtakingly pointing out every convenient omission and falsehood, just as it does for Fox News personalities covering Trump. Somehow that standard doesn’t apply here. How convenient.

                I don’t take debates on Fox News seriously, even when “both sides” are represented. Nor do I take a game between the Harlem Globetrotters and the Generals. Get over it.

                Anybody with a faint idea of the IP debate knows that a large percent of the settlements ( remember those )!were build during Labor govts. Netanyahu is just a convenient whipping post for Dems. But of course why present such inconvenient facts. After all, the deliberate enterprise of settlements and the deliberate prison called Gaza, of which Israeli officials were exposed on Wikileaks of deliberately starving Palestinians were all the Palestinians fault. And of course so convenient for liberals in their breathless pursuit of truth an justice against Trump.

                Long live Fox News….oops I meant Long live Minnpost

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/17/2018 - 11:10 am.

    My 2¢

    I’m with Mr. Holbrook and Mr. Brandon on this one – and even Mr. Gotzman.

    Not, I’m afraid, with Mr. Maddali. Two very different sides **were** presented, they just didn’t include the “third side” that Mr. Maddali, perhaps understandably, thought should also be included. He may be correct in pointing this out, though Mr. Maddali has his own biases, as well. Israeli treatment of Gaza residents, according to what I’ve been reading over several decades, has often been despicable. Palestinian and Arab treatment of Israel and Israelis has also, according to what I’ve been reading for decades, been despicable.

    One difference – I’ve never visited that part of the world, so I can’t speak with any authority beyond, again, what I’ve read over several decades – is that, to my knowledge, Israel has never promised to eliminate the Palestinian population in Gaza and elsewhere in the region. Many have been killed, which is a tragedy, but something approaching genocide has not been official Israeli policy. They have largely been responding – sometimes too energetically – to perceived threats from their Arab and Palestinian neighbors. I don’t believe there’s something equivalent on the Palestinian side, though there have been multiple threats, over the years, and from different Palestinian and/or Arab leaders, to eliminate the nation of Israel. Whether non-Palestinian Arab leaders can speak with authority about Palestinians is something I don’t know.

    One small item worth noting, since it comes up from time to time in articles written about the area that talk in terms of religious overtones (i.e., Jewish vs. Muslim). Since Judaism predates Islam by many centuries, and Jerusalem was the capital of a Jewish state long before Islam came on the scene, claims by Arabs and Palestinians that they have more of a “historical” right to the area than Jews ring a bit false. It’s true that the modern state of Israel is a historically recent, post-WW II invention, one that the western powers didn’t bother to clear with Palestinians already living there – which thus provides the basis for much of the ensuing conflict of the past several decades – but the Jewish claim to Israel as a historical home seems to me (just my opinion) the more legitimate.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/17/2018 - 12:21 pm.


      “Since Judaism predates Islam by many centuries, and Jerusalem was the capital of a Jewish state long before Islam came on the scene, claims by Arabs and Palestinians that they have more of a “historical” right to the area than Jews ring a bit false.” Well, not entirely. Historical rights can be muddy.

      Jerusalem was the capital of the Roman province of Judea. Most of the Jewish inhabitants of Judea were expelled by the Emperor Hadrian in the second century CE, and the name of the province was changed to Palestina. The city was under Orthodox Christian control until the 7th Century, when the Patriarch submitted to an invading Muslim Caliph. With the exception of several years during the Crusades, Jerusalem remained under Muslim control until the breakup of the Ottoman Empire..

    • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 05/17/2018 - 12:28 pm.

      My 4c

      I think Kim Un Jong would be happy with the “debate” too. Cause after all no inconvenient facts were presented or debated.

      Two different sides were presented! No talk of settlements (a deliberate enterprise), the prison called Gaza (another deliberate enterprise). But gosh darn, I’m just “biased” with a third side !

      Young Jewish kids have formed their own groups like IfNotNow and large percentage of the Democratic party including large groups of minorities have called out the mainstream Democratic party on their “republican” talking points. Yet if a person doesn’t buy into the “republican” talking points, somehow they’re just biased! The “two sides” were already presented, hurry along !!!!

      The second para if full of the same old talking points. In case of Apartheid South Africa there were black groups that called for killing whites. I guess that justified apartheid. I could go on, but its pointless.

      The third para. I won’t even go there.

    • Submitted by Charles Holtman on 05/17/2018 - 03:04 pm.

      No one has a “historical” right to land.

      Either you have a deed, or you’re a member of the human race with the same access to the earth, and obligation to walk on it responsibly, as everyone else. The fact that at some past time, a group of people of the same faith, creed or even blood as yours lived in a place doesn’t give you a right of occupation superior to anyone else’s.

  5. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/17/2018 - 03:04 pm.

    How large

    is ‘large’?

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