Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke met with a far-right former Israeli politician who heads an oil and gas company that experts say is violating international law and U.S. policy.
The Sept. 14, 2017, meeting between Zinke and Efraim "Effie" Eitam, a nationalist ex-Israeli member of its parliament, the Knesset, and known for anti-Arab sentiments, appeared on the Interior chief’s public calendar. Eitam leads Afek Oil and Gas, which has drilling operations in the Golan Heights, a disputed territory that the international community has explicitly said does not belong to Israel.
The meeting raises concerns about the appearance that the Trump administration is sanctioning unlawful energy exploration. It comes as President Trump’s pursuit of controversial immigration policies has stoked discontent abroad. Likewise, Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has ignited anger in neighboring Muslim nations.
"You have someone who is engaged in action that is illegal and by meeting with [Eitam] it seems to be giving some credibility to what they’re doing," said John Quigley, an international law professor at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law.
The meeting with Eitam raised questions for an administration that many believe is hostile to Muslims and antagonizes Israel’s Middle East neighbors.
Eitam said in an interview that Afek’s energy exploration didn’t come up in his meeting with Zinke, who is overseeing a major expansion of oil and gas development on public land. Eitam said "a common friend in Montana" facilitated the meeting and that the conversation was "all personal." He declined to identify the mutual friend or disclose what he and Zinke discussed.
"It was a private meeting, it’s as simple as that," Eitam said. "I cannot provide you any names now because people, I think, would not like me to get their names involved. There’s no story."
Afek is a subsidiary of Genie Energy Ltd., whose strategic advisory board includes former Vice President Dick Cheney and media mogul Rupert Murdoch, along with Lawrence Summers, who headed President Obama’s National Economic Council. Genie Energy CEO Howard Jonas is a prominent Republican donor who funds Orthodox Jewish causes.
The ex-chairman of Genie Energy’s former parent company, IDT Corp., is Ira Greenstein, a family friend of Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner. Greenstein currently works in the White House.
Genie Energy did not respond to a request for comment.
Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift declined to answer several questions, including if Afek’s drilling was discussed, who introduced Eitam to the secretary and whether Zinke was aware that the firm’s operations run afoul of international law and U.S. foreign policy.
"There are no meeting notes or transcript available," Swift said in an email. "I have no additional information on the meeting, nor can I confirm that the person you have identified is the person the Secretary met with."
The United States does not recognize Israel’s claim to the Golan. That position "has not changed," said Noel Clay, a State Department official, in an email. Israel maintains that it annexed the Golan Heights in 1981, after capturing it during the Six-Day War in 1967.
Eitam and Zinke have similar career arcs.
A former brigadier general in the Israel Defense Forces, Eitam later served in the Knesset and as Minister of Housing and Construction. He is considered close to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Zinke, meanwhile, is a Navy SEAL who represented Montana as a Republican congressman before joining the Trump administration.
Eitam is a controversial figure. He has called Israeli Arabs a "cancer." Of Palestinians, he said, "we will have to kill them all." He clarified that assertion by saying he wasn’t referring to all Palestinians, just "the ones with evil in their heads."
Eitam is a nationalist who represents a strain of Israeli thought that the areas of biblical Israel should belong to the current state. As a settler, Eitam is one of many far-right, religious Israelis who have attempted to establish Jewish communities in disputed territories.
The Golan, where Eitam lives, is one of them. While Syria contends that the area is theirs, the Israeli Supreme Court considers it Israeli territory, said Robbie Sabel, the former deputy legal adviser for Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. That’s why Israel granted Afek exploration licenses. The company has drilled in five of 10 permitted sites since beginning its search for resources in February 2015.
Sabel said the action flouts U.S. and international policy. While the United States has previously allowed Israel to produce from existing wells in territories such as Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, it forbids new extraction.
"It is not entitled to explore for new oil fields," Sabel said. "This is controversial."
The company has tried drilling in Israel before, but environmentalists waged a campaign to prevent the necessary permits. Afek said its Golan deposit could hold billions of barrels of oil, a major resource for a country that historically imported much of its fuel from hostile countries. The energy picture in Israel is changing as it expands its use of solar power and with the discovery of a massive natural gas play in the Mediterranean Sea, called Leviathan.
The shift to natural gas has been a key part of Israel’s strategy to reduce carbon emissions, bolstering energy security and promoting economic development.
"As Israel’s energy minister, I declare my commitment to reducing the use of polluting coal and replacing it with natural gas has not changed, regardless of the decision of the U.S. president," Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said in a statement prior to Trump announcing his intent to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord.
Whether Afek’s action would provoke criticism from the United States or the international community is questionable, Sabel said. If the company was drilling in the West Bank, that could happen. But given the political turmoil in Syria, ravaged by a yearslong civil war, few nations would likely be willing to defend its claim to the region.
The United States has defended similar activity by Israel and Israeli companies during other administrations, said Noura Erakat, an assistant professor who focuses on international law at George Mason University. She noted that the United States has often used its vote at the United Nations Security Council to shield Israel from penalties for violating international law.
"Nobody is going to punish Israel for that extraction," Erakat said. "Most of what Israel does, it is doing with the implicit or explicit consent of the U.S. administration."