Month: January 2018
President Trump last night read slowly from a teleprompter and convinced much of America’s media that he could behave soberly and offer an opportunity for bipartisan action on immigration and infrastructure.
Less visibly, the speech was full of indications that danger lies ahead. This is a radical Administration. The President harbors ambitions that could get the country into lots of trouble.
Among these is a commitment to purging the Federal government of his opponents, who admittedly are many. As Slate notes, he called on Congress
…to empower every Cabinet secretary with the authority to reward good workers—and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.
This is a blatant attack on the Civil Service (and presumably also the Foreign Service), which he wants to replace with loyalists. He is accomplishing just that at the Justice Department already, where he has fired a Deputy Attorney General, an FBI Director, and a Deputy Director. All were well-respected professionals. Less visibly, hundreds and perhaps thousands of professionals are leaving other government departments. Trump will try to replace them with people who share his views on immigration, climate change, abortion, race, and the economy.
The President’s economic braggadocio failed to acknowledge that job growth was marginally faster under his predecessor, that record low unemployment for blacks had already been achieved before he was inaugurated, and that the benefits of his income tax cut go overwhelmingly to the very rich. Nor did he mention the big declines in the stock market yesterday and the day before, claiming credit only for the big run up in stocks since his inauguration. It would be odd indeed if the market had not reacted positively to his massive corporate tax cut, but I won’t be surprised if stocks now correct. Since he has claimed credit for the rise, he deserves blame for any fall.
Turning to foreign policy, the President prioritizes fair trade. So far he has done nothing to achieve it. He abandoned the Trans Pacific Partnership, which would have given the US a leading role in Asian trade. The 11 other countries involved are proceeding without the US, and without the provisions on labor and environmental standards the US championed. His renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement is going slowly, not least because so many American companies benefit from it. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with Europe is moribund. The US trade deficit has increased under Trump.
He also prioritizes immigration, blaming illegal immigrants for murdering two Long Island girls. But crime rates among immigrants are lower than in the general population. He wants an immigration bill that would provide a path to citizenship for people brought to the US illegally as children, but it would also fund his dubious “great wall” and shifts immigration away from family unification and diversity towards more “qualified” white people, even though current immigrants are already more qualified than native-born Americans.
Turning to more conventional foreign policy issues, the President said:
Around the world, we face rogue regimes, terrorist groups, and rivals like China and Russia that challenge our interests, our economy, and our values. In confronting these dangers, we know that weakness is the surest path to conflict, and unmatched power is the surest means of our defense.
Then he promises to boost defense spending in general and nuclear weapons in particular. The latter have little to do with current challenges, and the former is proving inadequate to meet them.
Yes, ISIS as an organized military force that controls territory in Iraq and Syria has been largely defeated, but no one expects its militants to evaporate into thin air. The civilian assistance efforts needed to counter the terrorists as they head underground–building inclusive and effective governance and economies–are nowhere to be seen in this Administration’s plans. Instead, Trump threatens to cut foreign aid to countries that vote against the US in the UN General Assembly, a threat that failed to garner support for the US move of its embassy to Jerusalem. Such heavy-handed conditioning of US assistance on a single issue irrelevant to US interests is guaranteed to reduce American influence abroad.
North Korea is the toughest of this Administration’s foreign policy challenges. Trump offered nothing in response to the threat its missiles and nuclear weapons pose. Instead he waxed eloquent North Korean oppression. This implies an American commitment to regime change, which is precisely the wrong thing to be signaling if you want to somehow limit Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs. Kim Jong-un sees them guarantees of regime continuity and will pursue them as long as thinks the US is out to overthrow him.
What was missing from the speech? Trump failed to mention the rules-based international order the US has painstakingly built since World War II, Russian interference in the US election, and his own Administration’s refusal to follow Congressional instructions to levy additional sanctions on Moscow. Putin is still pulling the strings. Ugh.
My Fellow Americans,
It has been a year since an unqualified braggart and blowhard bully was elected without a numerical majority to the presidency of the United States. His lies and offensive remarks about women, Mexican Americans, Africans, and Haitians have brought the nation to a new low. American prestige and influence are declining everywhere but Russia and Israel, a massive tax cut is enriching the already rich and has boosted the already high stock market, and the risks of war with Russia and China are increasing. With Trump as their prime mover, racism and anti-immigrant fever have surged worldwide.
American institutions are struggling to contain and neutralize the worst of these enervating impacts. The media are facing unprecedented attacks on their freedom and objectivity. The courts are being packed with unqualified bag carriers while the President makes prejudiced remarks about sitting judges. The Congress is sharply split and unable to conduct a bipartisan investigation of well-documented Russian interference in the American electoral process. Special Counsel Mueller and the FBI are under daily attack by both the Administration and the Congressional majority. Nothing has been done to counter Russian interference in this year’s Congressional poll.
Political tensions are generating social turmoil. Undocumented immigrants and those with temporary protected status are facing forced repatriation, including people who have never lived as adults in the countries from which they immigrated. Poor people risk being deprived of health insurance, food stamps, and other social safety net mainstays. People who live in coastal areas face disaster from global warming and newly allowed offshore drilling for oil and gas. Blacks, Hispanics, Jews, and Muslims are suffering heightened prejudice and discrimination. Gun violence is increasing, especially at schools, even as crime rates decline. The proportion of national wealth accumulating to the very wealthy is increasing, while the middle and working class get less.
What should be done? The Trump Administration is proposing to build a wall along the Mexican border. This will do nothing to help anyone but the contractors who win the bid. The flow of Mexicans out of the US has for years exceeded the net flow of Mexicans into the country. The promise that Mexico will pay for the wall was audacious foolery. So too was the pledge to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). It isn’t going to happen, because too many US producers benefit from it.
The Administration’s incoherence reaches epic dimensions in foreign policy. It has declared Israel good and Palestinians bad, thus ending any hope for a US role in bringing about a peace settlement. It has extended the US presence in Syria, only to find US-allied Kurds at war with NATO ally Turkey. A one-off cruise missile attack has done nothing to prevent President Assad from continuing to use chemical weapons. The Administration has failed in its intention to block Iranian development of ballistic missiles and North Korean development of both missiles and nuclear weapons. The ruling figures of Venezuela, the Philippines, and Burma have thumbed their noses at Washington, which has failed to respond effectively. Withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Change agreements has vitiated years of successful US diplomacy and enabled China and others to step into the breach.
Russia and China are exploiting American incompetence to extend their influence in the Middle East, Africa, Europe (both the Balkans and Ukraine), and the Pacific. War with other great powers, unthinkable since 1989, has become more likely due ineffective American diplomacy. The State Department is degenerating, the intelligence community is demoralized, and the military is overstretched to the point of breaking. The National Security Council is struggling to provide a minimum of coherence while the President gleefully upsets the apple cart with ill-considered tweets alternately complimenting and criticizing foreign leaders, with the notable exception of Vladimir Putin. Russian financing for Trump real estate projects guarantees him special treatment, including the Administration’s decision yesterday not to impose new sanctions Congress authorized.
Declining American influence after World War II, as other countries recovered, was inevitable. The main job of American diplomacy was to slow the process during the Cold War and help the country outlast the Soviet Union. The unipolar moment that followed was only a temporary respite from relative decline, which started again with the mistake of invading Iraq. Now the decline has become precipitous. American incoherence, as colleague Mike Haltzel notes, is becoming dangerous: Trump defends national sovereignty over universal norms for the US, but not for our enemies like North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela. The post-World War II international order is under attack, not by America’s enemies by America’s own president.
President Trump is putting the US into a tailspin. Recovery is unlikely. We are going down at a faster pace than ever before. Brace for the crash.
I made it home from Jerusalem in good order Saturday, just 20 hours after leaving the American Colony Hotel. Its reality was a bit shabbier than its reputation, but nonetheless welcome after a couple of weeks with our SAIS students in lesser accommodations. Fortunately, the opposite was true of Israel and Palestine: the reality is a better than their reputation.
Let’s start with security. Bad things can happen suddenly anytime anywhere, but on both sides of the quintessential Middle East conflict things were generally calm these past two weeks. Ramallah, Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and Nablus were no less normal than Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. A day of rage declared last week in response to President Trump’s Jerusalem decision and Vice President Pence’s visit seems to have mostly fizzled, though we did see some stone throwers on the outskirts of Ramallah. I’d be more concerned about the cold, wind, and rain in Jerusalem and the West Bank this time of year than the risk of terrorism. The State Department travel warning issued just before our trip is clearly intended to cover bureaucratic asses if something happens.
I’ve already reviewed how Palestinians and Israelis see things. Perhaps more important is how they view each other. You can get the official line at the top from the media: Israelis say they have no partner for negotiating peace, as Palestinians are still making bereavement payments to the families of suicide bombers, while Palestinians say Israel continues to blatantly violate international law in its more than 50-year occupation of the West Bank, its building of settlements, and its continuing constraints on Gaza (despite the withdrawal of its troops).
Israelis seem content with the current situation. They don’t see much of the Gaza or West Bank Palestinians, who are mostly kept on the opposite side of security fences. A very few Gaza Palestinians and more West Bankers work in Israel, especially in construction and menial jobs. Even in Jerusalem, many Palestinians keep to the eastern, Arab part of the city and to the Arab quarter. There are areas where Jews and Arabs mix a bit, especially in the Old City, and there are Palestinian citizens of Israel who are rising socially and professionally throughout Israel. Few of them are likely to prefer living in an independent Palestine, but all can describe the prejudice and discrimination they are subject to. It doesn’t take much to illicit from Jewish Israelis racist remarks about Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular.
Palestinians are holding the short end of the stick. The power imbalance is overwhelming and they know it. Israel’s vibrant economy, advanced technology, and military prowess make it a “First World” country, more akin to Europe than the Middle East. The West Bank and Gaza are poor and largely powerless, all the more so for having a customs and monetary union with Israel. The Israelis not only collect customs revenue on behalf of the Palestinians (and withhold it when they want to exert pressure), but the West Bank is unable to protect its nascent industries with tariffs or devalue its currency. Agriculture, not industry, is therefore still the mainstay of the West Bank economy. There is remarkably little Israeli investment in the West Bank except for its Jewish settlements, and of course none in Hamas-governed Gaza.
But the Palestinians still hold a trump card: their demographic growth. It may already be that there are more Arabs west of the Jordan river than Jews, but if not it will be so soon. Israel’s only option if it wants to remain a Jewish-majority state but prevent an independent Palestinian one is what the Palestinians term apartheid: a system of isolated “bantustans” in the West Bank that will govern themselves while Israel controls security, including freedom of movement, as well as the economy. The Palestinians do not think such a system can last. Some are advocating a one-state solution that will eventually be under Arab control. That, they remind, is what the Palestine Liberation Organization advocated until its 1993 recognition of Israel and acceptance in principle of a Palestinian state on 22% of Mandate Palestine.
Palestinians are fond of correcting foreigners when they ask about “the Jews.” The Jews they say come in many varieties, including those who support an independent Palestinian state and join in nonviolent Palestinian protests. The biggest problems for Palestinians come from the religious settlers in the West Bank, who are often verbally and physically abusive. But ultimately, Palestinians aver, their problems are not with Jews, whom they say they accept as one of the indigenous peoples, but rather with Israel, which refuses to allow them their state and is consequently headed in a non-democratic direction.
Both Palestinians and Israelis should not forget Bob Marley’s message:
- Modernizing Trade Rules: The TPP and Beyond | Monday, January 29 | 10:00am – 11:30am | Brookings Institution | Register here |
On January 29, the Center for East Asia Policy Studies will host a panel of experts to discuss the opportunities and challenges of disseminating TPP standards in two critical areas: the digital economy and internet governance, and competitive neutrality and state-owned enterprises. Experts from Japan and the United States will discuss strategies that each country can pursue in on-going or new trade negotiations to advance TPP rules in these critical areas. Featuring panelists Tsuyoshi Kawase (Professor of Law at Sophia University), Maki Kunimatsu (Chief Policy Analyst at Mitsubishi UFJ Research), and Joshua P. Meltzer (Senior Fellow in Global Economy and Development at Brookings), and Amy Porges (Principal at Porges Trade Law PLLC), with moderator Mireya Solís (Co-Director of Center for East Asia Policy Studies Senior Fellow at Brookings).
- Games and Gamesmanship: Unity and Stability at Pyeongchang | Monday, January 29 | 1:00pm – 2:30pm | Wilson Center | Register here |
When athletes from North and South Korea unite under one flag at the Pyeongchang Olympics, it will be more than a political statement. It may also pave the way for a new approach to deal with Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. Join us for a discussion on the history of sports diplomacy in the Korean Peninsula and the significance of the latest Olympic détente in dealing with Kim Jong-un’s regime. With speakers Jung H. Pak (Brookings Institution), Matthew Kroenig (Georgetown University), and Kang Choi (Asan Institute for Policy Studies).
- Preventing Atrocities in the 21st Century | Tuesday, January 30 | 9:00am – 11:00am | U.S. Institute of Peace | Register here |
In recent decades we have seen new commitments to protect civilians from mass atrocities. Still, policymakers face obstacles. They may lack access to areas at risk, or leverage over possible perpetrators. So how can we translate political commitments into timely and effective practice? Is it possible to identify risk and prevent mass violence before it erupts? How can justice mechanisms help ensure accountability and prevent future mass violence? Join us on January 30 for a discussion on the state of atrocity prevention with leading experts. Featuring discussants Mô Bleeker (Special Envoy for Dealing with the Past and the Prevention of Atrocities, Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs), Lawrence Woocher (Research Director, Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum), and Menachem Rosensaft (General Council, World Jewish Congress), with moderator Jonas Claes (Senior Program Officer, U.S. Institute of Peace). Opening remarks by Ambassador Martin Dahinden (Ambassador of Switzerland to the United States) and Carla Koppell (Vice President, Center for Applied Conflict Transformation, U.S. Institute of Peace).
- On Refugee Integration and the Global Compact on Refugees: Lessons from Turkey | Tuesday, January 30 | 10:30am – 12:00pm | Brookings Institution | Register here |
The Center on the United States and Europe (CUSE) will host a panel discussion on Turkey’s experience with integrating roughly 3.5 million refugees and how that experience can inform the Compact. Izza Leghtas, senior advocate at Refugees International, will discuss the findings of her recent report, “I am only looking for my rights,” on the difficulties refugees face in accessing legal employment and the need for livelihood programs in Turkey’s urban centers. On the basis of his recently completed Syrian Barometer 2017, Murat Erdoğan, director of the Migration and Integration Research Center at the Turkish-German University in Istanbul, will reflect on the attitudes of the Turkish public toward refugee integration, as well as attitudes of the refugees themselves toward their host societies. Elizabeth Ferris, research professor at the Institute of Study of International Migration at Georgetown University, will remark on how Turkey’s experience could relate to the broader issues surrounding global refugee governance and inform the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework. Kemal Kirişci, TÜSİAD senior fellow and director of the Turkey Project at Brookings, will moderate the discussion.
- Broadcasting Change: Arabic Media as a Catalyst for Liberalism | Tuesday, January 30 | 12:00pm – 1:30pm | Hudson Institute | Register here |
Given the turmoil in the Middle East, liberals in Arabic-speaking countries have been routinely dismissed as too small in number to make a difference. Yet today, Arab liberals lead some of the largest regional media outlets, using their broadcasts to promote religious toleration and pluralism, civil society, gender equality, and rule of law. With the new National Security Strategy’s emphasis on “Competitive Engagement,” how can the United States work to bolster the efforts of these reformers in Arab media? Hudson Institute will host a discussion to assess the challenges to strengthening reformist media in the Arab World. The panel will consist of Joseph Braude, Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and advisor at the Al-Mesbar Center for Research and Studies in Dubai; Ambassador Alberto Fernandez, President, Middle East Broadcasting Networks; Adam Garfinkle, Editor, The American Interest; Eric Brown, Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute. This event will be live streamed on Hudson’s homepage.
- Taking Stock of the Transatlantic Relationship: Female Thought Leaders Reflect on 2017 | Wednesday, January 31 | 4:00pm – 5:15pm | Atlantic Council | Register here |
Please join the Atlantic Council and the Robert Bosch Foundation Alumni Association for a conversation with female thought leaders about the current state of the transatlantic relationship. This panel discussion will convene leading female voices from across the transatlantic policy community to reflect back on the past year, and discuss the future of NATO and US engagement in Europe, how the transatlantic partnership must adapt to today’s strategic environment, and the importance of female leadership in foreign policy and international security. This expert discussion featuring female leaders in transatlantic foreign and security policy is the inaugural event of the Atlantic Council’s Global Diversity and Inclusion Initiative. A conversation with Amb. Kristen Silverberg (Managing Director,
Institute of International Finance; Former US Ambassador to the European Union), Julianne Smith (Senior Fellow and Director, Transatlantic Security Program, Center for a New American Security), and Christine Wormuth (Director, Adrienne Arsht Center for Resilience, Atlantic Council; Former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, US Department of Defense). Moderated by Sally Painter (Chief Operating Officer, Blue Star Strategies; Senior Advisor, Future Europe Initiative, Atlantic Council). A networking reception will follow the event.
- Changing Dynamics in the Gulf: A Conversation with Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani| Thursday, February 1 | 9:00am – 10:00am | American Enterprise Institute | Register here |
Once an important mechanism for cooperation, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) since June 2017 has been fractured with one member state, Qatar, the focus of a diplomatic and economic blockade spearheaded by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. A Kuwaiti-led mediation process has not resolved the crisis, at a time when Russia’s reemergence in the Middle East, the growing influence of disinformation campaigns, and Iran’s ongoing malign activities all suggest that deeper challenges lie ahead. Who benefits from this standoff between traditional American allies? What are the implications of a continuing crisis in the GCC for the region and for US partnerships? Join AEI’s Andrew Bowen and Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of the State of Qatar HE Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani as they discuss US-Qatar relations and the challenges confronting the Gulf region. With introductory remarks by Danielle Pletka of AEI.
- Protests in North Africa: Parallels and Prospects | Thursday, February 1 | 12:00pm – 1:30pm | Middle East Institute | Register here |
Seven years after the outbreak of the Arab Spring in North Africa, demonstrators are taking to the streets again in Tunisia and Morocco. How do these protests compare with each other, and to previous waves of uprisings across the Arab World since 2011? How are these activists starting new conversations around social, economic, and political issues in their countries? The Middle East Institute is pleased to host a panel discussion examining the social and economic drivers behind these demonstrations, as well as prospects for resolving these inequities. MEI’s senior vice president for policy research and programs, Paul Salem, will moderate a discussion with Wafa Ben Hassine (MENA policy counsel for Access Now, via Skype), Intissar Fakir (editor-in-chief of Sada, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace), and Dokhi Fassihian (senior program manager, Middle East and North Africa, Freedom House) to discuss these issues.
- Iranian Public Opinion after the Protests | Friday, February 2 | 12:00pm – 1:30pm | Atlantic Council | Register here |
The Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative and the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland invite you to a panel discussion on Iranian public opinion in the aftermath of recent protests. The event will present new public opinion data gathered since demonstrations broke out in more than 100 Iranian cities and towns in late December protesting poor economic conditions, Iran’s interventions abroad, and domestic political constraints. The event will also relate Iranian attitudes on political and economic issues to a broader set of regional and international issues, including Iran’s regional influence, Iranian relations with the West, and the Iranian nuclear deal. A conversation with Kelsey Davenport (Director for Nonproliferation, Arms Control Association), Dr. Ebrahim Mohseni (Research Scholar, Center for International and Security Studies, University of Maryland), and Adnan Tabatabai (co-founder and CEO, Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient). Moderated by Barbara Slavin (Director, Future of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council).
I’ve been in Israel and Palestine for the past two weeks, contrary to the State Department’s unequivocal guidance. It would be foolish of me to suggest that I know what people here think. Khalil Shikaki’s polling will serve you much better. But personal contact and conversation also have their virtue.
One Israeli early in my time here suggested that he knew why the conflict has lasted so long and proved so intractable. While many here refer pejoratively to the “peace industry” that grew up around and after the Oslo accords, there is also now a war industry: politicians so attached to derogatory images of the other side that they don’t believe they can survive without it. Yitzhak Rabin, assassinated by an ultra-nationalist supporter of settlements in the West Bank in 1995, was the last Prime Minister to have both the political clout and the confidence in the peace process to deliver.
This rings true to me. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority (PA) President Abbas need each other for political survival: Netanyahu’s over the top positions provide Abu Mazen with what he needs to remind Palestinians, many of whom are not fond of the PA, that the Israeli state does not treat them fairly. When Netanyahu says Jerusalem has been the capital of the Jews for 3000 years, the more than 35% of the population that is Arab runs (figuratively) to embrace the PA. When Abbas says he intends to end security cooperation with Israel, many Jews embrace Netanyahu’s hard line.
Netanyahu is also fond of saying he has no negotiating partner. The Palestinians feel the same way. Their view is that Israel wants to hang on to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, allowing the Palestinians self-governance but preventing them from joining the Palestinian citizens of Israel (20% or so of the population) in having the right to vote. Netanyahu confirmed that is his one-state plan at Davos yesterday. This from the Palestinian perspective is no better than apartheid, since it denies Arabs equal political rights within a single state.
President Trump signaled that he supports this idea when he tried to take Jerusalem off the table by American support for Israeli sovereignty over the entire city. He thought this would facilitate negotiations, which he described as stuck on Jerusalem. That is false. Jerusalem has never really been on the negotiating agenda as it was always left for last of the so-called “final status” issues. Even so, the various negotiations since Oslo have made significant progress on defining shared solutions for the city, as Israeli scholar Lior Lehrs points out. As usual, Trump upset the apple cart, but to no apparent purpose, while also proposing the barbaric idea of cutting humanitarian assistance for refugees.
The result is that people here are gloomy about the prospects, but most are also enjoying the relative peace and stability of the past few years. Many Jews like the separation wall that keeps the Palestinians separate, though tens of thousands cross it daily both legally and illegally to work in Israel. Many Palestinians are resentful of Israeli restrictions on their freedom of movement, of which the wall is but one example: West Bankers need special permission to visit Jerusalem and some even need permission to leave Ramallah. Palestinians regard the West Bank and Gaza as “occupied” and many believe violence in resisting occupation is justified.
But few in the West Bank take up arms, which are not generally available, while virtually all Israelis have weapons and its security forces have excellent intelligence capabilities. Instead, the Palestinians are pursuing non-violent means: international acceptance of the Palestinian state as well as a campaign for boycott, disinvestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel and the West Bank settlements. Israel finds that much harder to respond to than terrorist acts, and Jews worldwide are uncomfortable to the point of complaining about “de-legitimization” of Israel.
Neither side at this point has the kind of leadership or strategy that could lead to a negotiated peace. Netanyahu regards the current situation as better than anything he can get at the negotiating table. It allows him to continue expanding settlements on the West Bank, to the glee of his right-wing coalition partners, and to pursue an anti-Iran coalition with Sunni Arab states. Abbas is serving the ninth year of a four-year term, validated only by a vote of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Central Council. His relatively moderate strategy may make Jews uncomfortable, but it hasn’t raise the costs to Netanyahu significantly. The US, whose proper role in the negotiations is to deliver its ally Israel to an otherwise unsatisfactory outcome, has chosen instead to align itself with Trump.
I do think peace is possible, despite the enormous power asymmetry. But not now. Until the US, PA and Israel have new leaders committed to a negotiated outcome, all three will muddle through, with the Israelis changing the reality on the ground and the Palestinians trying to undermine Israel’s international legitimacy while increasing their own. Trump will fail to deliver the deal of the century, as he has at everything but enriching himself and gaining enormous notoriety.
PS: For a marginally more optimistic view, see Chatham House’s recent commentary.
I wrote a couple of days ago about the current Palestinian narrative. Today I’ll try to describe the Jewish Israeli narrative, though that is more difficult because there is a far wider range of views. The Palestinians seem to me to have become a nation (that is: a community with a common language, culture and beliefs about their identity, even though most are Muslim and a small percentage Christian) but failed to complete their state, partly due to Israeli resistance. The Jews have built an impressive state that dominates both in Israel inside the 1967 borders and outside them, but their nation is less fully formed. My liberal Judaism, to which most American Jews adhere, is a small and sometimes barely tolerated minority in Israel.
Many Israeli Jews believe their presence in the West Bank and the (not complete) blockade of Gaza are security necessities. They attribute the decline of terrorist attacks in Israel to the security barrier, which they like to call a fence (they claim it is 92% fence and only 8% wall). They are pleased with the recently unveiled capacity to detect and destroy tunnels Hamas and others dig into Israel from Gaza. Even Israeli Jews who would like to see withdrawal from the West Bank in order to allow the creation of a Palestinian state emphasize that the Jewish settlements there constitute a small percentage of the land area: some say less than 3%, others less than 6%, as it depends on what you count.
There is little doubt though that someone in Jerusalem is planning the settlements and infrastructure (roads, electricity, water) for a permanent presence in the West Bank, especially but not only in the territory near Jerusalem that the Israelis have formally annexed. The settlements already break up the areas the Palestinian Authority controls or administers into more than 150 enclaves (islands). Some are connected by tunnels, but not most. The right-wing parties that participate in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government want to expand the population living in the West Bank to one million, while legalizing many outposts that are currently considered illegal.
Some claim that the settlements built on state or privately owned land are legitimate. This relies on a claim that Israel is the successor state to Jordan, the British mandate, and the Ottoman Empire in the territory it controls, a claim that has been neither agreed nor adjudicated so far as I am aware. Some also believe legitimate settlements should be able to stay under Palestinian sovereignty after final status is decided. That is difficult to imagine in practice, but there are certainly Israeli Jews putting it forward in theory.
When talking about the Palestinians, many less liberal Israeli Jews–and for that matter American ones–betray an attitude that can only be described as discriminatory, or worse. One carefully explained that the more Orthodox Jewish settlements outside the 1967 borders were built to give poor Haredim more acceptable living conditions than in the crowded neighborhoods of West Jerusalem. There is little concern or funding for the crowded Palestinian neighborhoods, and certainly no building of new towns for them near Jerusalem. Another cited his settlement’s good relations with its Arab neighbors–a laudable achievement–in terms that suggested their social and cultural inferiority. Americans should be familiar with these attitudes: in a more virulent form, they now occupy the mind of the current inhabitant of the White House when it comes to Mexican and African Americans, not to mention all of Africa and Haiti.
Israeli Jews both inside and outside the 1967 borders find the current situation tolerable. Most have little contact with Arabs, apart from those who do construction or menial jobs. Intellectual interchange with Palestinians is now mostly limited to a Jewish elite that sympathizes with their desire for self-determination. The fence/wall is not only physical but psychological and cultural. The costs of securing (the Palestinians would say occupying) the West Bank and blockading Gaza are tolerable. Tuesday’s “day of rage” against Trump/Pence proved eminently manageable. The Israelis exploit the water and other resources of the West Bank with abandon, training their soldiers in its nature parks and raiding supposedly Palestinian-secured areas at will while denying building permits.
There is an enormous power imbalance between Israel and the Palestinians: politically, militarily, and economically Israel is overwhelmingly dominant. Its per capita GDP is perhaps 20 times that of the Palestinians outside the 1967 borders. The Palestinians have no army and apart from their police no legitimate weapons. Their state is largely dysfunctional and their security forces beholden to the Israelis. The Palestinians say the West Bank and Gaza live under an apartheid system in the making, or some say already made. The Israelis see these asymmetries as advantages to be exploited.