In case you haven’t figured it out yet, it’s not really “America First.”
It’s “Donald Trump First.”
Life would no doubt be safer for the rest of us if his administration based its foreign policy on something larger than one person’s personal fortune(s).
But Trump policies have never been famous for their altruism and typically lack any semblance of logic. He tends to choose the path that is best for him, or the one that amuses him, or feeds into his craving for chaos, giving little thought to the decision, even if it ends up as the worst possible move.
Nowhere is this behavior more evident than in his approach to Israel. Repeatedly since taking over the White House, in January 2017, Trump’s Middle East policy judgments have been aimed primarily at fueling his bromance with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his fervid wooing of conservative American Jews. There is not even a nod to international law, United Nations Security Council resolutions or the wishes of close allies.
Trump, backed by his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and his national security adviser, John Bolton, argues that Washington can do whatever it wants in the Middle East because the United States is a sovereign nation with a huge defense budget. Nikki Haley, his UN ambassador during the first two years of his presidency, also tried to keep it simple, noting that the US was also the UN’s biggest dues payer and foreign aid provider, so it deserved support for even the most hopelessly unwise and unpopular of causes.
“As you consider your vote, I want you to know that the President and US take this vote personally,” Haley warned in December 2017, as the UN General Assembly weighed a resolution denouncing Trump’s unilateral decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital. That decision went against decades of Security Council resolutions and US policy, dealing a heavy blow to international plans to make East Jerusalem the eventual capital of a Palestinian state. Trump and Haley were unfazed.
“This vote will make a difference on how Americans look at the UN and on how we look at countries who disrespect us at the UN. And this vote will be remembered,” she said. “[W]e have an obligation to acknowledge when our political and financial capital is being poorly spent.”
To quote the Illinois poet Carl Sandburg, “If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the law and the facts are against you, pound the table and yell like hell.”
Although Haley vowed to “take names” of those who dared to cross her on Jerusalem’s status, the 193-member General Assembly voted 128-9 to symbolically declare the US decision “null and void.” But — most likely fearing retaliation — 35 nations abstained while 21 did not vote at all, and Haley interpreted that as a victory, inviting all but the “yes” voters to a party at her place, putting photos of the small gathering on her Twitter page.
Not that Trump’s Jerusalem announcement has made much of a difference. So far, only Guatemala has joined the US in moving its embassy there. And governments wondering whether Trump might have boosted the odds for a Middle East peace deal have been disappointed. Some Palestinians are still violently protesting the Jerusalem move, enabling Netanyahu and Israel’s military in turn to demonstrate their toughness.
But Trump was unmoved, continuing to shower wet kisses on Netanyahu and his supporters despite the lack of progress toward a resolution of the conflict. And no one in the administration appears to be mourning the absence of a viable Middle East peace process.
Sadly, when it comes to actual peace, Trump has been a man of empty promises. The region is, if anything, further from a resolution of the conflict than when he first began boasting during his 2016 campaign that he wanted to achieve “the ultimate deal” and resolve the Middle East conflict.
“As a deal maker, I’d like to do the deal that can’t be made. And do it for humanity’s sake,” he said soon after winning the 2016 presidential election. But details are still cloaked in secrecy.
A look at the team he put in place to write his peace plan is illuminating. All three members are Orthodox Jews with close ties to Israel and no previous diplomatic experience.
His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a former real estate developer, is a grandchild of Holocaust survivors and his father is a longtime friend of Netanyahu’s. Jason Greenblatt, a former real estate lawyer who rose to become the executive vice president of the Trump Organization, attended a yeshiva in a West Bank settlement. The American ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, is a former bankruptcy lawyer and a longtime fundraiser for West Bank settlements.
The Palestinian Authority is boycotting the Trump team’s efforts. No wonder. At no point has Trump conditioned his Middle East activism on, or even aimed at, encouraging progress toward peace, improving regional stability or confidence-building among the parties. The administration appears focused instead on harsh criticism of the Palestinians and steadily sealing pathways that could prove helpful to them — a stance that not only fits with its broader anti-Muslim bigotry but is also popular with Netanyahu and conservative Israelis.
Haley adopted a similar strategy at the UN, regularly speaking out against what she saw as the anti-Israeli bias of other nations and entire UN agencies while openly faulting the Palestinians for rejecting Trump’s diplomacy. After she left the US government at the end of 2018, numerous Jewish groups and leaders have been lavishly praising Haley for her strong support for Israel, plying her with invitations for paid speaking engagements as she has begun laying the groundwork for a presumed run for higher office some day.
Her March 2018 speech to Aipac, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, drew 12 standing ovations and cries of “We love you” from the crowd. “I love you too,” she responded.
Yet no one is calling her a peacemaker.
Trump can be forgiven for seeing all this as peace’s loss, his win. Evangelical Christians and conservative American Jews, traditionally among Israel’s strongest supporters, have flocked to his side and rewarded him with campaign contributions.
He remains a pariah in the global community, however, for failing to make progress toward peace and many other international missteps. Political analysts predict his ardent wooing of voters who are strong supporters of Israel will have little impact on his 2020 re-election run as he has pretty much sewn up those blocs. At the same time, most US Jews traditionally lean Democratic and are unlikely to change sides in these highly polarized times.
The evidence is that Trump relates to Netanyahu as a personal friend and political ally, not as a gifted regional leader. Before Israel’s April 9 parliamentary elections, Trump appeared bent on cementing his relationship with the Israeli prime minister by luring voters to Netanyahu’s side rather than remain on the sidelines in a foreign election campaign.
Just 19 days before the voting, Trump endorsed Israel’s assertion of sovereignty over the Golan Heights, overriding 52 years of international law and US policy. Israel captured the strategic area from Syria during the 1967 Six-Day War and formally annexed it in 1981. But the international community, including the US, have viewed it as occupied territory and Israeli settlements there as illegal.
In the final days of the Israeli campaign, Trump remained silent when Netanyahu said for the first time that if he won, he would begin annexing Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank — a step that would constitute another major reversal of US policy and a violation of international law.
“Israel will continue to brazenly violate international law for as long as the international community will continue to reward Israel with impunity, particularly with the Trump Administration’s support and endorsement of Israel’s violation of the national and human rights of the people of Palestine,” commented Saeb Erekat, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s chief negotiator.
Then, only a day before the election, Trump announced out of the blue that he was imposing sanctions on Iran’s Revolutionary Guard by labeling it a terrorist group, apparently to give Netanyahu a final push in a tight race. Promptly claiming credit for Trump’s action, Netanyahu thanked him in a tweet for “accepting another important request of mine.”
Trump’s strategy helped Netanyahu overcome a credible centrist opponent and a barrage of corruption charges to score a record fifth term as prime minister, leaving him in a strong position to fight off the charges, which otherwise could send him to jail instead of the seat of Israeli power.
“Trump flags being waved at the Bibi @Netanyahu VICTORY celebration last night!” the US president tweeted the next morning, basking in Netanyahu’s election win.
Here are other ways in which Trump has offered Netanyahu and his supporters unconditional love since winning the White House in November 2016:
• Trump has enabled Netanyahu to quietly end support for the two-state solution to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, freeing the prime minister to ignore international criticism that Israel is disregarding the rights of its Arab citizens and residents while flouting international law by its creeping annexation of the Palestinian West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Syrian Golan Heights. While previous US administrations consistently pressed Israel to move toward accepting a Palestinian state, living side by side in peace with Israel, Trump has scrambled the playing field by repeatedly switching his support from a two-state plan to a one-state preference to no preference at all.
• Netanyahu’s fingerprints are found all over Trump’s relentless drive to pull out of the Iran nuclear agreement negotiated by the Obama administration. All parties to the deal but Washington agreed that Tehran was complying with its terms, and most Trump aides urged him to stick with it. But Netanyahu won the day, apparently gambling that if the US abrogated, Tehran would surely resume its pursuit of atomic bombs, clearing the way for the US to bomb its nuclear sites and begin a concerted push for regime change. Trump’s strategy replaced a mostly successful international agreement with a far more intense standoff with Iran, diplomatic squabbles with Iraq and increasing tensions with Russia, which had partnered with Iran in cracking down on Syrian rebels.
• US officials vigorously defend the Israeli military’s use of live fire against Palestinian civilians during violent protests along the Gaza border. “No country in this chamber would act with more restraint than Israel has,” Haley told a UN Security Council meeting on May 15, 2018, a day after demonstrations left a reported 60 Palestinians dead and 2,700 injured. Israel said at least 24 of the dead Palestinians were members of terror groups and said that Palestinians had hoped to cross the border to massacre Israelis. No Israeli soldiers were killed. The protests coincided with the opening of Washington’s Jerusalem embassy. But Haley blamed the Palestinian militant group Hamas. “Those who suggest that the violence has anything to do with the location of the American embassy in Jerusalem are sorely mistaken,” she said, according to the official transcript of her remarks. “Rather, the violence comes from those who reject the existence of the state of Israel in any location.” She then used the US veto to kill a draft Council resolution calling for the deaths to be investigated.
• In September 2018, the Trump administration shut down the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Washington office, saying the PLO had failed “to advance the start of direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel.”
• In another slap at Palestinians, the US State Department in March 2019 shuttered the US Consulate General in Jerusalem, a diplomatic outpost that served as a de facto embassy to the Palestinians since the mid-1990s. The consulate’s duties were merged with a Palestinian affairs unit at the new US embassy in Jerusalem.
• Washington has gradually zeroed out financial and food assistance to the Palestinians during Trump’s presidency, saying the move was meant to pressure them to negotiate on a peace deal and to counter terrorism. Deep cuts were originally made in aid channeled through the UN in 2018, and all assistance channeled through the US Agency for International Development ended by early 2019.
• In February 2019, Pompeo appointed Elan Carr to the new post of special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism. Carr declared after being sworn in on April 11 that boycotts of Israeli companies and products made by Jews living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank were anti-Semitic. “If there is an organized movement to economically strangle the state of Israel, that is anti-Semitic,” he said, denouncing “the idea that somehow there can be movements organized to deny Israel its legitimacy, and not to allow Israel to participate in economic commerce in the world.” Champions of the global BDS movement — Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions — say their campaign aims to pressure Israel to meet what they describe as its obligations under international law toward the Palestinians. Denying anti-Semitic motives, they see their campaign only as a protest against particular Israeli policies. The movement is modeled on an international boycott campaign that ended South Africa’s racially separatist apartheid policies in the early 1990s. Carr said the Trump administration was unequivocally opposed to the BDS campaign.
• Citing anti-Israel bias, the US announced in October 2017 that it would drop its membership in Unesco effective Jan. 1, 2019. “Unesco is among the most corrupt and politically biased UN agencies,” Haley tweeted bizarrely as US membership stopped. Washington was irritated when the agency accepted Palestine as a member, although it was not a full-fledged UN member. Trump’s administration also opposed Unesco’s designation of the city of Hebron as a Palestinian World Heritage site. While most of the city is administered by the Palestinian Authority, it is located in the Israeli occupied West Bank and part of it is under Israeli military control.
• Pompeo and Haley announced in June 2018 the US withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council, denouncing the organization as “hypocritical and self-serving” and accusing it of a systematic bias against Israel. Washington pulled out of the world’s most important human-rights body and ceased financial support for its activities after giving it about a year to revise its procedures. In dropping out, the US joined Iran, North Korea and Eritrea as the only governments rejecting participation in Council deliberations and dismissed arguments that it could do more to protect human rights by working from inside the Council than by leaving it.
• Even before taking the oath of office, Trump tried to prevent the Security Council from considering a draft resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity as illegal and calling on Israel to “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities” on occupied Palestinian lands. Violating a president-elect’s traditional practice of refraining from involvement in government decision-making until after being inaugurated, Trump — acting at Netanyahu’s behest — openly criticized President Obama for planning to abstain on the resolution rather than veto it. Trump also appealed to Egypt, the resolution’s author, to withdraw it, and then to Russia to kill it. The Council approved the text 14-0 over Washington’s abstention.
It is still unknown whether Trump’s blueprint for a Middle East peace will ever see the light of day. But should it ever surface, is there any question that it will be so pleasing to Israel and so toxic to the Palestinians that it will be dead on arrival? What a tragic waste.
Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.