U.S. Foreign Policy: This Is Us

Last weekend a pair of horrifying massacres in the U.S. cities of El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio sent shock waves through the country. The outrage was so powerful that even President Donald Trump had to overcome his own indifference to the act and say something that, from another source, might have sounded vaguely presidential. From him it only sounded insincere, especially since he could not even remember which Ohio city had just been so badly traumatized.

Among the punditry, Dr. Eddie Glaude, Jr., Professor of African-American Studies at Princeton, had perhaps the most insightful commentary. As Glaude completed his brief speech on MSNBC, he noted that when we see these horrific mass shootings, we ask, “Oh my God, is this who we are?”

Glaude answered his own question. “What we know is that this country has been playing politics for a long time on this hatred—we know this. So, it’s easy for us to place it all on Donald Trump’s shoulders. It’s easy to place Pittsburgh on his shoulders. It’s easy for me to place Charlottesville on his shoulders. It’s easy to place El Paso on his shoulders.” But then Glaude resoundingly proclaimed, “This is us! And if we’re gonna get past this we can’t blame it on [Trump]. He’s a manifestation of the ugliness that’s in us.”

Glaude is correct to point out that Trump is not inventing this, he is unleashing it, harvesting hate that has festered for decades, suppressed—but not defeated—by liberal ideals.

But as Americans so often do, we think of the Trump presidency in terms of ourselves, of what happens within our borders. For many of us, that doesn’t even extend to a place like Puerto Rico, which Trump was able to smugly neglect in a way he never would have dared to do to a mainland U.S. city. But what of our foreign policy under Trump and for years before him?

Events in Gaza, Iran, the United Kingdom, Congo, Kashmir, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and other places do not exist in isolation from the United States. Sometimes by action, sometimes by inaction, the U.S. affects events all over the world. That’s hardly news. Most Americans know it. But too few of us take it seriously enough to let it influence our votes or political activity. Read more at LobeLog

Nine Thoughts On The Latest Gaza Flare-Up

Now that the latest flare-up of fighting between Israel and Gaza has subsided, at least for the moment, here are nine thoughts on the clash, the outcomes, and the implications.

  1. Although the timing is suspicious, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu probably did not launch an operation in Gaza to forestall a developing accommodation with Hamas. The Israeli incursion that sparked the latest conflagration in Gaza was of a kind that Israel carries out on a routine basis. It was, from all appearances, a routine intelligence operation gone awry. Gaza has been a steady source of political losses for Netanyahu, this time as well. His willingness to consent to Qatari cash coming into the Strip was unpopular in Israel, as was his quick agreement to a ceasefire. There was no good reason for Netanyahu to have intentionally gone down this path. Read more at LobeLog

Trump’s Middle East Peace Plan: Doomed To Failure

The regional tour of Donald Trump’s primary Middle East envoys—his lawyer, Jason Greenblatt, and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner—has concluded. So, it’s an appropriate time to take stock of the peace plan the Trump team seems to be formulating.

Only the Trump team seems particularly eager to see this plan come about, which is telling. It is hard to be optimistic about the deal, given that the Kushner & Greenblatt Traveling Road Show met with everyone involved except the Palestinians. No matter what Jason and Jared may have heard, none of their Arab interlocutors is in a position to move forward on a deal that the Palestinians have summarily rejected.

Trump approaches the entire question of Palestine transactionally, in line with his approach to most issues. This view was reflected in an interview Kushner gave to the Palestinian newspaper, al-Quds. He told reporter Walid Abu-Zalaf, “At the end of the day, I believe that Palestinian people are less invested in the politicians’ talking points than they are in seeing how a deal will give them and their future generations new opportunities, more and better paying jobs and prospects for a better life.”

If Kushner believes that a slight uptick in average household income will obscure Palestinian concerns about settlements, refugees, Jerusalem, and the very nature of their national existence, he is gravely mistaken. But the entire interview seems to reflect just such a view. Referring to Palestinian spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh’s statement that the US efforts were doomed, Kushner remarked that the “Palestinian leadership is saying those things because they are scared we will release our peace plan and the Palestinian people will actually like it because it will lead to new opportunities for them to have a much better life.”

These statements make it clear that Kushner has not only misunderstood the Palestinian leadership, but Palestinians in general. US negotiators have routinely, and justifiably, been accused of being deaf to the pulse of the Palestinian people, but Kushner seems even more hard of hearing than usual. And there is virtually no chance that Greenblatt, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, or certainly Trump himself know any more about Palestinian sentiments than Kushner does. Continue reading at Lobelog

The Trump Effect in Gaza

The effects of Donald Trump’s trip last month to the Middle East continue to multiply. The focus, quite correctly has been on the breach between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. But the effects of the Saudis’ wooing of Trump are felt throughout the region.

Flattering the president of the United States is a sensible thing for most world leaders to do, but this president, basking in all-encompassing flattery, becomes immediately susceptible to the views of his supplicants. Trump came away from his Middle East trip having bought whole cloth into the Saudi narrative of regional politics, and his criticism of Qatar clearly spurred on what has transpired since. But it was not only the Saudi royal family that captured Trump’s attention.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was much less ostentatious in his adulation of Trump, but he was partnering with and praising Trump before Barack Obama had even left the White House. Despite Trump’s words about securing the “ultimate deal” between Israel and the Palestinians, the president’s selection of settlement funder David Friedman as ambassador and his use of Jason Greenblatt and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, both prominent pro-Israel figures as his envoys, demonstrated early on that the Trump approach was going to be rooted in the Israeli view to a much greater extent than prior administrations.

In this light, it behooves observers to consider the meaning behind the decision by the Palestinian Authority to step up its action against the Hamas government in Gaza. In recent days, the PA requested that Israel cut the power supply to Gaza, a request that Israel quickly honored. Shortly thereafter, it surfaced that the PA had stopped paying the regular stipends that have become so controversial to Palestinian prisoners (including a limited number of Hamas prisoners).

It would be a mistake to think this was part of some unified strategy between the PA and its regional allies, taking advantage of Trump’s view of the region and his apparent inability to grasp the regional complexities. Al-Monitor quoted Issa Qaraqe, the chairman of the Palestinian Committee for Prisoners’ Affairs, saying that “This decision was taken by the PA amid the ongoing dispute with Hamas. The decision is part of the [PA’s] pressure on the movement and has nothing to do with the United States and Israel calling on the PA to stop paying the Palestinian prisoners [currently in Israeli jails].”

Indeed, the cutoff of payments affected only 277 Hamas-affiliated prisoners, hardly a number that would mollify the United States and Israel on this matter.

But it would also be a mistake to believe that Trump’s visit and subsequent statements have nothing to do with the decisions being made in Ramallah, as well as in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Although Qarage is very likely correct that the PA decision is about the Fatah-Hamas dispute, the stepped-up activity coming at the same time as the Qatar-Saudi Arabia escalation is no coincidence. Indeed, it is connected by several factors.

Unlikely Prospects for Israeli-Palestinian Peace

At this point, Jared Kushner’s report to his father-in-law seems unlikely to include a recommendation for a robust effort at an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. All the past obstacles—the imbalance of power, the shifting demands, the Palestinian split, the lack of incentives for Israel—are still there. New ones have also appeared, including US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson putting Mahmoud Abbas on the spot politically by claiming, incorrectly, that the Palestinian president had agreed to stop payments to the families of Palestinian prisoners. There’s also the Trump administration’s rumored displeasure with Abbas for refusing to receive US Ambassador David Friedman (an odd objection since US ambassadors are sent to Israel, not the PA, who usually meet with US special envoys).

But Trump has already accepted the Israeli view on numerous matters. He has stated that settlements are not blocking the peace process. He has clearly prioritized the payments to Palestinian prisoners. He does not seem to understand why Abbas would refuse to meet an ambassador who has enthusiastically funded some of the most radical settlement projects. And, perhaps most of all, he has been slippery at best regarding a two-state solution.

Abbas, therefore, must find a way to show Trump that the Palestinians can contribute something significant to his regional efforts. The one thing he can do that no other Arab agent can is to take on Hamas. Despite Hamas’ having distanced itself in recent years from its Muslim Brotherhood roots, both Saudi Arabia and Egypt still see it as part of that broad and diffuse movement.

They’re not wrong in that. The chief threat that the Saudi and Egyptian government see in the Muslim Brotherhood is its potential to rally popular support and win politically. The coup engineered by Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi is not an ideal cure to what happened in Egypt. Reversing votes with military coups tends to increase popular dissent. Whether Hamas has any real connection to the Brotherhood or not, it represents the same sort of problem in the eyes of the regional dictators.

But Hamas is a Palestinian nationalist movement as well as an Islamist one, and as such, other Arab leaders must tread very carefully in opposing it. The PA has its own difficulties in confronting Hamas, but an internal Palestinian dispute is a very different matter from an Arab government fighting against a Palestinian nationalist group, especially one that was the victor in the last full Palestinian election.

Hamas’ Vulnerability

Abbas surely chose this moment in great measure because the Saudi-UAE blockade and sanctions on Qatar dramatically increase Hamas’ already considerable vulnerability. Qatar has been Hamas’ main benefactor for several years. Egypt, which still mistrusts Hamas, has been working with the Islamist Gaza government to try to stem the flow of weapons to more radical groups in the Sinai Peninsula that disdain the governments on both sides of the Gaza-Egypt border.

Egypt, for its part, does not want to find itself in any way responsible for Gaza on a permanent basis. Nothing would please the Sisi government more than to see the Palestinian Authority back in control of the overcrowded and poverty-stricken Strip. Although Hamas has found some success in improving relations with Egypt, based on common enemies, this has not stopped Egypt from continuing its cooperation with Israel in blockading Gaza.

Pressing Hamas by cutting the already insufficient supply of electricity to Gaza while withholding salaries to key Hamas personnel in Israeli prisons are tactics aimed at causing more instability and difficulty for the Hamas government.

Ironically, Israel is probably hoping that the PA’s strategy works well enough to avoid or at least postpone another round of fighting with Hamas. Netanyahu’s scandals have faded to some degree, and his political position is relatively stable right now. Although the Trump administration will loudly applaud Israeli action in Gaza, Europe would not be so positive, and the strain in that relationship has been worsening of late. In short, a burst of nationalism through an attack on Gaza is not needed right now. If the PA can destabilize Hamas without drawing hundreds of rockets over the Gaza border into Israel, that is likely just fine with Netanyahu, at least for the moment.

Collective Punishment

The Saudi blockade of Qatar, like all such actions, affects the population with shortages of goods and services. For Qatar, an import economy where Qatari nationals make up only about 12% of the population, the impact is magnified. As a wealthy country, however, Qatar is much better equipped to deal with a crisis than Gaza.

The people of Gaza have endured the worst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ever since 1948. Isolated by Egypt until 1967, then bearing the brunt of the Israeli occupation and, finally, physically isolated since 2007, the people of this densely populated strip have suffered with each action of the parties involved in the conflict there.

The current round of collective punishment may result in Hamas deciding that its only recourse is to launch rockets at Israel, which will surely bring an Israeli response that will only cause more devastation. Or, it may try to wait out the PA and see how much suffering Abbas is willing to inflict on the people of Gaza. Either way, the people lose.

Israel and Egypt are no closer to ending the siege on the strip, although Egypt has helped Gaza with some fuel to ease the electricity crisis. Few in the international community are acting, despite some wailing and lamenting over the awful conditions in Gaza.

All of this is happening in the context of ongoing environmental deterioration in the strip, which will make Gaza unlivable in as little as three years from now.

The Trump Effect

Trump’s effect on Saudi strategy has rippled throughout the region. Of course, he did not create the tensions between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, much less the rift between the PA and Hamas. But by adopting the Saudi and Israeli narratives, he has created a strategic environment that encourages more aggressive steps by the stronger parties in those conflicts.

Trump surely has no idea he did any of this, which is perhaps the most dangerous aspect of all. But he has also, unwittingly, begun an experiment of policy.

Until now, the Saudis were reluctant to push too hard on Qatar. Now, they are blockading the country and have presented the Qataris with a maximalist set of demands. The aim of all this is to isolate Iran regionally and deliver a sharp blow to populist Islamist movements like Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hezbollah (as distinct from the more sectarian and self-interested groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda). It also quashes the opening of Arab discourse that al-Jazeera, for all its many flaws, represents.

Will the Saudi offensive work? If it does, it will re-entrench the Arab dictatorship model that thrived for so long in the region. That may or not be the model that someone like Mahmoud Abbas prefers, but it is now the only wagon to which he can hitch his hopes.

Trump has created the opportunity to see if that tactic will work. If it does, hopes for democracy will have suffered a serious defeat. If it fails, the recent revival of Iranian regime change in US policy circles shows we are not learning from defeats and mistakes.

The War that Changed the Middle East

Fifty years have passed since Israel’s stunning military victory over the countries surrounding it in 1967. War transforms countries, regions, the entire planet as no other event can. And perhaps no war ever transformed a country and the entire region surrounding it as suddenly and as dramatically as the 1967 war did to Israel, the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the entire Middle East.

Consider where the region was on June 4, 1967. The Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union was in full swing in the region, with the US enjoying an advantage, but still concerned with Soviet influence. Egypt, under Gamal Abdel Nasser, was a leader in both the global Non-Aligned Movement—which purported to resist the influence of either of the superpowers—and the rapidly declining Pan-Arab movement. Syria was already fighting with Israel. Its government in a state of flux that would not resolve itself until several years later, Syria was already the Soviet Union’s strongest ally in the region. Disunity among Arab governments in general was rampant, with uneasy relationships thwarting several attempts at alliances among different sets of countries.

Israel was a 19-year-old country that was in a de facto state of war with all its neighbors. Its economy was much more centrally controlled than it is now, and the country was much poorer. Palestinians who remained within Israel after the 1948 war were mostly granted technical citizenship, with voting rights, but lived under martial law until 1966. Those restrictions were hauntingly similar to what Palestinians in the West Bank live under today. Curfews, travel permits, administrative detention, land confiscation through the manipulation of the law, and summary expulsions were all traits of the lives of Israel’s Arab citizens.

Although Israel had been building its military strength since 1948, the extent of its military might was both far less than it is today and untested. The United States supported Israel and saw it as a Cold War ally, but the relationship was not nearly as close as it is today. Israelis did not need a Benjamin Netanyahu to scare them. They faced real threats from countries around them and had no idea if their military was sufficient to counter that threat. The populace was always afraid of a major war, and that fear rise to a fever pitch in spring 1967.

The West Bank was controlled by Jordan, which had annexed it in 1950, an act that no other country, save the United Kingdom, ever recognized. Nonetheless, Palestinians living in the West Bank as well as in the rest of Jordan were granted full citizenship. But there was virtually no contact between Palestinians on the West Bank and those in Israel, splitting families apart for many years.

East Jerusalem was also under Jordanian control. The city’s status as an economic hub declined sharply as it had lost its connection to the coast and was no longer a true capital, but its religious significance remained. In a decision that continues to have political repercussions, which peace advocates too often ignore or minimize, Jordan barred Jews from the city.

Egypt captured the Gaza Strip, and, again not unlike the situation today, it really wanted no part of it. The Nasser government kept Gaza isolated and cut off from the rest of Egypt, causing the already poor Strip to fall deeper into economic hardship. The flow of refugees from the 1948 war into Gaza had been considerable, generating the overcrowding that would plague Gaza to this day.

A Changed Landscape

The war, which lasted from June 5 to 10, changed the entire landscape of the region. The regional influence of Nasser’s Egypt, which had been an uneasy but valued Soviet ally and a serious concern for Israel, the United States, and Saudi Arabia, dropped precipitously. Pan-Arabism was largely dead after the war.

Israel’s occupation of the Sinai Peninsula was intolerable to Egypt. In the absence of any effective international diplomacy that offered hope of persuading Israel to withdraw, Egypt launched a gradually building war of attrition, which would last until a cease-fire in 1970.

Nasser was never able to make headway in regaining the Sinai. His successor, Anwar Al-Sadat, would eventually succeed with a show of military strength that got Israel’s attention, a clear pivot away from the Soviet Union and toward the United States, and a bold political initiative that included an appearance before the Israeli Knesset in 1977.

The eventual resolution of the Sinai issue established a number of precedents. One was the concept of “land for peace.” This was a concession to the fact that UN Security Council Resolutions had proven ineffective at prying concessions from Israel. Another was the primacy not only of US diplomacy but of US military aid in the region. Both Egypt and Israel continue to reap the benefits of that agreement.

The return of the Sinai also had a profound effect on the Palestinians. When the final agreement was struck between Israel and Egypt, it included a section on a broader peace that would involve the settlement of the “Palestinian problem.” The wording, however, was vague, included no references to Jerusalem or the return of Palestinian refugees, and was deliberately framed by Israel to limit Palestinian aspirations to “autonomy,” not independence. In practice, the agreement changed nothing for the Palestinians and was widely seen as an Egyptian departure from the Arab consensus and betrayal of the Palestinians. It would cost Sadat his life.

In Syria, the swift defeat and loss of the majority of the territory of the Golan Heights in 1967 was the spark that eventually led to Hafez al-Assad’s rise to power. His predecessor, Salah Jadid, had been very active before the war in provoking Israel, with frequent air raids and mortar fire into northern Israel. After the defeat, Jadid was able to hold onto power for a while, but he immediately lost support to his minister of defense, Assad. By 1970, Jadid was out of office and in prison and the more pragmatic, but quite ruthless, Assad was in power.

Although Saudi Arabia was not involved in the war, it nonetheless saw a massive transformation in its foreign policy as a result of it. Prior to the war, the Saudis had led one side of a “regional cold war,” with the pro-Soviet and Pan-Arabist Egypt leading the other. Soon after Israel’s victory, the Saudis and Egyptians ended their conflict, which was largely playing out in Yemen, not unlike today’s competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

King Faysal bin Abdelaziz al Saud had been a close friend of the United States and had, in the past, worked very diligently at building up that relationship. But, angered at the US response to the war, he supported an Iraqi initiative to cut oil exports to the US and United Kingdom, which had little impact on the US but was a precursor to the embargo that did affect the US a few years later. Saudi policy became focused on positioning the country as the leader in supporting the Palestinian cause, after largely staying in the background on the matter for years before. The Saudis established themselves as the top backers of Yasir Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

Impact on Palestinians

Indeed, the 1967 war transformed the Palestinian situation in major ways. Palestinian politics had been largely in shock since 1948. There was very little real activity; even the initial formation of the PLO was largely a broader Arab project.

After the war, the Fatah movement led by Yasir Arafat gained primacy and took over the PLO. Arafat gave the PLO sufficient legitimacy that it would eventually be recognized by the entire Arab world, and in time the entire international community, as the official representative body of the Palestinian people. In addition to the massive dispossession the Palestinians suffered in 1948, which only increased after 1967, a large Palestinian population under Israeli law had no guaranteed rights.

The occupation brought a new layer to the conflict over Israel. It soon spawned real consideration of a two-state solution. At the 1974 Arab League Summit in Rabat, Morocco, the PLO first began to consider a Palestinian state alongside an Israeli one, at least as a temporary measure. It began the diplomatic push that, two decades later, would see Jordan renounce its claims to the West Bank.

Before the war started, the United States was confident that Israel could triumph over the combined forces of its neighbors. Israeli leadership was less fully confident, and the Israeli public was absolutely terrified at the prospect. After the war, triumphalism swept the country. Although some voices, most notably David Ben-Gurion, called for returning most of the territory Israel had just captured, the mood of the public and the leadership was overwhelmingly opposed to such ideas.

Israel’s victory established it as a reliable client for the United States in the region, although those who supported a more conciliatory policy toward the Arab world would continue to plead their case, especially in the State Department. Although the United States supported UN resolutions calling for Israel’s withdrawal, it was not inclined to take strong action to enforce them.

Israel’s stunning victory also made the government feel that it had no reason to compromise. This thinking resulted in the years-long war of attrition and the near-calamity of the 1973 War.

History, of course, has evolved greatly over the ensuing 50 years, and many notable, important, and tragic events have occurred. But no single event has so dramatically reshaped the dynamics of the entire region since the war of June 5-10, 1967.