The US Quits On Human Rights

In a move that seemed very likely when Donald Trump was elected president and was cemented when he appointed Nikki Haley as ambassador to the United Nations, the United States withdrew

from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on Wednesday. The stated reasons for the US decision were the bias against Israel at UNHRC and the fact that some undeniably egregious human rights violators sit on the council. But these explanations become flimsy once you examine them.

Because it routinely accuses any critic of its policies of bias, Israel is like the boy who cried wolf. And it’s not just the leaders: many Israelis and supporters of Israel around the world genuinely believe that there is bias against Israel everywhere they turn. This feeling did not come into being with the election of Benjamin Netanyahu, but no Israeli prime minister has ever come close to magnifying that paranoia as much as he has.

Israel uses these lamentations to further entrench sympathy from its supporters and help them to believe that all that stuff about the occupation is just the result of bias, of Israel being blamed for Hamas’s actions or for things taken out of context. Although it’s easy to dismiss those statements as propaganda, it is foolish to give Israel ammunition.

The UNHRC does just that, however. In its earliest days, it focused on Israel to the point of obsession. That didn’t happen because of anti-Semitism, but for the same reason Israel gets routinely savaged in UN General Assembly (UNGA) votes. it is a significant human rights violator and, although it has the US protecting it in the Security Council—and therefore shielding it from any material consequences of its actions—it is one issue that a wide swath of countries can agree on.

As a result, the UNHRC, more than any other body in the UN, can legitimately be accused of being unfair to Israel. That Israel is the only country that merits a permanent agenda item is patently absurd, and unnecessary. That one fact, which the UNHRC stubbornly refuses to change, gives enormous ammunition to Israel and the United States, and it bolsters the largely bogus arguments that they use to cover many of the worst human rights violations of the occupation and the siege of Gaza.

The bias at the UNHRC allows Israel to paint the entire UN as biased, a point recognized by several UN secretaries general. For example, Ban Ki-Moon stated in 2007 that he was “disappointed at the Council’s decision to single out only one specific regional item, given the range and scope of allegations of human rights violations throughout the world.” He was, of course, referring to Israel.

To a certain extent the interference the US runs for Israel in the Security Council more than makes up for UNHRC and UNGA statements against Israel that have no teeth. But addressing bias by creating a counterbalancing bias is a problematic solution at best. In this case, it strengthens the US argument that it needs to defend its ally against the bias it faces. Legitimate investigations into Israeli conduct are undermined before they begin (as was the case with the Goldstone Report into the 2008-9 Israeli attack on Gaza). Most of all, it further politicizes the issue of the occupation while moving it further away from the rule of international law, the only arena where the Palestinians stand a chance against the US and Israel.

Ultimately, of course, Israel gets hammered in the UNHRC and the UNGA because it violates Palestinian human rights on a constant basis and magnifies those violations with larger crimes, such as those in Gaza in recent weeks. But that doesn’t mean that it makes sense to abandon a fair approach to legal issues. On the contrary, given the nature of the defenses Israel offers, impartial judgments and equality under the law are absolutely indispensable. The UNHRC has fallen very short in this regard. Although Palestinians and their supporters cheer many of its resolutions, this abandonment of basic principles of jurisprudence does a great deal more harm than good to the Palestinian cause.

Obama In, Trump Out

Donald Trump has willfully oriented his policies, foreign and domestic, as anti-Obama. If Barack Obama did it, Trump wants to either reverse it or do the opposite.

In this case, Trump isn’t just differentiating himself from Obama by quitting the UNHRC. From the very beginning, Haley—certainly with the stamp of approval from the White House as well as her predecessor, John Bolton—came not to engage but to harangue. Her adversarial positions at the United Nations are meant to endear her and her boss to the Israeli government and, perhaps more to the point, Israel’s right-wing supporters in the US. But diplomacy is not high on the agenda. Unlike other members of the Trump administration, Haley is capable of diplomacy and even leadership in the international arena. She demonstrated that when she got China and other nations to agree to ratchet up sanctions on North Korea.

But she and Trump approach the UN with one phrase: America First. Given the deference Trump has shown to Netanyahu, that means Israel is along for the ride.

Obama had a different view. He worked hard and succeeded at reversing the anger that George W. Bush’s disdain for multilateralism had generated. Far from the abdication of global leadership that Obama was accused of by the right and that Trump has fully embraced, Obama was engaged. He recognized that leadership meant pursuing the US agenda while being considerate of those of its allies—all its allies.

For all of Israel’s complaints, the strategy worked for it as well. A study by the Council on Foreign Relations showed that US involvement at the UNHRC cut the number of Israel-specific resolutions by more than half. It also dramatically increased the attention to other countries’ human rights violations.

Obama didn’t erase all trace of bias from the UNHRC, but the shift with the US on the council was dramatic. That’s why it is not surprising that Israeli journalist Barak Ravid reported that

Israeli foreign ministry officials tell me they are concerned that US withdrawal from the UN human rights council will make it harder to block anti-Israeli initiatives on the council. The officials say that even though they feel the council is extremely biased against Israel, US membership helped to soften or fend off some anti-Israeli steps.

One of those initiatives is a fact-finding mission looking into Israel’s use of deadly force against unarmed protesters in Gaza. Ravid reports that Israeli officials told him “they are concerned that without the U.S. it will be close to impossible to influence the commission’s composition, mandate and conclusions.”

Is this another case of the US being more pro-Likud than Likud?

Who’s the Human Rights Violator?

The issue of the UNHRC treatment of Israel is certainly a significant factor in the US decision. But that factor has been there all along. The US could have quit the council at any time. So why now?

Lauren Wolfe, at The Atlantic, offers an alternative theory.

Human-rights experts told me that one of Trump’s most likely, and most insidious, arguments for the move is to prevent the United States from being called out on its own alleged human-rights abuses. Trump has led an orchestrated attack on press freedom, while Congress has rolled back protections for women and girls both at home and abroad. HRW also points to media reports that say the United States has interrogated detainees in Yemen in secret prisons known for torture. Now, the Trump administration has enacted a policy to separate families attempting to cross the border illegally. Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, called the policy ‘government-sanctioned child abuse.’ For the Trump administration, decrying the very body that plans to criticize you is a simple, if blunt, way to try to discredit it.

The timing of the decision strongly suggests that Wolfe is on to something here. Trump has established a strong pattern of intemperate responses to criticism.

Staunch supporters of Israel also question whether this helps their cause. Rep. Elliot Engel (D-NY) may be a Democrat, but he is as zealous a pro-Israel voice as there is in Congress. He sharply criticized the move, saying, “By withdrawing from the council, we lose our leverage and allow the council’s bad actors to follow their worst impulses unchecked—including running roughshod over Israel…However, this administration’s approach when it sees a problem is to take the United States off the field.”

US involvement clearly made a difference. Writing in 2015, Ted Piccone of the Brookings Institute described the contemporary impact of the UNHRC.

Their recommendations have led to concrete action on problems ranging from combating torture in Jordan to protecting journalists in Cambodia, decriminalizing blasphemy in the United Kingdom and reducing prison sentences in China. The universal periodic review process is adding another layer of transparency and accountability by holding all states to their commitment to uphold international norms: Nearly half of the recommendations made were partially or fully implemented just two-and-a-half years after the first round of reviews.

On some of the most serious cases, the Council has taken action that has led to important and unprecedented results. The commission of inquiry on North Korea, for example, which delivered a hard-hitting report in 2014 documenting crimes against humanity, has changed the conversation from denials of human rights abuses to acceptance that the UN Security Council must address the matter, including through a potential referral to the International Criminal Court. On Sri Lanka, the Council has shifted from initially applauding the bloody termination of the conflict in 2009 to demanding an independent investigation of the abuses; this international pressure had a direct effect on subsequent elections in the country, and helped bring to power a new leader who immediately adopted a set of important reforms.

A body that is horribly underfunded and that has no enforcement mechanism at its disposal whatsoever did all that. With the US no longer a part of it, such dramatic progress is much less likely to be achieved against such staunch obstacles.

The UNHRC does include very problematic countries. The US is quick to point the finger at Venezuela, Cuba, and China, but that list should feature US allies Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt at least as prominently. Many would argue that the US has no place on the UNHRC either, and certainly Trump strengthens that case.

In the end, the United States did not advance the cause of Israel or of any other “reform” it wanted at the UNHRC. Perhaps the increasing isolation of the US, and of Israel, from those countries that wish to advance universal human rights will eventually be a positive. But the world would be better off if regional and global powers of such significance were working, even with missteps, to advance that doctrine. Trump’s and Haley’s disdain for human rights and international law only moves the world farther away from achieving a universal and enforceable system of rights.


Palestinians: Still The Invisible Victims

“It didn’t have to be this way,” writes Jim Zogby in the new preface to the reissue of his 1981 book, Palestinians, The Invisible Victims: Political Zionism and the Roots of Palestinian Dispossession.

There were, a century ago, multiple threads to the Zionist movement. On the one side, for example, there was Martin Buber’s inclusive vision of spiritual Zionism, advocating the in-gathering of the Jewish people and cooperation between them and the indigenous Arab population in Palestine and the broader region. There was also a thread of what came to be called Political Zionism that proposed a more radical and exclusivist vision that sought to displace the Arabs of Palestine. Tragically, this was the thread that won out.

This is a crucial framing of Zogby’s book. Reissued after 37 years, the book often seems like it could be talking about contemporary events. Zogby’s basic thesis is summed up in his conclusion, where he states, “The violations of [Palestinians’] basic human rights are, quite simply, a function of the political ambitions of the Political Zionist movement and the state it created. Palestinian resistance to Zionism and its dream of an exclusive Jewish state, therefore, continues.”

Zogby’s 1981 book states the Palestinian case. It is a short book and makes no pretense to an exhaustive history or a complete review of then-contemporary conditions. It offers one idea, that the exclusivist vision of Political Zionism is incompatible with a lasting peace.

An Opposition to a Specific Zionism

Zionism as a defense against anti-Semitism or a unifying force for a religious group becoming increasingly secular is perfectly legitimate. The issue is, as it has always been, the insistence by the political strain that overwhelmed all other forms of modern Jewish nationalism (some of which, like the Bund, were not Zionist) on forming a state consisting exclusively of its own people in a land that was already populated. Zionism can co-exist with others. Exclusivist Political Zionism cannot, but it also need not be the only expression of Jewish nationalism.

“The European Jewry,” Zogby writes, “who were to be the ‘bearers of this civilization were, in the words of Max Nordau (one of Zionism’s founders), ‘a people more industrious and more able even than the average European, not to speak at all of the inert Africans.’ While the founders of this movement shared with their European contemporaries a racist contempt for the rights of the peoples of Asia and Africa and had the will to establish a colony in either of these two continents, they lacked the means to accomplish this end.”

Eventually, the Zionists found the backing they needed from the British government. Here Zogby touches on the main reason for the inevitable triumph of political Zionism over the other strains. Despite the efforts of some who transcended the racism of their culture, such racism was so common, and generally so unchallenged in Europe and, therefore, among European expatriates, there was little hope for co-existence.

Despite the provision in the Balfour declaration calling for the rights of the indigenous population to be respected, Britain had no more regard for those rights than the Zionist movement. The Zionist settlement was generally supported and protected, while the Arab population was to be contained.

In fact, Zogby quotes Lord Balfour directly: “In Palestine, we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting its inhabitants as to their wishes…Zionism…is of far greater importance…than the desire and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who inhabit that ancient land.” It’s worth noting that figure, 700,000 Palestinians. A wiser approach by the European parties—one that envisioned a mutually beneficial future—could easily have produced a different future. There was clearly more than enough room for the Zionists to come and establish a new state without dispossessing or infringing anyone’s rights. It was only the complete disregard for the rights of the indigenous population by all the European parties that put both the Jews and Palestinians on this miserable course.

Early Israel

The thumbnail sketch of history that Zogby necessarily provides is still remarkable for its similarity to the history of the 1948 war as understood today. In 1981, that history was largely unknown or grossly distorted. Relying on the documentation from Israeli sources available at the time and on the work of Palestinian historian, Walid Khalidi, Zogby provides a summary that could have easily been drawn from the work of the Israeli “New Historians,” whose books would be published a few years later. When Zogby, or Khalidi before him, wrote these histories they were ignored. But when Israeli writers wrote of the same things, there was a tidal wave of interest and controversy. That in itself is telling.

Perhaps trying to address the already growing debate challenging the story of Palestine’s Arabs leaving “voluntarily” or being driven out at gunpoint, Zogby goes to some length to describe the campaign to get the Arab population to flee. Noting the infamous Deir Yassin massacre, Zogby quotes Palmach leader and future Foreign Minister of Israel Yigal Allon:

We saw a need to clean the upper Galilee and to create territorial a Jewish continuity in the entire area of the upper Galilee…We, therefore, tried a tactic…which worked miraculously well. I gathered all the Jewish Muktars, who have contact with the Arabs in different villages, and asked them to whisper in the ears of the Arabs that a great Jewish reinforcement has arrived in Galilee and that it is going to burn all of the villages of the Huleh. They should suggest to these Arabs, as their friends, to escape while there is still time. And the rumor spread in all the areas of the Huleh that it is time to flee. The flight numbered myriads. The tactic reached its goal completely.

That tactic also allowed the propagation of the myth that Palestinians left of their own accord.

Zogby quickly covers the early years of the state, with a focus on the martial law under which the Arab “citizens” of Israel were held. The 1967 war begins a new era of occupation and with it, of course, new measures to deal with the Palestinian population in both Israel and the occupied territories. Zogby traces the growing “othering” of the Palestinian population. As Israel grew stronger, the Israeli people came more and more to see the indigenous population as foreigners. It’s a familiar dynamic to Americans, or it certainly should be.

The discussion in recent years of the “demographic time bomb” is reflected here, and in the very same terms. It is remarkable that this phrase was obviously acceptable in the 1970s in liberal discourse. But it is far more disturbing that it is still acceptable in those same circles today.

The blatant and quite severe racism of casting birthrate as a threat for only one group of people cannot be overstated. While the birthrates of ultra-Orthodox Jewish families are also discussed in terms of the future makeup of Israeli society, it is never described as a potentially deadly threat that must be addressed. Palestinian babies are a security issue for Israel. Similarly today, supporters of the two-state solution worry over the “demographic bomb” while the right wing speaks of either forcible transfer or apartheid.

In 1981, Zogby concluded his short book by saying,

[Palestinians] do not need vague formulas hinting at recognition. They need to be protected and defended. Continued silence in the face of these crimes and overwhelming evidence as to the intensity of Israel’s violations and the ultimate intent of the occupation authorities, amounts to more than acquiescence. It means complicity.

In 2018, his conclusion, like so many of the details of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians described in his book, is very similar after nearly four decades.

Among governments in the West, however, little has changed. Palestinians are now increasingly recognized as a political issue with Western politicians offering support for a vague ‘two-state solution.’ But the formulas they offer are, more often than not, predicated on the need to protect Israel’s Jewish population from being swallowed up by what is referred to as the “Palestinian demographic time-bomb” that will threaten Israel’s “Jewish character.” What the West does not address are Palestinian human rights and the suffering and the humiliation they are forced to endure on a daily basis as a result of an oppressive occupation.

It is, undoubtedly, a measure of Palestinian despair and the failure of their leadership that the hope Zogby finds after all these years is in the Jewish community.

Maybe the most hopeful development to occur in recent years is the emergence in the Jewish community, both in Israel and in the West, of voices who are challenging the exclusivist idea of Political Zionism. More in line with the thinking of Buber, they are partnering with Palestinians to oppose the occupation and working to defend Palestinian human rights. Groups like B’tselem, Combatants for Peace, Jewish Voice for Peace, #IfNotNow, Peace Now, Breaking the Silence, Mondoweiss, and many more like them are in the vanguard of those who are demanding recognition of Palestinian humanity and a fundamentally different relationship between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.

The ongoing dispossession of the Palestinian people cannot be resolved by force. That is overwhelmingly in the hands of Israel and the United States, both of which have never been more hostile to Palestinian rights. The rest of the world could make a difference, but thus far, it has not shown the political will. That is not likely to change based on geo-strategic considerations.

It will only change when human rights, universal values, and basic justice and decency can shift hearts and minds. That’s not impossible; there are many examples in history of that happening. Ultimately, however, the exclusivist version of Zionism will have to wane in favor of a Jewish national identity that does not need an exclusive state to express itself, but can live in a pluralistic, democratic society, be it a single state or two states side by side working in some form of partnership.

As Zogby concludes in his 2018 preface, “If we seek to build a secure and peaceful future for both peoples, it is imperative that we recognize that an injustice occurred and that it continues today. To challenge the narrative that denied Palestinian humanity is not anti-Semitic. It is blindness to injustice.” Acknowledging that uncomfortable history—a history that is uncomfortable not only for Israel, but for Britain, the United States, the Arab world, and others—is the only way to start on that path.

After 50 Years, Time to Talk about Rights, Not Occupation

For the past year, peace groups all over the world have been working on ways to mark the 50thanniversary of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But now that the 50-year point

The Hawara Checkpoint

has been reached, we are greeted with some big news that few are talking about: There is no occupation.

No one has made such a declaration, of course, but the conclusion is inescapable. In all the relevant international law stemming from the 1907 Hague Conventions and the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention, which govern belligerent military occupation, are based on the presumption that the condition is temporary.

A recent paper issued by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) concludes “An unlawfully prolonged occupation arises when an occupying state seeks to permanently transform the international status, government or demographic character of a foreign territory, including through de jure or de facto annexation.” Their legal arguments are well worth reading and quite conclusive. Trying to summarize the details here would do them an injustice.

For many years, some critics of Israel’s policies have argued that the expansion of settlements was clear proof that Israel had no intention of ending its occupation. Defenders of Israeli policy have argued that the settlements themselves are temporary (a difficult proposition to sustain for anyone who has ever been to any settlement, even outside the so-called “major blocs,” that has had time to develop into the small towns many of them are).

That debate has been effectively ended by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. For years, Netanyahu has been fighting to legitimize settlements as de facto part of the sovereign and recognized state of Israel while giving lip service to a two-state solution that he would never clearly define. But now, he has clearly rejected any end of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

Speaking at a ceremony celebrating 50 years since the 1967 war that saw Israel capture the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula, Netanyahu said that “…in any agreement, and even without an agreement, we will maintain security control over the entire territory west of the Jordan River.” There cannot be a clearer statement reflecting Israel’s intention to permanently transform the international status of the West Bank. It can no longer be elided.

In this regard, the right wing in Israel has won. They wanted always to deny the occupation and consider “Judea and Samaria,” as they refer to the West Bank, an inalienable part of Israel. The mission, in the wake of Netanyahu’s statement, is to make the right wing’s victory a pyrrhic one.

Status of the “Occupied Territories”

Israel insists that the areas controlled specifically by the settlements (that is, the land that is under the jurisdiction of the regional councils) are part of Israel, while the rest of the West Bank is not. This state of affairs cannot be legally defended. The territory cannot be cherry-picked in this fashion: it is either occupied by Israel or it is Israeli.

The question becomes whether the international community needs to press for citizenship rights for the Palestinians of the West Bank or for Israeli withdrawal. This isn’t a question Israel wants to face. In fact, a coalition of Israeli peace groups, under the umbrella name Save Israel, Stop the Occupation (SISO) says, “We support a two-state solution. If that is not imminent, Israel must grant full rights to Palestinians for as long as they are under Israeli control.” The group understands the choice Israel should face. Although they don’t say that Israel must extend citizenship to Palestinians, as a practical matter, it is impossible to grant “full rights” without granting citizenship.

SISO’s statement, however, reinforces the reality that, even if we move past the occupation framework and focus on rights instead of territory, a two-state outcome is not negated by Israel’s renunciation of its position as occupier. Palestinian demands can still be addressed either through granting Israeli citizenship or by an independent Palestinian state.

In this vein, we should examine a recent op-ed in Ha’aretz by the far-right wing Knesset Member, Bezalel Smotrich. In this piece, Smotrich argues that Israel should annex all of the West Bank and those who do not take up arms will be welcome to stay. Smotrich, of course, does not say they will be granted citizenship or equal rights, but only that they would “…enjoy a personal life far superior to that of Arabs in neighboring states.”

Presumably, Smotrich would use Syria as his basis of comparison, but in any case, it would be very difficult to differentiate the status of West Bank Palestinians from those in Israel proper under those conditions. As he says, “Those who remain won’t be forced to sing the national anthem. All they need do is not to take up arms.”

It is worth considering calling Smotrich’s bluff.

Could Israel remain a Jewish state if West Bank Palestinians had full civil and political rights? The wealth of the country would still be overwhelmingly be in Jewish hands, as would the political institutions. As we have seen in the United States, technical equality under the law doesn’t quickly change the face of the powerful.

Much of the country would retain its Jewish character simply because it was built by the Jewish collective. And if more of the country began to look like Haifa or Yafo, would that mean that the Jewish character of the country was erased?

Still, it is quite possible, even likely, that Jews would no longer be the majority in Israel in a foreseeable future under those circumstances. Is that reason to hold millions without rights? We must insist that it is not. If Israel wishes to avoid this unpleasant decision, it must move with all speed toward the establishment of a fully viable, fully sovereign Palestinian state, with all that such status implies.

A Rights-Based Discourse

The argument over whether it was always Israel’s intention to keep the West Bank will continue (Minister of Labor Yigal Allon presented a plan to annex a huge chunk of the West Bank and return the rest to Jordan just a month after the war). But it’s more important to focus on the present, and the current implications. And those implications are numerous, as we’ve already seen.

Netanyahu’s declaration that Israel would never end its occupation of the West Bank has not, of course, made people think that the territory is not occupied. To a great extent, this is because the statement changes nothing on the ground.

But it can make a difference, and it can be seized upon to address the single most basic inequity in this conflict. That inequity is the notion that Jews’ right to national self-determination in a state of our own trumps the basic right of Palestinians to freedom.

No one can deny to Jews our national identity and our right to pursue a national, self-determined existence. Nor can it be denied that, despite general conditions for Jews around the world over the past few decades, which are certainly the best in the modern era, history and the continued existence of anti-Semitism argue convincingly for Jews’ need for a place that can be both a safe haven from persecution and a national homeland.

But none of that entitles us to deny rights to others. No matter what the politics, the simple fact of the matter is that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians have never harmed a single Jewish person. Yet every one of them lives without the basic rights most of us never even think twice about.

This is where abandoning the occupation discourse has the deepest impact. True, international law has specific regulations for military occupations. But Israel disregards those in any case. And, more to the point, those regulations, based on the presumption that the occupation is a military necessity and will end as soon as possible, confer an inferior status on those under occupation.

Occupation discourse also focuses on territory. In Israel-Palestine, the debate over borders, settlements, viability, and contiguity often implies human issues, but a rights discourse puts human beings under Israeli rule in sharp relief. And that is what Netanyahu’s statement opens up. We can and should respond to it by saying, “Fine, Israel can defend territory all the way to the Jordan River, but it must then grant all of those under its control full rights.”

The idea that Israel can control Palestinian lives without giving Palestinians rights is too often papered over in arguments about security, settlements, Jerusalem, and other issues. Netanyahu has opened the door to a shift toward a discourse based on equal rights for every Israeli and every Palestinian. Some of us, myself included, will continue to argue that such rights are best achieved in two separate states. But even we two-staters must agree on one point: Israeli and Jewish rights to life, security, peace, the pursuit of happiness and prosperity, and national self-determination are sacrosanct. And so are the Palestinians’ rights to the very same things.

Many of us have said such things, of course. But it is time to base our entire discourse on that idea. It must be stated directly in every argument we make. It must be genuine, reinforcing the unqualified support for rights for both sides. Because fundamentally, that is where advocates for a just peace differ not only with Bezalel Smotrich, but also with Benjamin Netanyahu, and with any Israeli, Palestinian, or other who would deny equal rights for all.

Fifty years of belittling Palestinian rights in favor of Israeli self-determination, security, and aspirations is enough.

Trump Wins, Middle East Loses

Donald Trump’s first trip abroad seems to have been a successful one for him. Although controversies continue to rage at home, he seems to be accomplishing what he set out to do, at least in Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The mainstream media has had a good time with some Trump gaffes on this trip (including his wife slapping his hand away and, more importantly, Trump’s foolish confirmation that he divulged classified intelligence given to the US by Israel). But it has generally applauded his speeches and statements. Trump has set the bar so low that all he has to do is let the soberer minds around him write his speeches and no one will pay much attention to the policy implications of words and deeds.

What we actually saw in his brief but notable Middle East appearance should worry us all. The obvious part was the massive arms sale to Saudi Arabia, which included $110 billion in ordnance that Barack Obama had put a hold on. Obama reportedly was concerned about Saudi Arabia’s disregard for civilian casualties in Yemen and was worried that these arms would deepen the embarrassing US complicity in that devastation. Trump has no such concerns.

Trump’s response to the massive re-election victory of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was also noteworthy. He offered no congratulations, not even a statement of satisfaction that conservative forces in Iran had been roundly defeated. Instead, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, used the occasion to rebuke Rouhani.

We also hope that he puts an end to [Iran’s] ballistic missile testing. We also hope that he restores the rights of Iranians to freedom of speech, to freedom of organization, so that Iranians can live the life that they deserve.

Many were quick to comment on the irony of Tillerson making that statement not only in Saudi Arabia but while standing next to a senior minister in the Saudi government. It went very well with Trump’s statement that the US was not going to “lecture” its allies, a very clear message to Trump’s autocratic friends not only in Saudi Arabia but in Egypt, Turkey and elsewhere, that human rights concerns were a thing of the past. The administration’s comments underscore the same double standard that all previous U.S. administrations maintained toward Saudi Arabia. As for Iran, though it is far from an open society, its citizens can at least participate in more-or-less democratic elections and have considerably more personal freedom than Saudi citizens.

The ballistic missiles Tillerson is so concerned about demonstrate a much greater and more dangerous hypocrisy. As Senator Chris Murphy pointed out in an op-ed last weekend, “If we want Iran to end their ballistic missile program (which is primarily designed to confront the Saudi threat), then feeding the arms race between the two nations probably isn’t the best long-term strategy.”

That puts it mildly. Iran and Saudi Arabia are engaged in proxy wars in Syria and Yemen. But unlike our own Cold War past, more direct conflict between the two is far from impossible. When Tehran sees a massive inflow of US arms, it has no choice but to bolster its own defenses.

Murphy, however, makes another very important point by saying that Iran’s ballistic missiles defend against the threat posed by Saudi Arabia. Washington, all too often, characterizes those missiles as a threat to the United States or Israel.

This kind of sobriety in foreign policy was absent from Trump’s Middle Eastern tour. Harkening back to a tactic favored by George W. Bush in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Trump spoke of the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and Iran in similar terms, implying a connection without explicitly making one. He also lumped together groups like Hamas and Hezbollah with IS and al-Qaeda, failing to see the important differences between nationalist militias that use terrorist tactics and those that simply try to sow chaos.

Trump’s goal has been to reverse the more nuanced view that Obama established in the region and return to a less realistic view of the region that more easily lends itself to “good vs. evil” approaches. Trump’s speech in Saudi Arabia was very clearly crafted for this purpose, and the writer, said to have been Stephen Miller, demonstrated real skill in pulling this off.

Meanwhile in Israel

Much attention was paid to Trump’s visit to Israel, although this was really much more show than anything else. Trump continues to speak of making “the big deal,” but without any substance. Trump continues to press Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on “payments to the families of terrorists” (in reality, these payments are part of the social safety net, made to families to sustain themselves when the main breadwinner is killed or imprisoned). The Palestinian people overwhelmingly support Abbas on this point.

Israel passed a series of measures ahead of Trump’s visit to help the West Bank economy. The far right in Israel’s government opposed the measures, but without the usual kicking and screaming. This is hardly surprising, as the measures will have minimal effect on the Palestinian economy. They were a dramatic gesture to Trump, but there’s no substance here either.

What does all this amount to? That Trump’s mission to the Middle East was accomplished, at least in his own terms.

Trump’s impulsiveness showed up once, when he stopped journalists from leaving a press conference that had just ended to tell them that he never mentioned the name “Israel” to the Russians. He thereby confirmed sharing intelligence with the Russians: he just didn’t tell them the source (something no one ever said he did). It was a perfect image of why Trump’s temperament is so poorly suited to this job. There was no need for him to do anything but leave the room, and instead he revived an issue that made his host, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, decidedly uncomfortable.

Staying on Message

Overall, Trump took a break from the endless cascade of scandal that he has brought on himself since even before Election Day. He stuck mostly to his scripts for his talks in both Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Most importantly, Trump demonstrated that, with the enthusiastic support of key partners in the region, he was going to re-orient the US position on Iran to one of much greater belligerence. We’ve already seen a few examples of direct US involvement in the regional conflicts, although these were clearly one-off operations and not, at least to this point, part of a broader strategy of increased intervention.

Trump is attempting to shift the dynamic. Although he seems to realize that he can’t simply “tear up” the agreement with Iran on its nuclear program, he now wants to bury the agreement under increased conflict. With a new and very dangerous anti-Iran bill currently making its way smoothly through the Senate, combined with the new arms deal with the Saudis, the United States has embarked on a policy that is very likely to greatly increase the fighting and instability that attend the escalating tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

In both the broader regional conflict and the Israeli-Palestinian one, Trump is determined to strengthen one side to such an extent that the other will be forced to settle on very unfavorable terms. This thinking has been tried before, and it’s always failed, with the people of the Middle East paying the price. With Trump in charge, there seems to be little doubt that this will happen again.

A new defense minister for Israel? Cause for concern

Earlier today, it was reported that Avigdor Lieberman, the head of Israel’s right wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, has agreed to join the government of Benjamin Netanyahu in the post of Defense Yvet
Minister. This is a concerning development for a number of reasons.

The agreement between Lieberman and Netanyahu comes in the wake of Netanyahu’s negotiations to bring the Zionist Union into the government, during which Netanyahu made a point of refusing to offer the Defense portfolio to ZU Chairman Isaac Herzog. While it might seem that Netanyahu turned to Lieberman only because he was unable to come to satisfactory terms with Herzog, Labor Party MK Stav Shaffir is likely correct in observing that “It is now clear that Bibi used (Herzog) in order to bring Lieberman into the government.” That is, Herzog was used as bait.

But the real context for the decision to move Lieberman into the Defense Ministry is the need to replace Likud Minister Moshe Ya’alon. Ya’alon and Netanyahu have been at loggerheads in recent weeks. The disagreements have centered on two specific events.

The first was the widely publicized video of an Israeli soldier shooting and killing a Palestinian who was already laying on the ground, subdued and semi-conscious. Ya’alon had made it clear that this was a serious violation of Israel Defense Forces rules of engagement. At first, Netanyahu agreed, but after being slammed by right-wing critics, and public support for the soldier swelled, he changed his position.

More recently, Netanyahu strongly criticized the Deputy Chief of Staff, Yair Golan, for a speech he made on Holocaust Memorial Day expressing concern about the growing “intolerance and violence” within Israeli society. Ya’alon explicitly pushed back on Netanyahu’s criticism of Golan, insisting that such statements, even if unpopular, are within the purview of IDF leaders.

Netanyahu has long had an uneasy relationship with the Israeli military and intelligence. He views the military as a tool of the government, and its duty is to enact and support the policies the government decides upon. The military, on the other hand, sees itself as having a key role in deciding Israel’s security needs, and has, throughout Israeli’s history, held an esteemed position in Israeli society not only as protectors but, whether one thinks it justified or not, as a symbol of Israeli ethics and morality.

As Aluf Benn, editor of Ha’aretz put it, “The IDF is still the most popular body in Israel, and over the past few weeks its leaders have made clear that they do not intend to be the military arm of the Beitar soccer club’s extremist fans, La Familia, or of the right wing singer the Shadow.”

But that is exactly what Avigdor Lieberman is going to want to turn them into. Indeed, Labor MK Erel Margalit stated it clearly: “Netanyahu decapitated the defense minister on live TV, and the gangs have triumphed over democracy. This is a day of celebration for extremists, La Familia and the hilltop youth, and at this rate Elor Azaria (the soldier who shot the subdued Palestinian terrorist referenced above) will be appointed deputy defense minister by Bibi.”

It is precisely this difference that led Netanyahu to replace Ya’alon with Lieberman. Where Ya’alon fought for what he saw as the independence and integrity of the military, Lieberman’s views line up perfectly with the Israeli political right’s.

During recent conflicts with Hamas, Lieberman was at the forefront of stirring up internal tensions. He called for boycotts of businesses owned by Palestinian citizens of Israel, and has accused Israeli human rights groups of supporting Hezbollah and other militant groups. As a 2014 editorial in Ha’aretz put it, “This incitement, which rolls from the top echelons of the Israeli government down into society, eventually evolves into the physical violence that has become commonplace at demonstrations, when right-wing activists attack those protesting government policy while shouting ‘Death to Arabs,’ and ‘Death to leftists.’”

Moshe Ya’alon is a committed member of the Likud and the Israeli right. One should not forget that only recently, he stirred controversy and engaged in incitement himself when he called the human rights/IDF veterans’ group Breaking the Silence “traitors” for publishing testimonies of IDF soldiers about their experiences in combat and in the occupation (a charge he later withdrew).

But Lieberman is a different breed. This is a man who advocates a loyalty oath for non-Jewish citizens of Israel, wishes to excise towns populated by Palestinian citizens of Israel, and whose statements have often been seen as encouraging attacks on Arabs and leftists in Israel. He is someone who has a warm relationship with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and a difficult one with much of the United States government.

If anyone envisioned Isaac Herzog joining the government and making it easier for the European Union and the United States to work with Israel, Lieberman’s appointment brings the opposite result. Israel is now led by a trio of right-wingers in Netanyahu, Lieberman and Naftali Bennett, each more radical than the last. The opposition, such as it is, is now weakened even further by Herzog’s failed attempt to join the government, a move opposed by most of his own party.

Many observers have voiced concern about the decline of Israel’s democracy under Netanyahu. We have now seen another significant setback with Lieberman’s appointment as Defense Minister. Perhaps the one hope, if any is to be found, is that the opposition may now find new leadership which might start to regain the ground liberal Israelis have lost.