We get it—Barack Obama is a lame-duck president. In less than a month, Donald J. Trump is set to take the reins of the presidency. On a related note, animals may spontaneously begin to howl to themselves, instinctively aware something is amiss. Human animals, too, some of whom already have shed some tears, may yet have more crying to do, or at least some hand-wringing and head-shaking. Then again, some people may be just as ready to protest and raise hell. If nothing else, this should help communicate to the incoming President that roughly half of the country hates his guts. To what this extent this might faze him, if at all, I’m not sure, but if it at all causes to Trump to put that imbecilic sourpuss look on his face and want to Tweet up a storm out of vexation, I’d deem it worth the effort.
For once, though, it is not the President-Elect who is ruffling feathers, but the lame duck himself. Evidently not about to leave the White House without some parting shots, Obama and his administration have flexed their diplomatic muscle in the waning hours of his presidency with respect to two particular (and particularly contentious) situations. The first is that of Israeli-Palestinian relations, the likes of which I don’t really have to tell you are contentious. In this specific iteration of the seemingly endless conflict, Israel has drawn criticism for its establishment of settlements on the West Bank. Greg Myre, international editor for NPR, and Larry Kaplow, NPR’s Middle East editor, together have put together a fairly good primer on the situation and why the settlement situation is such a big deal, addressing seven key points worth considering in understanding the forces behind the discord.
1. Settlements are growing rapidly.
A key distinction made by Myre and Kaplow is that these “settlements,” while the term evokes something more rudimentary, are often large subdivisions or sizable cities. Since peace talks began in 1993 between the Israelis and Palestinians, the number of Israelis living in these settlements has quadrupled, and has continued to expand during Benjamin Netanyahu’s tenure as Prime Minister. Even the more moderate and liberal within Israel have pushed for more settlements. Indeed, most of the censure regarding the proliferation of settlements within the West Bank has come from the international community, and not from within Israel’s ranks. In fact, to argue against this trend of increase would seem to be tantamount to political poison for someone like Netanyahu or anyone else of stature within Israel.
2. Settlements complicate efforts for a two-state solution.
I’ll say they do. With settlements all over the West Bank, and the Israeli military on hand to patrol these areas, the prospect of a Palestinian state, already somewhat dim, is made all but impossible. Never say never, yes, but um, don’t hold your breath either.
3. There is a distinction to be made between East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
According to Israel, East Jerusalem, which is part of the West Bank, is the nation’s “eternal and indivisible capital.” Funny story—no one else recognizes this, including the United States, which is why, at least until Donald Trump has his way, the country maintains a diplomatic presence in Tel Aviv, not Jerusalem. As for Palestinians, meanwhile, they consider East Jerusalem the site of their own future capital given statehood, and together with the West Bank, deem it all occupied land. Evidently, land rights, as beauty, are in the eyes of the beholder.
4. What does Israel say about settlements?
Um, that it’s complicated? On one hand, supporters of settlements cite the rich tradition of Jewish history, the good old Bible, and things such as the need for “strategic depth.” On the other hand, while Israel claims to have annexed East Jerusalem, it makes no such claim of sovereign control over the West Bank, despite the wishes of many of those who have settled there. It therefore remains but “disputed” territory currently being occupied. In other words, the West Bank is not quite “no man’s land” with hundreds of thousands residing within its bounds, but it’s no country’s territory all the same.
5. How about the Palestinians?
Yeah—how about the Palestinians? This section is short on Kaplow’s and Myre’s part, and this would seem appropriate given the simplicity of their argument. Here is their explanation, in its totality:
From some Palestinian cities, there are clear views of Israeli settlements — and new construction — on nearby hillsides. And in most settlement neighborhoods, there are wide areas of empty hillside closed to Palestinians, which Israel says are necessary buffers for security.
Palestinians see them as visual proof that their sought-after independent state is being taken from them. Palestinian leaders have opposed peace talks in recent years while, as they see it, Israel is building on land that is part of those talks.
From this standpoint, I feel those who don’t have a specific vested interest in this conflict would probably tend to agree this makes a lot of sense. How could I feel welcome as a Palestinian when Israeli settlements are continuously expanding and whole swaths of land are closed to me seemingly on principle? Though this may hew close to Israel’s actual intent, for the Palestinians, this doesn’t make a two-state solution seem wholly viable when everything around you tells you you’re not wanted.
6. Has Israel ever dismantled settlements?
Yeah, but, like, once—ever. According to the NPR article, back in 2005, some 8,000 Israeli settlers were forcibly removed from the Gaza Strip on the premise that these settlements were too hard to defend. And when I say, “forcibly removed,” I mean dragging, kicking and screaming. As the authors sum this up succinctly: “The episode demonstrated that Israel could remove settlers, but it also showed how much friction it creates inside Israel.” I’ll say it does.
7. What are the proposed solutions?
Here’s where the discussion gets down to brass tacks—how Israelis and Palestinians move forward. At least from the United States’ perspective, the key proposition is an exchange of land rights. The largest Israeli settlements, which are close to the border with Israel as an established state, would formally become part of Israel. The Israeli settlements deep within the West Bank more removed from Israel, meanwhile, would be ceded for the purpose of a Palestinian state. As Myre and Kaplow indicate, however, and as should be no great surprise, this is complicated, outside of the immediate logistics 0f such a swap. Palestinian leadership is unlikely to accept any deal that does not involve removal of settlements, and yet to suggest the removal of settlements within Israel is politically disadvantageous given the current climate. As with any story, there are two sides to such a two-state solution, and as far as Israel and Palestine are concerned, a spirit of reconciliation does not seem to be felt or sought in abundance.
This already fractious situation was made more disagreeable by a recent resolution passed by the United Nations Security Council that calls for an end to the building of Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank. Egypt originally proposed the resolution, though they were forced to delay a vote on the resolution based on pressure from Israel, but what really got Israel’s proverbial goat was the United States’ decision not to vote and not to veto the resolution. As far as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel were concerned, they thought they, President Obama and the U.S. were cool. In a move construed as better late than never, however, Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking for the administration at large, condemned Israel’s continuously expanding settlements as undermining the viability of a two-state solution and thereby standing in the way of peace. Acting in this way, Kerry, again speaking on behalf of Barack Obama, his administration and his legacy, argued that Israel is positioning itself on a path toward isolation from the international community and perpetual warfare with the Palestinians.
Certainly, Netanyahu and Company disagreed with this speech and the accompanying no-vote on the Security Council resolution, calling Secretary Kerry’s address a “disappointment.” There was also disapproval on the domestic front, though, including censure from the likes of prominent lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle, including John McCain and Chuck Schumer. But two other interested parties had their own reactions to this apparent reversal of stances, one that moved the U.S.’s position away from their evident unwillingness to challenge Israel on the proliferation of settlements within the West Bank. Within the Arab world, which has a dog in this fight given its solidarity with the Palestinians, the response was generally favorable, although not without a fair bit of indifference among those individuals who feel this about-face is too little, too late. In line with the more apathetic attitudes of some, Arab critics of the speech are quick to point out that change in favor of a two-state solution seems unlikely in light of the ascension of a second relevant interested party.
That would be—you guessed it—Donald Trump. Trump, who has, ahem, not been shy about expressing his opinions with respect to international politics and U.S. foreign policy, condemned the no-vote by the Obama administration, taking to—you guessed it again—Twitter to voice his displeasure, offering the following:
We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect. They used to have a great friend in the U.S.—but not anymore. The beginning of the end was the horrible Iran deal, and now this (U.N.)! Stay strong, Israel—January 20th is fast approaching!
Ugh. The very notion that is man is going to be our President is enough to make one’s head hurt and eye twitch. I was unaware Israel was continually so disrespected by the United States, but that’s our Donald—trumping up any perceived slight against him or the people he favors from Molehill status up to Mountain proportions. The Iran nuclear deal, which in reality is a separate issue, is invoked here by Trump as a means of ginning up his base and gaining support for his positions among those distrustful of Iran’s intentions, if for no other reason than Iran is a Muslim-led nation. As for the discussion of Israeli settlement expansion on its merits alone, President-Elect Trump seems content to simply kowtow to the wishes of Netanyahu’s Israel and a majority of its constituents. Adopting a position that has been characterized by some as more Zionist than that of the Zionists, he appears set to discard any ideas of a two-state solution. For one, his choice of American ambassador to Israel, one David Friedman, has not only has dismissed the idea of such a policy but has actively funded some of the settlements John Kerry criticized. In addition, Donald Trump has announced his intention to relocate the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to the much-disputed city of Jerusalem. So, for all intents and purposes, Trump and his cronies have made it clear that they could give a f**k about a Palestinian state and Arabs as a whole. But you probably already guessed that, too.
The exact nature of Donald Trump’s appeal to the Orthodox neo-Zionist crowd is admittedly somewhat perplexing. As Bernard Avishai, author, visiting professor of government at Dartmouth University, and adjunct professor at Hebrew University wrote about in a December 31, 2016 piece for The New York Times, Trump may feel he is indebted to this group who has voted Republican where the majority of American Jews has not, and will thus advance the extremist Zionist cause, but potentially at the expense of the already-waning confidence the latter group has in him and in U.S. foreign policy in general. Furthermore, the purported move of the United States embassy to Jerusalem—assuming it would actually come to pass, and many imagine the move of dubious likelihood—would threaten stability in Jordan, an important American ally in the Middle East but one with significant Palestinian and Syrian refugee populations. Trump wouldn’t risk the destabilization of a crucial friend in the region just to satisfy Israel’s monomaniacal pursuits, would he? Even if the answer is “I don’t know,” this much is vaguely frightening.
With the latest involving Russia and allegations of hacking, meanwhile, the likes of which is believed to have been designed to interfere with the election and get Donald Trump into the White House, as well as intended to undermine public confidence in the electoral process, Trump’s motivations seem more transparently self-serving. Shortly before 2016 ended, President Barack Obama ejected 35 suspected Russian intelligence operatives from the United States, imposed sanctions on Russia’s two leading intelligence organizations, and penalizing four top officers of the GRU, a Russian military intelligence agency. The State Department also acted to close two estates that were suspected of housing Russian intelligence activities, and levied sanctions on three companies/organizations believed to have been involved in the hacking. Not bad for a lame duck, eh?
These actions come backed by our own intelligence, from organizations like the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security, which purport to have identified malware and other indicators of Russian cyber-attacks. Reservations about the FBI’s credibility in the wake of the Clinton E-mail investigation debacle notwithstanding, there would appear to be every reason to believe that these attacks were coordinated, and while the published findings (i.e. those which won’t remain classified) came short of suggesting any senior Russian officials of the two sanctioned intelligence agencies tried to influence the election, or that these attempts had any material impact on the election’s outcome, as Obama himself insisted, this kind of espionage and meddling in our affairs should concern any reasonable American.
Except now we’re about to address Donald Trump and people talking smack about his man-crush, Vladimir Putin. Already, unless you are a rabid Trump supporter, you might be predisposed to thinking the man, a pathological liar with the temperament and attention span of a young child, is the antithesis of reasonable. Throw in the effective throwing of shade at Putin, an individual for whom President-Elect Trump has expressed his admiration on numerous occasions in the past, and every semblance of reason would seem to go out the window. Trump, while reportedly agreeing to hear U.S. intelligence experts out, reacted to the news of sanctions by insisting that everyone has to “move on” from this whole hacking thing. Moreover, at the news Putin would, heeding the recommendations of his advisers, refrain from retaliating by jettisoning American diplomats from Russia, Trump tweeted, “I always knew he was very smart!” Um, Mr. Trump, you do realize it looks very bad when you’re heaping praise on the leader of a country that just has been publicly reproached for deliberately working against U.S. interests, right? When even your own party is praising Barack Obama for taking action against Russia—albeit in the same breath criticizing this move, as Arab critics of his administration’s condemnation of Israel’s settlements did, deriding this stand as too little, too late—you may want to reassess your position.
As with Donald Trump’s extremist position on Israel which breaks with decades of U.S. policy, not to mention would make the United States an outlier within the international community for its complicity with the Greater Israel ideal, his laudatory sentiments geared toward Vladimir Putin in the face of Russian hacking revelations that put him at odds with fellow Republicans is frustrating, yet not all that surprising. Critics of Trump and his love affair with the Putin regime have largely been left to their own devices regarding suppositions of why a seeming “bromance” exists. Some might suggest Trump, in his naïveté, thinks he can be the best of buddies with Putin, and to some extent, that may be true. Otherwise, his deflecting from allegations of hacking and interference with the election may be seen as defensiveness about his win, as if even the mere allusion to his victory by illegitimate means is an insult to his manhood. Even though, you know, he’s been the foremost accuser of electoral fraud and rigging of the results since the election happened—and, in fact, he was casually throwing out these kinds of charges before the whole shebang started.
As has been inferred from analysis of his business dealings, however, these explanations are merely red herrings for the true reason Donald Trump is all but writing down Vladimir Putin’s name and drawing hearts around it: that he has a vested financial interest in a pro-Russian agenda. Economist Robert Reich—of whom, if you’ve read this blog over the past few months, you’ve heard mention numerous times—penned an op-ed about a week or so again regarding a “dark cloud of illegitimacy” which stands to hang over a Trump presidency, one related to his financial ties to Russia as well as those of his associates. As Reich notes, Trump has close business ties to Russian oligarchs who have financed projects of his and likely have loaned him billions of dollars, and his son, Donald Trump, Jr., remarked at a real estate conference in 2008 that he saw “a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” Trump’s one-time campaign manager Paul Manafort also has consulting ties to Viktor Yanukovych, the former Ukrainian president who was propped up by Russia, and two of Trump’s appointees, foreign policy advisor, Michael Flynn, and Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil CEO, have been honored guests at Russian public ceremonies with Vladimir Putin in attendance.
Reich sums up the larger meaning behind these connections and Donald Trump’s refusal to give credence to evidence that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election nicely:
None of these points taken separately undermines the legitimacy of the Trump presidency. But taken together, they suggest a troubling pattern — of Trump deceitfulness about the election, of Mr. Putin’s role in helping Mr. Trump get elected, and the possible motives of both men for colluding in the election. The dark cloud of illegitimacy continues to grow darker.
Of course, we would be better assured that Donald Trump has no ulterior motive in cozying up to Vladimir Putin and the Russians if, say, he would disclose these ties, agree to fully divest himself of his business dealings, and put his holdings in a blind trust. Like the prospect of him agreeing to hold regular press conferences whereby he might be subject to questions by unbiased members of the media, or even that of him apologizing to Rosie O’Donnell for calling her a fat pig, though, this all doesn’t seem bloody likely. And this cuts to the heart of the issue with Trump—you know, besides him being a hateful, know-nothing man-baby. If Trump really had nothing to hide, then he would’ve released his tax returns without all the nonsense about his being audited preventing that, and would be more forthright with the American people and with the press. But he’s not, and so you are left to doubt whether he became President for any reason other than to boost his ego and his personal wealth. I mean, sure, there is the alternative theory that he’s actually a Russian agent (Keith Olbermann advances this idea, if only in partial jest). More likely, however, is the simple idea he is looking to capitalize for his own sake. “Make America Great Again”? More like, “Make Me More Money.”
Barack Obama may be the lame duck president, yes. But incoming president Donald Trump, in his stubborn support of Israel’s one-state monomania at the likely expense of stability in and around the West Bank, as well as his borderline treasonous fidelity to Vladimir Putin and Russia even in the face of disturbing reports of repeated Russian intrusions in American affairs, seems like quite the turkey. Here’s hoping against reason we all don’t wind up with egg on our face because of it.