The vain and bullying persona that Donald Trump projects online and in three dimensions is consistent: he is convinced that all that is required to restore the globe to a state of order and prosperity is his own good self. “The world was gloomy before I won—there was no hope,” he tweeted on the day after Christmas. “Now the market is up nearly 10% and Christmas spending is over a trillion dollars!” He is both the Prince of Peace and the savior of the Nasdaq index.
In the weeks since Election Day, Trump has also proved more than once that it is possible to deepen global anxiety armed with nothing more than a galling level of presumption and a Twitter account. Set off a new arms race with Moscow? A trade war with China? Whatever. Type for a few seconds, press “Tweet,” and the world trembles.
Trump is prepared to insert himself into any argument—even if it is a century old and endlessly complex—with half a thought and a hundred and forty characters. The subject this week is the Israeli-Palestinian question. Just hours before President Obama’s Secretary of State, John Kerry, was to deliver a valedictory speech warning that the status quo of settlement-building in the occupied territories is “leading toward one state or perpetual occupation,” Trump took to Twitter and sent out a two-stage rocket:
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!
Minutes later, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, tweeted back his affection (and implicit contempt for Obama): “President-elect Trump, thank you for your warm friendship and your clear-cut support for Israel!” Netanyahu put in emojis for the Israeli and American flags and made sure to add “@IvankaTrump” and “@DonaldJTrumpJr.”
Trump also denounced the Obama Administration’s decision to abstain from, rather than to veto, a United Nations Security Council resolution last week condemning Israeli settlement-building in the occupied territories. “Too bad, but we will get it done anyway!” Trump tweeted. Get what done? Of this he did not extensively tweet.
On one level, it seemed as if the traditional language of diplomacy—stilted, guarded, but respectful of complexity—had finally devolved into the realm of the sitcom. More seriously, and more outrageously, Trump, after making appreciative noises about the Obama Administration’s courtesies and coöperation in the orderly transition of power—one of the foundations of a functioning democracy—felt free to violate those norms and insert himself blatantly into foreign policy before his Inauguration. (“Doing my best to disregard the many inflammatory President O statements and roadblocks,” he tweeted today. “Thought it was going to be a smooth transition—NOT!”)
Daniel Kurtzer, who was Ambassador to Egypt under Bill Clinton and Ambassador to Israel under George W. Bush, told me that he was appalled both by Trump’s presumption and Netanyahu’s collusion.
“We are in uncharted waters—a President-elect trying to make policy and a foreign leader conspiring with that President-elect to undercut a sitting President,” Kurtzer said. “But such are the times. In any normal situation, we would all be out on the streets protesting and saying to Trump, ‘We elected you President, but you don’t start until January 20th.’ But this guy doesn’t care.”
The political center of gravity in Israel has been moving to the right for many years, so much so that the greatest threat to Netanyahu’s personal power comes from politicians and parties who support some form of annexation of the West Bank or some form of one-state resolution in which the Palestinians do not have full civil rights. And even though Netanyahu has paid lip service to a final settlement and two states for two peoples, he always, given a choice between power and principle, acts to preserve his power. In his last electoral campaign, he made it plain that he has no intention of uprooting any settlements, and warned Jewish voters that Israeli Palestinians were coming to the polls “in droves.”
For at least two years, President Obama, frustrated by Netanyahu and by failed attempts to make serious progress on the Palestinian question, has been considering the question of legacy. Pressed by Kerry, who has shown an almost quixotic desire to press the Israelis, Obama considered laying out a framework of any future peace. Two things prevented it. The first was that such a gesture would not much influence the Israeli leadership. Second, Obama expected that Hillary Clinton would win the election; he thought it would be better to coördinate what sort of diplomatic gesture to make before leaving the White House.
But then came the Trump victory. The President-elect’s appointment of David Friedman, a pro-settlement bankruptcy lawyer, as the next U.S. Ambassador to Israel “had a lot of weight in the President’s thinking” about what to do next, one senior Administration official told me. The official told me that the Administration had been “alarmed” by many of Trump’s appointments to his national-security team—notably the appointment of Michael Flynn as national-security adviser—but the selection of Friedman was “over the top.”
“The last thing you want to do as you leave office is to pick a fight with the organized Jewish community, but Friedman is so beyond the pale,” the adviser said. “He put his political and charitable support directly into the settlements; he compares Jews on the left to the kapos in the concentration camps—it just put it over the top.”
In 2011, Obama, in explaining why the U.S. vetoed a resolution condemning the settlements, told the U.N. General Assembly that a peace agreement cannot be imposed on the Israelis and Palestinians. But that was five years ago, when negotiations were still a possibility (though a resolution was never close). Now, as settlements expand and reach new, more distant corners of the West Bank, as the Palestinian leadership ages and fractures and grows more dispirited, as younger right-wing politicians, such as Naftali Bennett, gain more and more influence in Israeli politics, Obama, the avatar of hope, has lost hope. Or, at least he has lost hope for the near future. As time ran out, he came to believe that setting down a marker was essential.
“The status quo is leading toward one state, or perpetual occupation,” Kerry warned. Without resolving the Palestinian question, he went on, there is no way to maintain both a democracy and a Jewish state. Kerry’s long speech, which Kurtzer called “the most substantive” on the subject ever given by an American at the highest level, is worth reading for its clarity, fairness, context, and reasonable sense of foreboding. There is nothing radical or unfamiliar in the text, and yet it is a firm setting out of the problem in all its complexity and perils.
The Israelis—right, center, and left—have long been wary of the U.N., a venue that once upheld the notion that Zionism is a form of racism and passes relatively frequent condemnations of Israeli actions, but which does not have the political wherewithal to sanction Russia for bombing hospitals and aide convoys in Syria or countless other states for their more heartless and illegal transgressions. But Kerry’s speech, which Obama surely reviewed and sanctioned, is not so easily dismissed. It is not naïve about the challenges of a peace process or the very real dangers of the region itself.
Netanyahu’s argument, and that of those to his right as well, is that Israel cannot relinquish the “strategic depth” provided by the West Bank when the “neighborhood” is either in flames (Syria), unstable (Jordan, Egypt), or hostile (take your pick). Moreover, he argues that the Palestinians, thanks to the anti-Israeli incitement of their schoolbooks and politicians and propaganda, will never be satisfied with a two-state solution; what they want is greater Palestine, all of Palestine—not merely Ramallah and Jenin and Nablus but Haifa and Safed and Afula. That is Netanyahu’s argument for the status quo.
Dozens of former Israeli military and intelligence chiefs argue, however, that the status quo is unsustainable, and will result in disaster. But these chiefs are no more at the center of Israeli power than are old liberal institutions like the Labor Party or the newspaper Haaretz, which is oft-quoted in the United States but deemed irrelevant in much of Israel. To speak up for a two-state solution today is to be dismissed as clueless. The majority still wants peace, is still willing to live alongside a Palestinian state, but, as it is so often said, sees no partner for peace, no outlook for a final and secure settlement.
“Israelis do not need to be lectured about the importance of peace by foreign leaders,” Netanyahu said in a dismissive speech delivered shortly after Kerry’s. He said that Kerry had been “almost as unbalanced” as the U.N. anti-settlement resolution, and, he went on, what the Secretary of State failed to recognize was that the conflict with the Palestinians “has always been about Israel’s right to exist.”
Israeli officials have reacted to the Security Council resolution with extraordinary vitriol, insisting, despite American denials, that the Obama Administration was behind it.
“The Israeli reaction is actually making plain why we did this,” Benjamin Rhodes, the deputy national-security adviser, said. “What we find most concerning is the normalization of the settlements, including ones deep in the West Bank.”
What does it all portend? When I asked Kurtzer if the two-state solution was dead, he did not hesitate. “Yeah, effectively it is,” he said. “Do you see any leader on the horizon in Israel—or Palestine or the United States—who is intent on making it happen? I don’t see it. Herzog”—Isaac Herzog, the leader of Israel’s Labor Party—“is a nice guy, but he’s the guy who gets sand kicked on him at the beach. He’s weak. All these generals and former security chiefs who are for two states, they are dismissed as old and irrelevant. Guys who gave their lives for the state, and their views don’t matter.”
Obama saw himself as ardently supportive of Israel, but he was also determined to distance himself from the Israeli government at times in order to press for a sensible peace process. The appointment of Friedman as the next U.S. Ambassador makes it plain to Netanyahu that the Trump Administration, when it takes power by law and not just by Twitter, will ease the pressure on Israel. In a Trump Administration, Friedman wrote during the campaign in the Jerusalem Post, Israel will feel “no pressure” from the United States and “there will be no daylight between the two countries.”
The article is worth reading, a screed against Hillary Clinton and the Times that is well within the spirit of the Trump campaign and the Administration that is now taking shape.
“The Clinton machine has done a spectacular job manipulating the liberal media against Donald Trump,” Friedman wrote. “While the revelation of Mr. Trump’s demeaning comments caught on tape some eleven years ago brought him, as one would expect, widespread negative attention, the New York Times ran with the story with all the journalistic integrity of the worst gossip rag. If only the Times had reported on the Nazi death camps with the same fervor as its failed last-minute attempt to conjure up alleged victims of Donald Trump, imagine how many lives could have been saved. But the Times has never been committed to the unvarnished truth and its priorities have never included causes important to Israel or the Jewish people.”
This is the voice of the next American Ambassador to Israel. The Obama Administration, knowing this was the case, needed to be heard one last time.