The calendars aligned. Christmas and Hanukkah aligned perfectly this year, and America paused for a bit of pleasantness. American Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists and Sikhs and atheists and whatnot paused too. Why not? Exchange presents, eat too much, watch a little football, and pretend to be nice to each other for at least one day – and that might even include family, even the problematic uncle. It’s all good. Don’t sweat the details. The holiday is clearly not secular but it has become bigger than Jesus – a matter of addition, not subtraction, no matter what they say over on Fox News. There never was a War on Christmas. Christmas won long ago. It subsumed everything else. Peace on earth and good will toward men – all men, and women too of course – are fine sentiments. There’s no need to restrict those to a chosen few. Even the chosen few agree on that. Be of good cheer. It’s good for you. It’s good for everyone. Anything more is nitpicking.
Nitpicking, however, is what makes the world go ’round. Since the 1967 war, the United States has been telling Israel, as a friend and ally, that building settlements on land they grabbed in that war, in the West Bank and in Gaza, was a bad idea. International law forbids that. Every other nation on earth has said that’s a no-no. One UN resolution after another has condemned that – and the United States has vetoed those. As one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council we can – but it’s still a bad idea. It pisses off every Arab/Muslim nation in the region. It makes matters worse. It even endangers Israel’s security. That’s been our position for many decades. Israel sometimes listens and slows down the construction of those settlements for a bit – and then they start again. We cover for them, with our vetoes, but we don’t like it. We say so. Israel takes our three billion a year in foreign aid and shrugs. We’re nitpicking. We’re meddling. This is their business – and now they have our Republicans on their side. Now they have Donald Trump on their side.
That’s not true, yet. The UN came up with a new resolution, another one, condemning the newest massive settlements, and the Obama administration decided that even if it wasn’t quite time to join the rest of the world and condemn those, this time we’d simply step aside. We abstained on the vote. Trump warned Obama not to do that. With the help of the Israeli government, Trump worked with the current military dictator in Egypt to arrange a delay in the vote, but there was a vote. Trump said no. Obama said yes. We stepped aside.
Forget peace on earth and good will toward men. This was not the weekend for that:
Undeterred by a resounding defeat at the United Nations, Israel’s government said Monday that it would move ahead with thousands of new homes in disputed areas and warned nations against further action, declaring that Israel does not “turn the other cheek.”
Just a few days after the United Nations Security Council voted to condemn Israeli settlements, Jerusalem’s municipal government signaled that it would not back down: The city intends to approve 600 housing units in the predominantly Palestinian eastern section of town on Wednesday in what a top official called a first installment on 5,600 new homes.
The defiant posture reflected a bristling anger among Israel’s pro-settlement political leaders, who not only blamed the United States for failing to block the Council resolution, but also claimed to have secret intelligence showing that President Obama’s team had orchestrated it.
Yeah, yeah – Obama was plotting against them, by stepping aside, deferring to universal worldwide opinion. Everyone is into conspiracy theories these days, but someone was lashing out:
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has lashed out at Security Council countries by curbing diplomatic contacts, recalling envoys, cutting off aid and summoning the American ambassador for a scolding. He canceled a planned visit this week by Ukraine’s prime minister even as he expressed concern on Monday that Mr. Obama was planning more action at the United Nations before his term ends next month.
Perhaps he is, but the damage was already done:
The Security Council resolution that passed Friday condemned Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as a “flagrant violation under international law” and an obstacle to peace. The Council approved it 14 to 0, with the United States abstaining instead of using its veto, as it has in the past.
Mr. Trump publicly pressed for a veto of the resolution and has chosen a settlement advocate as his administration’s ambassador to Israel.
That would be this guy:
He is president of the American fund-raising arm for a yeshiva in a settlement deep in the West Bank headed by a militant rabbi who has called for Israeli soldiers to refuse orders to evacuate settlers.
He writes a column for a right-wing Israeli news site in which he has accused President Obama of “blatant anti-Semitism,” dismissed the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, likened a liberal American-Jewish group to “kapos” who cooperated with the Nazis, and said American Jewish leaders “failed” Israel on the Iran nuclear deal…
Now, David M. Friedman, an Orthodox Jewish bankruptcy lawyer from Long Island, is Donald J. Trump’s pick for ambassador to Israel, despite his lack of diplomatic experience and frequent statements that flout decades of bipartisan American policy.
His lack of diplomatic experience is offset by this:
Mr. Friedman, 58, has done legal work for Mr. Trump since at least 2001, when he handled negotiations with bondholders on Mr. Trump’s struggling casinos in Atlantic City. Mr. Friedman represented Mr. Trump’s personal interests in the bankruptcies of the casinos in 2004, 2009 and 2014.
David Friedman was the bankruptcy lawyer who got Trump out of those failed casinos in Atlantic City with a profit, not a loss, and he’s far to the right of even Benjamin Netanyahu. Trump really does want to piss off the Arab-Muslim world. What could go wrong?
That’s an open question:
A person close to the Trump transition who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the ambassadorship had been negotiated directly between the two men over many months. Mr. Friedman, who donated a total of $50,000 to the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee in 2016, according to federal election records, had been openly saying even before the election that the job – one of the most sensitive and high profile in the diplomatic corps – would be his, according to friends.
Israel’s conservative settlement supporters and their American backers rejoiced at the selection, while believers in a Palestinian state and the American-brokered peace process were perplexed and close to despair. Mr. Friedman is a staunch opponent of basic tenets of Washington’s longstanding approach to much of the ambassadorial portfolio.
Trump seems to make an impossible situation worse, and there’s another matter:
Donald Trump wasn’t the first winning candidate to call for moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, but unlike previous presidents, he just might keep his promise.
Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush made similar pledges during their campaigns, only to backpedal once in the Oval Office – sobered by the potential for diplomatic blowback across the Arab world.
But Trump has done what few of his predecessors have: emphasize the issue loudly and proudly afterwards. His campaign adviser on Israel, Jason Greenblatt, told Israel’s Army radio in a post-election interview that Trump was “going to do it,” and his campaign manager on Monday called the move “a very big priority for this president elect.”
That is what he said, but that might be a bad idea:
During the campaign, Trump repeatedly promised to relocate the embassy to Jerusalem, naming it the “eternal capital of the Jewish people” in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. But on other occasions, he also indicated he wanted to be a neutral arbiter between Israelis and Palestinians, and has floated his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is Jewish, as some sort of peace envoy.
“If I go in, I will say I’m pro-Israel,” said Trump during a GOP primary debate on CNN. “But I would like to at least have the other side think I’m somewhat neutral.”
Those who’ve worked on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations say that moving the embassy would effectively kill the peace process.
“It would essentially validate the view that all of Jerusalem now belongs to Israel,” said Aaron David Miller, a former peace negotiator and scholar at the Wilson Center.
Aaron David Miller doesn’t see how Trump can have it both ways, and the situation really is impossible:
The status of Jerusalem, particularly East Jerusalem, is fervently contested in the international community. The United Nations intended the eastern portion of the ancient city to be the capital of a future Palestinian state. In 1967, Israel annexed the entire city.
In 1980, the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, passed a law that declared, “Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel.” The U.N. Security Council condemned the move as a violation of international law, with the United States abstaining.
The majority of U.N. member states do not recognize Israel’s claim over the entire city as the capital. As a result, no country has its main diplomatic mission located in Jerusalem, with their embassies instead located in Tel Aviv and its suburbs. The United States maintains a consulate in Jerusalem that focuses on Palestinian issues…
“Given how important the issue of Jerusalem is for Muslims around the world, and especially at a time when Islamist terrorist groups systematically exploit the Palestine issue, this will also constitute a potentially explosive provocation,” said Rashid Khalidi, director of Columbia University’s Middle East Institute.
Everyone seems to agree on that:
“I think it sends a message that this a president who basically just doesn’t care… and is willing to insult an entire group of people, a billion-plus people in the world,” said James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab-American Institute, who is a Catholic of Lebanese descent.
Relocating the embassy could also prove awkward for Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia – three close American allies who would likely protest such a move.
Egypt and Jordan are the only two Arab countries to have signed a peace treaty with Israel.
Saudi-Israeli relations have quietly warmed in recent years, based on mutual suspicion of Iran’s nuclear and regional ambitions. Relocating the embassy could risk what is now an uneasy peace.
Trump’s greatest problem may ultimately be in explaining how moving the embassy ultimately serves an “America First” agenda, said Miller.
“It’s hard to come up with a single act that would make the Middle East burn more than it is burning right now,” he added.
Yeah, well, Trump sees all of this talk as nitpicking:
Days after the United Nations voted to condemn Israeli settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, President-elect Donald Trump questioned its effectiveness Monday, saying it’s just a club for people to “have a good time.”
Trump wrote on Twitter that the U.N. has “such great potential,” but it has become “just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time. So sad!”
On Friday, Trump warned, “As to the U.N., things will be different after Jan. 20th,” referring to the day he takes office.
He can ask his Republican Congress to defund the UN – we do pay for a good part of it. He could get his Republican Congress to vote to leave the UN. He can tell them to get the hell out of New York. Their nifty blue building at the east end of 42nd Street can become an annex to Trump World Tower across the street – more ten-million dollar condos. Things could be different.
In short, he could make an impossible situation worse – but it’s always been impossible. This started long ago. In 1947, the British government withdrew from its commitment to the 1923 Mandate for Palestine – the Ottoman Empire was long gone, and now so were the Nazis, but now there was no way to arrive at a solution of who should run what, in that little corner of the world, that was acceptable to both Arabs and Jews, Jews who might finally have their homeland.
That was too hard to pull off. The Brits threw up their hands and walked away. Their own country was in shambles after six years of war, even if they had won. The days of the British Empire were long gone. They were in no position to make things orderly and proper in places far away. They needed to make things orderly and proper in their own green and pleasant land. Someone else would have to take care of the daily administration of political matters in Palestine. They were out of there.
All bets were off, so the newly created United Nations – created here in San Francisco and then headquartered in New York – approved the UN Partition Plan (United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181) on November 29, 1947, to divide Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. Jerusalem was to be designated an international city administered by the UN, to avoid conflict over its status.
Cool. That should work, so on May 14, 1948, the day before the end of the British Mandate, the Jewish Agency proclaimed independence, naming the country Israel, and then we had a decision to make:
Margaret Truman said it was the most difficult decision Harry Truman ever faced as president. Should he support the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, or shouldn’t he?
Presidential advisers and the government were split. Clark Clifford, Truman’s legal counsel, strongly favored recognition. The Jews deserved a sanctuary after the horror of the Holocaust, Clifford argued. Besides, the new state would likely come to pass whether Truman urged it or not.
But the Department of State, including the highly respected Secretary of State, George Marshall, advised against it, as did much of his cabinet. Truman greatly admired Marshall and had said that “there wasn’t a decoration big enough” to honor Marshall’s leadership during World War II. At a White House meeting on May 12, 1948, Marshall objected to quick US recognition of a Jewish homeland. It would look as if Truman was angling for Jewish votes, he said, and might endanger access to Arab oil. He went so far as to say that if Truman went ahead and recognized the new state, then Marshall would vote against him in the coming election.
Truman made his own decision. Two days later, May 14, 1948, Israel was born at the stroke of midnight, Jerusalem time. The United States announced its recognition of the new nation only 11 minutes later.
And no one has been happy since. One side got its own nation. The other side somehow didn’t. Israel fights daily for its very existence and the Palestinians want them gone. A smaller and smaller number on each side still think they can get along with the other side – just establish an actual Palestinian state with real borders and all that, and then work out the details of that original 1947 UN Partition Plan, a simple plan for something like coexistence. That plan called for an economic union between the two proposed states, and for the protection of religious and minority rights.
How hard can that be? But the current Israeli government, building settlements in any disputed lands and saying, look, that’s Israel now, is not helping much. Angry factions of the Palestinians, lobbing rockets into Israel and occasionally blowing up a bus, don’t make things easier either. Sometimes it’s all-out war. The Israelis always win. The Palestinians seethe. Then it all begins again. For those of us born in 1947 – we’re old now – this has been going on for as long as we have lived.
We side with Israel in all this. Harry Truman sided with Clark Clifford, not George Marshall, and two years ago that led to this:
Israel announced Wednesday it will refuse entry to United Nations human rights investigators who seek to probe potential war crimes committed in the latest 50-day military assault on Gaza.
The 47-member UN Human Rights Council in July approved the inquiry into “all violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and the occupied Gaza Strip in the context of military operations conducted since mid-June,” focusing on the actions of Israel as well as Hamas. Twenty-nine nations voted in favor of the investigation, with the U.S. issuing the sole “no” vote.’
We sided with Israel with our lonely veto, as we always do:
Critics charge that the UN, in fact, does not go far enough, as U.S. veto power prevents the international community from acting on this and other inquiries, including the Goldstone Report, which reviewed a previous Israeli military attack on Gaza in 2009.
We’ve got their back, except nearly sixty Democrats decided to boycott Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s March 2015 speech to Congress. Netanyahu did come to Congress in defiance of the White House, to upbraid and shame our young and hopelessly naïve president – invited to do so by those who seemed to consider themselves the few remaining Real Americans – those who prefer war to diplomacy, or at least prefer Israel’s prime minister to our president, or who just love Israel a whole lot. Obama was preparing to reach a “bad deal” on Iran’s nuclear program. This man had to be stopped. The Republicans agreed. It was time to side with Israel against our own president. It was the patriotic thing to do.
It was? That notion was a bit confusing, as was the fact that many of those who boycotted the Netanyahu speech were Jewish, cheered on by other American Jews, who have perpetually perplexed our Republicans, and then there was this:
Several Jewish groups also criticized Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to Congress and his repudiation last week of a Palestinian state in the lead-up to the elections. Netanyahu has since walked back those comments, insisting that he supports a “sustainable, peaceful two-state solution.”
Netanyahu’s repudiation of any kind of Palestinian state, ever, he admitted, had just been something he trotted out to win reelection – he hadn’t really meant it – just kidding, folks – but at the time, Slate’s William Saletan had just about enough of this nonsense:
Israel and the United States have a long, deep friendship. It’s based on shared interests and values. But it’s no longer clear that the old interests and values are shared. The U.S. government believes that Palestinian Arabs, like Jews, are entitled to a sovereign state. We believe it’s wrong to build settlements on land that doesn’t belong to you. We believe that ethnic minorities are entitled to participate in the political process and that they shouldn’t be vilified to scare up votes. The events of the past week suggest that the prime minister of Israel doesn’t believe these things and that most of his people either agree with him or don’t care enough to vote the other way.
It’s true that Israelis have other concerns, such as the high cost of housing. But when you set aside an issue, such as the rights of Palestinians, you’re saying it isn’t important to you. It’s also true that it’s easy for Americans like me to talk about this without facing the threat of terrorism. But sometimes distance is helpful. A friend can help you see changes in yourself. The constant pressure of war, terrorism, and peril has hardened Israel’s heart.
Perhaps so, but every American president since 1975 has been trying to hammer out a two-state solution over there – the original 1947 idea. None of it worked. Donald Trump recently said that his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, really could do what no world leader or master negotiator has ever been able to do, work out a permanent and wonderful peace between Israel and the Palestinians where everyone is happy, finally ending the unpleasantness that started in 1947 or so. Why not? His son-in-law runs a New York tabloid newspaper, and he is Jewish, and he is pretty cool. His father-in-law says so.
There’s a good chance that that too would make an impossible situation worse, a situation that Kevin Drum explains this way:
Virtually every country in the world has condemned Israel’s settlements in the West Bank.
They have all repeatedly voted to say so in the UN.
The US has also opposed Israel’s settlements, but hasn’t officially said so in the UN.
And Israel has said very clearly that the UN is virulently anti-Israel (true) and they pay it no mind.
A few days ago one small part of this formula finally changed when the US abstained from a UN vote condemning Israel’s settlements on the West Bank. It was a parting blow from a lame-duck president who has been treated appallingly by Bibi Netanyahu, and the only surprising thing about it is that President Obama managed to hold his temper this long.
Drum, however, points out that it’s all entirely meaningless:
Donald Trump will take office soon and Netanyahu claims to consider the UN illegitimate on this subject anyway. So why has everyone gone ballistic over it? Sure, there’s now an “official” UN resolution condemning the West Bank settlements, but what difference does that make? An “official” UN resolution is barely worth the minute or two it takes to read it. Even as a PR coup it doesn’t amount to much.
It may be time to face facts:
My take is that the last chance for any kind of peace deal ended in the 90s. The huge influx of conservative Jews from Russia after the fall of the Iron Curtain, followed by the Second Intifada, turned Israel permanently against any kind of settlement with the Palestinians.
Because of this, I never blamed George Bush for not trying to broker a peace deal and never blamed Obama for not succeeding. Even people who are sympathetic toward Obama often say that he handled the Middle East badly – and the Israel relationship particularly badly – but I simply don’t see how he could have done any better. Netanyahu treated him with unconcealed contempt; was unapologetic about publicly undermining him; decided to ditch bipartisanship and openly team up with the Republican Party; and very plainly was never open to any kind of settlement at all. There is absolutely nothing Obama could have done to change that.
That means that this too is true:
Israeli leaders will never stop building in the West Bank. It would be electoral suicide.
Israeli leaders will never give up the West Bank. It would be electoral suicide.
Israeli leaders will never formally annex the West Bank. It would be electoral suicide.
In other words, nothing is going to happen. Period. Israel is going to keep things as they are, fight off world opinion forever, and hope that maybe over the course of several decades they can slowly get all the Palestinians in the West Bank to emigrate elsewhere. It’s sort of like Mitt Romney’s “self-deportation” on steroids.
But one must also be fair about these things:
The Arabs have acted even more abominably. They tried to invade Israel twice. They never cared a fig for the Palestinians except as a convenient poster child. (Jordan must have been the first country in history to lose territory in a war and be happy about it.) They never accepted Israel as legitimate, but for decades they’ve tacitly tolerated its existence because it gives them an easy way of stirring up demagogic hatreds that help prop up their own vicious regimes. The PLO was a murderous terrorist organization, and Hamas is worse. The intifadas were depraved and ruinous. And despite the fact that the Palestinians were clearly on the losing end of a war and needed to accept the best deal they could get, they remained delusional to the end. I’ve never bought into the revisionist history that Bill Clinton’s Camp David summit was unfair to the Palestinians and Yasser Arafat was right to turn down the final proposal. He needed to accept it, and he probably knew it. He was just too cowardly to do it and too convinced that his own leadership was dependent on opposition to Israel.
So we are where we are:
Even in theory, there is literally no settlement that either the Israelis or the Palestinians would accept right now. This isn’t necessarily true forever, but it will be true for a good long time. We should all stop wasting our time on the fantasy that peace talks have any value.
All that’s left, then, is making an impossible situation worse. Trump is working on that. That’s what he was doing Christmas weekend. The rest of us were singing carols about peace on earth and good will toward men. What were we thinking?