Trump’s First Offer was a Better Deal for Palestine — and Israel

In early 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump pronounced himself “neutral” in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. He also expressed pessimism that a deal between the two sides was even possible: “I have friends of mine that are tremendous businesspeople, that are really great negotiators, [and] they say it’s not doable.”

It didn’t take Trump long to reverse himself — when it was explained to him that $100 million in campaign assistance from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson depended on such a reversal, he re-booted as “the most pro-Israel presidential candidate in history,” which in Adelsonese means “the most pro-Likud/pro-Netanyahu/anti-Palestinian candidate in the election.”

Nearly four years later — after numerous sops to Likud and favors to save Netanyahu’s premiership amidst his indictment on corruption charges, including moving the US embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — Trump unveiled his “deal of the century.” 

The deal, in summary: The Israeli regime gets everything it wants; Palestine’s Arabs get to keep some, but not all, of what they already have while giving up quite a bit.

They supposedly get a “state,” but that’s neither Trump’s nor Israel’s to give: The State of Palestine already exists and is already recognized by most other countries.

They get a “capital” in a sliver of East Jerusalem, but Israel will  annex even more Palestinian land.

The new, fake, quasi-state of Palestine will be required to “demilitarize” and trust Israel to defend it, and Israel will exercise veto power over both its foreign policy and its internal security policy.

Trump’s offer is quite a shift from his former “neutrality.” As Lando Calrissian said in The Empire Strikes Back, “this deal is getting worse all the time.” Worse for the Palestinians, obviously, but worse for Israel as well.

US aid and military support have turned Israel into a spoiled child among states. It does what it wants and gets what it wants, not because it deserves to or because it’s able to itself, but because it has a generous and muscular big brother doling out money to it and threatening to beat up anyone who questions its entitlement.

At some point, that relationship will end as all relationships do. The longer that relationship continues, the weaker, more vulnerable, and more over-extended Israel becomes.

If Israel’s regime was interested in peace, or even in its country’s survival, it would unilaterally withdraw to its 1967 borders, begin negotiating administration of Palestinians’ “right of return” to their stolen land, and recognize the existing State of Palestine.

And if Trump was really “pro-Israel,” he’d return to his position of “neutrality” in the matter. Even if it meant refunding Sheldon Adelson’s bribe, eating a little crow, and explaining another change of heart to his confused evangelical supporters.

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The Speech of Heroes

Almost everyone loves the idea of “speaking truth to power.”  Standing tall, talking boldly, consequences be damned – how heroic!

Yet on reflection, this Speech of Heroes takes two radically different forms.

The most common Speech of Heroes, by far, upholds Social Desirability Bias.  Example: “Everyone should be completely equal” sounds wonderful, but no actual society follows through.  Many self-styled heroic orators respond along these lines:

Equality!  We all say we believe in it.  We know it’s the right path.  Yet we are a den of hypocrites!  We pay lip service to the ideal of equality, but when inequality glares at us from every corner, we avert out eyes.  Shame on us!  Shame!  I say unto you, we must practice what we preach.  Let us live the equality we love.  Put apathy aside, my brothers and sisters.  Let us tear down all the inequalities we see.  Then let us ferret out every lingering pocket of inequality.  We must tear power from the grasp of all the corrupt leaders who casually say they oppose inequality but never do anything about it.  Together we can, should, will, and must build a totally equal society!

This kind of heroic rhetoric is standard in religious societies.  The sacred texts provide a strict blueprint for life, yet the government makes only a token effort to strictly implement the blueprint.  In response, the heroic orator sticks out his neck, decries the hypocrisy of the Powers That Be, and demands strict adherence to the holy book.  Which is music to the ears of every pious members of this society.  See the Protestant Reformation or radical Islamism for nice examples.

Notice, however, that this heroic rhetoric also dominates socialist and nationalist oratory.  Step 1: Loudly and clearly affirm a crowd-pleasing ideal.  Step 2: Decry the obvious hypocrisy of the status quo.  Step 3: Promise to strictly implement the crowd-pleasing ideal.  You’ve got socialist slogans like, “Social ownership of the means of production,” “Complete equality,” or “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”  You’ve got nationalist slogans like, “Death before dishonor,” “Germany for the Germans,” or “The safety and prosperity of all our people.”  In each case, the speaker presents himself as a hero by puritanically appealing to popular sentiment.

Once in a long while, however, we encounter a radically different form of heroic oratory.  Instead of upholding Social Desirability Bias, the hero frontally attacks it.  As in:

Equality!  You all pay lip service to it, but who really believes it?  Why should people who produce and contribute the most receive the same treatment as people who do little or nothing?  You love to denounce the hypocrites who say they believe in equality but fail to deliver it.  But I say to you: Those hypocrites keep you alive!  In a totally equal society, there’s no incentive to do anything but kvetch.  If you’re tired of hypocrisy, remember that there are two ways to end it.  You could strictly implement this monstrous ideal of equality.  Or you could proclaim the truth: Equality is a monstrous ideal!  Let’s raise the banner of meritocracy, and thank our greatest producers instead of scapegoating them.

In a religious society, the analogue would naturally be rationalistic atheism: “Forget these pathetic ‘holy’ books, fantasies written long ago by ignorant fanatics.”  In a nationalist society, the analogue would be along the lines of, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” or even, “Our country is not the best in the world.  It’s not even average.  It’s below average – and things won’t improve until we admit our failures and humbly emulate the winners.”

Which form of oratory is more heroic?  Once you take Social Desirability Bias seriously, the answer is clear.  You can’t “speak truth to power” unless you speak the truth.  Implausible scenarios where Social Desirability Bias and the truth coincidentally converge, appealing to Social Desirability Bias is deeply unheroic.  Even villainous.

And truth aside, challenging your society’s fundamental values takes a lot more courage than merely decrying the violation of those values.

Yes, when you damn ruling elites for hypocrisy, those elites often retaliate.  Rhetorically, however, you’re still taking the path of low resistance.  You start with simple-minded feel-good slogans with broad appeal.  Then you point out corruption flagrant enough for anyone to see.

When you denounce your society’s fundamental values, however, you outrage elites and masses alike.  When you merely attack hypocrisy, elites have to worry about making a martyr out of you.  When you spurn Social Desirability Bias, in contrast, elites win popular support by teaching you the price of arrogance.  Who but a hero would openly challenge such a powerful pair of enemies?

Do I hold myself out as a man who embodies the Speech of Heroes?  Barely.  While I routinely challenge Social Desirability Bias, my society remains highly tolerant.  No one’s going to jail me for my words.  Indeed, since I have tenure, no one will even fire me for my words.  If I lived in a normal repressive society, I would publicly say far less than I do.  A gold-star hero would publicly express thoughts like mine… while living in Communist China or Saudi Arabia.

While I wouldn’t advise you to try this, anyone who does so is my hero.

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Trump versus Iran: Power Doesn’t Just Corrupt, it Deludes

On January 8, US president Donald Trump addressed the American public concerning a casualty-free Iranian missile attack on US bases in Iraq, where just last week Iranian general Qasem Soleimani was killed in a US drone strike.

If the speech was remarkable in any way, it was for the comparative restraint Trump displayed: Rather than pledging another round of tit-for-tat, he announced new sanctions on Iran, vowed that “as long as I’m president of the United States, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon,” called on NATO to “become much more involved in the Middle East process,” and rambled aimlessly about the “Iran nuclear deal” that his administration abrogated in 2018.

What was unremarkable — and unfortunate — in the speech was the obvious assumption underlying it: That the United States enjoys, and SHOULD enjoy, absolute power in international relations.

Trump is hardly unique in publicly stating, or in operating on, that assumption. The claim of such absolute power has been the tacit US doctrine of foreign relations since at least as far back as the end of World War Two.

America emerged from that war as the world’s sole nuclear power and, unlike other combatant countries, with its wealth virtually unscathed and its industrial capacity increased rather than demolished. Its rulers saw themselves as able, and entitled, to dictate terms to almost everyone, on almost everything.

“Power tends to corrupt,” wrote Lord Acton, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Acton was referring to individuals (“great men are almost always bad men”), but his observation is just as true of institutions. And above and beyond corruption, absolute power creates delusion.

The post-war “consensus” on American power around the world began to fray almost immediately.

The Soviet Union acquired “the bomb” and settled in for half a century of dominating eastern Europe.

The US found itself fought to a draw in Korea and defeated in Vietnam when it tried to throw its newfound weight around.

Even after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the US learned that Michael Ledeen’s re-formulation of the doctrine — “every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business” — tends toward big price tags and negative returns.

Yet the delusion persists. It substitutes hubris for humility, sacrificing the blood and treasure of Americans and foreigners alike on the altar of a false god and in pursuit of an imaginary paradise.

The foreign policy recommended by Thomas Jefferson in his first inaugural address —  “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none” — was, and remains, the common-sense alternative to the nonsensical assumption of absolute American power.

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Trump’s Democratic Critics Want it Both Ways on Biden, Clinton

US president Donald Trump “elevated his political interest above the national interest and demanded foreign interference in an American election,” Peter Beinart asserts at The Atlantic. “What’s received less attention is what the scandal reveals about Joe Biden: He showed poor judgment because his staff shielded him from hard truths. If that sounds faintly familiar, it’s because that same tendency underlay Hillary Clinton’s email woes in 2016.”

Beinart admits that Joe Biden’s son Hunter’s service as a very well-paid member on the board of a Ukrainian energy company at the same time his father’s portfolio included “fighting corruption in the Ukrainian energy industry” was “a problem.”

But it’s not Joe’s fault, see? His staffers didn’t want to confront him about the conflict of interest. They “feared the vice president’s wrath,” and thought him “too fragile” after one son’s death to hear “upsetting news” about the other’s conduct.

Ditto Hillary Clinton. As Secretary of State, she was briefed on (and signed papers agreeing to abide by) State Department protocols on the handling of classified information and the use of non-government email systems.  But Beinart lets Clinton off the hook because her chief of staff and other aides failed to “forcefully convey” her obligations to her.

Here’s Beinart’s case — one also made by other Democratic partisans — boiled down to its essentials:

When Republicans act criminally and/or corruptly, it’s because they’re criminal and/or corrupt.

When Democrats act criminally and/or corruptly, it’s because they’re just poor, temperamental, out-of-their-element naifs who of course have no criminal or corrupt intent, but whose staffers — whether negligently, or out of concern for feelings or fear of offending — neglect to button their winter coats for them, take them by their little mittened hands, and carefully walk them across all those busy, dangerous legal/ethical streets.

There are two obvious problems with this double standard.

One is that for the last three years we’ve been told over and over (by, among others, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden) that Trump is a loose cannon, an eternal man-child who lacks “adults in the room” to help him navigate the intricacies of governing. So why shouldn’t Trump receive the same “Blame the Aides and Get Out of Jail Free Card” that Beinart tries to play on behalf of the other two?

The other is that in arguing that Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton aren’t responsible for their actions because they’re too stupid to discern right from wrong and too simultaneously mean and emotionally delicate to be TOLD right from wrong, Beinart is necessarily also arguing that Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton were and are, by definition, unfit to entrust with responsibilities as weighty as those that go with, say, the presidency of the United States.

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Yep, These People are Stone Cold Crooked

Did vice president Joe Biden threaten to withhold $1 billion in US loan guarantees from the Obama administration if the Ukrainian government failed to remove a prosecutor whose investigation targets included Burisma Holdings, a gas company on whose board Biden’s son, Hunter, sat? Yes. He’s publicly admitted it.

Did president Donald Trump pressure Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to re-open corruption investigations into Burisma in general and the Bidens specifically? Yes. He’s publicly admitted it.

Let us briefly pause while partisan Democrats and partisan Republicans, supporters of Biden and supporters of Trump,  get the screams of “false equivalency!” out of their systems.

I’ll even entertain the notion. Maybe Joe Biden was just worried about corruption in Ukraine and not throwing his vice-presidential weight around to protect his son. Maybe Donald Trump is just worried about corruption in Ukraine and self-dealing by American politicians, rather than cynically abusing his presidential power to have foreign governments torpedo his political opponents.

OK, now let’s get back to the real world where, as Lord Acton wrote, “power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Or, as President Trump tweeted about his accusers, and has he’s established concerning himself over the course of decades, “these people are stone cold crooked.”

The basic facts of both sets of accusations are undisputed by the accused. What’s at issue is their motives.

Those with power (including one of its forms, wealth) tend to act to preserve that power. As the amount of power requiring preservation increases, so does the temptation to use that power in corrupt ways to protect and expand it.

The positions of president and vice-president/potential president, entail considerable power. Suspecting corrupt motives on Biden’s part, Trump’s part, or both, is not only not beyond the pale, it’s perfectly reasonable.

The emerging scandal may cost both Trump and Biden their 2021-2025 presidential ambitions. It could conceivably even cost Trump several months of his current term if the House impeaches and the Senate convicts (the former looks increasingly likely, the latter seemingly unlikely).

But the problem goes deeper than the ambitions or personal moral compasses of Donald Trump and Joe Biden. The problem is power itself. We’ve ceded far too much of it to politicians, and the executive branch in particular has co-opted far too much of what we’ve unwisely ceded to the state in general.

Neither Joe Biden nor Donald Trump should have ever had control over billions of dollars in aid to Ukraine’s government in the first place. If the US does dispense foreign aid (it shouldn’t), the job of the White House is to cut the checks as directed by Congress.

The US, after decades of creep toward dictatorship, is there. The executive branch has seized plenary power because Congress has failed to jealously guard its prerogatives and the Supreme Court has failed to zealously protect our rights.

The authoritarian dystopia into which we’ve fallen, not the specific details of a dictator’s or would-be dictator’s abuses,  is the problem. If we don’t solve it, we solve nothing.

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Trump and Netanyahu: “Mutual Defense” or Just Mutual Political Back-Scratching?

On September 14, US president Donald Trump tweeted (of course) the suggestion of a US-Israel “Mutual Defense Treaty,” citing a call with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Hopefully there’s less going on here than meets the eye: The tweet may just be another mutual publicity back-scratch of the type Trump and Netanyahu frequently exchange when they find themselves in political pickles. And Netanyahu is likely in the biggest such pickle of his career.

After failing to put together a ruling coalition in the wake of April’s general election, Netanyahu called another election for September 17.

Netanyahu also faces imminent indictment on three corruption charges, with a court hearing on the charges scheduled for early October. In June, his wife Sara took a plea deal and paid a fine for misusing state funds.

Netanyahu’s personal future may well depend on him having a political future. He’s pulling out all stops to change the April results, from approving new Israeli squats (“settlements”) in, and even promising to annex parts of, the occupied West Bank, to conducting military attacks in Syria and Iraq and along the Lebanese border.

Talk of a “Mutual Defense Treaty” with the US may well drive some badly needed votes his way, especially to the extent that such a treaty might be thought available only to Netanyahu and his Likud Party but not to Benny Gantz’s Blue and White alliance (the platform of which, by the way, bars indicted politicians from serving in the Knesset, Israel’s legislature).

So maybe Trump’s tweet is just politics. But if it’s for real, it’s a bad idea for the US, a bad idea for Israel, and a bad idea for world peace.

The US doesn’t need Israel’s assistance to defend itself. It already spends far more than any other state in the world on its military,  that amount is many multiples of any amount reasonably related to actual defense, and it faces no existential military threats other than attack with nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles, which Israel couldn’t plausibly reduce.

Israel hasn’t faced a military threat to its existence since 1973, and given the web of US-influenced and US-financed relations it’s created with Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, isn’t likely to face any such threat not of its own making for the foreseeable future .

As for peace in general, Trump proposes a “Mutual Defense” pact with a rogue nuclear garrison ethno-state in a tinderbox region. What could possibly go wrong?

A “Mutual Defense Treaty” with the US would only encourage further bad behavior and saber-rattling on the part of the Israelis toward e.g. Iran and Syria. That’s the kind of behavior bound to eventually CREATE a real military threat, resulting in the Israelis demanding US support pursuant to the treaty, on a claim of “Mom, he hit me back FIRST.”

It’s time for the US to start furling its post-World War Two “security umbrella” instead of inviting suspect new partners to join it beneath that umbrella. America’s future, if it is to have one, requires a non-interventionist foreign policy.

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