The Private and the Public in Trump’s America on New Year’s Day 2018

1 Jan

The Private and the Public in Trump’s America on New Year’s Day 2018

 

I realize how insensitive I have been in sending messages to a few friends in which I suggested that we should look forward in the year ahead to private satisfactions, while being wary of public hopes given the looming storm clouds of Trumpism. The assumption I glibly made was that the private and public were distinct domains, which is true to some extent for those of use who are not Hispanic, Muslim, African-American, poor, homeless, or somehow vulnerable.

 

Of course, the slogan ‘the personal is political’ is in some profound sense true for all of us, however privileged and shielded from public abuse we happen to be. How we choose to treat others is always a political act for better or worse, and radiates beyond our personal actions, thoughts, and feelings. Yet there is a blandness about such a perception if it does acknowledge the more impinging effects of the political for all those who are forced to live, in some way, at the edge. What Trump has done is to push millions more, who were already experiencing the pains of vulnerability, marginality, and inequality, closer to falling from the precipice. Trump’s Muslim bans, hostility to immigrants, anachronistic nativism, white supremacist and alt-right sympathies create air to toxic to breathe, especially for those already living with daily fears and uncertainties.

 

A related clarifying thought: Trump and Trumpism are only viable because of the opportunistic cowardice of the Republican Party, which has struck the most lamentable of Faustian Bargains—selling their conservative souls for a reactionary social and economic agenda that accentuates the existing distortions evident in American society: nurturing the greed of the wealthy and turning a blind eye to the poor and vulnerable.

 

Additionally, Trumpism gives us ample occasion to weep on behalf of an abused nature, a threatened habitat, even ecological collapse.

 

This leads me to this conclusion on New Year’s Day 2018: the most worthy political resolution of this new year is to resist Trumpism in every way we can, and do so in compassionate solidarity with those whose private spaces have been so darkly encroached upon by the punitive policies and practices of the current political leadership in this country.

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Trump, the UN, and the Future of Jerusalem

31 Dec

 

Trump, the UN, and the Future of Jerusalem

 

[Prefatory Note: This post is the modified text of an interview on behalf of the Tasnim News Agency in Iran as conducted by Mohammed Hassani. It tries to assess the wider implications of the UN reaction to Trump’s December 6th decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and to follow this by relocating the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.]

 

Q1: As you know, nearly 130 countries recently voted in favor of a United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning the US decision to recognize Jerusalem (al-Quds) as the capital of the Israeli regime. What message does the vote signal to the world’ public opinion?

The main message of this overwhelming rejection of the Trump recognition of al-Quds as the capital of Israel by the UN General Assembly is to disclose that the Palestinian national movement continues to enjoy strong support from each and every important country in the world, thereby rejecting the current Israeli approach, supported by the United States, to impose unilaterally a solution of the long struggle over land and rights on the Palestinian people. Such a solution would foreclose both a sovereign Palestine, deny the Palestinian people the most fundamental of all rights, that of self-determination, and preclude any fair and just arrangement of shared sovereignty between the two people.

A secondary message was the consensus in the General Assembly that on this issue of Jerusalem matters of global justice take precedence over geopolitical maneuvers. There can also be read into the vote the growing erosion of global leadership that had been exercised by Washington since the end of World War II. This erosion reflects the rise of China, and its advocacy, along with that of Russia, and maybe also even leading countries in Europe, of a multipolar approach to the formation and implementation of global policy with respect to security issues, environmental policies, and economic governance. The fact that America’s closest allies, including France, United Kingdom, and Japan voted for the resolution condemning the effort of the U.S. Government to legitimize the establishment of Jerusalem (al-Quds) as Israel’s capital is also of considerable significance. What remains to be seen is how the future of Jerusalem will unfold in light of these dramatic developments. There are currently visible two tendencies—first, the handful of negative votes by tiny island countries and a few minor and dependent Central American countries to follow the lead of the U.S. and move their embassy to Jerusalem; secondly, the counter-initiative of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to declare Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, given concrete expression by the Turkish decision to establish its embassy for Palestine in East Jerusalem.

What remains to be seen is whether the Trump presidency softens its stand on these issues or doubles or even triples down by defiantly moving its embassy to Jerusalem, withholding economic assistance from countries that voted for the resolution, and reducing its financial contributions to the UN in a vindictive display of hostility at the various actors viewed as responsible for humiliating the U.S. Government, thereby pleasing those pro-Israeli forces that insist that the UN is primarily a venue for Israel-bashing.

Q2: Prior to the UN vote on Jerusalem, US President Donald Trump had threatened to cut off financial aid to countries that voted in favor of the resolution. It seems that his warning has been ineffective. What do you think?

Yes, the ineffectiveness of such an unprecedented overt threat at the UN, abetted by back channel pressures, is definitely a sign that U.S. soft power leadership in the world is experiencing a sharp decline if measured against its reality in the years after World War II, and extending throughout the Cold War Era. More generally, the failure of Haley’s threats to influence the vote of a single country of stature in the world is also indicative of a parallel decline of geopolitical capabilities to control global policy at least on the key issue of the rights of the Palestinian people, particularly in the context of Jerusalem, which has a strong symbolic significance for many countries. What is unclear is whether this vote exhibits a broader trend among states to pursue foreign policies that exhibit their sovereign independence and distinct views of global policy, rather than as in the past, displaying a strong tendency to defer to the views of a globally dominant state(s). In this context, the radical character of Trump’s presidency may be having the effect of fracturing hegemonic structures of control in contemporary world order that were in any event faced with accumulating skepticism since the end of the Cold War, and the breakdown of the bipolar structure that had shaped much of global policy between 1945 and 1992. What Trump has done is to intensify pre-existing pressures for global restructuring, a dynamic also reinforced by the rejectionist approach taken by the United States on other key issues of global concern, including climate change, the Iran Nuclear Program (5 + 1) Agreement, global migration, ad international trade. The Trump slogan of ‘America, First’ has to be coupled with ‘World, Last,’ to grasp the extent to which the United States invites by its own initiatives a reaction against its outlier policies at odds with strong countervailing views of the international community of states as to desirable forms of global cooperation for the public good. At the very historical moment when the future of humanity depends on unprecedented action on behalf of human, habitat, and global wellbeing, the leading political actor not only withdraws from the effort, but does its best to obstruct constructive behavior. It is as if the United States Government has become a deadly virus attacking the fabric of the global body politic.

 

 

Q3: In a speech at the White House on December 6, Trump said his administration would also begin a years-long process of moving the American embassy in Tel Aviv to the holy city of Jerusalem. Do you see any chance that Trump would press ahead with his plan to relocate the embassy given the widespread international opposition? 

 

My guess at this point is that the U.S. Government will definitely implement its decision to relocate the embassy, but will probably do so in a gradual manner that does not provoke a major subsequent reaction, especially if implementation is entrusted to the State Department. Of course, any steps taken to relocate the American Embassy in Jerusalem will be correctly perceived as a defiant and provocative rejection of the conclusions set forth in the GA Resolution. In this sense, the quality and impact of reactions will depend on the political will of the Palestinian Authority, the OIC, the UN, and world public opinion. At stake, is whether the United States further produces an adverse international reaction to its behavior and whether governments seek to engage further on the issue to preserve the rights of the Palestinian people with respect to Jerusalem. The future interaction with respect to Jerusalem will be very revealing as to both the responsiveness of the United States to the rejection of its approach to the recognition of the Israeli capital at this time and as to the energy of those that supported the resolution to take further steps in the direction of achieving compliance. There is little doubt that a test of wills is likely to emerge in the months ahead that will reveal whether the Jerusalem resolution was a mere gesture or a tipping point.

 

The fact that the al-Quds resolution was itself based on The Uniting for Peace Resolution (GA Res. 377 A (V), 1950) gives its text a special status, both as the outcome of a rare Emergency Session of the General Assembly and as a truly responsible reaction on behalf of peace and security to an irresponsible use of the veto in the Security Council to block its decision of condemnation backed by a 14-1 vote, that is, all other members. This status gives the General Assembly response on Jerusalem an authoritativeness that should extend far beyond its normal recommendatory capabilities, but as earlier indicated there are few guidelines as to how such an initiative will be implemented if defied.

At stake is the larger issue of whether this path taken to circumvent a P-5 veto in the Security Council might produce a shift in UN authority to the more representative General Assembly.

 

In any event, it may well be that whatever course of action ensues will exert an important influence on how well the UN in the future can serve the human and global interest, as well as take account of distinct and aggregate national interests as opportunities present themselves. The Trump phenomenon gives a pointedness to fundamental issues of world order viability, especially a capacity to address challenges of global scope in the course of the first biopolitical moment, confronting humanity as such with a prospect of its own mortality.

The Jerusalem Votes at the UN

23 Dec

 

 

What struck me as the most significant dimension of the Jerusalem votes in the Security Council and General Assembly has been oddly overlooked by most commentary in the media. The public discourse has, of course, been correct to identify the isolation of the United States with respect to the rest of the world as well as regarding the majority position as a defiant rejection of Trump’s leadership and bullying tactics. Although as some have noted, without the bullying by Ambassador Haley (including, I will report yes votes to the president; those that vote for the resolution will not receive economic assistance in the future; we are watching; “America will remember this day;” “the vote will make a difference on how Americans look at the UN.”), there might been as many as 150 positive votes for the resolution instead of 128, with fewer abstentions (35) and fewer absences from the vote (21).

 

Nevertheless, 128-9 is a clear expression of an overwhelming moral and legal sentiment, and deserves to be respected by any government that values the role of the General Assembly as the arbiter of legitimacy with respect to sensitive global issues. Although far weaker and more subject to geopolitical manipulation than is desirable, these main political organs of the UN provide the best guide that currently exists as to what global policy should be if the global and human interest is to be protected, and not merely an array of national interests and their multilateral aggregation to achieve cooperative results.

 

What this discussion glosses over in this instance without stopping to observe its significance is the degree to which issues of substance prevailed over matters of geopolitical alignment. Not one of America’s closest allies (UK, France, Germany, and Japan) heeded the fervent arguments and pleas of Haley and Trump. Beyond this, every important country in the world backed the General Assembly Resolution on December 21, 2017 regardless of geography or political orientation (China, Russia, India, Brazil, Turkey, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran). This unanimity enhances the quality of the consensus supportive of the resolution repudiating Trump’s arrogant decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital as ‘null and void.’ Such an impression is strengthened by listing the nine governments that voted against the resolution (Guatemala, Honduras, Marshall Islands, Israel, Miscronesia, Nauru, Palau, Togo, and the U.S.).

 

Should these striking results be interpreted as the demise, or at least twilight, of geopolitics? Any such speculation would be wildly premature. What seems to have swayed many governments in this case is the negative fallout expected to follow from Trump’s unilateralism that disregards decades of international practice and agreement about the status and treatment of Jerusalem, as well as the gratuitous neglect of Palestinian rights and aspirations by taking such an initiative without even pretending to take account of Palestinian grievances. In this regard, Trump’s poor international reputation as a result of pulling out of the Paris Climate Change Agreement, decertification of the Nuclear Agreement with Iran, and withdrawal from negotiations to fashion an agreed approach to the global migration crisis undoubtedly help tip the scales on the Jerusalem resolution, especially among European governments. Trump’s unpopular implementation of his diplomacy of ‘America, First’ is arguably morphing into the disturbing perception of ‘America, Last’ or the United States as ‘rogue superpower.’ Consciously or not, the UN vote was a distress signal directed at Washington by friends and adversaries alike, but as near as can be told, it will be disregarded or angrily rebuffed by the White House and its spokespersons unless they decide to pass over these happenings in silence.

 

As has been observed, the Jerusalem decision was not part of a carefully crafted international approach to the Israel/Palestine struggle. It seemed mainly to be a payoff to domestic support groups of Trump’s presidential campaign in the United States (large pro-Israeli donors and Christian Evangelists wedded to a (mis)reading of the Book of Revelations), as well as a further display of post-Obama affection for Bibi Netanyahu. Apparently, for Trump being adored in Tel Aviv seems worth being discredited with allies and leading states throughout the rest of the world. As for the threatened major aid recipients (Afghanistan, Egypt, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and South Africa; Kenya was absent during the vote); it was impressive that all of these states ignored the threat and voted for the resolution. If Washington follows through on withholding aid it will certainly not serve America’s strategic interests as previously understood, particularly in the Middle East, but also in Africa. Yet if it fails to carry its threat, its diplomatic posture will be seen as that of a novice poker player whose untimely bluff has been called.

 

There is also the question of ‘what next?’ Will the Jerusalem resolution be remembered as a moment in time to be superseded by contrary behavioral trends? In this regard, the U.S. now has its own chance to exhibit defiance and disrespect by quickly and ostentatiously moving its embassy to Jerusalem, which will of course give rise to further anger. The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has already seized the occasion to reassert its prominence in the Muslim world, first by co-sponsoring (with Yemen) the resolution, and then by explicitly calling on the U.S. Government to rescind its decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. I would darkly imagine that the Trump presidency would opt for World War III before it backed down on Jerusalem.

 

As widely reported, the Jerusalem resolution is symbolic in nature, and yet it does have serious political consequences for all relevant political actors. Does it clear a political space for the European Union to play a central role in seeking to revive a diplomatic approach on a more balanced basis than what could have been expected from Washington? How does the U.S. Government negotiate the fine line between disregarding the resolution and harming its foreign policy objectives in the Middle East? How unyielding should the Palestinian Authority be about insisting on a parallel recognition of East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine before it agrees to participate in negotiations with Israel? Will Turkey seek further steps at the UN and elsewhere to back up the resolution, including possibly fashioning realignments throughout the Middle East? Will the second tier of officials in the Trump Administration create pressure to create a foreign policy that more closely reflects U.S. national interests by taking better account of the many dimensions (digital, economic, security) of global integration?

Democracy, Development, and Reputation: Vietnam and Turkey

17 Dec

 

 

More than 25 years ago I took part in a major conference in Kuala Lumpur affirming the importance of human rights. At the end of the second day, the convener of the conference, Chandra Muzaffar, a leading advocate of human rights and democracy in Malaysia, arranged for a few of the speakers to meet with the controversial leader of the country, Prime Minister, Mahathir. I was the only Westerner among the 4 or 5 of us given this opportunity. As soon as we entered the room Mahathir looked straight at me while posing a rhetorical question: “Why do Western human rights NGOs and experts look only at our performance with respect to civil and political rights when our natural preoccupation is the promotion of economic and social rights?” Of course, his assertion was meant to challenge the complacent Orientalizing conventional wisdom, reducing the practice of human rights to whether or not a government is doing well or poorly on such issues as free elections and freedom of expression. No one denies the relevance and core vitality of rights, but not more so than whether the bottom strata of the citizenry, as measured by standard of living, can meet their basic material needs. This outlook remains dominant in the West, coloring condescending comments on non-Western human rights failures,, and persisting despite the West’s own downward spiral into the dark domains of illiberalism.

 

I was reminded of this meeting while in Vietnam for two weeks recently. Several Vietnamese intellectuals as well as the rather large Western expat community contended that the government of Vietnam had become repressive in the period since its extraordinarily victory in the Vietnam War. It was accused of harshly punishing critics and dissenters as if more scared of domestic protest than they had been of American B-52 carpet bombing. Such critics were right, of course, to lament this fall from grace on the part of Vietnam’s leaders, who also lacked the charisma and inspirational leadership of their wartime predecessors. At the same time it was unfortunate to fall into the Western trap of focusing on the failures of glasnost, while overlooking the achievements of perestroika, that is, judging political performance as the ACLU might rather than by reference to the overall wellbeing of the Vietnamese people.

 

What I am trying to draw attention to is the remarkable story of Vietnamese economic and social achievements, which center on drastically reducing extreme poverty and stimulating agricultural growth to such a level that Vietnam, previously frequently at the edge of massive famine, had become the third leading rice exporter in the world (after the U.S. and Thailand). In effect, the government of Vietnam, while failing to live up to expectations when it comes to such liberal ideals as transparency, participation, and accountability of their citizenry, was nevertheless successfully building a needs based economy in which there were relatively few below the poverty line and where almost everyone had their health, education, and housing needs met by the state. Not only was this an impressive profile of current Vietnamese society, but it represented a trajectory of steadily improving achievement. Since the 1990s, Vietnamese poverty rate had fallen from about 50% to 7% in 2015 in a period during which roughly 1/3 of the population overcame conditions of food insecurity, according to the UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food.

 

These Vietnamese national accomplishments are the normative realities obscured or ignored by the regressive kinds of thinking that validates and invalidates performance in leading capitalist societies of the West—selective quantitative indicators of economic growth and stock market performance. Let us remember that rich countries in the West are at ease living with large pockets of extreme poverty in their own affluent societies as measured by homelessness and extreme poverty, including the absence of health care, educational opportunity, and even food and housing necessities. Shocking figures of inequality are hardly ever taken into serious account. For example, the fact that the three richest Americans—Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffet—possess wealth that exceeds the earnings of the entire American working class should occasion revolutionary incitement, but actually it is put to one side as a neutral outcome of moving beyond industrial capitalism.

 

The same one-sidedness is present in the discussion of another of my favorite countries in the world: Turkey—where I have spent several months each year for the last twenty. Of course, the dynamics are very adifferent within each national setting. The discourse in Turkey resembles that of Vietnam far more than that of the United States. The critical focus of anti-government forces has been the democratic failings of AKP since it assumed power in 2002; this criticism has sharpened since a drift toward more authoritarian rule in 2011, the 2013 Gezi Park demonstrations, and spiked sharply, especially in international circles, after the failed FETO coup of 2016 and the often crude and often cruelly implemented overreactions of the Erdogan government to threats that it was entitled to perceive as dangerous. The purge in universities and media of those whose views and activities were deemed unacceptable by the Turkish government, as well as the moves against specific journalists and politicians, especially those associated with supporting the struggle of the Kurdish people, are deeply troubling developments, should worry the society as a whole, and do warrant international criticism.

 

But these negative developments should not be presented as the whole story about Turkey and the AKP/Erdogan leadership. Part of the Turkish problem of perception and accuracy is a tendency of debate toward polarizations of good and evil, secular and religious, and even truth and falsity. This has led negative criticism of Turkish governmental behavior to be misleadingly expressed in the form of unbalanced criticism. In the early phase of AKP governance of the country the standard complaints of an unrelenting opposition were directed at Erdogan as dictatorial and leading the country away from Ataturk secular legacy and toward a religious polity similar to that in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Of course, this line of attack was totally wrong. The early policy priority of the AKP consisted of satisfying European Union criteria for membership, which was actually a major step in the Ataturk direction of Europeanizing the country as the best path to economic modernization. During these early AKP years, the government in Ankara made a parallel effort to get the military out of politics and back in their barracks. Fairly considered, the first decade of AKP leadership dating from say 2002 was notable for achieving fundamental democratizing reforms that many knowledgeable observers of the country could never happen in Turkey. For example, Eric Rouleau, the eminent French journalist of Middle Eastern politics and later French ambassador to Turkey believed that the Turkish military would never give up its tutelage role that was not only well entrenched in the government bureaucracy, but also considered part of the hallowed legacy of Ataturk, as to be unchallengeable. Erdogan’s leadership achieved the impossible. Additionally in this period Turkey managed to break free of its Cold War straight jacket as a NATO pawn pursuing an independent and sensibly assertive foreign policy throughout the Middle East and beyond. The country also achieved a series of successes in trade and investment that led Turkey to be considered one of the most promising of emerging economies.

 

As things got worse from the perspective of political and civil rights, it was difficult for critics to express accurately these disappointments and criticism because the earlier negative comments of the opposition had earlier been so exaggerated. Some of the harshest critics, claiming with varying degrees of accuracy that they had applauded ed what the Erdogan leadership achieved in its early years, but in recent years the management of the Turkish state had fallen from grace. Recent exaggerations claim ‘there are no longer any newspapers in Turkey worth reading’ and the like. I would argue that there has been some decline in the range of media coverage and some lessening of criticism, yet several English language newspapers, including Sabah and Daily Hurryiet remain well worth reading, have useful critical commentaries on government policies and are informative about the major issues of domestic and international policy facing the country.

 

If international assessments were more balanced and less polarized, the AKP leadership would receive considerable credit in domestic and foreign policy from better educated and informed observers of the political scene in Turkey. Criticisms of Turkey’s failed Syrian policies would be set off against the success of Ankara’s African diplomacy, the vitality of its economy despite the obstacles created by the anti-Turkish international campaign, the robustness of its foreign assistance program (second only to that of the U.S., and highest in per capita terms), the care it has accorded over 3 million Syrian (and some Iraqi) refugees, the global attention it has brought to the plight of the Rohingya, and its various regional efforts at conflict resolution (including Cyprus; Israel/Syria; Iran’s nuclear program; Balkan and Caucuses internal relations within their respective regions). Turkey, unlike either Saudi Arabia or Iran, has mostly promoted a politics of reconciliation in the region, and unlike Egypt has done a great deal to help raise the standard of living of its most disadvantaged citizenry. The Turkish government has made Istanbul a global city in many respects, a center for inter-civilizational dialogue and alliance, and a sponsor of conferences dedicated to a more peaceful, prosperous, and humane global future. The TRT World Forum a couple of months ago in Istanbul featured presentations at the opening by the Turkish Prime Minister and at the closing by Erdogan, and in between panels on a variety of world order issues with a fairly wide range of speakers (including myself).

 

My most basic criticism of the anti-government discourse in and about Turkey is along the lines of my sense of what is right in Vietnam. For the bottom 50% or so of Turks the policies of the government have enhanced greatly their material life circumstances when it comes to health, security, housing, public transportation, as well as improved participatory rights of those outside the Western urban sectors. Talking with ‘ordinary’ Turkish workers during this period, such as private car drivers, apartment managers, barbers, fruit sellers, suggest that since the AKP has governed, their lives and that of their families has steadily improved, especially with respect to basic material needs, daily life, and enjoyment of what a modern society has to offer. Often ‘secularists’ deride these AKP supporters, and Erdogan enthusiasts, as uneducated and stupid. Their response when asked why they vote Erdogan adopts the opposite line: ‘Are we stupid?’ Many of these persons actually dislike the Islamic edge of the government identity or think the Syrian policies were a huge mistake, but for what is important for them, the AKP is far superior to alternatives. In effect, there’s nothing the matter with Anatolia, unlike Kansas!

 

It is not at all like the Trump base in America where the policies adopt by the elected leaders are in general materially harmful to much of this angry and alienated American underclass, and what they get from Trump are signals encouraging racism, xenophobia, and nativist patriotism, which seem to generate strong feelings of cultural satisfaction, especially when he punctures political balloons, many of which in any event were filled                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        with liberal hot air as suggested by the many glaring human rights failures during the long period of secular hegemony.

 

In the end we would all like to live in humane societies but in the interim it would diminish polarization and enhance understanding to balance strengths and weaknesses in a more balanced manner, especially with respect to class interests. The weakening of free expression, especially by punishing dissent and

treating criticism as subversion, has horrible effects for the intellectual and creative life that affects especially the sense of wellbeing of the upper echelons of society, but also weakens the innovativeness of those working in the private sector. The material neglect of the underclass causes fundamental deprivations in the daily life of the most economically marginalized portions of societies, hitting minorities especially hard. What I am objecting to is the invisibility of the suffering of the very poor (as in America) and the refusals to acknowledge the public achievement of their improved circumstances (as in Turkey or Vietnam).

 

My argument is not meant to be a reworking of the Huntington argument in the 1970s that developmental priorities tend to make authoritarian rule a palatable prelude to democratically oriented modes of governance. I am not suggesting that it makes sense to defer concerns with democratic practices and human rights, but that normative backsliding should not be the occasion for overlooking how well or badly a government behaves in other spheres of activity. In a sense, this is a search for balance and moderation, and a plea against using ideological brickbats to tear down legitimate governing processes, which undoubtedly need reforms, but do not deserve to be blacklisted except in the most extreme cases, and this is not happening. For instance, the human rights record of Turkey and Vietnam is the target of far more insistent criticism and attack than is the far worse records of Saudi Arabia or Sisi’s Egypt. Again, it is not that being worse elsewhere does not excuse being bad, but it does raise questions about motivation and geopolitical motivation. Vietnam is in a more fortunate position that Turkey because it is valued as part of the U.S. effort to contain Chinese influence, while Turkey is increasingly seen as a thorn in the side of such American allies in the region as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. In effect, bashing countries for their poor human rights records needs to be geopolitically decoded if it is to be taken seriously.    

 

Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital

15 Dec

 

[Prefatory Note: The following post is a modified version of an article published on December 8th in Middle East Eye. It considers the normative and geopolitical sides of Trump’s unilateralism. Apologists claiming Trump finally acknowledged the operational reality that Jerusalem has been serving as the capital of Israel for the last 50 years, and the disruptive effects have been exaggerated as Saudi Arabia has not reacted in a strongly negative manner. Critics, including myself, regard the initiative as a gratuitous slap at the Palestinians and a further confirmation of Trump’s disregard of international law, international morality, and the authority of the United Nations. The status of Jerusalem serves as a focal point for the tension between the old geopolitics of hard power realism and the normative geopolitics of soft power new realism that is struggling through a birthing process in many settings. In my view the resolution of this tension will shape the trajectory of 21st century humanity. In other words, the stakes are high.]

 

Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital

 

With the deftness of a bull in a china shop, Donald Trump has ignored the advice of several close advisors, disregarded the fervent pleas of several of Israel’s closest Arab neighbors, ignored warnings of America’s traditional allies in the Middle East and Europe, and ruptured a key element of an international consensus that had long prevailed at the UN, by going ahead to proclaim formally Washington’s view that Jerusalem is and will be the capital of Israel. Such a declaration serves also to rationalize the prior pledge to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv, the city where every other country in the world insists on maintaining its government to government relationship with Israel, to the city of Jerusalem, sacred to all three of the monotheistic religions.

 

The most obvious question to pose is one of motivations: Why? Strange as it may seem to those living in the Middle East, the most persuasive explanation is that Trump saw this act of recognition as an opportunity to show his most fervent supporters at home that he was being true to his campaign promises. Trump has been frustrated during the first year of his presidency by his embarrassing inability to carry out the program that helped get him elected in 2016. It is true that by taking this further step toward relocating the American embassy Trump’s popularity in Israel spiked and as he has pointed out he is actually doing what his predecessors and Congress has long proposed.

 

In essence, Trump seems to have taken this internationally controversial step because he cares about pleasing the Christian Zionists and the Israeli Lobby in America more than he does about ruffling the feathers of UN diplomats, possibly inflaming the Arab masses, removing the last shred of doubt among Palestinians that the U.S. could ever be trusted to play the role of ‘honest broker,’ or even partisan intermediary, in the pursuit of a two-state solution, and perhaps most of all, connecting American foreign policy in the turbulent Middle East is some durable and coherent way with strategic national interests in regional stability.

 

From this perspective, Trump has once again demonstrated his extraordinary talent for choosing the worst possible alternative in delicate international situations where dire consequences could follow from the wrong policy turn, and the rewards of going it alone seem minimal and transient, at best.

This vivid instance of Jerusalem unilateralism parallels the geopolitical stupidity of withdrawing from the Paris Climate Change Agreement of 2015 a few months ago. There also the Trump approach to foreign policy seemed perversely designed to burnish its already secure reputation as the first rogue superpower of the nuclear age. This global spoiler role is also dangerously evident in the apocalyptic threat diplomacy adopted by Trump in the Korean Peninsula as a response to Kim Jong-un’s nuclear weapons program, which include provocative bluster, weapons developments, and grave risks of mutual miscalculation.  

 

Liberal opinion in the U.S. and abroad lamented the Trump initiative on Jerusalem for the wrong reasons. Especially prominent was the assertion in various forms that Trump had damaged, if not destroyed, the ‘peace process,’ and its special role as convening party. Such a concern presupposes that a peace process sufficiently existed to be susceptible to being destroyed. While promising ‘the deal of the century,’ Trump turned over his supposed peace offensive, to pro-Zionist extremists and settler fundamentalists (David M. Friedman, Jared Kushner, and Jason Greenblatt) whose obvious goal was not peace, but putting the finishing touches on what they regarded as an Israeli victory that only needed a face-saving exit arrangement for the Palestinian Authority to complete the job. Working in tandem with the Netanyahu leadership, the Trump effort has been so far focused on killing ‘the two-state solution,’ at least in its claim to satisfy reasonable Palestinian expectations of self-determination in the form of a viable and truly independent sovereign state with its capital in East Jerusalem. In its place, one supposes that the Trump ‘dream team’ will come up with a non-viable polity in what remains under Palestinian control in the West Bank, either tied to Gaza or separated in some enduring way, affronting reality by calling the plan a fulfillment of two-state expectations, and dismissing Palestinian objections as ‘rejectionism,’ a stubborn insistence on having it all, and in the end, a take it or leave it version of Hobson’s Choice.

 

As matters now stand, the status quo is also very unfavorable from the point of view of the Palestinian national struggle and the implementation of the international community’s version of a reasonable compromise. This status quo of occupation and dispossession facilitates the continuing conversion of the 1967 ‘occupation’ of Palestinian territory into a permanent reality that unlawfully blends the annexation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem with the maintenance of control over the Palestinian people by means of apartheid structures of subjugation. If this assessment is correct, then moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem can be seen as supportive of Netanyahu’s apparent conception of the end-game of this hundred year struggle between the national aspirations of these two embattled peoples. In this regard, the bluntness of the Trump approach exposes to the world an ugly reality that should have been obvious all along to anyone looking at Israeli behavior with a critical eye, or grasping the policy fallout from the ‘America First’ mantra.

What gives this regressive turn its plausibility, posing yet another challenge to the Palestinian movement, is the blind eye that the new look in Riyadh has turned toward even the Judaization of Jerusalem, which would seem to confirm the Saudi priority of geopolitical collaboration with the United States and Israel, even at the expense of fundamental Islamic concerns and the maintenance of solidarity in the Muslim world. In this sense, it is well to take some note of the declaration of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), endorsed by all 57 of its member states (including Saudi Arabia), that Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine, denying Israel any right to a formal governing process in the city.

 

While this substantive analysis helps us grasp the geopolitical context that makes recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital a kick in the groin of Palestinian delusions about a viable peace diplomacy while at the same time leading most Israelis to dance in the streets. It also underscores the hypocrisy of the international community’s call for reviving the peace process when it should long have been evident that Israeli settlement expansion as well as Tel Aviv’s approach to Jerusalem had passed the point of no return, and thus the occasion for abandoning an unworkable diplomacy, and facing with honesty the daunting question—‘What next?.’ Israel’s recent behavior makes it clear for all except hasbarists that the Israeli government has no current willingness whatsoever to end the conflict if this means creating an independent Palestinian state delimited by 1967 borders, thereby encompassing West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. For Israel the alternatives are perpetuating the apartheid status quo or allowing for the emergence of ‘Bantustan Palestine’ as the diplomatic price that the Netanyahu leadership is willing to pay for a certification of ‘peaceful solution.’

 

From the issuance of the Balfour Declaration in 1917 to this historic moment acknowledging Israel’s claims to Jerusalem, Zionism and since 1948, the state of Israel, have disseminated a double-coded message to the world. In its public utterances, Israel’s public posture is one of a readiness for compromise and peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians, while its practices and actual objectives, can only be understood as the step by step consistent pursuit of the visionary ideal of Greater Israel or Our Promised Land. The present Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, in the course of thanking Trump for standing so strongly with Israel, told an American TV audience that Jerusalem has been truly the capital of the Jewish people for 3,000 years. No where has Israel’s double-coding been more evident than in relation to Jerusalem. It uses the grandiose claims of Jewish religion tradition when it can and the somewhat more constraining diplomacy of statecraft when it offers opportunities, and does its best to avoid altogether the precepts of international humanitarian law or the UN consensus.

 

On the public discourse side stands Israel’s public acceptance of the partition arrangements embodied in General Assembly Resolution 181, which included the internationalization of Jerusalem under UN administration. More critically viewed from a behavioral discourse perspective, Israel’s actual conduct flagrantly consistently defied international law by formally enlarging and annexing Jerusalem as ‘the eternal capital’ of the Jewish people and manipulating the demographics and cultural heritage of the city in ways that made it seem more credible to regard the whole of Jerusalem as a Jewish city.

 

It is difficult for even notorious Israeli apologists, such as Elliot Abrams or former American ambassadors to Israel to defend the actual Trump decision. Such apologists prefer to adopt a default position. Yes, the timing of the White House initiative was tactically questionable, but its international condemnation greatly exaggerates its importance and inappropriateness. They view criticisms and concerns as overblown, amounting to a display of ‘heavy breathing.’ In effect these apologists agree with Trump’s core contention that the acceptance of Israel’s claim to have its capital in Jerusalem, is an overdue recognition of reality, nothing more, nothing less, and that the rest of the world will have to learn to live with this recognition. Time will tell whether this downplaying of fears of renewed violence of resistance and anti-Americanism are anything other than a feeble attempt by apologists to reaffirm Israel’s legitimacy in the face of what should turn out to be a geopolitical fiasco.

 

What should dismay the region and the world the most about Trump’s Jerusalem policy is its peculiar mixture of ignoring law, morality, and the international consensus while so blatantly harming America’s more constructively conceived national interests and tradition of global leadership. This mixture becomes toxic with respect to Jerusalem because by humiliating the Palestinian national movement and ignoring the symbolic status of Jerusalem for Muslims and the Arab peoples, it makes violent extremism more likely while lending support to existing postures of anti-Americanism. How incoherent and self-defeating to proclaim the defeat of ISIS and political extremism as the top American priority and then making this Jerusalem move that is virtually certain to produce populist rage and an extremist backlash. No ISIS recruiter could have wished for more!

Explaining my Blog Inconsistencies of Late

11 Dec

Explaining my Blog Inconsistencies of Late

 

In the last two weeks I have received many messages asking me why I have been so long silent about the Jerusalem decision and doing so little to maintain my blog, inducing questions about my health and other possible explanations.

 

I am writing now briefly in the spirit of treating the regular readership of this blog as a virtual community, 21st century style, and as a practical way of responding to more inquiries, mostly off-line, than I can address to in a proper bilateral way. I embrace this impersonal style of communication with the greatest reluctance.

 

Aside from the diversions of an exhausting, although exhilarating two week visit to

Vietnam in mid-November, I have been slowly recovering from knee replacement surgery that was scheduled (unwisely) immediately after my return from Vietnam at the beginning of December.

 

This recovery process has been greatly complicated by the historically unprecedently fierce Thomas wildfire that is now threatening Santa Barbara, including our home, after ravaging a series of nearby communities. We are currently evacuated, to avoid the hazardous air quality and the fire threat (our house being located in what is called the ‘mandatory evacuation zone’), to a hotel 100 miles north of the danger area.

 

It is this combination of my personal post-surgery pain and the stressful communal and family circumstances that accounts for my inconsistent performance of late as a blogger. Among hostile readers, I am quite sure that this inconsistency provides welcome relief! I am not disposed to providing such satisfaction long-term.

 

Jerusalem Is (Is Not) the Capital of Israel

10 Dec

[Prefatory Note: This post is a slightly modified version of an article published in the global edition of the Italian newspaper, Il Manifesto, on December 8, 2017.]

 Jerusalem Is (Is Not) the Capital of Israel

 Those who speak on behalf of Israel like to defend Donald Trump’s provocative decision of December 6th to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel with this contention: “Israel is the only state in the world that is not allowed to locate its capital in a national city of its choice.” It seems like an innocent enough proclamation, and even accurate pushback against global double standards, until one considers the political, moral, and legal dimensions of the actual situation.

 

With the benefit of just a moment’s reflection, a more thoughtful formulation of the issue would be: “Israel is the only state in the world whose government dares to locate its capital in a city located beyond its sovereign borders and subject to superior competing claims.” Granted, Israel has declined to date to define its borders for purposes of international law, presumably to leave room for its own further territorial expansion until the whole of the promised land as understood to comprise biblical Israel is effectively made subject to Israeli sovereign control. At stake, in particular, is the West Bank, which is known within Israel by its biblical names of Judea and Samaria, signifying Israel’s outlier belief that the ethnic and religious heritage of the Jewish people takes precedence over modern international law.

 

Further reflection casts additional doubt on this Trump/Netanyahu approach to the status of Jerusalem. It is helpful to go back at least 70 years to the controversial UN partition proposals set forth in General Assembly Resolution 181. Israel over the years has often congratulated itself on its acceptance of 181, which it contrasts with the Palestinian rejection. Palestinians suffered massive dispossession and expulsion in the war that ensued in 1947, known as the Nakba among Palestinians. Israel has argued over the years that its acceptance of 181 overrides the grievances attributable to the Nakba, including the denial to Palestinians of any right to return to their homes or place of habitation however deep and authentic their connections with the land and regardless of how persuasive their claims of Palestinian identity happen to be. What Israelis want the world to forget in the present setting is the UN treatment of Jerusalem that was integral to the 181 approach. Instead, Israel has sold the false story to the world that 181 was exclusively about the division of territory, and thus the bits about Jerusalem contained in the resolution can be ignored without comment, and deserve to be long forgotten.

 

What the UN actually proposed in GA Res. 181, and what Israel ‘accepted’ in 1947 was that the city of Jerusalem, in deference to its connections with Palestinians and Jewish national identity, should not be under the sovereign control of either people, but internationalized and subject to UN administration. Beyond the difficulty of reconciling Jewish and Palestinian claims to the city, the symbolic and religious significance of Jerusalem to the three monotheistic religions provided a parallel strong rationale for internationalization that has, if anything, further vindicated with the passage of time.

 

It can be argued by proponents of Trump’s recognition that even the Palestinians and the Arab World (by virtue of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative) have silently replaced the internationalization of Jerusalem with the so-called ‘two-state solution’ in which the common assumption of both sides is that Jerusalem would be shared in ways that allowed both Israel and Palestine to establish their respective capital within the city limits. Most two-state plans called for the Palestinian capital to be located in East Jerusalem, which Israel has occupied for the past 50 years, that is, ever since the 1967 War. The clarity of this conviction is what explains the view that the thorny question of the relationship of both Israel and Palestine to the disposition of Jerusalem should be addressed at the last stage of peace negotiations. But suppose that the prospect of genuine peace negotiations is postponed indefinitely, then what? The geopolitical effort to fill this vacuum is undertaken at the expense of UN authority, as well as international law and international morality.

 

Here again we encounter an awkward split between what Israel claims (as reinforced by U.S. foreign policy) and what international law allows. Israel after the war ended in 1967 immediately asserted that the whole of Jerusalem was ‘the eternal capital’ of the Jewish people. Tel Aviv went even further. It expanded by Israeli legal decree the area encompassed by the city of Jerusalem, almost doubling its size and incorporating a series of Palestinian communities in the process. Israel acted unilaterally and unlawfully, against unified opposition within the UN, in defiance of world public opinion, and even in the face of rebuke by such a widely respected moral authority figure as Pope Francis.

 

East Jerusalem, at least, is ‘Occupied Territory’ according to international humanitarian law, and as such is subject to the Geneva Conventions. The Fourth Geneva Convention governs ‘belligerent occupation,’ and rests on the basic legal norm that an Occupying Power should take no steps, other than those justified by imperative security considerations, to diminish the rights and prospects of a civilian population living under occupation. In this regard, it is hardly surprising that Israel’s actions designed to obliterate East Jerusalem as a distinct ‘occupied’ territory have met with universal legal and political condemnation within the UN. For Trump to depart from this international consensus is not only striking heavy blows against the U.S. role as intermediary in any future peace process, but also mindlessly scrapping the two-state approach as the agreed basis of peace without offering an alternative, leaving the impression that whatever reality Israel imposes the United States will accept, giving scant attention to international concerns or Palestinian rights.

 

Returning to the burning question as to why Israel should be denied the right to locate its capital wherever it wishes, as other states do, it is clarifying to reformulate the Israeli claim: “Does any state have the right to establish its capital in a city that is ‘occupied’ rather than under the exclusive sovereign authority of the territorial government?” This is especially relevant in this instance, given the general agreement within the international community that the Palestinian right of self-determination includes the right to have its national capital both within its territory and in Jerusalem.

 

Trump’s initiative tries to ease the pain by the confusing accompanying assertion that the final disposition of Jerusalem’s borders is something for the parties to decide as part of final status negotiations, that is, at the end of the diplomatic endgame. Aside from Israel’s belief that it need not make further concessions for the sake of peace, a geopolitical assertion of support for Israel’s approach to Jerusalem, especially without the backing of the Arab League, the UN, and the European Union is worse than an empty gesture. It uses an iron fist on behalf of the stronger party, where a minimal respect for law, morality, and justice would counsel giving support for the well-grounded claims of the weaker side, or at least staying neutral.

 

The harm done by the Trump initiative on recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and declared intention to start the process of moving the embassy is impossible to assess fully at this time. Whether there will be an upsurge in resistance violence, political extremism, anti-American terrorism, and wider warfare is now essentially unknowable, although the stage has been recklessly arranged so that these developments seem more likely to occur than earlier, and if they do, will be treated as outcomes of Trump’s faulty diplomacy.

 

What is already evident on the basis of the decision itself is the severe damage done to the global and regional leadership reputation of the United States. As well, the authority of the United Nations has been shown to be no match for geopolitical resolve, and international law and world public opinion have been pushed aside. For the Trump presidency the special relationship with Israel has been enlarged beyond previous outer limits and the part of the Trump base that wanted these policies has been appeased for the moment. Prospects for a diplomacy based on the equality of rights of Palestinians and Israelis have been reduced to zero, and thus no just end of the Palestinian ordeal can be foreseen. Overall, it is not a pleasant balance sheet of gains and losses if evaluated from the perspective of American grand strategy in the Middle East, and if the wider regional setting of Iran’s spreading influence is taken into account, the situation looks even worse.