Trump and Netanyahu: a dangerous mix

Benjamin Netanyahu

President Trump has just closed the Palestine Authority’s office in Washington for refusing to negotiate with his team, led by his son-in-law, on a dubious peace plan, and for taking Israel to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged war crimes. The US Administration has recently cut aid (around 300 million dollars annually) to the United Nations Relief for Palestinian refugees program (UNRWA) and eliminated its slightly smaller contributions to projects of human service and development. US aid to Palestinians is relatively minimal but still significant symbolically.

Blaming the victim, Washington is challenging Palestine’s refugees even for their right to remain in the status of refugees (specifically, descendants of the displaced of 1948 war: nearly 5 million residents of refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria). The US has accused UNRWA for “perpetuating the problem”, depressed the prospects of Palestinian statehood and ignored Israel’s new legislation which formally marginalizes non-Jewish citizens, numbering over a quarter of the population of Israel of 1948.

The Trump administration has been closer to Netanyahu’s government than any other US President. Trump is following the steps of the current Israeli government on every central Mideast issue. Ignoring his international partners, he has trashed US participation in the Iran nuclear deal, and intensified diplomatic efforts and economic measures in confronting Iran. He has inserted US troops in a strategic oil-producing region of Syria and condoned Israel’s air attacks on selected targets of the Assad regime. He has expanded sanctions on Lebanon’s Hezbollah and joined the efforts of Arab Gulf states in their scandalous war on Yemen. Trump is exactly where Netanyahu wants him to be on the most sensitive aspects of Mideast policies.

Why are these two leaders so close? There are two main reasons. The first is the similarity in mindset between these two men. Both are populists, self-serving and prone to ignore norms; they are under investigation for crime by their own systems of justice. Both live comfortably with denial of facts. Both are fueled by anger. They are oblivious to scientifically established facts and widely ratified codes.

The second reason connecting these two leaders is a set of domestic political conditions which helped them win votes. Factors like societal fear of “foreigners”, a right-wing social climate, glaring sectarian politics and a subculture of “might makes right” have facilitated electing manipulative leaders who are willing to sacrifice national interests for personal gain.

It is not hard to see the connection between Israel’s irrational fear of a growing Palestinian population and the fear of privileged Americans of emigrants. Has Netanyahu’s isolation wall in the West Bank inspired Trump to call for a “protective” wall on its southern border with Mexico?

Second, the ideological shift in Israel from the Labor Party to Likud, mirrors in the US the demise of Democrats and ascendance of Republicans in both houses of Congress.

Third, then there is a parallel in the disturbing role of religion in politics. The ascendance of the Hasidic and Orthodox communities in Israeli politics is matched by an emboldened US extreme Evangelist grassroots movement. No wonder, Israel’s wildest dreams are facilitated by America’s religious fanatics. The extreme Evangelists are more Zionist in passion and action than regular Israeli citizens.

The fourth parallel societal trend is the heavy spending on the military, to preserve a superiority in defense. Trump keeps bragging that he has increased the military budget substantially, ignoring the fact that the US outspends any nation in the world on arms; the US has an active military presence in 150 countries. Similarly, the confidence with which Netanyahu threatens Iran reveals how far Israel is willing to take risk of starting a new regional war. Israel, a relatively small country, relies on the most sophisticated technology to perpetuate occupation, annexation and suppression.

Unquestionably, the link between Trump and Netanyahu delays peace, but these two leaders are not likely to stay longer in power. However, societal factors which interfere with justice tend to be more lasting than specific regimes. It will take considerable time, attitude change, and inspired reform to deal with the fear of coexistence, with right-wing ideology (e.g. passion for tax reduction, weak sensitivity to inequality, addiction to gun ownership), control sectarian politics and moderate defense spending. As a result, the US Mideast policy and Israel’s attachment to the occupation is here to stay for the near future.

No group is as painfully and anxiously observing the threats of current, parallel and interactive social trends to America and Israel as the Jewish community in the US. Jewish Americans are generally liberal, except on issues pertaining to Israel. Notwithstanding blind spots, this community remains very sensitive to social justice. It is painful for many in America and elsewhere to watch Israel become too strong and too wealthy to accept limits in power, resources and borders. The future of the Middle East is intimately tied to how effective the Jewish Diaspora will be in saving Israel from itself.

One would have asked the same of, and made the same plea to, the Arab Diasporas. But Arabs abroad are not as powerful in America or in their region.

Trump and Netanyahu are a dangerous mix but their emergence and linkage are symptoms of deeper political trends in their societies.