Prime Minister Netanyahu received a truly warm welcome this week in the White House, with AIPAC subsequently gushing over him, the Washington Post reports. President Trump, who seems to have established a strong personal bond with Bibi, apparently would like history to judge him as the ‘accelerant’, slashing away at all the ‘red line’ binders (the issue of Jerusalem being one, in his view), that have been Gulliverising the path towards the normalisation of Israel in the Middle East.
The handing over of Jerusalem to Israel, was presented – by Mr Trump – as one slap of reality that should catalyse the parties into action; the Trumpian framing of a solution in which a Palestinian state is but one possible option (were Israel to be so disposed), was yet another ‘slap’; and the warning to the Palestinians that if they did not ‘play’, there would be no ‘pay’, may be counted as a third.
And if this ‘dose of realism’ delivered to the Palestinians was not sufficient, Ben Caspit, the veteran Israeli columnist, tells us that Trump is mounting an operation to ‘save’ Netanyahu (from his possibly imminent indictment for corruption): another slap. But this time to much wider audience – Netanyahu is as disliked in European, as in Middle Eastern capitals:
“There are those among the Israeli opposition who call this "Operation Saving Bibi.” It relies on the particularly close relationship between Netanyahu and Trump, as well as Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner; vital aid provided by US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman; and the unprecedented influence that Israel’s ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, has on senior administration officials, among them Kushner … The underlying principle of this strategy is to convince the Israeli public that the prime minister wields enormous influence over Trump, and that their special, close relationship has been advantageous to Israel in many ways, chief among them the decision to accelerate the embassy’s move to Jerusalem.”
What is it with Trump? Yes, there are, of course, pragmatic reasons why this President should make no bones about being one-sided in Israel’s favour (‘the Javenka’ family input, the important Evangelical constituency, and heeding of funders such as the arch-Zionist, Adelson), but the very fervour with which Trump pursues this issue suggests something more visceral – and therefore ‘something’ potentially more dangerous.
An American magazine, the Federalist, recently published a piece by Frank Cannon entitled Trump Isn’t A Conservative – And That’s a Good Thing. He suggests rather, that:
“Instead of “conservative,” the President would be more accurately described as a radical “anti-progressive.” The difference? Conservatives are willing to attack progressives — to a point — but never to the detriment of the institutions they cherish and respect. Playing by these rules, conservatives are doomed to fail: As progressives, who do not share the same respect for institutions, capture and dominate every American institution, with the full intention of using, and abusing them.
But, like the progressives, Trump doesn’t play by these ridiculous rules designed to keep conservatives stuck in a perpetual state of losing … Trump instead seeks to fight and delegitimize any institution the Left has captured, and rebuild it from the ground up.
It should be stressed, though, that … Trump is attacking the progressive capture of those institutions and the distortion of their true purposes [rather than our nation’s bedrock institutions themselves].
Is that ‘it’? The Palestinian cause has always (but often, falsely) been labelled as a ‘progressive cause’, and Zionists labelled as ‘anti-Leftist’. Furthermore, Trump’s Alt-Right base sees itself as cultural re-sovereigntists – like many Israelis – even to the extent of the Alt-Right leader Richard Spencer describing himself as a 'white Zionist,' saying he wants a secure homeland for 'my people' like the Jews have in Israel. (This does not imply that the American Alt-Right is pro-Jewish, but rather, that the Alt Right detests the liberal, multicultural, multi-identity mantra).
So, is Cannon right? Is ‘anti-progressivism’ taking root: “For decades, progressives have sought to capture America’s institutions; to marginalize conservatives, and shut down conservatives’ ideas. Prior to Trump, they were largely successful in doing that. Now they are facing an existential threat to the future of their movement — a Republican president who is willing to get in the mud, break a few rules … and do whatever it takes to win … Progressives intuitively understand this, which is why they feel so compelled to ‘resist’.”
Cannon may have something here. Trump – for sure – has been tearing-up the Oslo rules. He is evidently willing to get ‘into the mud’ of unqualified support for Bibi and MbS. And re-build policy from a bottom-up, unapologetically pro-Israeli positioning. And it is not hurting him at home. The more Muslims shout and threaten, the more it consolidates his base’s vision of itself as preserving the ‘white cultural America’ sphere from Islamic radicalism.
Well, the ‘silver lining’, at least, is that Trump’s ‘slaps of reality’ have stripped the so-called ‘peace process’ naked. The Emperor had been without clothes for many years, but now the nudity is obvious to all.
The big question is, how far will Trump go with Netanyahu’s and MbS’ warmongering towards Iran, Lebanon and Syria. Where will Trump’s acceleration of ‘reality’ really lead?
Well, firstly, it has ‘accelerated’ the notion on the Israeli Right of carpe diem. Or, ‘let’s go for it’ whilst Trump and Kushner are in the White House, and their support is unparalleled. Polls show sentiment in Israel is flowing strongly towards Likud.
Naftali Bennett, a champion of Israeli settlers, and a potential rival on Netanyahu's Right, for example, insists that neither the settlements nor control over large sections of the West Bank would be relinquished. “It’s never pleasant”, Bennett said, according to one account, gesturing to how the West no longer challenges Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights, “[and] after two months it fades away, and 20 years later and 40 years later it’s still ours. Forever.”
In short, is it the Israeli Right who will define the next post-Oslo era? The Israeli press is full of stories of ‘heroic’ Mossad assassination tales (with some fairly evident hints towards Secretary General, Seyyed Nassrallah). Threats against Lebanon emit daily from both Israel and MbS, as well as threats about any Iranian ‘presence’ in Syria.
The Right of the (Israeli) coalition must be tempted (they are already changing the ‘facts on the ground’ in Jerusalem – ensuring its indivisibility): They have the White House captured; they have Mohammad bin Salman, and Mohammad bin Zayed already normalising frantically with Israel – and for Israel, the subjection of the Palestinians is seen as ‘manageable’ and of no real threat. We have too, an Israeli Prime Minister – whose bark has mostly been worse than his quite cautious bites; but who is now fighting for his political life: A desperate man, in other words.
But haven’t we been here before? In late 2010, As Israeli investigative journalist Ronen Bergman describes, Defence Minister Ehud Barak and PM Netanyahu, had decided that the window for an attack on Iran’s nuclear sites was closing, and “ordered the Israel Defense Forces and the intelligence arms to prepare for a huge operation: an all-out air attack in the heart of Iran. Some $2 billion was spent on preparations for the attack, and for what the Israelis believed would take place the day after—a counterattack either by Iranian warplanes and missiles, or by its proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah.”
But the then head of Mossad, Meir Dagan, among other security chiefs, “thought the plan was insane. [Dagan] saw it as a cynical move by two politicians who wanted to exploit the widespread public support that the attack would provide them in the next elections, not a level-headed decision based on national interest …“I’ve known a lot of prime ministers,” Dagan said, “Not one of them was a saint, believe me, but they all had one thing in common: When they reached the point where the personal interest came up against the national interest, it was the national interest that always won. There was absolutely no question. Only about these two, I cannot say it—Bibi and Ehud”.
Whilst the Israeli political echelon on the Right are hugging themselves for having achieved internal quiescence in the Palestinian sphere (the Palestinian situation is ‘managed’, and not a threat – according to this narrative), and are celebrating the peculiarity of the present moment of Trump in the White House – there is now no Meir Dagan, that formidable, and experienced military officer, whom I knew and respected, to counsel caution. Ronen Bergman again:
When in September 2010, Netanyahu illegally ordered preparations for an attack …Dagan was stunned by the recklessness: “The use of [military] violence would have intolerable consequences… Even the mere act of putting the Israeli forces on attack alert could lead to an inexorable slide into war, Dagan argued, because the Syrians and the Iranians would see the mobilization and could take preemptive action.
Dagan’s criticism of Netanyahu was trenchant and personal, but it also sprang from a profound change in attitude that Dagan underwent in his later years as director of the Mossad, a change that was of far greater importance than his ferocious fight with the prime minister over the Iranian nuclear project.
Dagan, along with Sharon and most of their colleagues in Israel’s defense establishment and intelligence community, believed for many years that force could solve everything, that the right way to confront the Israeli-Arab dispute was by “separating the Arab from his head.” But this was a delusion, and a dangerously common one at that.
Throughout their successive histories, the Mossad, AMAN and the Shin Bet—arguably the best intelligence community in the world—provided Israel’s leaders with operational responses to every focused problem they were asked to solve. But the intelligence community’s very success fostered the illusion among most of the nation’s leaders that covert operations could be a strategic and not just a tactical tool—that they could be used in place of real diplomacy to end the geographic, ethnic, religious and national disputes in which Israel is mired. Because of the phenomenal successes of Israel’s covert operations, at this stage in its history the majority of its leaders have elevated and sanctified the tactical method of combating terror and existential threats at the expense of the true vision, statesmanship and genuine desire to reach a political solution that is necessary for peace to be attained.
Toward the end of his life, Dagan, like Sharon, understood this. He came to the conclusion that only a political solution with the Palestinians—the two-state solution—could end the 150-year conflict, and that the result of Netanyahu’s policies would be a binational state with parity between Arabs and Jews and a concomitant danger of constant repression and internal strife, replacing the Zionist dream of a democratic Jewish state with a large Jewish majority. He was anxious that the calls for an economic and cultural boycott of Israel because of the occupation would become bitter reality, “just like the boycott that was imposed against South Africa,” and even more anxious about the internal division in Israel and the threat to democracy and civil rights.
At a rally in central Tel Aviv before the March 2015 elections, calling for Netanyahu to be voted out, he addressed the prime minister: “How can you be responsible for our fate if you are so frightened of taking responsibility?
There were times when the words of the generals were taken as sacred by most Israelis. But their campaigns against Netanyahu have thus far failed to topple him, and some say they have even bolstered him. Israel has undergone drastic changes in recent decades: The strength of the old elites, including the generals and their influence over the public agenda, has ebbed. New elites—Jews from Arab lands, the Orthodox, the right wing—are in ascendancy. “I thought I would be able to make a difference, to persuade,” Dagan told me sorrowfully in the last phone conversation we had, a few weeks before he died, in mid-March 2016. “I was surprised and disappointed.”
I am sure that Dagan would have understood that the Middle East is changing fundamentally: power is migrating, as the US era there draws to its close – and he would have mistrusted this retro, late-flowering, of American-style neo-liberalism in Saudi Arabia – precisely at the moment when neo-liberalism is disavowed, across the region.
If Dagan – no wilting flower – considered an attack on the ‘northern tier’ “reckless” then, how much more would it be so now? Then, Russia was absent from the Middle East. Now, Russia controls much of its northern airspace. Then, Turkey was a US ally. Now, it is not. He would have seen too, that to open the door to Jerusalem – to put it front and foremost – ultimately is to make the external more existentially dangerous to Israel, than the internal, since such an ‘in your face’ gesture, touches, angers and unites all Muslims and Christians, (except certain American Christian Evangelicals).
Are all these tales of ‘daring’ assassinations and of earlier threatened wars suddenly emerging from Israel pure coincidence? Or, or they an indirect warning to us that the situation in Israel is resembling that of 2010 – except that there is no Dagan in Herzaliya, and there is in the White House a President who “doesn’t play by these ridiculous rules designed to keep conservatives stuck in a perpetual state of losing. [But] instead seeks to fight and delegitimize any [situation] the Left has captured [i.e. Oslo], and to rebuild it from the ground up”.