Trump Isn’t Just Reversing Obama’s Foreign Policies. He’s Making it Impossible for His Successor to Go Back to Them.

Who says the Trump administration doesn’t know what it’s doing in the Middle East?

Sure, there’s plenty of confusion, diplomatic malpractice and dysfunction in Trumpian foreign policy. But on two critical issues it is deadly functional: The administration is focused like a laser beam on

  1. irreversibly burning U.S. bridges to Iran and
  2. administering last rites to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

And if you look at the administration’s actual policies, it’s clear they aren’t just meant to overturn President Barack Obama’s actions, but also to create points of no return—so that successor administrations cannot revert to past approaches even if they want to. If the administration succeeds—and it’s well on its way to doing so—it will have fundamentally damaged U.S. national interests for years to come.

The administration has now done a complete about-face. Whatever Trump’s personal inclinations to prove he’s the world’s greatest negotiator on Iran, his hard-line advisers, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, want to get rid of the mullahs who rule the Islamic Republic, not engage them. Pompeo and Bolton are now pulling out all the stops not only to provoke Iran into withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—and maybe into a fight as well—but to block a successor from engineering either a broader geopolitical pivot toward Iran or to engage in diplomacy to resolve outstanding U.S-Iranian differences. The administration’s Monday announcement that it will end all waivers of sanctions on countries still importing Iranian oil fits this pattern of relying on coercion and intimidation rather than diplomacy. As for Israel, whatever the president’s personal views on Israeli-Palestinian peace (and during the campaign they were more balanced than they are today), Jared Kushner and his team now seem hellbent on producing a “made in Israel” peace plan that will be dead before arrival and drive the final nail in the coffin of a peace process that is already on life support.

Last year, Pompeo laid out 12 extreme demands that Tehran would have to meet before the Trump administration would agree to re-engage with Iran. The demands would have required Iran to give up all its rights under the JCPOA and to stop pursuing what Tehran sees as its legitimate interests in the region—for example, helping to stabilize Iraq and supporting the government of Adil Abdul-Mahdi to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq. This diktat was swiftly and angrily rejected by the Iranian government.

No amount of economic or diplomatic pressure the U.S. brings to bear on Tehran will force it to knuckle under to these orders. But the administration’s fantastical demands have established a standard that will be used to judge any future nuclear agreement a Democratic, or different kind of Republican, administration might negotiate with Iran, which will almost certainly require both U.S. and Iranian compromises. That means a president who fails to meet these standards will be accused of appeasement, making compromise as well as domestic support for a new agreement far more difficult. The administration is not just killing the Iran nuclear deal; it’s stopping it from coming back to life.

The administration’s decision to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a Foreign Terrorist Organization is also willfully and unnecessarily confrontational, and once done, given the hardcore, militant and enduring nature of the IRGC, it will be nearly impossible to undo. A successor administration, if it did try to undo the designation, would find itself vulnerable to the charges of enabling state-sponsored terrorism. The move will strengthen hard-liners in Iran who oppose accommodation with the U.S. and weaken those elements within the country which favor improved relations with America, who will now have no choice other than to remain silent or close ranks behind the IRGC, further diminishing opportunities for future engagement and diplomacy with Iran. Empowered hard-liners will crack down even more harshly on Iranians who want less political oppression, greater respect for human rights, and more political and civil liberties. All these results were no doubt intended by Pompeo and Bolton, and work together with the economic warfare the administration is waging against Iran, which is aimed at provoking internal unrest inside the country that could ultimately lead to a toppling of clerical rule. The imposition of the total embargo on Iranian oil exports, if successful, will inflict even more economic misery on the Iranian people, hardening the perception that the U.S. government is an enemy not only of the ruling regime but also of the Iranian people—an attitude that will make it harder to ratchet down hostility toward America in the future.

In what would deliver the final coup de grace to any normalization of future U.S.-Iranian relations, Pompeo and Bolton are doing everything they can to goad Iran into a military conflict with the U.S.There is a growing risk that U.S. forces and Iranian IRGC units and Iranian-backed militias could stumble their away into an unintended conflict, especially in Iraq or Syria but also in Yemen, where the administration’s unstinting support for the Saudi Arabia’s inhumane and ineffectual military campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthis risks further provoking Houthi missile attacks on the Kingdom, creating a pretext for the Trump administration to come to the Kingdom’s defense.

There are a number of steps the U.S. could take to mitigate the risks of an unintended conflict with Iran. But the administration has failed to create diplomatic or operational arrangements for communications and crisis management with Iran, suggesting that its goal is not to prevent such a conflict but to deliberately provoke one. And predictably, the IRGC designation has met with a hostile Iranian response: The Iranian Majlis (parliament) has declared every American soldier in the Middle East a terrorist. Thousands of U.S. military personnel are now wearing targets on their backs. Because they operate in close proximity to IRCG units and Iranian-backed militias in Syria and Iraq, the odds have increased dramatically that there will be some kind of confrontation with a high risk of escalation. In other words, U.S. actions have helped set the stage for a U.S.-Iranian conflict that could rule out reconciliation for many more years.

A less confrontational relationship with Iran isn’t this administration’s only casualty. It is also doing all it can to kill and bury the long-standing policy of seeking a two-state solution to achieve a conflict-ending settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Over the past year, the administration has waged a relentless campaign of economic and political pressure against the Palestinians—

  1. closing the PLO office in Washington,
  2. withdrawing U.S. assistance from the U.N. agency that supports Palestinian refugees and
  3. cutting aid to the Palestinian Authority.

While the details of the Kushner plan have been shrouded in secrecy for over a year, the way his team has operated and leaks to the media suggest a plan that gives priority to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s politics and needs—one that is reportedly heavy on economic issues and light on the core issues of

  1. Jerusalem,
  2. borders,
  3. refugees and
  4. Palestinian statehood.

Since at least the mid-1990s, both Democratic and Republican administrations have been committed to a two-state solution with a return of the majority of the West Bank to the Palestinians—based on borders from before Israel’s 1967 seizure of that territory—and a physically undivided Jerusalem hosting capitals of both states.But the Trump administration has reversed almost 20 years of U.S. policy by even refusing to unequivocally and consistently endorse the concept in principle of a two-state solution. Trump did support the idea in September 2018. But since then, the administration has dropped the concept and, even worse, delegitimized it. Last week, the Washington Post reportedthat the words Palestinian state are unlikely to appear in the Kushner plan. Even more telling, testifying before Congress last week, Pompeo refused to endorse Palestinian statehood as the goal of U.S. policy.

Even if the words “two-state solution” were uttered, the administration’s view of the Palestinian state is clearly a far cry from the size and contiguity that any Palestinian leader could accept as part of a deal. In this way, the Trump administration’s policies don’t just roll back the very idea of a meaningful two-state solution and push the Palestinians further away from engaging seriously in negotiations leading to a settlement. They also, in aligning so closely with Netanyahu’s vision, make a deal much less likely in future.

For example, the administration’s gratuitous decision—untethered from any U.S. national interest—to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and open an embassy there

  • inflicted serious damage on U.S. credibility as a mediator,
  • marginalized the Palestinian Authority as a key U.S. interlocutor, and
  • subordinated U.S. policy toward the Palestinians to U.S. policy toward Israel.

The administration’s treatment of Jerusalem has drawn a clear hierarchy: Israel’s needs are indisputable and sacred, Palestinian needs are negotiable and worldly. The prospects for a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem are now more remote than ever: With continuing Israeli efforts to formalize their control over all of Jerusalem and the presence of more than 300,000 Israelis living there, it’s hard to imagine there will be either political or territorial space for the establishment of a real Palestinian capital.

The other long-standing diplomatic assumption—that settlement activity would be constrained during the period of negotiations andthat 70 to 80 percentof West Bank settlers who are in blocs close to the 1967 lines would be incorporated into Israel proper in exchange for ceding other land to Palestinians—has been undermined by an administration that has no intention of cutting a deal that would leave Palestinians in control of the majority of the West Bank. Indeed, theadministration has virtually erased the concept of the 1967 lines by enabling and greenlighting the expansion of settlement activity and unilateral Israeli actions on the ground without protest or the imposition of any redlines, not just on the West Bank but in Jerusalem as well. In March 2017, Israel announced the creation of a new settlement in the West Bank, the first in decades. After an initial drop during 2017, settlement construction activity increased 20 percent in 2018.

There is zero chance that any Palestinian leader—let alone one as weak and constrained as Mahmoud Abbas—will accept these conditions on the ground as part of a deal. And speculation is even growing that Netanyahu could use Palestinian rejection of the Kushner plan to outright annex portions of the West Bank.

That’s another area where the administration has done major damage. The Trump administration’s announcement on the eve of the recent Israeli election that it recognizes Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights—a decision that was untethered from any logic other than helping to reelect Netanyahu—could portend a U.S. decision to confer similar status onIsrael’s possible decision to annex parts of the West Bank. The administration has refused to challenge Netanyahu’s statement that in a defensive war Israel can keep what it holds. And last week, Pompeo, responding to a reporter’s question, refused to criticize Netanyahu’s statement about annexing West Bank settlements.

Once annexed, there will be no possibility of any solution that involves separating Israelis and Palestinians, thereby condemning them both to live in a one-state reality that is a prescription for unending conflict and violence. In the cruelest of ironies, the administration’s plan to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could extinguish any hope of a diplomatic solution to separate Israelis and Palestinians, and instead guarantee perpetual conflict.

So if the chances of the plan’s success are slim to none, especially in light of the recent Israeli election and the emergence of a very right-wing government, why launch it? The answer is obvious: We believe the administration has defined success in other ways. With zero chance of getting an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, the administration’s real end game is to fundamentally alter U.S. policy toward the conflict and to do everything possible to raise the odds that no successor can reverse the new ground rules. And there may be no time better than now. Listen to U.S. Ambassador David Friedman—a key influencer of the administration’s policy—at last month’s AIPAC conference: “Can we leave this to an administration that may not understand the need for Israel to maintain overriding security control of Judea and Samaria and a permanent defense position in the Jordan Valley?” he asked. Can we run the risk that one day the government of Israel will lament, ‘Why didn’t we make more progress when U.S. foreign policy was in the hands of President Trump, Vice President Pence, Secretary Pompeo, Ambassador Bolton, Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, and even David Friedman?’ How can we do that?”

The goal isn’t just to drive a stake through the peace process but to ensure that America’s traditional conception of a two-state solution won’t rise from the dead.

Why couldn’t a new administration truly committed to engaging Iran and pushing forward on a two-state solution simply return to traditional policies? We cannot rule this out; but this possibility faces very long odds, particularly if the Trump administration is in charge until 2024.

Even under normal circumstances with a committed and highly skilled administration, Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are excruciatingly difficult issues even to manage, let alone resolve. Success depends on leaders America can’t control who have conflicting interests and their own domestic constraints and, in the case of Iran, on bitterly suspicious adversaries; the issues are politically radioactive for all parties and perceived to be existential, too. And the longer these conflicts persist the more entrenched attitudes become and options for progress contract. Indeed, time is an enemy not an ally; and even under the best of circumstances, any number of deal breakers are always present. In its own inimitable way, the administration is well on its way to hanging “closed for the season” signs on both improving relations with Iran and on a two-state solution and, sadly, irreversibly damaging American credibility and national interests in the process.

Israel Doubles Down on Illiberal Democracy

TEL AVIV – It is Bibi again. Having unapologetically allied with a racist, Jewish-supremacist party, Binyamin Netanyahu has secured a fourth consecutive term as Israel’s prime minister. The Union of Right Wing Parties says Netanyahu promised it both the education ministry and the justice ministry, and who are we to doubt it? Along with Netanyahu’s other right-wing allies, the URWP has already backed a new law that would protect the prime minister from being indicted on pending corruption charges

Israel’s latest parliamentary election has consolidated the country’s position within a growing bloc of illiberal democracies around the world. Once again, Netanyahu has won by mobilizing the people against the very state institutions that he is supposed to uphold and defend. In this election cycle, he shamelessly lambasted the judicial system and the police for doing their jobs. He attacked the media for uncovering improper behavior by his family and cronies. He pilloried public intellectuals for refusing to acknowledge his greatness. And he depicted the old Zionist “left” as traitors.

As for the Arab parties, they lost around 25% of their seats, owing partly to voter abstention. With Netanyahu having pushed through a “” declaring the pursuit of “national self-determination” in Israel as “unique to the Jewish people,” Israel’s Arab citizens apparently are through lending credibility to a sham democracy. Throughout the campaign, they were treated as political lepers by practically every segment of the Israeli body politic.

The Israeli left, in particular, has been exposed as a bankrupt political project. In fact, Netanyahu’s Israel has swung so far right that the term “leftist” itself is now a smear. Both his party’s main challenger, the centrist Blue and White alliance, and the Labor Party have run away from the label. And both not only lacked the courage to stand up to Netanyahu’s maligning of Israeli Arabs as enemies of the state, but also refused even to consider forming a parliamentary alliance with Arab parties. On the Arab question, liberal Zionists have acceded to Netanyahu’s project of making Israel into a one-race, one-party state.

All told, the election amounts to a monumental indictment of Israel’s democracy. In a campaign dominated by personal smears and disinformation, not one substantive issue was debated seriously. It was as if the consequences of Netanyahu’s cruel neoliberal policies – a weakened welfare state and squeezed middle classes – did not matter at all. Nor was there any discussion of the unproductive Orthodox community’s dependence on state subsidies, which have grown substantially under Netanyahu.

And then there is the elephant in the room: the Palestinian question. Fearing the loss of conservative votes, the left and center parties did not make a single convincing statement – let alone offer a policy program – to address the greatest existential and moral challenge facing the country. Yes, candidates on the left paid lip service to the problem, and Benny Gantz, the colorless leader of Blue and White, muttered something about the need for a “diplomatic move” with respect to the occupied territories, but that was it.

Meanwhile, Gantz and those on the left said almost nothing when Netanyahu boasted that he could get US President Donald Trump to greenlight a partial Israeli annexation of the West Bank. And they were equally nonresponsive when Netanyahu took credit for the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

In fact, US-Israeli relations were another key issue that went almost unmentioned in the election campaign. Never mind that Netanyahu’s alliance with Trump and American evangelicals has cost Israel the support of a growing portion of the US Democratic Party establishment, or that his blank check to the Israeli Orthodox community has alienated America’s predominantly liberal Jewish community. After Beto O’Rourke, a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, warned that Netanyahu is a “racist” who is damaging America’s special alliance with Israel, Israelis responded by extending that racist’s grip on power.

Throughout the campaign, Netanyahu touted his foreign-policy record. In addition to cozying up to illiberal Eastern European governments and Brazil’s new right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, he claims to have bolstered Israel’s economic clout in Asia, made diplomatic breakthroughs in Africa, and forged covert partnerships with neighboring Arab countries, not least Saudi Arabia.

And here, too, Netanyahu’s opponents dropped the ball. They could have pointed out that his goal in brokering new partnerships is to head off international opposition to his planned annexation of Palestinian territory. Instead of using Israel’s diplomatic relationships to work toward an acceptable solution to its primary existential challenge, he has exploited them for his own chauvinist agenda.

Sadly, the election leaves no doubt about what awaits Israel in the coming years.

  • A cabal of Netanyahu cronies and family members,
  • racist messianic settlers, and
  • Orthodox parties with opportunistic designs on the state budget

will drag Israel toward a new single-state reality that will resemble apartheid South Africa.

If there is any consolation, it is that the Israeli left and center – from Meretz and Labor to the Arab parties and Blue and White – still collectively represents almost half of the electorate. A bold leader who is willing to fight for Israel’s soul could prevail, but only by unapologetically allying with Israeli Arabs. That is not just the best electoral strategy. It is also the right thing to do.

Netanyahu’s AIPAC speech is a knife in the heart of the U.S.-Israel alliance

Netanyahu’s speech was another knife into the heart of the bipartisan U.S.-Israel alliance. He attacked Democrats, singling out one Muslim member of Congress for remarks that were seen as anti-Semitic, while ignoring the many anti-Semitic remarks by Republicans. And he leveled the scurrilous claim that anyone who opposes AIPAC is anti-Semitic.

.. On Monday, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) literally read from Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” on the House floor and borrowed Hitler’s “big lie” allegation against Jews to use on Democrats. “Unconscionable,” said the Anti-Defamation League. But Republicans, and Netanyahu, said nothing.

.. Tuesday was the 40th anniversary of the signing of the historic Camp David Accords. But the Israeli leader didn’t mention this, either, instead delivering division to a group that has embraced his (and Trump’s) nationalist policies.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest branch of American Judaism, noticed that the AIPAC crowd had “beyond a doubt” become mostly pro-Trump conservatives, not the cross section of Israel supporters that AIPAC once drew. The rhetoric fit the room. “To suggest anti-Semitism is part of the Democratic Party and liberal part of the spectrum and not also part of Republican leaders’ discourse . . . is corrosive,” he said. “The thing that has kept Israel safe over the decades is rock-solid bipartisan support.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) issued (then deleted) a tweet targeting three wealthy Jews: “We cannot allow [George] Soros, [Tom] Steyer and [Michael R.] Bloomberg to BUY this election! . . . #MAGA.” But at AIPAC, McCarthy denounced anti-Semitic language on the “floors of Congress” — an apparent reference to Omar — and said he’d be “lying” to say Democrats are as opposed to anti-Semitism as Republicans.

President Trump, of course, said there “were very fine people” among the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, told Jews they wouldn’t support him “because I don’t want your money,” tweeted an image of a Star of David atop a pile of cash, used anti-Semitic tropes in an ad with photos of prominent Jews, and often denounces “globalists” such as Soros — among many other offenses. But he calls the Democrats “anti-Jewish.”

.. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) tut-tutted: “I am troubled that leading Democrats seem reluctant to plainly call out problems within their own ranks. And I am troubled that many of the declared Democrat presidential candidates seem to be avoiding this gathering.” But he didn’t “call out” Republicans such as Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio) for spelling Steyer’s name as “$teyer,” or Rep. Steve King (Iowa) for championing white supremacy.

Anti-Semitism is real on both the right and left. Selectively denouncing it based on party is dangerous to Jews, to Israel and to civilized society. Mindless tribalism seems already to have broken AIPAC, based on the changing audience over the two decades I’ve attended. Tuesday’s conservative crowd was cool to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) vow that “we will never allow anyone to make Israel a wedge issue.”

More enthusiastic was the reception for Netanyahu, who, after singling out a Democrat’s anti-Semitism, championed a new Israeli law demoting Arabic as a national language and assigning only Jews “the right to exercise national self-determination.”

Claimed Netanyahu: “We don’t judge people by the color of their skin [or] their religion. . . . No one is a second-class citizen.”

As the AIPAC hard-liners condone such chutzpah, cheering the dishonest and partisan jabs of Netanyahu and the Republicans, do they not see that this destroys the American political consensus that has preserved the Jewish state for 70 years?

Netanyahu Rivals Team Up Against the Prime Minister for Israel’s Elections

Centrist candidates strike an alliance in a bid to unseat the prime minister

If elected, Benny Gantz, a retired Israeli army chief, and Yair Lapid, a former TV anchor turned parliamentarian, agreed to take turns at running the country, they said in a statement Thursday. Mr. Gantz would serve as prime minister for the first 2½ years, and Mr. Lapid would take over for the rest of the four-year term.

The agreement between the centrist politicians is a result of several weeks of discussions amid questions over whether the two men could put aside their personal ambitions to unite against Mr. Netanyahu.

It also comes at a vulnerable moment for Mr. Netanyahu, who is expected to be indicted on corruption charges later this month. He will have a chance to defend himself in a hearing before charges are formally filed, and he has vowed to stay in power and to fight them. He doesn’t have to resign unless convicted. Mr. Netanyahu has denied wrongdoing..

Opinion polls project a tight contest, but some indicate that Mr. Gantz’s Israel Resilience party and Mr. Lapid’s Yesh Atid party could together secure more seats in Israel’s parliament than Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud.

“The new ruling party will bring forth a cadre of security and social leaders to ensure Israel’s security and to reconnect its people and heal the divide within Israeli society,” the parties said in a statement.

The two parties also said they would add former Israeli army chief Gabi Ashkenazi to their slate. Mr. Ashkenazi is seen as an important player in attracting votes from the right, which will be important if Messrs. Gantz and Lapid are to unseat Mr. Netanyahu.

Both Mr. Gantz and Mr. Lapid are running as anti-Netanyahu candidates, while emphasizing a commitment to addressing social problems in Israel like education, housing, health care and traffic.

They have struck a more moderate tone than Mr. Netanyahu on handling relations with the Palestinians. Before the agreement, Mr. Lapid’s camp said it was unsure whether Mr. Gantz supported a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, citing at least one in his party who has opposed it in the past.

Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party said the election would be a choice of “either a left-wing government of Lapid-Gantz with preventative support from the Arab parties, or a right-wing government with Netanyahu at its helm.”

As an alliance became more likely, Mr. Netanyahu issued statements and videos painting Mr. Gantz and Mr. Lapid as weak and leftist, while describing himself and his party as strong and right.

.. Israeli politicians must submit their party lists to Israel’s Central Election Committee by Thursday. Those lists must disclose whether the politicians will run as one ticket.

.. “For the first time since 2009 we have a competitive race for the premiership,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Jerusalem-based Israel Democracy Institute. “The main question is whether this new list can lure or be attractive enough for some center right and soft right voters. This is probably the question that will determine the outcome of the election.”

Mr. Gantz entered politics late last year, brandishing his security credentials but saying little about his policy positions to try to lure a broad swath of the electorate. He has consistently polled second to Mr. Netanyahu and his Likud party.

Mr. Lapid’s party finished second in the 2013 elections, the first contest after it was created, but has slid in the polls ever since. Mr. Lapid served for a year as the finance minister in Mr. Netanyahu’s government.