Issue #18: Dec 3-Dec 9, 2017

In this week’s newsletter, after we summarize another week chock-full of Trump-related developments, I tackle one of the biggest of these: Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. By answering a mere six questions, I provide everything you need to know about the subject. OK, almost everything. OK, much of. Anyway, I wind up seeing a surprising and paradoxical, if somewhat tenuous, cause for hope on the Israel-Palestine front. Then we offer the usual array of links to things you probably haven’t read and should probably take a look at.

Robert Wright


Holy City: Trump broke with longstanding American policy by announcing that the U.S. would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the American embassy there. But, the New York Times noted, “he quietly signed another document that will delay the move of the American Embassy to the city for at least six months—and probably much longer.” Optimists, in arguing that a two-state solution remains possible, pointed to this document and to Trump’s insistence that he wasn’t prejudging “the specific boundaries” of “Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem” that might be part of an eventual peace agreement. The move sparked dissent from allies and demonstrations in the Middle East and elsewhere. As of Saturday morning, three Palestinians had been killed by the Israeli military.

Infrastructure: Bloomberg reported that in January the White House will unveil a 10-year infrastructure bill that includes $200 billion in federal spending and envisions an additional $800 billion from states, cities, and the private sector. Trump’s top infrastructure adviser said the federal portion will be offset by spending cuts. As for the $800 billion: White House aides said this could come from such sources as increased tolls on roads and higher sales taxes. The Washington Post reported that “some… worry that taxes and fees raised at the local level could cancel out any potential benefits” from the tax bill passed last week——especially, one might add, since the bill curtails the deductibility of state and local sales, income, and property taxes.

Never Mind: CNN dropped a bombshell report, providing perhaps the clearest evidence to date that Trump was aware of Russian efforts to influence the election via email hacks. But it turned out to be false. This presumably adds resonance to Trump’s claim that the “crooked” media are biased against him, and thus weakens the ability of mainstream media to influence Trump’s base even when its reports are accurate. 

Weinstein Effect Hits Congress (But Not White House): Three members of Congress, two Democrats and a Republican, resigned this week in the face of sexual misconduct allegations, and a fourth is facing an Ethics Committee investigation. Sen. Al Franken, in his resignation speech, offered to share the spotlight with Trump and Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore: “There is some irony in the fact that I am leaving while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office and a man who has repeatedly preyed on young girls campaigns for the Senate, with the full support of his party.”

Client-Client Privilege: In closed-door testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, Donald Trump Jr. cited attorney-client privilege in declining to answer questions about conversations he had with his father regarding a 2016 meeting between the Trump campaign and a Russian. Astute observers noted that neither of the two Trumps is an attorney. Ranking Democratic member Adam Schiff said that “this is a central communication about a very pivotal meeting…so we intend to persist and make sure we get answers.”

Travel Ban Sticks: The controversial travel ban targeting six Muslim-majority countries, plus Venezuela and North Korea, is “fully operational,” reported AP, after the Supreme Court ruled the ban could be implemented while litigation continues.

Monumental Cuts: Trump acted to reduce the size of two national monuments in Utah—by a total of around 2 million acres—that had been given monument status by presidents Obama and Clinton. The legal question of whether a president can effectively reverse a predecessor’s designation of a national monument was immediately raised in lawsuits by Native American groups, conservationists, and the outdoor retailer Patagonia. 

Checks on Rex? A Democrat and a Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee sent a joint letter to still-standing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, criticizing his “redesign” of the State Department and urging that he end the department’s hiring freeze.


President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital aroused outrage and alarm—outrage at Trump’s heedless break with U.S. precedent, alarm at the violent reaction it could unleash.

Nothing wrong with outrage or alarm. The trick is to figure out when they’re appropriate, and why, and to then behave wisely in light of the answers to these questions. In this case answering these questions requires first answering some background questions.

1. What’s the big deal? Shouldn’t any country be free to decide which of its cities is its capital?

Yes. The problem here is that, according to international law, only half of Jerusalem—West Jerusalem— is part of Israel. East Jerusalem, like the West Bank writ large, is territory Israel occupied as a result of the 1967 war. Since the Geneva Convention forbids transferring civilian populations to occupied lands, the Jewish settlements that have since been built in East Jerusalem, and in the West Bank broadly, are widely considered illegal. In 1980, after Israel redrew Jerusalem’s municipal bounds to include East Jerusalem, the UN Security Council rejected this quasi-annexation—and the US, which normally vetoes UN resolutions critical of Israel, abstained instead.

This is one reason so many people deny Israel’s assertion that Jerusalem is its “undivided” capital: the law says otherwise. There’s also a pragmatic reason: Any two-state peace deal acceptable to the Palestinians would involve East Jerusalem being the capital of Palestine.  

2. Then why did Trump do what he did?

For starters, it makes political sense. Conservative evangelicals—a critical chunk of Trump’s base—have become increasingly “Christian Zionist;” they see siding with Israel as a kind of religious obligation and even, in the eyes of some of them, a way to prepare the ground for a proper apocalypse. Plus, there’s Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate who along with his wife contributed $35 million to support Trump’s campaign and made the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital an explicit ask. Adelson hasn’t exactly signed on to Trump’s America First platform—he once said that “unfortunately” he had served in the US military rather than the Israeli military—but when it comes to collecting dollars and votes, Trump is nothing if not flexible. Besides, Trump seems amenable to the quasi-apocalyptic view of Steve Bannon that Israel and America must together lead Judeo-Christian civilization against the Islamic menace, with special focus on Iran. And Adelson has proposed dropping a nuclear bomb on Iran (not on a city, he emphasizes—just in the desert, to convey that “we mean business”). So it all kind of fits together.

3. But didn’t Trump fear that his Jerusalem announcement would unleash a wave of violence in the Middle East, as many had predicted?

This question assumes that Trump considers waves of violence a bad thing. National security commentator Heather Hurlburt noted on the day of Trump’s announcement, “If the response is relatively muted, Trump chalks this up as a win. But he ‘wins’ the other way, too—the more violent protests occur, the more he can tell his supporters that he is the one protecting them from Islamist extremism.”

OK, now the stage is set for addressing the questions of outrage and alarm. 

4. How alarmed should we be?

There are reasons to think—as a New York Times piece spelled out on the day of Trump’s announcement—that the uproar in Arab and Muslim lands will be less vast and long-lived than some observers feared. (As we go to press, three deaths—all Palestinians in Gaza killed by the Israeli military—have been reported.) In any event, there are reasons to find Trump’s Jerusalem move alarming that go beyond the immediate blowback.

For one thing, Trump’s move adds to the already ample list of talking points that extremists can use to recruit anti-American terrorists. And if the conventional wisdom is right, and Trump has just made a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict even more remote, he is helping to sustain a conflict that has all kinds of downsides. Among them: Americans tend to (wrongly) see the conflict in Bannonite terms—Muslims versus Jews and Christians—so its persistence reinforces an irrational fear of Islam and, more broadly, reinforces Bannon’s clash-of-civilizations narrative. And this narrative fosters belligerent policies that, for example, heighten tension with Iran. And these policies, by fomenting tension and conflict along “civilizational” lines, further reinforce Bannon’s narrative. And so on: a vicious circle that moves us in the general direction of apocalypse, if not exactly the apocalypse some conservative evangelicals have in mind.  

5. How outraged should we be?  

Well, if you’re not already outraged by Trump’s move, I have failed. But to confine your outrage to Trump would be to miss a bigger problem. Chuck Schumer, leader of Democrats in the Senate, said on the day before Trump’s announcement that he “strongly believes that Jerusalem is the undivided capital of Israel” and chided Trump for his “indecisiveness” on the issue. Hillary Clinton has also said Jerusalem should be the “undivided” capital of Israel. So has Barack Obama.

To be sure, these Democrats’ motivations differ from Trump’s. For them it’s less about Christian Zionists and more about Jewish voters and donors. (Hillary’s favorite “pro-Israel” billionaire donor is appreciably less horrifying than Adelson, but the two men do have some unfortunate commonalities.) And, there’s one other difference between Trump and Hillary: Had Hillary been elected president, she presumably would have followed the hallowed American tradition followed by Obama: whatever you say about Jerusalem before you’re elected, don’t actually recognize it as Israel’s capital once you’re president. Trump is in this sense the worst of the bunch: he actually did the deeply misguided thing he said he’d do whereas they just said they’d do the deeply misguided thing. Still, every politician who has cynically nourished the expectation that America would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital shares in the blame for what Trump just did. And that includes lots of Democrats and Republicans.

In supporting the tax bill that passed last week, Trump wasn’t doing something distinctively Trumpish so much as carrying longstanding tendencies of the Republican party to an extreme and grotesque culmination. With this week’s Jerusalem move, Trump has carried tendencies of the entire American political system to such a culmination.  

6. Is there hope? Not a ton, but what hope there is can help guide our expenditure of political energy.

First, the American Jews that politicians like Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer aim to please are not the only American Jews there are. There are influential Jewish organizations and prominent Jewish commentators who are Zionist but believe that many of the policies traditionally identified as “pro-Israel” do not, in fact, serve Israel’s interests (a view I’ve long shared).

Also, there seem to be a growing number of American Jews—young ones, especially—who aren’t Zionist and hold out hope for a one-state solution that grants Palestinians in the West Bank full rights, including the right to vote in Israeli elections. Most observers consider this unrealistic, since Israel would presumably never permit the creation of a Palestinian voting block that could soon become a majority. But we may be on the way to testing this assumption. At least one prominent Palestinian official has reacted to Trump’s Jerusalem move by embracing a one-state solution. And he seems not to be alone.

Surprise plot twist: The quest for a one-state solution could circuitously lead to a two-state solution. As I’ve argued before, if West Bank Palestinians started peacefully demanding the vote en masse, that might garner enough international support to scare Israel into a more accommodating stance toward a two-state deal. If that happened, and Palestinians were offered a state that would give them the security and dignity they deserve—something I don’t think they’ve ever been offered, though opinions differ sharply on this—that would be good for Israel and good for the Palestinians (and, of course, for the United States). Such is the interdependence of the modern world that even the fortunes of supposed enemies are often positively correlated.

It is the essence of Trumpism to not see, or at least not acknowledge, this kind of interdependence. Trump feeds on enmity and fear and hatred, which is why it’s good politics for him to do things that sustain it. So we can add to all the other reasons for wanting to solve the Israel-Palestine conflict this one: Every time you defuse a conflict—particularly a conflict that Trumpists shoehorn into their clash-of-civilizations paradigm—you have made the world a little less safe for Trumpism.  

—Robert Wright



Back in June, The Atlantic explored the history of the Antiquities Act, the law that allows presidents to designate national monuments: “…there is a history of presidents tinkering around the edges of national monuments—and sometimes cutting into them wholesale … President Wilson cited the country’s need for lumber and halved the [Mount Olympus] monument in size. That action was never challenged in court [and] was also short-lived.”


Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick asked “Why Have We Stopped Caring?” about the travel ban: “It’s nearly as bad as the original, and the Supreme Court appears inclined to tolerate it.”

Heather Hurlburt wrote in New York magazine that Trump’s Jerusalem speech “is best understood as the president applying to global affairs the M.O. that brought him success at home.”

On the podcast The Daily, NYT Beirut bureau chief Anne Barnard relayed that, “people are doubting that Arab leaders … or even the broader Muslim world will come together to really do anything about” Trump’s Jerusalem decision, “It’s not clear that it’s even [their] top priority anymore.”


In the New York Times Thomas Edsall said liberals should be more mindful of how their own actions lead to a conservative backlash that supports authoritarian politics: “Not only are the values that the left takes for granted heatedly disputed in many sections of the country, the way many Democratic partisans assert that their values supplant or transcend traditional beliefs serves to mobilize the right.”

A Pew analysis of FBI data found that “the number of assaults against Muslims in the United States rose significantly between 2015 and 2016, easily surpassing the modern peak reached in 2001, the year of the September 11 terrorist attacks”

A new study on media consumption from a trio of professors concluded, according to Buzzfeed, that “while views of the media are becoming even more divided along party lines … online media consumption habits of Democrats and Republicans may be less polarized than commonly believed.”

Pew Research Center conducted an international survey on whether life is better today than it was 50 years ago. Americans are split—”41% say life is worse while 37% say better”—while the results in Canada are 24% worse and 55% better. Among the countries whose “better” vote was higher than 60 percent: India, Japan, Germany and Turkey. And, leading the list: 88 percent of Vietnamese prefer living in 2017 to living during the Vietnam War.

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