Those of us who consider ourselves to be part of the resurgent and now rapidly growing radical left in the United States often make the point that it doesn’t fundamentally matter which of the two hegemonic parties has control of the White House or the Congress. In the course of my lifetime, the alternating Democratic and Republican administrations – from Bush Sr. to Clinton, mini-Bush to Obama – didn’t seem to produce any fundamental changes, especially as it concerned the Pentagon’s war machine.
Of course, it’s an oversimplification and actually incorrect to say that the two dominant parties are exactly alike, or that no differences exist whatsoever. However, the point that the American progressive and socialist left often make – that the country is run by ‘Republicrats’ – holds value in an agitational sense, given that the kind of changes needed to usher in a truly decent society will never manifest through these two parties tied to Wall Street’s interests.
Millions of people have started to grasp this in the events of the past decade or so. The great hope of 2008 that saw the election of the country’s first African-American president quickly gave way to disillusion for millions, and the acceptance and understanding that little could really be changed within the framework of the electoral system. This was dealt a stronger blow eight years later when the youth who endorsed the social democratic platform of Bernie Sanders in droves were looked down on with scorn and laughter by the Democratic Party’s corporate-aligned machine.
Donald Trump was the inevitable result of a failure on behalf of both parties to understand the rife anti-establishment sentiment that was sweeping the country. It seems a great historical irony in some ways that it is an ignorant and frankly incompetent billionaire who was able to opportunistically pick up the flag of contempt for the system.
What Made Trump Presidential
Trump’s erratic shoot from the hip style, his overt sexism and racism, his twitchy Twitter fingers – all of these are great cause for concern for the U.S. political establishment. After all, the best form of organisation for that very establishment is to maintain a well-oiled semblance of ‘democracy’ and keep social conflicts and contradictions well managed.
In some ways, Obama’s administration made the drones strikes and ongoing interventions across the so-called Middle East go down smoothly. Trump, on the other hand, came into office on January 20th amid great anxiety on Capitol Hill. The claim at that time was that there was no sense that he could be at all ‘presidential’. He soon found a way, however.
There is nothing more bi-partisan in U.S. politics than old-fashioned jingoism. American exceptionalism and dominance in global affairs have made Washington the capital for the new empire upon which the sun never sets. What made the Democratic and Republican parties most concerned about Trump was the notion that he would seek better relations with Russia, the principal country that challenged this hegemonic role of the U.S. as the world’s dominant power. When he began to slightly reign it in and criticize Moscow over its role in Ukraine, he, at last, won some points from the establishment.
However, he would only become ‘presidential’ in all earnest for the first time when he departed from his previous position on seeking a less confrontational approach toward the Syrian government. In April, he gave the order for 59 cruise missiles to strike the Shayrat airbase, the first time that the U.S. directly attacked Syrian military positions since the war had started.
This was a strike that hours earlier had been called for by Hillary Clinton, Trump’s election opponent who saw as her top priority deeper confrontation with Damascus. Suddenly, Trump was lavished with praise by the very same Democratic Party leaders who had previously piled vitriol on him. Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Party leaders who had billed themselves as the ‘resistance’ to Trump, responded with a thumbs up. Pelosi said at the time, “Tonight’s strike in Syria appears to be a proportional response to the regime’s use of chemical weapons.”
The lesson for Trump couldn’t be more clear: if he wanted to be presidential, to be supported across party lines, there was one simple way to do this. He would need to brush aside any isolationist impulses and pursue a more ‘traditional’ U.S. foreign policy, where hard power could always be relied upon.
Trump Declares Jerusalem the Capital of Israel
Trump’s announcement on December 6 that he was formally recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and intending to move the U.S. embassy there provoked massive outrage from Palestinians and millions across the region. It was a move that appeared to very clearly kill the prospect of a revived peace process, as well as one that looked like it almost immediately brought about the possibility of a new ‘intifada’, or uprising in the occupied territories. In a contradictory sense, it looked as if Trump’s move could help facilitate the rapprochement between Palestinian factions who have been at loggerheads in recent history.
Trump’s decision received mixed reactions on Capitol Hill. Even the ‘fake resistance’ headed by Schumer and Pelosi, most often united in their core outlook, diverged on the issue. Schumer openly declared that he had urged Trump to make the decision, while Pelosi was much more apprehensive, saying “In the absence of a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, moving the US embassy to Jerusalem now may needlessly spark mass protests, fuel tensions, and make it more difficult to reach a durable peace.”
Yet, it’s important to understand what their differences of opinion on this issue actually mean. While Pelosi’s views appear more nuanced, she has also called Jerusalem the ‘eternal capital of the Jewish homeland’. There is nothing really more characteristic of U.S. foreign policy than firm support for Israel, even as it tramples on the most fundamental rights of the Palestinian people. This is a position that is largely taken by Democrats and Republicans across the board. Dissenting voices are usually ones that are seen to be critical of aspects of Israeli policy – but this doesn’t translate into questioning Israel’s existence as an entity that was formed on ethnic cleansing.
Liberal and Conservative Friendship with Israel
When Barack Obama left office in January, Israel’s extreme right-wing government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu breathed a major sigh of relief. The relationship between Obama and Netanyahu was far from friendly, although even after Netanyahu snubbed Obama by addressing the U.S. Congress without consulting him, Obama still invited him back to the White House for talks. More importantly, despite however much animosity may have existed in their personal relationship, Obama still agreed to the largest increase of U.S. military aid to Israel in history when he signed a $38 billion package in September 2016. Yet, Obama’s parting message to Netanyahu was his administration’s refusal to veto a United Nations resolution calling for an end to settlement building in the West Bank.
This seemingly contradictory policy on behalf of the outgoing U.S. president led many – Netanyahu’s supporters included – to refer to Obama as a ‘pro-Palestinian’ president. However, it seems absurd to call the same man who signed off on the largest military aid package in history to Tel Aviv – ‘aid’ that will facilitate the murder of the colonized Palestinian people – to be in any way pro-Palestinian.
The contradiction boils down to the liberal approach to Israel as juxtaposed to the conservative and more overtly hawkish one. In a sense, the same differences that exist within the U.S. establishment on Israeli-Palestinian relations exist within Israeli politics, too. To put it clearly, Obama – as a supporter of Israel – thought the best approach to maintaining the security of the country was to push for a two-state solution on 1967 borders, in which the West Bank and Gaza would form the basis of a Palestinian state. This underscores his administration’s approach to Israel: it criticized settlement building on the basis of Obama being a friend to Israel, concerned with whether aggressive actions could be in its long-term interests. Such positions were never undertaken out of the same kind of solidarity or kinship with the Palestinian leadership.
Trump’s Views on Israel
Meanwhile, right-wing ideologues take the more aggressive Zionist view that sees the whole of historic Palestine as being Greater Israel, with no room for a Palestinian state that they declare never existed and never will.
This is what made Netanyahu and his Likud Party so enthusiastic about Trump’s shocking victory in the 2016 election. It wasn’t that Hillary Clinton would have been any less of a supporter of the Israeli state in a fundamental sense. After all, she had written what could only really be called a ‘love letter’ to Netanyahu during the election campaign in which she said her top foreign policy objective would be to invite him to the White House in her first 100 days in office, and to ‘patch up’ the U.S.-Israel relationship that was apparently damaged by Obama. However, Clinton also would have likely at least continued to pay lip service to the human rights abuses committed by the Israeli state, and to push for a two-state solution.
On the other hand, Trump can’t be seen as having any degree of sincerity regarding a two-state solution, or any kind of genuine desire for peace that is premised on justice. In an embarrassingly ridiculous press conference at the White House during Netanyahu’s February visit, Trump looked at his counterpart and said he would like to see him “hold off on settlements for a bit” in a manner that indicated that it was posed as a question rather than a statement. Trump then sending his son-in-law Jared Kushner to the region as a peace envoy can only be described as a laughable matter, considering how deeply connected he has been with Netanyahu’s family since he was a child.
The Jerusalem Embassy Act
Moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and declaring it the capital of the State of Israel underscores the level of commitment on behalf of the Trump administration to the racist vision of the Netanyahu government.
It’s important to point out that Trump’s decision is based on a 1995 law called the Jerusalem Embassy Act, in which President Bill Clinton in essence already agreed to the idea that Jerusalem was the de-facto capital of Israel and that the U.S. embassy should be moved. However, in order to attempt to not aggravate the situation and keep peace talks afloat, he would sign waivers every six months in order to keep the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv. This became the precedent that was followed by future U.S. presidents until Trump decided to part with over two decades of presidential policy.
The Jerusalem Embassy Act should serve as an important explanation for what defines the liberal and conservative, or Democratic and Republican, views on what best constitutes friendship with Israel. Does this mean encouraging your friend to be cautious and restrained, or urging them to be reckless and aggressive? Or does it often come in the form of a mix of the two? Either way, the friendship is enduring, even if periodic squabbles take place.
The Gates of Hell and the New Intifada
Although Trump and Netanyahu may temporarily feel as if they have advanced the cause of Israel’s colonial project, history may prove very different.
Until the decision on the U.S. embassy was announced, it appeared as if Hamas had been eager to move in the direction of compromise and a two-state solution, acknowledging the existence of Israel for the first time in its new charter adopted this Spring. 1967 borders became the objective instead of the dissolution of the Israeli state. Now, the militancy of Hamas appears re-invigorated as its leadership declares that Trump has ‘opened the gates of hell’ and that an ‘intifada’ will sweep Jerusalem (al-Quds) and all of historic Palestine.
The continuing resistance of the Palestinian people to colonialism and occupation is bound to endure as long as the apartheid system they suffer under continues to operate. Trump may have inadvertently accelerated Palestinian rapprochement, as well as given rise to an uprising that will shake the core of the settler state in a way that it hasn’t witnessed in decades. Just months ago, Trump promised that North Korea will witness ‘fire and fury’ as it has never seen before. Perhaps he was right about the fire and the fury – but maybe he got the circumstances of its manifestation dramatically wrong.