We've had the new President for a week. What do we know?
Not a whole lot.
We certainly know that the amount of anti-Trump hysteria is off the charts. The amount of, yes, fake news meant to discredit him is crazy. "Fact checking" is as partisan as "news" is, and digging down to find the actual facts is a daunting task when the supposedly sober news sources are obsessed with what are really trivialities.
The new administration is certainly shaking things up, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. I have no problem with running the government more like a business; in my mind this is a welcome development.
But Trump has also done some undeniably weird things that cannot be explained in terms of a rational head of state nor a head of a major corporation. A business doesn't just shake things up for no reason; it has a transition plan so that the company will survive in the meantime. Also, the messaging from the new administration is anything but businesslike. It is chaotic. Just as American's allies were uneasy with the messages from the Obama administration, they cannot be happy with the out of control signals coming from Washington today.
On the other hand, putting things on hold - whether it is spending money or a temporary hold on immigrants (also badly misreported) - doesn't strike me as being the end of the world. It is actually sane to step back and formulate policies in a transition period.
Let's stick with the Israel/Jewish parts from the past week. There were four main stories.
One was that the silence from the White House when Israel announced new housing units in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer dodged a reporter’s question Tuesday on whether the administration supports the Israeli government’s decision to proceed with the construction of 2,500 housing units in the West Bank. Spicer said the administration was still forming its foreign policy team and that President Donald Trump would discuss settlements and other matters when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits next month.It is to soon to have an opinion on this. After all, new UN ambassador Nikki Haley said that Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria "can hinder peace" in the region. The Trump team does not seem to have decided on a position on this yet, and it may be premature to assume that the lack of a response to the new approvals is a real shift in policy. In all likelihood, this is just another subject where the Trump administration has not yet formulated a clear position. It is welcome to see that the US no longer sees settlements as the end of the world but the celebrations of the Israeli right in thinking that they can now build wherever they want without criticism do not seem warranted. My guess is that the administration will tacitly accept building in the major blocs that would be part of Israel in any agreement but not so keen on building elsewhere.
The president “has asked his team to get together,” Spicer said. “Israel continues to be a huge ally of the United States. He wants to grow closer with Israel to make sure that it gets the full respect that it deserves in the Middle East and that’s what he’s going to do. We’re going to have a meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu. We’ll continue to discuss that.”
The second story was the seeming postponement (perhaps for a long time) of moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Asked about moving the embassy, a move he said he favored during the campaign, Trump said: “I don’t want to talk about it yet. It’s too early.”This is a much different message from his position just days earlier, right before the inauguration, when Trump said, “Of course I remember what I said about Jerusalem. You know that I am not a person who breaks promises,”
So all we know is that nothing is going to happen soon, and we can guess that the massive Palestinian campaign of threats has affected the decision as well. This would be very unfortunate, caving to threats or even appearing to cave is never a good signal. At least in this case we will know the truth fairly soon: if Trump signs the waiver to stop the embassy move at the end of May then this is a promise that is not likely to be fulfilled. (Update: One pro-Trump source claims that the Israeli government is what is delaying the move, not the White House. In the current environment, without independent corroboration, I cannot believe anything. And Netanyahu denies it. [h/t Yoel])
The third story was the white House's apparent hold of $221 million that Obama earmarked for Palestinian Arab institutions in his last hours of office. I'm not certain that this is true; it was only reported second-hand.
The fourth story was the contents of the White House statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day:
It is with a heavy heart and somber mind that we remember and honor the victims, survivors, heroes of the Holocaust. It is impossible to fully fathom the depravity and horror inflicted on innocent people by Nazi terror.Many criticized the statement for not mentioning Jews specifically, and I was willing to give the White House a little slack on that, thinking that they simply didn't think about the Jewish sensitivities to this topic, until they doubled down:
Yet, we know that in the darkest hours of humanity, light shines the brightest. As we remember those who died, we are deeply grateful to those who risked their lives to save the innocent.
In the name of the perished, I pledge to do everything in my power throughout my Presidency, and my life, to ensure that the forces of evil never again defeat the powers of good. Together, we will make love and tolerance prevalent throughout the world.”
The White House statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day didn't mention Jews or anti-Semitism because "despite what the media reports, we are an incredibly inclusive group and we took into account all of those who suffered," administration spokeswoman Hope Hicks told CNN on Saturday.To make Holocaust Remembrance Day into a universal theme that doesn't mention genocide is exactly the sort of thing that liberals have been trying to do to it in learning "lessons" from the day, and it is no more acceptable from a Trump administration. This clarification from Hope Hicks is awful. The Holocaust's uniqueness is exactly because it targeted Jews for extermination, and not mentioning the central aim of the Holocaust is outrageous.
Hicks provided a link to a Huffington Post UK story noting that while 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis, 5 million others were also slaughtered during Adolf Hitler's genocide, including "priests, gypsies, people with mental or physical disabilities, communists, trade unionists, Jehovah's Witnesses, anarchists, Poles and other Slavic peoples, and resistance fighters."
Asked if the White House was suggesting President Donald Trump didn't mention Jews as victims of the Holocaust because he didn't want to offend the other people the Nazis targeted and killed, Hicks replied, "it was our honor to issue a statement in remembrance of this important day."
The same Jewish groups who are insisting that this is not a slight would have rightly slammed President Obama if he would have released that exact same statement.
Which is the problem in a nutshell. Trump supporters are blind to his mistakes, while Trump opponents are blind to his potential successes. The number of people who are actually reacting to Trump's actions and words without blindly following the consensus of political alignments is vanishingly small (and the pundits that manage to do that are very valuable indeed.)
What is the final score? Too soon to tell, but the wild-eyed enthusiasm that some had for a Trump administration is shortsighted. It is a reasonable assumption that Trump's inaugural promise to put America's interests first will be the guiding policy for the next four or more years, and it is foolhardy to think that Israel's interests will be prioritized over what the president believes is best for the US. After all, the official Trumpian vision is "realpolitik" - and that is the stated position of many bitter foes of Israel as well. I'm not saying that Trump is like Walt and Mearsheimer but his admiration for Israel is not going to override his desire for reorienting American policy towards American interests. I am fairly certain this is why Netanyahu negotiated the ten year aid deal; he was hedging his bets against a potential Trump administration that could decide to freeze foreign aid altogether.
Outside of the unfortunately named "America First" policy, the other constant is that Trump is a negotiator. He is not going to just give things to Israel without getting something back. The embassy might be considered a chit for negotiating settlements or missile defenses or something else.
(This is also why Netanyahu's building up of Israel as a financial, energy, military, scientific and intelligence power is so important - as the West swings away from "doing what is right" to "looking out for Number One" Israel is in a better position to offer something of value in return for political gains. Israel is the moral choice; it needs to become the practical choice as well.)