New revelations in recent days from inside the White House provide yet more evidence of the disaster unfolding at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
One of the most astonishing stories told in Bob Woodward’s new book, "Fear," is that of President Donald Trump’s senior economic adviser Gary Cohn, who reportedly swiped a letter from Trump’s desk which - had the president signed it - would have withdrawn the U.S. from a trade agreement with South Korea. (According to Cohn, Trump never realized it was missing.)
More amazing still is the complementary claim by an anonymous senior Trump administration official that s/he and many others are "working diligently from within to frustrate parts of [Trump’s] agenda and his worst inclinations."
Such subversion of presidential authority is certainly problematic. But given an amoral president with a fifth- or sixth-grader's understanding of world affairs (as Defense Secretary James Mattis is said to have described Donald Trump), one can be forgiven for wishing for adults in the room.
When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian file, however, there are no tempering agents to steer Trump’s foreign policy away from catastrophe unimaginable under previous presidents, Republican and Democratic. Instead, it is the very trio in charge of the Ultimate Deal - Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, and David Friedman - who are committing foreign-policy arson.
And of the three, it is U.S. Ambassador to Israel Friedman who has a considerable track record of supporting settlements and working to throw into reverse longstanding U.S. policy supporting a two-state solution.
Thanks to his close personal relationship to a president who is a tabula rasa, and given Friedman’s determination to clear out of his way "anti-Semitic and anti-Israel government 'lifers'" in the State Department, the ambassador has cleared any obstacles from his path. And he has proven extremely effective in implementing his zero-sum vision of pro-Israel policy.
In a Rosh Hashanah speech, Friedman promoted the latest Trump administration policy of which he was, no doubt, a chief architect: the defunding of the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency, UNRWA. His thesis was, "Since 1994, the United States has thrown more than $10 billion in humanitarian aid to the Palestinians" but the funds "were bringing the region no closer to peace or stability, not even by a millimeter."
Never mind that the purpose of humanitarian aid is to feed, educate, and provide health care and basic services to dispossessed people, rather than (merely) to achieve a political objective. Never mind that, despite the lack of Israeli-Palestinian peace, much has been achieved in the past 25 years with the help of U.S. aid - among the most prominent, the creation of Palestinian institutions necessary for the establishment of a Palestinian state.
What Friedman is engineering is nothing less than a revolution. Together with Kushner and Greenblatt, he is turning back the clock to before the 1991 convening of the Madrid peace conference by President George H. W. Bush, an act by the United States which lent legitimacy to the Palestinian demand for self-determination.
One by one, he is working to take final-status issues "off the table" - first settlements (which Friedman described as "part of Israel"), then Jerusalem (with Trump’s one-sided recognition of Israeli claims to the city), and now refugees (through a frontal assault on the Palestinian demand for a political solution to the 1948 refugee problem).
The last goes hand-in-hand with the slashing of funds to UNRWA, complete with unfounded claims that the agency is responsible for perpetuating the Palestinian refugee problem and is unique in classifying refugees' descendants as refugees.
As a former bankruptcy lawyer, Ambassador Friedman has reportedly likened the Trump administration's approach to formulating a "bankruptcy-type deal" for the Palestinians. Key to that strategy is convincing Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that the time to come to the table to negotiate the terms of Palestinian capitulation is now - before the lot of the Palestinians grows even worse.
Meanwhile, ideological settlers feel triumphant, knowing that with Friedman and his partners, "We are surrounded by people who really like us, love us, and they are not trying to be objective."
Where Trump administration policy toward Israel and the Palestinians is concerned, there are no adults in the room. There are only arsonists dousing the house with kerosene.
Debra Shushan is Director of Policy and Government Relations at Americans for Peace Now. She was previously a Middle East politics professor at the College of William and Mary. Twitter: @ShushanAPN
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