Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Five Norwegians and the Inventor of Dynamite

 A former colleague recently wrote to me:

“My family has been having a big debate about Trump’s work on these peace deals in the Middle East.  I mentioned that I was confident that you still don’t consider Trump a friend to Israel and would not be voting for him.  My siblings want to know why.  No matter what he does it doesn’t change who he is, which in my mind is a very bad man with no morals or ethics.

I was hoping you wouldn’t mind giving me some insight on these peace deals and if you still feel Trump is not a friend to Israel.  I thought maybe you would blog about that as well as Trump being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Oh my gosh I can’t believe how divided our country is even in my own family.”

Here is my answer, with some additions and modifications:

I’ve sometimes wondered why so much prestige is attached to the Nobel Peace Prize, a prize awarded by a committee of five Norwegians, population 5.4 million, and named after a guy who invented dynamite and who donated money for a peace prize after reading a premature obituary that criticized him for making money as an arms dealer.

Not helping me feel warm and fuzzy about the award is the fact that the International Red Cross has won the award three times, including in 1944, in the midst of its arguably willing impotence in the face of the Holocaust and after its complicity in the whitewashing of the Theresienstadt Ghetto.

That recognition was arguably topped with awarding (and never revoking) the award to Yasser Arafat, the man who made modern terrorism successful and popular.

The final straw was granting the award to President Obama at the outset of his presidency.  Not that he did anything to tarnish the award.  The problem is that he hadn’t  yet done anything.  He had barely found the White House bathrooms when the call came.

It was somewhat similar to when my kids gave me a shirt proclaiming me “World’s Greatest Saba (Grandpa)” before my first grandchild was born.  It was on a whim and prayer.  But at least I had bounced some nephews and nieces on my knees, giving some hint that I might someday deserve the honor.  No prize money, however.

So when a far-right Norwegian parliament member nominated President Trump to receive the award, my response was a chuckle and a yawn.  Hey, why not?  It will be good for SNL and Colbert. 

 (To continue,   

But does President Trump deserve the award for the establishment of relations between Israel and the UAE, and now between Israel and Bahrain?  If the Red Cross received it while turning its back on the annihilation of millions, and an arch-terrorist like Arafat received it, and a President who had barely gotten settled into the White House received it, why not President Trump?

Someone in the Administration clearly did some effective persuading and facilitating to get these formal relations established.  It is highly doubtful it was President Trump personally.  He does not have the knowledge, the attention span, or the vocabulary to play an in-depth, sustained role in something like this.

But, clearly, someone in the White House and/or State Department did, and it is likely that they knew when and how to bring Trump into the mix when useful.  That someone deserves credit for that work.  And as the President under whose watch it got done, President Trump gets credit, just as he gets the blame for the many failures of his Administration.

But does President Trump deserve the Nobel for making peace between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain?

Given the not very stellar record of the Nobel Committee mentioned above, my “why not?” response seems apt.

I do recognize and appreciate the things that have happened during the Trump Administration that are good for Israel, such as the move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, the recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and the Trump Administration’s role in establishing formal relations with the UAE and now Bahrain.  However, I note the following:

I don’t know how much these things were done for Israel or even with Jews in mind.  Trump wants the evangelical vote and this is important to them.  However, the former lobbyist in me says a “yes” is a “yes.”  Actions by politicians often involve a mix of motivations.  If you are going to filter out the positive developments based on having only pure motives, your list of victories is going to be very thin indeed.

As meaningful and nice as the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and as Golan Heights’ sovereignty are, they are practically less important to the average Israeli than things like relations with countries. The former steps, albeit significant, are symbolic.  Relations bring tangible gains, both economically and strategically.

While Trump or someone in his administration deserves some credit for the relations with the UAE and Bahrain, I wouldn’t overdo it for a number of reasons:

–Israel has had ongoing under-the-table relations with both countries for a good number of years, although going public is significant. I am no fan of Netanyahu, but one has to acknowledge that he has been working on this for years.

–Iran and the centuries-old Shiite-Sunni split in the Muslim world deserve a lot of the “credit.”  These countries see a real, often existential threat from Iran in terms of nuclear arms, terrorism, and destabilization.  This threat, combined with the Arab nations’ impatience with the Palestinians, undoubtedly plays a pivotal role in the changes in the region.

–Presidents Obama and Trump deserve a lot of “credit” but not in a good way.  Despite much different styles and rationales, both Presidents have caused the United States to lose respect and to recede in the Middle East and in the world generally. In many parts of the world, including the Middle East, the U.S. is no longer seen as a power willing to assert itself and to stand by its allies.

When President Obama drew a red line regarding Syria’s chemical weapons and then allowed mass-murderer Bashar al-Assad to cross it without consequence, the shuddering in the Middle East was widespread and deep.

When President Trump, after talking to his friend, Turkish strongman Tayyip Erdogan (“he gets very high marks”), announced that he was abandoning the Kurds, everyone in the region, including Israelis, was aghast.

Both Presidents have allowed Russia back into the Middle East in a major way, allowing it to fulfill unchallenged  a decades-old objective.  Countries in the Middle East and elsewhere now question whether the U.S. is a reliable ally.  No one is interested in being the next Crimea.  They are hedging their bets.  Many in the Middle East now look to Israel as protection against Iran and as a possible influence on the U.S.

As I have written previously, what Israel needs more from the U.S. than any particular policy (even though those can be very important) is a healthy, respected, united, influential, democracy-promoting, assertive U.S. whose president nurtures bi-partisan support for Israel. This is not the U.S. under Trump.

Under Trump, the U.S. has been greatly weakened, economically and strategically.  In the battle against the coronavirus, it has failed miserably as other countries have shown determination and competence.

Many of the problems the U.S. faces were developing long before President Trump, but he clearly is doing little to turn the tide and, indeed, has exacerbated the situation.  Under many generally accepted measures, America is on the decline.

Trump kowtows to Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, giving more credibility to his assurances than to U.S. intelligence services. He admires and is duped by dictators like Putin,  Erdogan, and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

He puts little value on democracies that promote freedom.  No one who values freedom and democracy should look forward to a world where the U.S. has receded and China, Iran, Russia, are more influential.  In the long-run, that does not bode well for Israel, the U.S. or the world.

|One recent example:  As part of a complicated U.S.-brokered deal between Serbia and Kosovo, Serbia purportedly pledged to move its embassy to Jerusalem. It now appears that it might be backing off of that pledge.

There has been a report asserting that the Serbs were caught by surprise by President Trump’s announcement of the move.  Whether that is accurate or not, what is certain is that the EU is putting substantial pressure on both Serbia and Kosovo not to move their embassies.  Both countries are trying to gain admission to the EU, giving the EU a lot of leverage.

This is where it would be good to have a president that is on good terms with the key EU leadership, i.e. Merkel, Macron,, and that could ask them to back off. Unfortunately, President Trump is not in a position to do that because he has unnecessarily alienated those leaders and has created poor relations with traditional U.S. allies.

Despite the often talked-about friction between Israel and several European nations, Israel also cannot afford to get too sideways with the EU, with which it is heavily intertwined.  Israel’s biggest trading partner is Europe, not the U.S. or China.  Here, again, it would help if the U.S. were in a position to ask Merkel and the others to back off a bit. Trump cannot.

Finally, you asked if I still don’t think Trump is a friend to Israel.  As I wrote, the Trump Administration has done some positive things regarding Israel.  Whether that is out of a feeling of friendship, or whether it was done to please a constituency, or because of some personal relationships, the Trump Administration did the deeds or, at least, facilitated and encouraged them.  For that, Trump deserves credit.

By most accounts, the President does not have deep friendships.  His only real strong relationships are with his immediate family.  President Trump has the classic characteristics of a narcissist.  As is widely acknowledged, he views virtually everything transactionally.  It is highly doubtful he can be a true friend to anyone.

It is all about him and what works for him.  He will turn on anyone at any time if it suits his needs.  No one, including Israel and Jews, should count on him or his friendship.

 (Originally published in The Times of Israel)


  1. Alan - No good deed goes unpunished. I disagree with many of the points you made and the bodily contortions you had to go through to try to diminish the significance of Trump's Israel accomplishments but it is hysterical that now you are attacking the Nobel Peace Prize as a way to denigrate the President (even though your analysis of the previous award winners is correct). It's just so ironic (and predictable) that this discussion only now surfaces with the consideration of Trump for the award. All that being said, it is academic because 70% of American Jewish voters will not support Trump. The question that remains is whether this is a reflection of Trump or rather
    the loss of interest in Israel by American Jews, particularly the millenials. The latter is the really scary (and probably correct) answer. Steve