ONE puzzling aspect of this era is how to understand US President Donald Trump. His administration has announced it will cut the last remaining channel of American aid to Palestinian civilians, the conflict Management and Mitigation Program which allows Palestinians — many of them youth — to interact with Israelis, through US funding managed by USAID. The funds went to people-to-people exchanges, such as organising soccer games for Palestinian and Israeli girls, and bringing Israeli and Palestinian almond farmers together.
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and White House adviser on the Middle East, believes increasing punitive pressure on Palestinian civilians will create maximum negotiating leverage when it comes to implementing a supposed US peace proposal. Other US political leaders say the decision to cut such funding indicates that Trump has failed at diplomacy, that you don’t advance peace by cutting off programs for tolerance and understanding.
If he is serious about his boast that he will be the man to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace, after a century of conflict, why would he want to cut off interaction? Is it a boast he himself doesn’t believe.
On the other side, Israelis are generally pleased with Trump. He has relocated America’s embassy to Jerusalem, slashed payments to UNRWA which they feel perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem, withdrawn America from Unesco which has long been hostile to Israel, and has a positive relationship with PM Benjamin Netanyahu.
To millions worldwide, however, Trump still appears the fool he has been painted to be – impulsive, over-sensitive to criticism, and racist. He has hugely impacted global politics, using American power to confront long-established status quos. He has changed the tone of political discourse, introducing racist elements with comments like the one in January when he called African countries “shithole countries.” Will his flouting of established political protocol and withdrawal of America into an aggressive and nationalistic “America First” mind-set, ultimately lead the world to war?
Coincidentally, at precisely the same time as he is withdrawing funding to help Palestinian and Israeli children understand each other, his suggested racism is portrayed in a brilliant movie directed by celebrated filmmaker Spike Lee called Black Klansman, just released in Johannesburg. It is a true account by a black undercover American policeman who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s, together with a Jewish co-officer. The deadly racism of white supremacists, as a thread in American society, is starkly illustrated. The thread still continues.
It led to a bloody clash in August 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, between white supremacists and counter-protestors, many of them black. It was widely reported in world media. Torch-bearing white nationalists carrying guns, wearing Ku Klux Klan headgear, and waving Confederate flags and neo-Nazi emblems, marched through the town. A man rammed a car into counter-protesters, killing a woman. Trump did not denounce the white supremacists. He said there were “very fine people on both sides”. He did not call for reconciliation between them and black Americans, or impose punitive measures on them. Black people say Americans who were quietly racist before, now feel emboldened to say it openly under Trump.
What has this got to do with Israel, Jews and Palestinians? This is not a man searching doggedly for reconciliation between different people. Achieving an accord between Israelis and Palestinians has always required both a carrot and a stick to make the sides cooperate. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, favoured the carrot – he would never have cut Israeli-Palestinian interaction. Trump uses the stick, as if cutting contact will bring reconciliation. The real victims are the children, including Israelis and Palestinians, who won’t have the opportunity to know each other.