Arms deals, peace deals: Trump treads holy ground

Trump at kotel 3

Can deal-maker Trump clinch Mideast peace? In his foray to holy sites of Islam, Judaism and Christianity he brought massive arms deals in one hand and slogans about peace in the other. In the picture he listens to Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch (C) while visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem on May 22, 2017

PRESIDENT Donald Trump does not delve much into religion in his speeches in the United States, except to slam adherents of Islam. But during his past week’s jaunt to the Middle East and Europe to holy sites of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, there was much to do with religion that needed attention.

The political adage was apt: “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” Shouting reckless words to rally supporters while campaigning last year was one thing; it’s different now he’s in the power seat.

His speech in Saudi Arabia – the site of Mecca and Medina, two of Islam’s holiest places – was significantly more moderate than his campaign references to that country, when he said it wants “women as slaves and to kill gays” and was behind the terror attacks of 9/11. Even though it has indeed been a major terrorism sponsor, his speech’s thrust was clearly about deal-making, with scant reference to human rights.

Islam is the world’s second largest religion, with 1,6 billion adherents, or 23 per cent of the planet’s 6,9 billion people. Christianity is the largest, with 2,2 billion adherents, nearly a third of the global population.

Trump was careful not to insult Islam. During his aggressive campaign he repeatedly and pointedly used the term ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ – which his predecessor Barack Obama refused to use – to describe Middle Eastern extremist groups, but while in Saudi Arabia he replaced it with ‘Islamist extremism’ and ‘Islamists’, terms which are more ‘politically correct’.

The Saudis were receptive. Even his wife Melania, who stood out prominently at his side with uncovered hair in starkly ‘western’ dress that Saudi women are forbidden to wear, seemed naturally part of the proceedings.

The Saudi royal family’s red-carpet reception for him with parades and horses, elevated him to a dignity he entirely lacks in Washington. When he very publically signed the gigantic $110 billion arms deal with the Arab state, his stature rose even higher.

Then on Monday, when he jetted into tiny Israel, predictably intense political arguments raged among his hosts, unlike in Riyadh which presented a totally united front. Israel is, after all, a noisy democracy with divisions vociferously expressed, contrary to Saudi Arabia.

It seemed out of character when this narcissistic man known for his crude, abusive comments donned a kippa on Monday and visited Jerusalem’s Western Wall – the kotel – a holy site for the relatively minuscule 14-million Jewish global population, who constitute only 0,2 per cent of the world’s people. Yet his Israel visit carried as much significance – in some ways more – as his other stops.

Trump brags he will make the ultimate deal to bring Israeli-Palestinian peace. It is unlikely he understands the complexities. While symbolism such as visiting the kotel is important, he is short on substance.

Jerusalem, for example, with 883,000 residents – 37 per cent of them Arabs – is a key emotive element for all sides which has stymied previous agreements. Jews and Palestinians – and the Arab world – both want to control major parts and will not yield. Its Jewish population is becoming increasingly religious and their political clout grows rapidly towards the right, less disposed to concessions for peace. Disputes about sovereignty over the Western Wall precinct is one example.

Among Jerusalem’s Jewish residents over age 20, some 35 per cent are ultra-Orthodox, and rising. About 66 per cent of Jewish students in the city attend ultra-Orthodox elementary schools. The ultra-Orthodox birth rate is more than double the national average.

These complexities are matched by the Palestinian Muslim population.

Trump’s foray into Islam’s and Judaism’s heartlands is powerful public relations, shifting attention from his political problems in Washington. But the Mideast is a minefield which his bragging cannot paper over. Can he stay the long course?

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

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Walls, walls, walls: the spirit of the day

Mogoeng and Zuma 3

Building legal walls: In some places the outer image of politics is physical walls, in others it is the law. South Africa’s Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng is increasingly called upon to rein in errant politicians such as President Zuma (above), while US President Donald Trump poses similar challenges to the law in his country

TWO presidents who excel in shamelessness loom over South Africans’ minds today: the United States’ Donald Trump and South Africa’s Jacob Zuma. Both are unpredictable, of questionable ethics, arrogant and cannot admit they are wrong; neither are very intelligent and both are damaging their countries.

When Trump arrives in Israel on Monday after visiting Saudi Arabia and before going to the Vatican – his trip encompasses key centres of Islam, Judaism and Christianity – he enters a minefield that has stymied the dreams of previous US presidents who wanted to go down historically as having ended the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump touts himself as the ultimate deal-maker. Does he have a policy or is he winging it? Does he favour a two state solution, or will he give West Bank settlers the carte blanche he implied during his campaign which led far-right Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett – who opposes a Palestinian state – to proclaim “The Palestinian flag has been lowered from the flagpole” and Culture Minister Miri Regev to declare jubilantly, “Obama is history, now we have Trump!”

They may be disappointed. Last week a senior member of the US delegation making preparations for Trump’s visit outraged Israelis by saying Jerusalem’s western wall – the kotel – is “not your territory, it’s part of the West Bank.” Although the White House said it was unauthorised, tempers ran high. Trump after all believes in walls: he wants to build them around America to keep Mexicans and other “undesirables” – such as Muslims – out.

His arrival coincides with the 50-year anniversary of Israel’s Six Day War victory over invading Arab armies and dismantling of the wall which split Jerusalem for 19 years. The war’s consequences have divided Jews worldwide ever since. Many on the right believe the victory was God-inspired; others on the left, while celebrating Israel’s survival, see it as the beginning of the bitter Palestinian occupation, which has even resulted in Israel building a long wall separating it from the West Bank to prevent terrorism. Israel won the war but has yet to win the peace, in contrast to the Berlin wall’s falling in 1989 which re-united Germany.

Trump seems an unlikely person to bring resolution. But with such a maverick, no-one knows what may emerge.

At home, South Africans are trying to build a different kind of wall – a legal one – to hold off Zuma’s bizarre behaviour and prevent the country’s decline into another African kleptocracy like Zimbabwe. Clearly the president has gone rogue and no longer cares what citizens or ANC members think of him. Meanwhile, a South African equivalent of the Arab Spring threatens to erupt as extreme poverty and inequality become too much for the masses to bear while political leaders luxuriate in expensive mansions at state expense.

There are spots of hope. Such as Monday’s fascinating constitutional court debate over whether the coming no-confidence motion against Zuma in Parliament should be conducted by secret ballot, as opposition parties are demanding. This would allow ANC members who oppose him to vote freely without fear of recrimination.

The concourt remains a fiercely independent bastion of democracy – a legal wall against Zuma’s abuse of his position. Will it hold? Last year the court ruled that Zuma had failed to uphold the constitution when he ignored a report of the public protector that he should pay back public money spent upgrading his private homestead, Nkandla. When Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng delivered the judgement, loud cheers permeated the nation which is sick and tired of the president’s thievery.

Zuma was eventually forced to repay some of the money. Yet shamelessly, he did not resign, nor did his party, the ANC, force him to do so. He continued on his path, thinking the fallout from the affair would blow over. Since then the courts have been increasingly inundated with petitions from political parties and NGOs such as the Helen Suzman Foundation aimed at curbing the corruption and maladministration of Zuma’s regime.

Both Trump and Zuma see their countries’ constitutions as an inconvenience rather than a jewel to be cherished. Both recently fired – literally overnight – very senior public figures for what seems like selfish reasons. Trump fired FBI head James Comey apparently for pursuing an investigation of Trump’s links to the Russians; Zuma fired respected South African finance minister Pravin Gordhan, who was holding the fort against the economy’s collapse but was blocking Zuma’s personal ambitions. Opposition to both men is rising and may eventually bring them down.

What comes after them, of course, is anyone’s guess.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )