Trump’s Disappearing ‘Neutral Guy’

President-elect Trump’s attack on the U.S. abstention to a U.N. vote condemning illegal Israeli settlements raises doubts about his vow to be a “neutral guy” on Palestinian issues, writes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Presidents-elect of the United States generally have hewn to the dictum that the country has only one president at a time, and that this is especially important with foreign policy. The incoming president plans, appoints, announces, and does anything else he wants to indicate what his course will be after noon on January 20th, but until then it is the incumbent president who makes and executes U.S. policy and who negotiates with and makes demarches to foreign governments. Donald Trump has been behaving differently.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaking to the AIPAC conference in Washington D.C. on March 21, 2016. (Photo credit: AIPAC)

But even some of his previous moves during this current transition period, such as breaking with protocol on relations with Taiwan or telling the Chinese to keep the marine drone they stole, did not go as far in interfering with the execution of current policy as he now has gone regarding a United Nations Security Council on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and matters in the occupied territories.

It is not only that Trump issued a statement that constituted an attempt to pressure the current administration into a course of action that would do the bidding of a foreign government. His operation met with a delegation organized by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, so secretly that Israeli press that learned of the visit describes it as “clandestine.” Trump also, following Netanyahu’s lead, pressed President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt to withdraw the U.N. resolution that his country had introduced.

Even just as a matter of procedure, this violation of the one-president-at-a-time principle ought to have provoked outrage. That it did not provoke much may be due to Trump’s mastery of the art of diverting attention from a subject by quickly saying something else that is at least as likely to grab headlines. In this case the attention diverter was Trump’s comment about starting a new nuclear arms race.

As a matter of substance, Trump’s posture toward the U.N. resolution should be occasion for deep dismay. Long forgotten is his promise to be a “neutral guy” in addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Since he made that pledge he has come to terms with Sheldon Adelson and, through other statements and appointments, has made clear that he will be anything but neutral.

A Provocative Choice

In case there was any remaining doubt about that as of a couple of weeks ago, all such doubt was erased with his appointment as ambassador to Israel of bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman — who, by his own words, including likening liberal U.S. Jews to Nazi stooges, and by his personal connections to the settler movement, is firmly opposed to peace and in favor of indefinite occupation. It would be less incredible for Friedman to become Israeli ambassador to the United States rather than the other way around, although even then he would be representing only an extreme right wing rather than the people and interests of Israel as a whole.

David Friedman, President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for U.S. Ambassador to Israel.

As for the newest U.N. resolution, Trump’s statement, echoing a familiar formulation that the Netanyahu government uses whenever the possibility of Security Council action arises, says that “peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians will only come through direct negotiations between the parties, and not through the imposition of terms by the United Nations.”

There is absolutely nothing in the draft resolution that Egypt had introduced that precludes or impedes direct negotiations between the parties or that suggests in any way that such negotiations will not still be necessary to set the terms of any final peace agreement. Far from “imposing” terms, the resolution declares the need to get beyond the obstacles that are preventing effective direct negotiations from taking place and being able to achieve a two-state solution that will be a lasting basis for peace between Israelis and Arabs.

That the resolution specifically mentions Israeli settlements in occupied territory simply reflects how this unilateral altering of facts on the ground has been steadily closing the negotiation space and making it ever more difficult for direct negotiations to set the terms of peace and arrive at a solution with two viable and secure states. That the resolution declares the colonization through settlements to be a “flagrant violation of international law” simply restates long-established principles of international law regarding the responsibilities of an occupying power in territory conquered through military force.

The draft resolution was comprehensive in identifying the obstacles to effective direct negotiations. It’s not just the settlements, and it’s not just what Israel is doing. The resolution “calls for immediate steps to prevent all acts of violence against civilians, including acts of terror, as well as all acts of provocation and destruction, calls for accountability in this regard, and calls for compliance with obligations under international law for the strengthening of ongoing efforts to combat terrorism, including through existing security coordination, and to clearly condemn all acts of terrorism.” The resolution further “calls upon both parties … to observe calm and restraint, and to refrain from provocative actions, incitement and inflammatory rhetoric.”

In light of all the above, Trump’s statement that the resolution “is extremely unfair to all Israelis” is baseless.

Self-Inflicted Wounds

Anyone with a concern for Israel’s security and well-being should be aware that the continued colonization of the West Bank through expansion of settlements does not correlate positively with such security and well-being. To the contrary, it detracts from Israeli security. It involves an added burden on the Israel Defense Forces, and it is the most visible part of an occupation that is by far the biggest stimulus and support for those intending to do Israel harm.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a security meeting with senior Israeli Defense Forces commanders near Gaza on July 21, 2014. (Israel government photo)

Anyone concerned with U.S. interests should be aware that the United States has no positive interest in the settlements or in the religious or local economic motivations that have stimulated their growth. For the United States, it is all negative, in terms of instability, prospects for violence, the stimulation of extremism, and the United States being resented and targeted because of its role in permitting the settlement enterprise.

The combined pressure from Netanyahu and Trump got al-Sisi to withdraw the resolution. It is appropriate for Egypt to play a leadership role in trying to improve the conditions for negotiation of an Israeli-Palestinian peace, for historical reasons dating back to the Camp David Accords of 1978. The peace treaty with Egypt that Israel sought was only one-half of the bargain struck at Camp David. The other half was supposed to be progress toward a peace covering the Palestinian territories. Anwar Sadat has been revolving in his grave over how, nearly four decades later, what process there has been has failed to yield an end to the occupation.

The case for the current resolution remains strong. Four other members of the Security Council — New Zealand, Malaysia, Senegal, and Venezuela — pressed ahead with the resolution even when a bullied Egypt backed off. The Obama administration deserves commendation for allowing the resolution to pass when it finally came to a vote on Friday. A positive vote in support would have been even better, rather than the United States once again being in a lonely position on U.N. measures involving Israel. In this case the United States was the only one of the 15 Security Council members that did not vote in favor of the resolution.

Knee-jerk GOP Objections 

The Republican members of Congress who now are denouncing the administration even for abstaining should be made to point to words in the resolution itself and explain exactly what they allege is wrong with it. Otherwise they are just blindly following the lead of an Israeli government that will perpetuate the occupation, and the negative consequences that flow from it, forever.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina.

Trump did not have to interfere with the incumbent administration’s diplomacy. It would give him more options to let the incumbents take the domestic political heat for breaking the pattern of repeated occupation-covering U.S. vetoes at the Security Council. Even if Trump is determined to stay in bed with the settlers and the Israeli right-wing, he could still assume such a posture starting on Jan. 20, however mistaken such a posture is.

Perhaps Trump’s abandonment of his “neutral guy” moment is another instance of his gravitating to wherever he hears the loudest applause, with that applause coming in this instance from the lobby that would scream the loudest if he were to move in a different direction. Perhaps it is an instance of his being swayed by whoever in his inner circle has most had Trump’s ear recently and been motivated to use that access to press special interests. That inner-circle member could be the lawyer who helped him through bankruptcies in Atlantic City. Or it could be Trump’s son-in-law, whom Trump has talked about as a Middle East envoy, who, like the lawyer, has personal ties to West Bank settlements, and who reportedly wrote, along with Stephen Bannon, the statement denouncing the resolution. Either way, this is a poor way to make U.S. foreign policy.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.) 

17 comments for “Trump’s Disappearing ‘Neutral Guy’

  1. Herman
    December 27, 2016 at 19:59

    David Smith comment strikes me as the only one worth noting.

    “This Security Council Resolution finishes any flakey talk that a One State Solution is inevitable or desirable.”

    I’m not sure how the Resolution finished any talk of a One State Solution since it is the only option open. If it is flaky, then it is both flakey and inevitable. There are other options of course.

    One, remove all the Palestinians.

    Two, convert all the Palestinians to Judaism. There is historical precedent for this but you have to go back in history quite a ways.

    Other things to rid the country of Arabs, although too unthinkable to imagine.

    I apologize being frivolous on a very serious matter.

    When you have millions of Arabs in what was once the British Mandate who are second class citizens, oppressed, humiliated and denigrated that cannot last. America cannot continue to stand by, watch and abstain.

  2. December 27, 2016 at 15:00

    Israel’s Welfare Dependency Grows: Largest Recipient of U.S. Foreign Aid

    “The Israeli puppeteer travels to Washington. The Israeli puppeteer meets with the puppet in the White House; and then moves down Pennsylvania Avenue and meets with the puppets in Congress; and then takes back billions of taxpayer dollars.” –Ralph Nader on C-SPAN

  3. December 26, 2016 at 09:08

    Paul Pillar: “The draft resolution was comprehensive in identifying the obstacles to effective direct negotiations.” Others, it seems, disagree. Ali Abunimah: “This resolution, like its predecessors, sets out no concrete consequences for Israel if it fails to comply.” – I guess the author did use ‘comprehensive’ in a restricted way.

  4. December 26, 2016 at 09:00

    “an extreme right wing rather than the people and interests of Israel as a whole” My understanding is that all of Israeli society has been mentally and spiritually ruined, at last, by it’s sick political, military and religious leadership. Of course there will always be individuals who escape such darkness. And the phrase would not be wrong if the author has the same understanding. But the color of this phrase suggests that he doesn’t.

  5. Junior
    December 24, 2016 at 19:30

    The poor, poor Palestinians!

    Israel is out of control. They play an out sized role world affairs. They are part of the deep state network of power. Trump has proved he’s a willing lackey.

  6. Zachary Smith
    December 24, 2016 at 18:09

    A post at the Counterpunch site is supposedly about the Clintons, but there is a lot of “Trump” stuff there too. Since the author is a very angry man, he doesn’t go out of his way to be nice to any of them.

    Now, Trump is obviously, if we can judge from the last six months, a very thin skinned and rather terrified man. The son of a slum lord and a man who constantly seeks attention, and who wanted to be the biggest swinging dick in the house…well, once the Casino, now the White House. But he knows he’s not. And that can be a very dangerous personality flaw for someone with power. Trump’s eldest sons, Don Jr and Eric are perhaps the greatest indictment against Trump.


    The U.S. has the largest prison population in the world. And its growing. And it is reaching a kind of maximum limit. It is a gulag of made up of the poor, primarily black and brown, and it is a place to which the rich are never invited. How many people exactly can the system keep in containers? We may well find out. Jeff Sessions will want as many as possible, thats for sure. Trump is an ignorant man and no doubt it is dawning on him just how over his head he is now, and since I actually believe he began this with no desire to really win, he is probably in a state of near panic right now. His advisors, people like Steve Bannon, sense their own lack of ability to run a country, too, I would guess. Recent photos of Bannon reveal that deer caught in the headlights look.

    I don’t know a thing about Trump’s sons, but the rest of this rant rings true. I agree Trump never did really want the job of being President, and that he now realizes those “presidential” duties are both over his head and are in general quite uninteresting to him. I propose he’s already “outsourcing” the work to subordinates, and the types of people he has been selecting is not reassuring.

  7. Bill Bodden
    December 24, 2016 at 15:46

    Perhaps Trump’s abandonment of his “neutral guy” moment is another instance of his gravitating to wherever he hears the loudest applause,

    The odds are if Trump does any gravitating it will be in the direction of fellow authoritarians that are his kind of people.

    Uri Avnery, one of Israel’s most informed and enlightened commentators explains his opposition to David Friedman as US ambassador to Israel: David Friedman, the Peace-Wrecker –

    • evelync
      December 24, 2016 at 16:29

      Thanks, for the link.
      Shame on Trump.

      I am seeing first hand how super wealthy people have no monopoly on wisdom or good decision making far from it.
      Here in Houston, the owner of the Texans along perhaps with his coaching staff? decided that they would hire an untested rookie quarterback from Denver with a $72million contract over 4 years. $37MM guaranteed.
      After a rocky start, he’s now on the bench and the second string guy has been doing a good job and may lead Houston to the playoffs.

      My husband told me today that Houston signed the contract without even meeting with the now benched quarterback. whew….

      So billionaires may be good at something (getting rich? being lucky? or maybe unscrupulous?) but they may well be fools in the department of making thoughtful constructive decisions or being able to think through sustainable public policy. All that money goes to their heads and they think they know something. Plus they probably have a chip on their shoulders from all the shady dealings some of them go through.
      Sheldon Adelson, based on his public persona may lead the pack in that field of losers.
      It’s a travesty that our president in waiting has now failed the Palestinians, the Israelis and our hope for a peaceful fair resolution to the tragic Israeli-Palestinian crisis with this dreadful pick of ambassador.

      Meddling and messing up where he might well have done some good, Trump is off to a bad start, even before he was sworn in.

      • Wm. Boyce
        December 26, 2016 at 22:11

        “I am seeing first hand how super wealthy people have no monopoly on wisdom or good decision making far from it.”

        Good God, they have no clue as to what most people go through. Mr. Trump will only be the latest “leader” to prove it.

  8. Bill Bodden
    December 24, 2016 at 15:30

    As a matter of substance, Trump’s posture toward the U.N. resolution should be occasion for deep dismay.

    There were many people who considered Trump’s performances during the Republican primaries and the election campaign to be occasions for more than dismay. Despite this evidence hope still springs eternal in the breasts of many observers that Trump will be different and be a good president. Lotsaluck on that folks.

  9. evelync
    December 24, 2016 at 15:15

    “Perhaps Trump’s abandonment of his “neutral guy” moment is another instance of his gravitating to wherever he hears the loudest applause…”

    Cenk Uygur said during an RT interview with Larry King that Trump is an idiot savant – the savant is his ability to “read a room” and go with the applause.
    The whole interview is fascinating but the part about Trump’s expected behavior in office starts at minute 19:18

    briefly, Cenk went on to say that he expects that Trump will wake up each morning and check out the stock market and the ratings.
    If they are both up, he’ll think he’s doing fine.
    If one or another is down then he could be expected to pursue one of two options:
    he’d move in the direction that he thinks would change things
    (although Cenk was very pessimistic about this option)
    more likely would be that he’d go the dangerous scapegoat route to pin his failings on some chosen minority

  10. David Smith
    December 24, 2016 at 13:39

    This Security Council Resolution finishes any flakey talk that a One State Solution is inevitable or desirable. It secures the inevitability of the State of Palestine, already recognized by over 130 nations. The bellowing from the Republicans in Congress is truly absurd as they have only themselves to blame. This Security Council Resolution was provoked by the dropping of the Two State Solution from the Republican Party platform, way-ta-go dummies!!! Of course the zionist entity will react by digging itself a deeper hole as it screams itself hoarse, to no avail. The zionists feel ripped off, they think they made a deal with England in 1919 for the entire Sub-Mandate of Palestine, but really they got conned into an endless gyre of disappointments in which they invested the entirety of their political capital and mountains of treasure. Too stupid and self-righteous to be satisfied with 1948, just smart enough to choose reaping the whirlwind.

    • David Smith
      December 24, 2016 at 15:45

      Although the Republican party platform was the cause of the resolution’s introduction, Bibi Netanyahoo must accept blame for the United States “abstain” vote. President Obama knew that to let the resolution pass was the right thing to do, but he needed an emotional driver to go through with it. Netanyahoo’s disrespect and abuse of President Obama was that driver. President Obama had an emotional need to show Netanyahoo that America is the real power, and that the President of The United States can make the zionist entity hurt for decades. Bibi indulged his impotent arrogance and received the most brutal payback in the form of a very small gesture. Smart move Bibi, you arrogant dumbass!!!! President Obama’s Christmas gift to himself, sweet revenge, truely something to savor.

  11. exiled off mainstreet
    December 24, 2016 at 12:58

    It is disappointing but not that surprising that Trump is going down the line for Israel. We knew of the influence of his son in law, but the outgoing Obama administration is showing cynicism by changing its position after the election. You can’t change the history that the harpy’s campaign advocated confrontation with Russia on behalf of jihadis in Syria with Israeli backing. If Trump’s positions on these issues was a sort of quid pro quo for less Israeli advocacy on behalf of the Clintons, it is a price worth paying considering that survival was the result. Nonetheless, it is seriously disappointing puts Trump with the regressive apartheid interests and must be opposed and resisted.

    • Hank
      December 27, 2016 at 11:15

      Giving American tax dollars to a racist nation like Israel is NOT putting America first, especially when the USA needs that money a lot more. How long does the USA have to keep forking out money to this violence-prone regime in Tel Aviv before we’ve had enough of it? Trump should work out a deal with Israel allowing the rebuilding of Gaza and West Bank under the direction of Palestinian authorities(it IS their land). Then he should warn Israel that any future mass destruction will CANCEL any money that possibly could have gone to Israel. The warmongers want to scrap the Iran deal- what’s wrong with stopping that 40 billion dollar “aid” package recently agreed to? Money for war instead of peace- that IS the problem with the USA!

    • Linda Doucett
      December 27, 2016 at 13:54

      They all realize who their boss is once they get into office. No one defies Israel and still has a career.

  12. Brian
    December 24, 2016 at 12:45

    Jul 23, 2016 Trump Exposes Trump

    In his own words, Donald Trump reveals his hypocrisy about Iraq, immigration, health care, abortion, Libya, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton and more.

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