Reflecting on Michael Wolff’s devastating critique of US President Donald Trump and his dismal array of White House schemers and intriguers as portrayed in “Fire and Fury,” it seems to me that, where Israel is concerned, Steve Bannon, the source of much of the author’s ammunition, is actually the villain of the piece.
Predictably, reception of the book has been spectacularly polarized. If you’re a Trump supporter it is an unfounded hatchet job, a particularly pernicious misrepresentation; fake news, a fake book. “I’m a very stable genius” and it’s a “work of fiction,” according to Trump. No, it’s “a grotesque work of fiction,” according to his zealous defender Stephen Miller.
And if you’re not, it’s a horror story, about a man who doesn’t read, doesn’t listen, knows next to nothing about the world, lacks all self-awareness, sucks up to tyrants, is malleable, childlike, bullying, and surrounded by shortsighted, self-interested amateurs — in short, thoroughly incapable of fulfilling the role to which the American public elected him.
Wolff’s narrative is plainly designed to show the president in the worst possible light, largely though certainly not solely on the basis of material provided by Bannon — and indeed Wolff has said since publication that he believes the book will bring Trump down. Who knows? Maybe it will.
But on Israel, from Wolff’s own Trump-pulverizing narrative, it becomes clear that the president resisted the incautious, indeed sometimes megalomaniacal urgings of his now-ousted chief strategist from the get-go, and, thus far, has hewed to a line that has both been widely well-received by Israelis most of the way across the spectrum and reflected much of what he promised on the campaign trail.
Benjamin Netanyahu gets only three name checks in “Fire and Fury.” Netanyahu’s trusted ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, a frequent interlocutor with the administration, isn’t mentioned at all. The president’s visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories is dispatched in a single sentence. And yet much of “Fire and Fury” revolves around Israel- and Jewish-related issues.
Trump does not emerge enhanced from the Israel-related material. There is no evidence of deep thinking or of informed policy-making on his part. Quite the reverse. And Wolff would not have been interested in providing it if there had been. But Bannon is quoted and paraphrased liberally, and the gulf between what he sought to have the president do and what the president has actually done is plain for all to see — to Bannon’s discredit.
‘Does Donald know?’
Crucially, right at the start of the book, Wolff quotes extensively from Bannon in conversation with his “sometime mentor,” the former FOX News chief Roger Ailes, in January 2017 — a little over two weeks before the inauguration. Bannon, writes Wolff, sets out for Ailes what Bannon is quoted as calling Trump’s “program” and what the author himself calls the “Trump agenda” on Israel and the Palestinians. “‘Day one, we’re moving the US embassy to Jerusalem,'” crows Bannon. “‘Netanyahu’s all in. Sheldon’ — Sheldon Adelson, the casino billionaire, far-right Israel defender and Trump supporter — ‘is all in. We know where we’re heading on this.'”
Ailes is apparently unconvinced that Trump has signed up, however, because he asks, “‘Does Donald know?'”
And his skepticism, it turns out, is well-founded. For as Wolff then describes it, the Trump “program,” the Trump “agenda,” would evidently have been more accurately presented as the Bannon program and agenda: “Bannon smiled — as though almost with a wink — and continued, ‘Let Jordan take the West Bank, let Egypt take Gaza. Let them deal with it. Or sink trying. The Saudis are on the brink, Egyptians are on the brink, all scared to death of Persia…'”
Writes Wolff: “Bannon offered all this with something like ebullience — a man remaking the world.”
Trump’s very public procrastination over Jerusalem can easily be mocked and derided. But he was patently wrestling with the dilemma
In fact, as we know, Trump did not move the US embassy to Jerusalem on “day one.” Rather, he took his time, indicating to interviewers within days of taking office, with astounding naivete if creditable candor, that the Jerusalem issue was actually rather more complicated than he’d imagined. “You know it’s a very big decision,” he told the Christian Broadcasting Network. “We’re doing very detailed studies on that and we’ll come out very soon. I hate to do that because that’s not usually me: studies. It’s usually, I do what’s right. But this has two sides to it. Not easy.”
For months thereafter, Trump just couldn’t make up his mind — conflicted between doing what he’d promised to do, and giving his peace team’s as-yet unfinalized proposal its best chance of success. “I want to give that a shot before I even think about moving the embassy to Jerusalem,” he said as recently as October.
Only after almost a year in office did he recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, in a carefully calibrated December 6 speech that would doubtless have appalled the by now departed Bannon. The president presented the move in an address notable for the care and nuance with which it was constructed, stressing that he was not defining the parameters of Israeli sovereignty in the holy city, not drawing the borders, not prejudging final status negotiations, and specifically not endorsing any change to the status quo at the holy places.
Trump’s very public procrastination can easily be mocked and derided; his ultimate decision to recognize Jerusalem before his team’s peace proposal had been unveiled and given its promised shot can only be seen as inconsistent. But he was patently wrestling with the dilemma, having gradually taken on board what was at stake.
As for the chief strategist’s airy, dismissive and risible assurance that the West Bank and Gaza would be sliced off to Jordan and Egypt, respectively, Trump attempted nothing of the kind. Instead, to the presumed despair of Bannon and the Israeli right, notably including Netanyahu, he reached out enthusiastically to Mahmoud Abbas, the insistently uncompromising individual who nonetheless happens to be the closest thing to a Palestinian leader. Trump both invited Abbas to Washington and visited him in Bethlehem, treating the Palestinian Authority president with a degree of credibility and respect that dismayed even many mainstream Israelis, this writer included, and emphatically giving him the opportunity to demonstrate any peace-making bona fides.
To the further horror of the Bannons, Adelsons, Israeli right et al, Trump also publicly urged Netanyahu to “hold back on settlements a little bit.” He went so far as to vouch for Abbas publicly, with Netanyahu listening at his side, in the final speech of his Israel visit. Minutes after Netanyahu, introducing the president to the audience at the Israel Museum, had castigated Abbas as a funder of terrorism, Trump departed from his prepared text to declare that, having had “a great meeting” with Abbas a few hours earlier, it was his conviction that the Palestinians were prepared to agree to a peace deal: “I know you’ve heard it before,” Trump said. “I am telling you. That’s what I do. They are ready to reach for peace.”
Rather than rushing headlong into a series of ill-considered unilateral actions of the kind Bannon was advocating, Trump plainly wanted to see for himself whether there was a path to his sought-after ultimate deal that led via the theoretically shortest and most straightforward route: Ramallah. He was also presumably anxious to avoid creating the impression with the Saudis and the Egyptians, who he hoped would help pressure the Palestinians to compromise, that he considered himself some modern incarnation of those condescending colonialists of yesteryear, imperiously redrawing the maps of the region with little heed to the realities on the ground. Rather than “remaking the world,” as Bannon would have wished, he appeared to be showing a modicum of a quality with which Wolff, and most other professional Trump-watchers, would certainly not intentionally credit him: humility.
Wolff gives us a president hopelessly out of his depth; he also gives us a president ultimately deciding he’d better not cling to Bannon’s highhanded ideological certainties.
Entirely as most veteran players and experts would have predicted, of course, Abbas reacted hysterically to Trump’s recognition of Israeli Jerusalem. And yet, Trump still didn’t snap.
Abbas pronounced that Trump, for his Jerusalem crime, had disqualified himself as a peace-broker and declared a boycott of the entire US administration, refusing to so much as host the vice president and the entire Trump peace team, authorizing “days of rage” in the territories under his control, and reentering unity negotiations with the terrorist Hamas, which had openly called for a violent new intifada to “liberate” Jerusalem. Trump’s officials mildly and graciously declared that they knew the Jerusalem move would prompt a bitter response and would require a certain “cooling off” period, and stressed their unwavering determination to try to help broker a peace agreement that could satisfy both sides.
Only after Abbas trampled over that olive branch too did Trump acknowledge what, again, more experienced fair-minded observers had long since come to sadly conclude: that Abbas is no Anwar Sadat or King Hussein, that the Fatah chief has not been prepared to confront the false narrative of Israeli illegitimacy that Yasser Arafat strategically cultivated among the Palestinians, and that there is in fact no rapid route to an agreement.
And only then did Trump angrily tweet his frustration with Abbas, indicating rather incoherently that Israel would have had to “pay” with concessions of its own in return for his Jerusalem bounty, but now bitterly wondering why the US was giving massive annual handouts to a Palestinian leadership that was showing its gratitude by slapping the United States in the face.
His predecessor Barack Obama, over two full terms in office, never allowed himself to reach the unavoidable conclusion that Abbas — who had spurned Ehud Olmert’s take-it-all peace gambit in 2008 — did not have the guts, and probably not the inclination either, to make courageous compromises for the greater cause of leading his people to statehood. Trump completed that journey in less than a year. Not by saying to hell with them from the start, as Bannon would have had him do, but by trying to force some progress.
This writer carries no torch for Trump. I wrote the following in December 2016: “My problem with the president-elect is not with his policies. I don’t know what they will be… My problem is much more basic: It’s with Trump the man, the intolerant vulgarian… President-elect Trump, the Trump we’ve seen thus far, is no role model for our children, beloved though he is by his own. And it is disheartening to wonder what proportion of our aspirational youngsters will look at Trump, see he’s won the presidency, and conclude that he is the paragon of success.”
Substantively, on matters Middle Eastern, too, it is clearly casual and reckless to entrust your inexperienced, inexpert son-in-law with the key role of overseeing your push for the near-impossible Israeli-Arab peace formula. It is almost certainly self-defeating to prematurely issue your Jerusalem proclamation if, as Wolff writes, your overarching Israeli-Arab peace plan involves teaming up with Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to tackle Iran, and then having Cairo and Riyadh pressure the Palestinians into a peace treaty. Then again, all the anguished attention and detailed knowledge of president Bill Clinton couldn’t elicit compromise from Yasser Arafat, and nor could the endlessly empathetic overtures from Barack Obama cajole Abbas into pragmatism.
Obama, of course, also bequeathed us the abysmally inadequate Iran nuclear deal — an issue barely mentioned in “Fire and Fury,” and another area on which Trump has been agonizing this past year, presumably internalizing that it’s “not easy” either.
What lies ahead?
One can only now hope, albeit with little expectation, that the president is eventually steered toward the only viable means of genuinely remaking the region and indeed marginalizing the extremist Islamist doctrine that targets us all — via the long, painstaking route of education: using the diplomatic and economic leverage of the US and its free world allies in a concerted, strategic campaign to defeat Islamic extremism as propagated by spiritual leaders, educational hierarchies, political figures and entire regimes, and disseminated via social media.
It is, unfortunately, far more likely that we have in prospect many more years of bloodshed and bitterness. In which case, one small mercy is that we no longer have, at the ear of the president of the United States, a chief strategist and former National Security Council member who, after the mass-murdering President Bashar Assad killed scores of Syrian children in an April 2017 chemical weapons attack, advocated “iron-fisted isolationism.” Writes Wolff, “Bannon, believing in the need for a radical shift in foreign policy, was proposing a new doctrine: Fuck ’em.”
Trump hasn’t fixed Syria. He has even prompted extremely rare public opposition from Netanyahu for his ostensible reluctance to counter Iran’s military ambitions in Syria. (That’s a very risky business for the Israeli PM, who I’d wager, incidentally, spends a great deal of unreported time on the phone with the US president. Having nailed his colors firmly to the Trump mast — including taking it upon himself to clear Trump of any whiff of anti-Semitism by proclaiming “there is no greater supporter of the Jewish people” — where would Netanyahu be, indeed where might Israel be, if the president, who does not take kindly to public opposition, were to turn against him?)
But in April, Trump ignored Steve Bannon’s urgings, and he did approve the firing of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Syrian airbase from which the chemical weapons attack had been launched two days earlier. That strike marked the first direct US assault on Assad’s forces in six years of civil war.
At around that time, Wolff reminds us, an anonymous email was circulating in the White House and beyond that described the Trump White House as dysfunctional and incompetent to a degree “worse than you can image” and the president as “an idiot surrounded by clowns.”
Reading Michael Wolff’s book, one can only conclude that Bannon himself was one of those clowns.
Indeed, Bannon’s singular lack of judgment is reflected most of all in his decision to open up at great length and with intense bitterness to the author of “Fire and Fury” — a book which, so far at least, has had the effect of destroying the career of its central source rather than that of its intended target.