INSIGHT Launch Day: Kamala and Trump, Israel and the UAE, Belarus and Putin, Lebanon and Hezbollah
1st Edition: Kamala Takes the Stage... Trump's Odd Reaction. A Surprise Israel-UAE Deal: What comes next? Beirut Aftershocks, and Belarus Quest for Democracy
INSIGHT LAUNCH DAY!
Thanks to all of you who have signed up. You are reading the inaugural issue of INSIGHT.
We are living in important times. The history books of the future will have extra-long chapters to describe what to us has become daily life.
We have much to talk about!
Against a backdrop of a relentlessly-raging pandemic, Joe Biden chose Sen. Kamala Harris as his vice- presidential running mate, triggering a baffling reaction from the Trump team.
In the Middle East, Israel and the United Arab Emirates, who have had a semi-secret relationship for years, shook the region, announcing they will normalize ties. “Normalize” is the key word. Who wins, who loses, and by how much?
Receiving less attention, a surge of bravery and brutality in Belarus, where the dictator Alexander Lukashenko, in power for 26 years, was challenged at the polls by a young English teacher, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, and responded like, well, a dictator. It’s not over – and Putin is watching.
In Lebanon, the country is still reeling from that massive explosion. Will the blast trigger meaningful political change?
Kamala Takes the Stage
What was the biggest surprise surrounding Joe Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris?
She’s a ground-breaking candidate. The daughter of a Jamaican father (an economics professor), and an Indian mother (a cancer researcher), and wife of a Jewish husband (a lawyer.) Her career has forged a dazzling trajectory, one that has not pleased everyone, least of all the most left-leaning of Democrats, now known as the progressives, doubtful about whether she is one of them.
The part that shocked me was how unprepared the Trump team was for her emergence. The President, his campaign staff, and even his Fox News cheering section acted as if it had never occurred to them Kamala might be chosen, flailing to respond, offering contradictory versions of who she is. It was a stunning display of poor planning and incompetence.
“Everyone knew that Sen. Kamala Harris was a frontrunner to get the nod as Joe Biden's running mate; everyone, it seems, except President Donald Trump and his brain trust of loyalists and paid staffers.
How could they have been this unprepared?”
For more on the unfolding election strategy, check out the full article on how Kamala threw Trump off balance, and how the Trump team, as it engages in deeply disturbing tactics, is settling on a campaign narrative. Spoiler:
“Here's the plan: Painting Biden as a wild-eyed radical just won't stick, so they will try to frighten voters into thinking that the affable Biden is a puppet of the scary left. Maybe Harris is the puppeteer, that's not completely clear yet.”
Kamala solves problems for Biden and creates them for Republicans.
She’s hardly the leftist extremist Trump would like to campaign against. In fact, she even has a strong track-record of support for Israel, depriving Trump of key ammunition in battleground Florida. Pro-Israel Democrats are calling the Biden-Harris pairing a “Dream Team,” for preserving a strong US-Israel relationship,” something that was far from assured with other presidential and vice-presidential hopefuls.
In future Insight issues, we will be discussing their foreign policy positions, looking at where they stand regarding Iran, Russia, Venezuela, Afghanistan, etc.
Kamala’s, and the Democrat’s, big moment comes next week, during the Democratic National Convention.
During my many years on staff at CNN I was part of the teams that covered the rollicking events. This pandemic edition of the Convention is going to be, well, different. The Republican extravaganza comes the following week.
The Israel-UAE Bombshell
The announcement that sent shock waves across the Middle East came from Donald Trump, who had every reason to be proud of the moment. The Trump administration has precious few foreign policy accomplishments. This isn’t the promised “Deal of the Century,” but it’s a big deal.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to suspend plans to annex parts of the West Bank in exchange for full diplomatic and economic ties.
Biden immediately praised the deal, an important signal to the UAE that its message has been received by what could become the next U.S. administration.
Like other observers, Graeme Wood at the Atlantic called the deal an “insurance policy” by the Emiratis. They didn’t just want to help Trump’s re-election, they want to protect themselves in a post-Trump world. By forging ties with Israel, they signal Washington they can be actively supportive, or they can withdraw that support if a more democracy-minded White House starts complaining about the undemocratic UAE.
The rulers of the UAE, a federation governed by royal families, don’t face voters but they have to be careful not to step too far from popular sentiment on issues that arouse great passions.
I travel to the region often, and have found over the years that, while people still care and support the Palestinians, the intensity of the feeling has noticeably waned.
By agreeing to peace with Israel, the UAE is going a long way toward dismantling the joint Arab approach to Israel, the strategy that said no normalization could take place without the establishment of a Palestinian state. These days, shared concerns about threats from Iran’s regime and about Turkey’s increasingly aggressive regional behavior, and the threat of Islamist extremism weigh more.
The UAE move could be emulated by other Arab countries ending the diplomatic boycott; possible next deals may come from Bahrain, Oman, Morocco, Sudan, and perhaps even Saudi Arabia.
The biggest loser from the UAE-Israel deal are Palestinian leaders. I would not include the Palestinian people in that category, because I believe they have not been served well by the strategies of their leaders. This has the potential to start breaking the stalemate that has prevented a deal for such a long time – if admittedly under less favorable conditions than those they had been told they might expect.
Israelis share in the blame for the stalemate, but the Palestinian leadership was the principal obstacle over the years, particularly during the decades when Israeli governments were in the hands of more flexible governments.
The Palestinian Authority responded to this week’s news angrily, removing its ambassador from Abu Dhabi. Unsurprisingly, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also decried the agreement, threatening to remove his Abu Dhabi ambassador. But a number of Arab countries hailed the agreement as a step toward peace.
What this means for the always-turbulent Israeli political scene is unclear. The deal helps burnish Netanyahu’s image as a skilled player on a complicated international stage.
The Tel Aviv municipality glowed with the colors of the UAE flag, but for the right in Israel, those who have been eagerly pushing for annexation of the West Bank, this is a major disappointment. It could strengthen Netanyahu’s hard line rivals. Given the fractiousness of Israeli politics, and the possibility that there could be yet another round of parliamentary elections coming soon, the impact is difficult to predict.
As for Trump, it gives him, at long last, a concrete foreign policy achievement in time for November.
Will voters care? It’s conceivable that a very thin slice of the electorate could be swayed by this: I’m picturing an Israel-supporter who voted for Trump in 2016 but is starting to question whether to do so again, and is impressed with the breakthrough. That likely described a very small number of people, but a number greater than zero. If the election comes down to a few votes, this could matter.
Keep an Eye on Belarus (Putin is)
In the large category of news that might have dominated the headlines during normal times, but stay under the radar now, are the recent events in Belarus.
Belarus, which has been ruled by the same man for 26 years, held “elections” last weekend. President Lukashenko, “Europe’s Last Dictator,” was elected as an anti-corruption reformer in 1994. He never left power.
He expected last Sunday’s elections to pass as one more of his undemocratic charades. Instead, Belarusians, fed up with his tyranny, defied him.
Leading the push to break the shackles is Svetlana Tikhanovska, a 37-year-old who became the country’s opposition leader, at the head of trio of women shaping the push to topple the dictator: Tikhanovskaya, along with her campaign manager Maria Kolesnikova, and Veronika Tsepkalo, wife of Valery Tsepkalo, who was not allowed to run.
Tikhanovskaya was not a political leader, but she decided to run after Lukashenko arrested her husband in May. She registered in his place, and received the endorsement of two other candidates that Lukashenko had barred. She said she didn’t want to be president, instead, her aim was to defeat Lukashenko and then hold free elections.
Massive protests followed Sunday’s almost-certainly-stolen election, in which Lukashenko absurdly claims he received 80 percent of the vote.
Protesters armed only with moral courage took to the streets in defiance of the regime.
Lukashenko sent out security forces, with violent clashes erupting in multiple cities across the country. Thousands have been arrested, amid claims of torture.
Tikhanovskaya was detained for several hours and then seemed to disappear, until the government of neighboring Lithuania, said she istaking shelter there.
The European Union is preparing sanctions against Lukashenko and his government, rejecting the election results and the violent crackdown.
In neighboring Russia, meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin is dusting off his old idea of merging the two countries. Lukashenko was once a close ally, but rejected the proposed union.
Putin doesn’t like revolutions, certainly not of the kind that aim to topple authoritarian leaders, and even less those that enjoy support from Western powers, including the European Union.
In the midst of the crisis, Putin has called on Lukashenko to reactive integration plans for the two countries.
I’m keeping an eye on Belarus. We all should.
Lebanon After the Blast
Speaking of taking advantage of unrest, the parliament of Lebanon confirmed a state of emergency in the wake of the massive explosion that leveled parts of Beirut on Aug. 5. The move gives enormous powers to the army, allowing it to restrict freedom of speech and of assembly during a time of great ferment.
The explosion that killed hundreds, injured thousands, and left hundreds of thousands homeless, has triggered calls for redesigning Lebanon’s dysfunctional governing structure, crafted at the end of a civil war to ensure representation of all major religious groups. It has degenerated into a kleptocracy and worse. As I wrote on the day of the explosion
“The Lebanese people have long suffered as a consequence of the actions and behavior of venal, incompetent individuals; of power-hungry politicians, business people, and shadowy figures, and of geopolitical actors who have made the country their plaything at the expense of good governance.”
What exactly caused 2,750 tons of explosive grade ammonium nitrate to ignite at the port is still unclear. But it’s no secret that Iran-backed Hezbollah, a dominant force in Lebanese politics, controlled much of the port, including the area where the explosives were held for years, despite pleas for their removal.
During the protests that followed the blast, demonstrator hanged Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in effigy.
The large segment of the Lebanese population that wants to see Hezbollah’s power diminished, and a more competent, independent, and reliable system help put Lebanon back on track, have their work cut out for them.
“Perhaps the shared anger over this event can bring the Lebanese together to push back against the incompetent and the greedy, the functionaries, politicians, and outside players, who have hijacked their country and created conditions for the Lebanese people's never-ending tragedy; admittedly a monumental task.”
The odds for progress are not good, but not all hope is lost.
That’s it for now.
In coming weeks, I will follow these stories and others. I will endeavor to provide some context on the news everyone is following, and others that lying below the radar.
I want to dive into the U.S. election polls, and the one opinion survey that nobody talks about, which could tell us more about the election than any other.
Tell me what you think. INSIGHT is a work in progress.
Stay healthy, stay informed, stay engaged.