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President Trump

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Two Performances

On Monday we were treated to two pieces of public performance art, one by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the other by Mahmoud Abbas, the closest thing the Palestinians have to an agreed national leader (which is not very close). Both performances were beyond bizarre, and taken together they demonstrate how politicians whose lives are dominated by the Arab-Israeli dispute are ultimately reduced to self-caricature.

Abbas’s contribution was a rambling 90-minute speech to the Palestinian National Council, the (unelected) legislature of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. It’s the first full meeting of the Council in 22 years, and an attempt by Abbas to restore some measure of legitimacy to his own position as President of the Palestinian Authority.

Abbas has lacked all legitimacy since his last legal term as president expired nine years ago. He survives as the nominal leader because (a) it suits the Israeli government and (b) the Palestinians are so hopelessly divided that nobody bothers to challenge his claim to be the leader.

The ‘peace process’ has been dead for twenty years. President Trump is moving the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv up to Jerusalem despite anguished Palestinian protests. Hamas, the Islamist rival to Abbas’s Fatah movement, controls the Gaza Strip and almost half the Palestinian population in the occupied territories, and it doesn’t even deign to send delegates to Abbas’s meeting. So what was Abbas’s speech about? History.

Not even real history. Fantasy history, in which the Jews of Europe brought the Holocaust down upon themselves by choosing to fulfill a specific (and lucrative) ‘social function’. “The Jewish question that was widespread throughout Europe,” Abbas explained, “was not against their religion but against their social function which relates to usury and banking and such.”

Whatever Abbas may believe privately – and he may not believe much of anything after thirty years in the Hall of Mirrors that is Palestinian politics – he would once have known better than to say such vile nonsense in public. But all hope is gone, and there is nothing useful left to say, so he just dredges up the weary old Holocaust denial stuff he played with as a student and serves it raw to an equally despairing audience.

Binyamin Netanyahu, by contrast, is on the winning side, and his contribution on Monday was an up-market, updated version of his celebrated performance at the United Nations in 2012. That was when he showed the General Assembly a child-like drawing of a bomb (the kind 19th-century terrorists used to throw, with a fizzing fuse at the top) and warned the diplomats that Iran would have a nuclear weapon by 2013.

It didn’t, of course. Iran’s brief period of working on nuclear weapons, triggered by Pakistan’s six nuclear weapons tests of 1998, had already ended in 2003 according to the testimony of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and even Netanyahu’s own intelligence agencies agreed with that assessment.

In 2015 Tehran agreed to allow strict international inspections to guarantee that no work on nuclear weapons, even of the most preliminary sort, would be done for the next ten years. Netanyahu, who is paranoid on the subject, would have greatly preferred a ‘pre-emptive’ attack on Iran – and now he has an ally in Donald Trump, who also wants to kill the 2015 deal.

So Bibi did another show-and-tell performance on prime-time Israeli television, all in English and aimed at the global audience, in which he sorta kinda claimed that Iran was cheating on the agreement and still working on nuclear weapons. One of the visuals even said (in metre-high letters) “Iran lied”.

Netanyahu didn’t lie, of course; politicians seldom do. He just stood in front of aerial photos and images of documents and talked about recently acquired Iranian secret documents that showed the country had an active nuclear weapons programme. And it was all true – except that the Iranian programme in question was mostly closed down in 2003, and completely dead by 2009.

“There was nothing there,” said Alexandra Bell, senior policy director at the Centre for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. “There was nothing the International Atomic Energy Agency didn’t know, and all the theatrics and circa-2004 PowerPoint were a bit silly.” So why did Netanyahu do it?

Partly it was to provide something resembling a justification for his friend Trump’s forthcoming abandonment of the 2015 Iran deal. People who were not paying close attention might walk away from Netanyahu’s dog-and-pony show thinking he had proved that Iran was cheating on its commitments.

But mainly he did it because he lives in a political environment so polarised, so toxic, that people who are immersed in it gradually lose touch with reality. Even as Netanyahu carefully manipulated the facts in order to create a false impression, at another level he probably believed that he was expressing a deeper truth. He’s a winner, not a loser, but he is just as much trapped on the wheel as Abbas.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 8. (“Abbas…leader”; and “It didn’t…assessment”)

Climate Creep and American Frogs

At least a decade ago, a retired general at the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies said to me that the rich countries will never take climate change seriously until some very big and apparently climate-related disaster happens in a first-world country. Hurricane Harvey was not that disaster.

At least twenty people have died in the Houston floods in the past few days, and the number will undoubtedly go up. In Bangladesh, at least 134 have died in monsoon flooding that has submerged at least a third of the country. But the latter fact will have no impact on opinion in the developed countries – “it’s just the monsoon again” – and the Texas disaster is not big enough to change minds in the United States. Nor should it.

Hurricanes are an annual event in the Gulf of Mexico, and their causes are well uderstood. Global warming has raised the amount of rain that this storm dumped on east Texas by 3-5 percent. (Higher sea surface temperature = more evaporation.) It also probably caused the changed wind patterns that kept Harvey loitering off the coast for so long.
But it did not cause Harvey.

The Houston floods are causing so much disruption and misery mainly because of human decisions: putting such a large population on a flood plain subject to frequent hurricanes, and then taking inadequate measures to protect those people from the inevitable consequences.

It’s the same story as Hurricane Katrina – and if more than a thousand dead in New Orleans twelve years ago didn’t change the way Americans deal with these threats, the current
pain in Houston is certainly not going to do so either. Indeed, just a couple of weeks ago President Trump scrapped Obama-era flood standards requiring infrastructure projects to take account of predicted global warming. There was no outcry.

Immerse a frog in boiling water, and it will immediately hop out. Put it in cold water and then slowly heat it, and the frog will not notice that it’s being boiled. The evidence is there, but it’s coming in too slowly to get its attention. Climate change is creeping in quietly, making normal weather a bit more extreme each year, and Americans haven’t noticed yet.

They get lots of help in maintaining their ignorance, of course.. Right-wing “think tanks” like the Institute of Energy Research, the Heartland Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, financed by the likes of Exxon Mobil and the Koch brothers, have already mobilised to deny any links between the Houston disaster and climate change.

“Instead of wasting colossal sums of money on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, much smaller amounts should be spent on improving the infrastructure that protects the Gulf and Atlantic coasts,” said Myron Ebell, director of environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (and formerly the head of Trump’s transition team at the Environmental Protection Agency, tasked with crippling it).

But do not despair: this is largely an American phenomenon, and the United States does not bulk as large in the climate equation as it used to. Almost all the other developed countries are taking the threat of large-scale climate change seriously, although they have left it a bit late and they’re still not doing enough.

Consider, for example, the Netherlands, which is almost as vulnerable to flooding as Bangladesh: a quarter of the country is below sea level. There is a sentence in the introduction to the annual report of the Delta Programme, which deals with the rising sea levels and other water-related issues that concern the Dutch, that would be quite unthinkable in a US government document even in Barack Obama’s administration.

It reads: “The Delta Programme is tasked with ensuring that flood risk management and the freshwater supply will be sustainable and robust by 2050, and that our country will be designed in a manner that enables it to continue to cope resiliently with the greater extremes of climate.” If the United States had started taking the Dutch approach twenty years ago, far less of Houston would be underwater today, but “designing our country”? It’s un-American.

The United States will get there eventually, but it will take a far greater disaster than the Houston floods – the loss of Miami, perhaps? – before it ends the ideological wars and starts dealing with the realities of its situation. Meanwhile, the rest of the world will have to cope with climate change without American help.

It can probably manage. The Paris climate summit of December, 2015 produced an agreement that was a good start in coping with emissions, and none of the other countries took advantage of Trump’s defection from the deal to break their own promises. New technologies offer more promising routes for cutting emissions, and the world still has a chance of avoid runaway global warming (+3-6 degrees C).

Even if we can stop the warming before +2 degrees C, however, it’s too late already to prevent major climate change. There will be bigger floods and longer droughts, food shortages and floods of refugees, and countries will have to work hard to limit the damage. Including, eventually, the United States.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“Consider…un-American”)