Russian ties to US property deals; Benjamin Netanyahu's Australian visit By Hamish McDonald.

New security adviser pro ‘hearts and minds’

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Malcolm Turnbull at Kirribilli House midweek.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Malcolm Turnbull at Kirribilli House midweek.

The adults in Donald Trump’s administration have been out in force over recent days, with Vice-President Mike Pence, Defence Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson showing up in Europe to say that, yes, the United States does stand by the trans-Atlantic defence pact NATO, though it expects everyone to pay their dues. Mattis went on to Iraq to say there is no plan to steal its oil.

Washington sighed in relief when Trump picked army general H. R. McMaster as his new national security adviser, to replace the short-lived Mike Flynn who had fibbed about his phone calls with the Russian ambassador. If Trump has to have a military man in the post, the thinking goes, instead of the usual civilian strategist to connect all the dots, McMaster is one of the most cerebral among them.

He made his name in 2005 as a colonel in Iraq, applying the type of counterinsurgency approach espoused by Australia’s David Kilcullen to the Turkmen enclave of Tal Afar, first trying to win over the population rather than shooting up suspected opponents. As he then told the Melbourne documentary maker Sasha Uzunov: “I don’t want to have to break shit; I want to negotiate. We need to use our brains to find a solution. The majority of townspeople support us but are too afraid. We are slowly building a relationship with them.” Earlier, in a PhD thesis turned into a book called Dereliction of Duty, he’d attacked US military chiefs of the Vietnam War era for not telling Lyndon Johnson the war was unwinnable unless they were freed of political-based restraints.

How far he’ll stand up against Trump’s loopier ideas remains to be seen. Trump’s prior choice for the job, retired admiral Robert Harward, declined the offer because he’d be saddled with the alt-right characters Trump has inserted in the National Security Council. The Breitbart News founder Steve Bannon remains, and Trump seems set on keeping the ex-Fox News pundit K. T. McFarland as McMaster’s deputy. As a serving army officer, McMaster had even less bargaining power than Harward.

Presumably McMaster will suggest that Trump’s anti-Muslim attitudes, and the latest plan to deport any undocumented migrants guilty of the most minor legal infraction, don’t help in the fight against terrorism. The intolerance has also encouraged anti-Semites, with a Jewish cemetery vandalised in St Louis this week, and bomb threats issued to 11 Jewish centres across the US.

1 . Russian property

With speculation continuing to swirl around Trump’s tilt towards Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Russian contacts pursued by Flynn and other close Trump advisers, the president has issued a statement that may actually be true, as far as it goes.

“I own nothing in Russia. I have no loans in Russia. I don’t have any deals in Russia,” he told his press conference on February 16. But it seems that Russians and former Soviet Union figures came to him in America. Notably there was the real estate company Bayrock, founded by a former Soviet official in Kazakhstan, Tevfik Arif. Bayrock had its offices in the Trump Tower in New York, and partnered Trump in several property developments including the $US450 million Trump SoHo project. Trump got an 18 per cent stake in return for lending his name to the hotel in that one. Bayrock’s chief executive for some of these deals was a Russian named Felix Sater, until it was revealed that in 1998 he’d plea-bargained a charge of sharemarket manipulation involving US and Russian mafia types.

Sater has just resurfaced in a curious episode of unofficial diplomacy. In reported conjunction with Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, and a member of the Ukrainian parliament, Andrii Artemenko, Sater cooked up and delivered to Flynn (during his brief spell at the National Security Council) a “peace plan” that would give Russia control over Crimea and the other territory seized in 2014, while lifting sanctions against Russia and replacing Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko with a Russia-friendly leader such as Artemenko.

2 . Netanyahu visit

On Wednesday, Benjamin Netanyahu became the first Israeli prime minister to make an official visit to Australia, prompting Australian politicians to ponder the Middle East peace process.

The atmospherics weren’t helped by a law just passed in the Knesset by Netanyahu’s Likud party and its right-wing allies, retrospectively appropriating private Palestinian land in the West Bank on which Israeli settlements have been built, even though the law is likely to be ruled out of order by the Israeli High Court, which deems Israel’s status in the Palestinian territories to be that of occupier.

Trump’s statement during Netanyahu’s Washington visit the previous week that he “could live with” a one-state or a two-state solution, whatever the Israelis and Palestinians agreed upon, meanwhile unravelled decades of US policy.

It also emerged Netanyahu had walked away from a tentative first-stage peace plan put to a secret meeting last February with Barack Obama’s secretary of state John Kerry, Jordan’s King Abdullah and Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. This involved the Palestinians and Arab neighbours recognising Israel as a Jewish state and Israel limiting West Bank settlements. Netanyahu said right-wing coalition members prevented him taking these steps. Malcolm Turnbull could sympathise with that. 

With doubts growing about Netanyahu’s inner commitment to the two-state solution, a clutch of Labor Party elders declared it was time to give diplomatic recognition to the Palestinian state, to help cement the plan. They included Bob Hawke, known for his past friendship with the late Golda Meir and other Israeli pioneers, as well as Kevin Rudd and former foreign ministers Gareth Evans and Bob Carr. Julia Gillard did not immediately join them.

Labor MP Michael Danby said they were hypocritical because they didn’t get stuck into China about Tibet and other human rights causes, thereby implicitly suggesting Israel also be put in the same incorrigible basket as the People’s Republic. Labor leader Bill Shorten said he would lecture Netanyahu about settlements.

Netanyahu wasn’t having it. “What kind of state will it be that they are advocating? A state that calls for Israel’s destruction?” he said in Sydney. “A state whose territory will be used immediately for radical Islam?” Rudd fired back, saying Palestine would have all the aspects outlined under the three previous US administrations. “Mr Netanyahu knows these formulations like the back of his hand,” Rudd said. “Mr Netanyahu also knows he has torpedoed each of them, often at five minutes to midnight, often by changing the goalposts, to the enduring frustration of both Republican and Democrat administrations.”

Shorten avoided the recognition issue. Turnbull said the two-state solution still had Australia’s support, but he also didn’t address recognition. Instead, he repeatedly attacked “one-sided resolutions” in the United Nations, including the December 23 one co-sponsored by New Zealand that the Obama administration didn’t veto.

Netanyahu’s visit continues until today, with a strong focus on Israel’s defence and cyberwarfare capabilities, highly attractive to this side of the world. Singapore, which Netanyahu visited on the way, is also surrounded by sometimes hostile neighbours and modelled its defence forces on Israel’s. Both China and India have tapped into Israeli military technology, with India’s Hindu-national prime minister, Narendra Modi, planning to visit Israel.

James Packer kept out of sight, even though he has a cybersecurity investment in Israel and spends a lot of his time in Tel Aviv. His largesse to Netanyahu’s son got the interest of Israeli police investigating two potential corruption cases involving the prime minister. Netanyahu said there was “nothing there except friendship.”


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 25, 2017 as "New security adviser pro ‘hearts and minds’".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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