Jerusalem and the Three Religions

Jerusalem: the modern-day capital of Israel, housing a population of nearly a million. As a major focal point in Judaism, Christianity and Islam alike, the historical wealth of this city remains unparalleled.

One of the oldest cities in the world, Jerusalem and its religious importance dates back to King David, ruler of the Kingdom of Israel -- over a millennium before the birth of Christ. He conquered it from the Jebusites, a tribe of this Canaan area, bringing the Ark of The Covenant into the city and making it the capital of his kingdom.  Fifty years later, King Solomon, his son, builds the Holy Temple on Mount Moriah, also known as Temple Mount: known in both Judaism and Christianity as the location where Abraham bound his son, Isaac.

From here on, the city would become the religious center of the Israelites and the holiest city in Judaism; still nowadays, almost three thousand years later, Jewish people from all over the world face the Holy Temple when praying. In Christianity, the city is equally prominent as the place where Christ healed and preached, sat for the Last Supper, and where his trial, burial, and resurrection took place.

In Islam, the city (known as al-Quds) is home to the Al-aqsa Compound, a collection of mosques and shrines on Temple Mount where it is believed that the Prophet Muhammad began his ascension to heaven.

Since its inception, then, the city has been both holy land and a battlefield, shared and fought over between cultures who all stake their own claim to the hallowed ground. As Israel celebrates its seventieth year of independence amidst the ongoing conflict, one might question what fuels such conflict.

Both Israel and Palestine, a neighbouring territory, were ruled under the Ottoman Empire back in the 16th century. After the Ottoman defeat in the First World War, their land was handed over to Britain and France, who set up the Occupied Enemy Territory Administration. The area under British control, known as Mandatory Palestine, spanned the area of present-day Israel and Palestine, including the whole city of Jerusalem.

In the meantime, the concept of Zionism--the idea that Israel, Jerusalem included, is the rightful homeland of the Jewish people--gained momentum. The Jewish religion had spread around the world at the time, and some even tried immigrating to Palestine, trying to escape increased tensions from antisemitism. During the war, Arthur Balfour, the British foreign secretary, promised the British Jews that they would be granted an area of their own, a “home,” a nation. The Jewish Legion, battalions of volunteers, helped the British defeat the Ottomans.

Along the same period when the Ottoman Empire dismantled, Arabs in Palestine started to feel a sense of national identity. The British rule, to them, represented colonialism. In 1920, the Palestinians erupted, in opposition to Zionism, but still the Jewish people kept coming to Palestine in Aliyahs. The stage was set for violence.

In 1947, the United Nations came into play. They made a plan to carve up the then-Palestinian controlled Jerusalem into two halves, one for the Jewish and the other for the Palestinians. Jerusalem was to remain international, for religious matters. The Jewish people saw this as a gain: they had reconquered their homeland, a victory for Zionism; while Palestinians saw this as a loss: their land was just cut half after the British got ahold of the area.

What followed was the Independence of Israel in 1948 and a series of conflicts that resulted in nowadays Jerusalem being fought over between the Israeli people, who hold it as their rightful capital; and the Palestinians, who see it as unlawfully occupied territory.

And now that the Trump administration moved their embassy to Jerusalem, right in the heart of conflict, we must all ask ourselves: what’s in store for this historical, sacred city?

US Exit from UN Human Rights Council

The UN Human Rights Council is a subsidiary body of the United Nations that serves to “promote universal respect for the protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all” and “address situations of violations of human rights, including gross and systematic violations, and make recommendations thereon.” The inter-governmental body was formed in March 2006 to replace the 60-year-old Human Rights Commission. The extreme politicization of the Commission on Human Rights resulted in an overwhelming majority vote to establish the new UNHRC via Resolution 60/251, with 170 in favor, 4 against, and 3 abstentions.

Among the countries voting against the establishment of the UNHRC was the United States, which cited weak measures to exclude human rights abusing countries. Said countries would use positions in the UN HRC to obstruct criticism of their actions or attack other nations, a claim the Secretary-General acknowledged as the primary issue with the Human Rights Commission. Additionally, the Bush Administration had received allegations from UN members of human rights violations in Washington.

On March 31, 2009, the Obama Administration decided to seek a seat on the 47 member council. "Human rights are an essential element of American global foreign policy," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement. "With others, we will engage in the work of improving the U.N. human rights system. . . . We believe every nation must live by and help shape global rules that ensure people enjoy the right to live freely and participate fully in their societies." The reversal of the Bush Administration policy was met with some criticism domestically, but welcomed by UN members; for example, Norway withdrew from the ballot in support of the US’s efforts to create positive change. Human rights associations had long advocated for US membership.

Despite the Obama Administration’s attempt to subvert decisions taken by past US presidents through joining the UNHRC, current US President Donald Trump reversed Obama’s decision shortly after taking office. The US withdrew United Nations Human Rights Council on June 19, 2018 in protest of its “disproportionate focus on allegations of human rights abuses committed by its ally, Israel,” a country whose alleged human rights violations were frequently discussed. The Trump Administration also asserted that the council's “willingness to allow notorious human rights abusers to become members” further revealed its bias.

On the surface, it seems like the US's retreat from the UN HRC was a backward step in its human rights advocacy; however, this may not be the case. In an appearance with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, U.N ambassador Nikki Haley stated  “I want to make it crystal clear that this step is not a retreat from our human rights commitment. On the contrary, we take this step because our commitment does not allow us to remain a part of a hypocritical and self-serving organization that makes a mockery of human rights.” The US has since received support in its view that the UNHRC has morphed into its decommissioned predecessor, the Human Rights Commision.

The United States’s departure from the United Nations Human Right Council left many wondering if a U.S. withdrawal would lead to reforms in human rights protection. The departure of Israel' chief defender at the forum has left it defenseless to the barrage of resolutions focused solely on Israel’s human rights violations. “By withdrawing from the council, we lose our leverage and allow the council’s bad actors to follow their worst impulses unchecked — including running roughshod over Israel,” said Eliot L. Engel, the top Democrat on the House committee that oversees the State Department.

Despite the UN HRC’s flaws, it serves as the primary international organization drawing attention to human rights issues, conducting investigations into human rights abuses, and upholding global human rights standards. While some praise the US’s bold denunciation of a dysfunctional organization, others are concerned the United States’s departure undermines the UN HRC’s mission and sets a dangerous precedent for other countries to follow.

Venezuela's Sanctions

The United States originally established diplomatic relations with Venezuela in 1835, but their association has been strained in recent years. The South American country’s corrupt and failing government has sparked an economic collapse that has led to a humanitarian crisis.

The Venezuelan government’s policies and gross mismanagement of national affairs have caused the United States to impose over 40 sanctions on Venezuelan individuals since 2017. Millions of Venezuelans have become refugees due to food shortages, rising prices, increased crime, and a broken health system. The regime has killed protestors in rallies and imprisoned political opponents. Hyperinflation is projected to reach over one million percent by the end of 2018. This chaotic country has become an extremely challenging climate for the United States and multinational companies.

In May of 2018, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro took office. In response to his election, US Vice President Mike Pence commented,“The illegitimate result of this fake process is a further blow to the proud democratic tradition of Venezuela. The United States will not sit idly by as Venezuela crumbles and the misery of their brave people continues.”

Shortly after the election, the Trump administration placed a new of set sanctions on the Venezuelan government. These new penalties aimed to prevent Maduro from selling off government debt to enrich himself. The executive order attempts to stop American companies from buying debt from the government of Venezuela, thus putting an end to corruption in a country near collapse.

Since then, President Trump has issued a new round of sanctions targeting Maduro’s inner circle. Venezuela’s First Lady, Vice President, Defense Minister, and other officials are being penalized for plundering the precarious country’s remaining wealth. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin stated that this inner circle has helped Maduro’s regime maintain its grip on power. For example, the First Lady, Cilia Adela Flores De Maduro, is a political figure in her own right and has been accused of helping her husband’s administration illegally acquire wealth. She has previously served as National Assembly Deputy and President of Legislative Power in Venezuela.

In a passionate statement, the Venezuelan President stated that Flores’ only offense was being married to him and that sanctioning her is a cowardly act by the United States. Meanwhile, Vice President Delcy Rodriguez has been named a key figure in awarding Maduro near dictatorial powers.

The US Treasury Department has stated that the United States will continue to use every available economic and diplomatic strategy to stop the corrupt government and support the Venezuelan people’s efforts to restore their democracy. The sanctions are being used to put pressure on government officials to either step down or pursue Venezuela’s best interests. According to the Trump Administration, sanctions against certain individuals will be dropped if they restore democratic order, refuse to take part in human rights abuses, and combat corruption.

Julio Borges, former head of the Venezuelan National Assembly now exiled to Columbia said, “We’ve gone through all the democratic routes. Maduro has closed the doors and turned the country into worse than a dictatorship — a failed state.”

Iran Nuclear Deal

On May 8th of 2018, our President Donald Trump signed a presidential memorandum, essentially withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal. Although the president had been denouncing the deal, stating it is  “a direct national security threat,” and “fatally flawed” for more than a year before, experts were still shocked. The president had been planning this move for months now. But what was the Iran deal, and why did the president’s withdrawal draw such polarized reactions?

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was an agreement reached by the P5 countries (France, U.K., U.S., Russia, China) in addition to Germany in 2015 after 20 months of compromises and negotiations. The deal lifted sanctions that had been crippling Iran’s economy for the last decade, in exchange for restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. These restrictions included reducing low-enriched uranium stockpiles by 98%, a ⅔ reduction in the number of centrifuges(nuclear processing plants) Iran can use, and inspections by UN. However, the fact that the deal would slowly loosen, being almost invalidated after 15 years or so, was a huge point of contention amongst government critics. On one side, the deal was seen as one of Obama’s greatest foreign policy achievements, but on the other, an open hand to a terrorist nation that went against every US policy. “This was a horrible one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made,” president Trump stated, reinstating previous sanctions against Iran after signing the memorandum. The move comes with indignation from the other members of the deal, especially European leaders. They cited that there was no evidence Iran was not complying with the deal. The inspection agency found no signs of failure to comply, and Iran seemed to be opening up about their nuclear program over the years. However, the president dodged this question by citing the Iranian regime as one of chaos, and the breaking of the deal as a symbol of US disagreement with Iran’s methods.

The validity of pulling out is debatable, but there is no doubt that Trump’s move puts world leaders and the deal in a difficult situation. Since the lifting of sanctions, many nearby nations had established business deals and relationships with the bigger economic powers in Iran. However, now that Trump has pulled us out of Iran Nuclear Deal, the reimposition of US sanctions on Iran can hinder the business with the European countries. Businesses now have to choose between Iran or the US, an obvious choice, but not one they’d necessarily like to make.

The withdrawal from the deal has created many other troubles. As of now, there is strong pressure in Iran for taking retaliatory actions, which may include bumping up uranium usage or even a withdrawal from the deal itself, but nothing has happened so far (the deal may still survive with the other members still pledging in). Looking ahead, this event could discourage countries to join such agreements with the US in the future, for lack of reliability. The pull out has damaged our credibility with important allies, such as France, Germany, UK, as well as with Iran.

Perplexingly, as soon as Trump pulled out of the Iran deal, he initiated one with North Korea. In addition, Trump has advocated a better Iran deal, but has laid out no diplomatic options. This begs the questions: What was Trump and his aides’ motives? Was this just an effort to undermine Obama’s achievements, as Trump has attempted before? Did Trump have a legitimate reason to pull out of the deal given his reasoning? What does this mean for nuclear situation in the middle east?

International Affairs Budget

International Affairs budgets define the vision administrations have for America’s global standing, and change depending on the president in the White House. President George W. Bush increased the funding toward the State Department by 5% from the Clinton administration. In 2002 at the beginning of his presidency, Bush requested $23.9 billion dollars from the Federal budget for International Affairs. Some Bush’s main focuses with this budget were anti-terrorism, support for new and ongoing peacekeeping operations, nonproliferation, and anti-drug initiatives.

During his first term, Bush funneled billions of dollars into assistance programs for impoverished countries. Development Assistance and the Economic support fund received a total of $4.5 billion dollars in 2004. Collaboratively, Child Survival and Health Programs Fund received $1.8 billions dollars. This funding was primarily for poverty-stricken, African nations. After the events of September 11th, 2001, President Bush made steady increases to anti-terrorism and international military budgets. At the beginning of his first term, Bush only gave $216 million dollars to nonproliferation/anti-terrorism efforts, but in 2002, that number rose to about $535 million dollars.

The Obama administration brought progressive and liberal ideas into the oval office. Obama’s primary concerns in regards to the international affairs budget were global prosperity, climate change, and international peacekeeping operations. One of Obama’s most prominent campaign promises was combating global warming. His administration was granted $808 million dollars to fund the Climate Action Plan to reduce carbon emissions and incentivise renewable energy use. This money was used effectively considering that wind and solar energy use was at an all time high and U.S. oil imports were significantly lower.

Also during his presidency, the threat of ISIS or ISIL was growing exponentially larger with each passing year. In 2015, Obama received a total of $4 billion dollars towards “Counter-ISIL”, counter-terrorism, and humanitarian assistance. Also in the Middle East, about $3 billion dollars were given to support peaceful goals in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Most of this money went to military efforts and support for U.S. embassies. Secondary endeavours in this area include economic development for small cities and better access to electricity and education.

The administration under President Donald Trump has taken a unique approach to foreign policy that echoes conservative foundation, but explores new change. $41.7 billion dollars were allocated in the 2019 fiscal year budget for international affairs, a sharp 30% decline from the the $59.6 billion dedicated in 2017. Justification provided by the administration was: “Our world is increasingly challenged by forces of conflict and instability, underscoring the need for America’s global leadership to protect and advance peace, economic development,and freedom,” highlighting sentiment for priority of domestic issues over foreign interference that did not directly help the American people.

The reduced budget prioritizes a strong contention for the Trump administration: enforcing border security. Implementation of rigorous screening and restriction for permissible travel of foreign citizens in an attempt to promote security and diminish the presence of terrorism has drawn fierce criticism from the public.

Another equally controversial direction President Trump has taken was a strong commitment to the reduction of illegal immigration and illicit goods from southern and maritime borders. Efforts coinciding this are addressing the root motivation for emigration: insecurity, lack of governance, and economic stagnation. The holistic goal of the efforts was to prevent possible international danger, but alienated general foreign citizens at times.

Commitments to allied nations along with protection of U.S oversea personnel and facilities consists of the rest of international efforts, with less focus on intervention that does not directly pertain to American interest. A major plan was construction of a U.S Embassy facility in Jerusalem ignited tension but was completed in order to assert American influence in the Middle Eastern region along with. Fortification of all U.S diplomatic facilities, as encouraged by the Benghazi Accountability Review Board in relation to an earlier security breach in the Benghazi Embassy was a driving retaliation to maintain safety of American influence.

Foreign affair budgets have seen a juxtaposition in globalistic policy under Democratic administrations against domestic centered policy in Republican governance. Efforts stemming from each budget were unique and representative of a different vision of America. With each election, Americans must ask themselves their own vision they have for the world and America’s place in it.