News Brief: Kirstjen Nielsen, Israeli Elections, Libya Violence

Apr 8, 2019
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A month ago, Kirstjen Nielsen went before Congress and told a House committee this.

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KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: We face a crisis - a real, serious and sustained crisis at our borders. We have tens of thousands of illegal aliens arriving at our doorstep every month. We have drugs, criminals and violence spilling into our country every week.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The secretary of Homeland Security was the person in charge of implementing President Trump's hard line on immigration, which included separating children from their families. President Trump confirmed Nielsen's departure in a tweet yesterday, thanking her for her service. The president also confirmed that the current commissioner of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency, the CBP - his name is Kevin McAleenan - he's going to serve as acting secretary.

GREENE: And let's talk about this move with NPR lead political editor Domenico Montanaro. Hi, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey there, David.

GREENE: So talk about Kirstjen Nielsen's time at Homeland Security. What is her legacy?

MONTANARO: Well, it was a controversial one. She oversaw the family separation policy that saw thousands of children separated from their parents and detained, including those seeking asylum. But she also often clashed with the president. He wanted her to go further in taking a hard line on clamping down, especially as migrant border crossings have gone up in recent months.

GREENE: So is that why she's leaving - the president wanted her to be even tougher than she was?

MONTANARO: He did. I mean, it's been a pretty rocky relationship. You know, Trump was pretty skeptical of her from the beginning because of her ties to the Bush administration and because she was pretty close to his former chief of staff, John Kelly.

But what we know now about her departure is that the - in the administration's that Nielsen met with Trump yesterday afternoon. After that meeting, she tendered their - her resignation. She touted her legacy. She tried to keep the focus on the fact that she tried to keep the border secure, but she expressed frustration with Congress and her ability within the law to be able to do more. The president wanted her to limit asylum-seekers, for example, who he last week said weren't people, but animals.

And now this is really a department that's facing a leadership crisis. Trump withdrew his nomination, remember, for the head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement - ICE - and just named the head of Customs and Border Protection to lead the agency while he threatened to close the border last week.

GREENE: So a lot happening at a moment when there is going to be this leadership vacuum, it seems. And you mentioned ICE, Domenico. When the president dropped his nominee to lead that agency, he told reporters he wants a tougher direction. What does that mean for his immigration policy? And what does this mean in terms of the political challenges that a new secretary might face here?

MONTANARO: Right. Well, I mean, the new challenges are going to be the same as the old challenges. You know, a secretary is going to come in dealing with a president not happy about immigration law limitations, you know, who - somebody who's saying that the country is, quote, "full" - he tweeted last night - and asking the secretary to, quote, "be creative about stopping immigration."

You know, overall, though, I really do think - I mean, when you talk about the politics of this, we should remember this is less about any secretary and more about Trump himself. Curbing immigration was Trump's core, fundamental issue that helped launch him onto the national scene, really, and get elected. And we're talking here a year before he faces re-election before voters, he wants to continue to channel this grievance about demographic and social, cultural change in a country that's really at a pivot point on this issue.

MARTIN: There's also a lot of acting happening right now, we should just say.

MONTANARO: Yeah.

MARTIN: There is currently in the country not a confirmed secretary of defense and now an acting character in at Homeland Security.

MONTANARO: Absolutely.

GREENE: Acting is a new title, it seems like, in leadership in the country at the moment. NPR's Domenico Montanaro - Domenico, thanks. We appreciate it.

MONTANARO: You're so welcome.

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GREENE: All right. Israelis are going to the polls tomorrow, really, with one main question to answer. Should Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remain in power?

MARTIN: He's been in office for a decade. And if he's re-elected, he'll be on track to become the longest-serving prime minister in Israel's history. But Netanyahu has some challenges this go-round - corruption charges against him, and he's facing his toughest competitor in years, a former military chief of staff named Benny Gantz. Polling suggests a close race in the final hours. And over the weekend, Netanyahu made a dramatic campaign pledge.

GREENE: And let's hear about that from NPR's Daniel Estrin, who is in Jerusalem. Good morning, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

GREENE: So this pledge - Netanyahu saying that he would annex parts of the occupied West Bank - explain what that means and why it's so significant.

ESTRIN: He says he'll gradually impose sovereignty over Jewish settlements. He's basically saying, I'm keeping Israelis in the West Bank forever. That's not up for negotiation with the Palestinians. But this is a last-minute campaign promise. I think we have to take it with a grain of salt. He's trying to rally his base here. And the truth is that he has resisted this kind of move for years. It would draw really enormous international condemnation.

But you know what? There's a big but there. The Trump administration declined comment on Netanyahu's campaign promise about annexation. And his party really wants it to happen. And if he wins re-election, he could take steps towards that. And I think for Palestinians watching these elections, that's - it's a sign of how dim the prospects are for peace and also how little say they have in this election.

GREENE: So what are the polls suggesting at this point? I mean, what are Netanyahu's chances for staying in power?

ESTRIN: It's a really close race. This former military general who's trying to beat Netanyahu, he's a centrist. But polls are showing that most Israelis are going to vote for right-wing parties. There are, like - probably, like, a dozen parties running in this election. And if most Israelis vote for right-wing parties, that would give Netanyahu the best chance of forming a coalition and winning.

And last night, I was at the market here in Jerusalem. I spoke to some young voters drinking coffee. And they said, Netanyahu's done a good job. We're just sick of him after 10 years. But guess who they're going to vote for? They say that they're going to be voting for candidates even further to the right of Netanyahu.

And next to them, I met a young high school civics teacher, Yahav Shadmi (ph). And he says he's liberal. He teaches at an elite high school here that tends to be more liberal. But he said the school held mock elections, and there was strong support for right-wing candidates, even far-right candidates. Here's what he said.

YAHAV SHADMI: We could see that the radical racism discourse into the student's mind. Peace is not any option anymore. Even the left-wing parties don't really talk about peace. They talking about agreements.

GREENE: Well, Daniel, you've reported a lot on Israel's shift further and further to the right during Netanyahu's time in power. I mean, what - tell us about what you've learned.

ESTRIN: I've learned that attitudes toward democracy have changed here. Israel has always branded itself as being both Jewish and democratic. But Netanyahu's government has prioritized Israel's Jewish character. Trust in the Supreme Court has dropped. Calling someone leftist here has become a slur. And, you know, Israel also has had, really, a great 10 years. Unemployment is down. The economy's doing well. But society has changed, and people feel that society has been divided.

GREENE: NPR's Daniel Estrin reporting for us ahead of this election in Israel. Daniel's in Jerusalem. Daniel, thank you.

ESTRIN: Thank you, David.

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GREENE: OK. The United States is evacuating its troops from Libya.

MARTIN: Right. They're doing so because there are fears of what could become a full-blown urban war in the capital city, Tripoli. They've already been - there have already been clashes between rival militias on the outskirts of Tripoli. A renegade military general is leading a rebel force that's trying to take over the capital. The U.N.-backed government in Tripoli has said that it's prepared to fight back.

GREENE: All right. Sudarsan Raghavan is the Washington Post's Cairo bureau chief and has been reporting on this tense moment in Libya. Sudarsan, welcome.

SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN: Good to be with you, David.

GREENE: So we should say, I mean, Libya has just been in - I mean, it's been unstable. It's been violent. It's been in chaos since Moammar Gadhafi was deposed, like, back in 2011. So explain why this situation is important and stands out.

RAGHAVAN: That's a very good question. Unlike 2014, the last time Khalifa Haftar - the renegade general you just mentioned - clashed intensively with militias in Tripoli, he now has stronger backing of portions of the international community, including France, the UAE, Egypt and Russia. And even though all these powers are now urging him to halt his offensive on Tripoli or show restraint, the fact is they supported and fueled his ambitions, gave him political legitimacy.

There's also much greater frustration among Libyans. Their economic woes have deepened since 2011, and they really want a solution. And with the U.N.-installed international crisis government, the international community now has more of a vested interest in Libya's success. And the U.N., as of now, as of this weekend, they're trying to reconcile the warring sides like no other time since 2011, trying to organize long-delayed elections. And these clashes now threaten to torpedo this reconciliation conference that is still, by the way, scheduled for this weekend.

GREENE: I mean, it sounds like things are particularly bad if we're hearing the United States pulling its forces out. They were there for peacekeeping purposes, right? I mean, what exactly led to this decision by the United States?

RAGHAVAN: Well, they were there now just for security purposes, but also to - for counterterrorism. You know, you still have a strong Islamic State presence around Libya. But the stated reason by the U.S. is - to leave, to evacuate - is that the security situation is worsening. But, you know, there's also concern that U.S. forces could possibly get entangled in the clashes. The U.S. backs the Tripoli government, but it also has opened lines of communication with Haftar. So they want to remain neutral. And really, the best way of doing that, at this moment, is to not be in Libya.

GREENE: And what is the current state of things in and around Tripoli right now? I mean, is - have these clashes gotten to a point where civilians are being threatened? Are they evacuating the city?

RAGHAVAN: Well, the picture is mixed. I mean, some residents we have contracted in Tripoli said they have fled their houses. Others are stockpiling food and staying inside their homes - always checking, you know, every hour for new information on the conflict, on how close it's to reaching their neighborhoods, via Facebook or cellphones.

But for residents in some areas by the coast that we spoke to, where the war has not yet reached, life is still normal. You know, there's traffic in the streets, and people are going to work. The - you know, the residents of Tripoli are accustomed to southern eruptions of militia violence.

GREENE: But this is a country that could be, I mean, dangerous for the world if it literally falls into total chaos.

RAGHAVAN: Absolutely. I mean, what you could see if it falls into total chaos is possibly, you know, the resurrection of the Islamic State - which once, by the way, had its own self-described caliphate in the city of Sirte. And also, you know, it could lead to more illegal migration. The Europeans are concerned about that from Libya, as well as its neighbors. So it can definitely affect the region and the world - any more chaos, that is.

GREENE: Sudarsan Raghavan is the Washington Post's Cairo bureau chief talking to us about the situation in Libya. Thanks for your time this morning.

RAGHAVAN: My pleasure.

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