Weekend edition—Israel-Palestine, migrant microbiomes, Churchill on aliens

Good morning, Quartz readers!

What’s Donald Trump’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Your guess is as good as ours.

This week the US president appeared to ditch a 20-year-old tenet of American policy—that for peace to come, the Palestinians must get their own independent state alongside Israel. But, as has happened on other issues, his own officials immediately appeared to contradict him: First his UN ambassador, then even his hawkish nominee for ambassador to Tel Aviv, insisted that a two-state solution is still the goal. Trump has also vacillated about Israeli settlement-building in the West Bank and whether to move the US embassy to Jerusalem.

The sad truth is that little of this matters. Once touted as the key to Middle Eastern harmony, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is now a sideshow to the vastly bloodier ones in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Moreover, both doves and hawks increasingly agree that the peace process in its current form is dead. Israel has been an intransigent peace partner, but the Palestinians, split between warring leaderships in Gaza and the West Bank, are in no condition to conclude a deal either. Whatever the Trump administration’s ultimate stance, it’s unlikely to make things either much better or much worse.

The main thing to take from this week’s statement is that, as with other foreign-policy issues—“One China,” Crimea, NAFTA—the White House is making things up on the fly, casually discarding US policies crafted over decades and then backtracking when it meets resistance. This kind of behavior may be giving Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who uses unpredictability as a deliberate policy tool, a taste of his own medicine (paywall). But it doesn’t make for good foreign relationships, a strong United States, or a safe world.—Gideon Lichfield

Some things on Quartz we especially liked

The identity politics of using a foreign name. An act of vandalism at New York’s Columbia University against foreign students has revived a debate about whether Chinese people should adopt English first names when interacting with Westerners. Zheping Huang recounts his own experiences of being “James”, “Peter”, and “William”, and argues that sticking to your Chinese name allows others to know the real you.

What migrants can teach us about microbiomes.  Immigrant communities offer an almost perfect case study of how gut bacteria can be contagious. Katherine Ellen Foley writes about an effort to understand how microbiomes change when humans move, warping to match those of the new communities around them.

On the quandary of being pro-NAFTA and pro-Trump. Gerry Schwebel is a NAFTA champion but also a Trump supporter. He tells Ana Campoy that the trade agreement has done tremendous good for his native Texas, and that he hopes the president will consider its benefits. But as Tim Fernholz argued last week, perhaps he needn’t worry; Trump is likely to make only cosmetic changes to the trade pact.

How 1980s marketing created Silicon Valley’s gender gap. In the 1970s and early 1980s men and women were on their way to parity in computer-science enrollments. So why is there now such a gender gap in tech? TL Andrews argues that computer-game marketing that targeted boys gave rise to a male computing culture that continues today.

The scientific concepts you need to understand US politics in 2017. With the new White House’s antipathy to science, it will this year play a more prominent role in American public discourse than ever. Our science writers have put together a compendium of the issues—such as skepticism, latrogenesis and clean coal—that will drive this year’s debates.

Five things elsewhere that made us smarter

Virtual healing for real-world pain. Second Life was a virtual online utopia when it launched in 2003, but its membership dropped as users migrated to Facebook and 3D virtual reality. Yet as Kristen French explores for Backchannel, disabled people remain a passionate community on Second Life, which supports relationships, social interactions, and even healing in ways the real world can’t.

Fake news by fake Ukrainians. Before Brexit and before Trump, there was a low-turnout referendum in the Netherlands on an EU-Ukraine trade agreement. Foreshadowing disinformation tactics that would later blossom elsewhere, Andrew Higgins of the New York Times tells the fascinating backstory of fake news, shadowy interest groups, and suspicions that Moscow had a hand in tilting the vote in its favor.

An intimate look at a Cold War extravagance. Jack Barsky, né Albrecht Dittrich, spent 29 years as a Soviet sleeper agent in the United States. He recounts his journey to Shaun Walker for the Guardian—from a small town in East Germany to membership in the vaunted “illegals” program of planting long-term sleeper agents, and ultimately, American citizenship.

Winston Churchill on alien life. Archivists have unearthed an unpublished 1939 essay by Britain’s soon-to-be prime minister on astronomy and the probability of life around other stars. Mario Livio got a look at it, and writes in Nature that it was not only remarkably prescient but shows Churchill’s close relationship with science—a rarity in today’s political leaders.

Facebook’s new mission: Mend the world. CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s public letter, “Building Global Community,” in a remarkable break with the past, appears to recognize the harm—echo chambers, hate-mongering, and so on—that has been done through Facebook. Buzzfeed’s Alex Kantrowitz and Mat Honan interview him and find “one intense human being” determined to use his awesome power for good instead.

Our best wishes for a relaxing but thought-filled weekend. Please send any news, comments, Second Life avatars, and Churchill essays to hi@qz.com. You can follow us on Twitter here for updates throughout the day, or download our apps for iPhone and Android.