While celebrations were taking place in Jerusalem as the US officially opened its slim-line embassy in that city in fulfilment of a Donald Trump campaign promise, thousands of demonstrators along the Gaza frontier were making it clear that for their part, any settlement in the long-standing Palestinian-Israeli face-off was anything but assured. At least 55 Palestinians were killed, with 2,700 injured in the Gaza mayhem.
Two balancing forces and deep emotions. In Yiddish (and Hebrew), “naches” is that deep feeling of satisfaction and warmth, especially from among a family, and in response to a delightful success. In this case, it was the palpable good feeling flowing from the commemoration of the Israeli state’s declaration of independence that coincided with the formal movement of the American Embassy (at least the ambassador’s office and a smallish group of support staff) from Tel Aviv to what heretofore had been an annex of the US Consulate General in Jerusalem.
For Palestinians, however, the world “Nakhba” has come to symbolise a catastrophe that befell the Palestinian Arabs’ world upon the declaration of independence by the state of Israel on 14 May 1948. When that happened, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled, were pushed, or were driven from homes in what was rapidly becoming the new state of Israel. Recognition of that latter event has, over the past month, prompted weeks of protests by Gaza residents who have been attempting to breach the Israeli border – in order, presumably, to reclaim homes and residence in areas their forebears had left back in 1948. This mass protest has been led by Hamas (with some saying it has been a way to deflect criticism of Hamas’ own mis-rule in Gaza by directing anger elsewhere).
On Monday, at 16:00 local time, a whole gaggle of US officials – American ambassador David Friedman, together with US treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin, presidential special assistant Jared Kushner and his wife, the first daughter and also a special adviser, Ivanka Trump, along with other government heavyweights – were all on hand to inaugurate the new site of the US embassy. Well, okay, it wasn’t actually a new embassy in all of the usual senses of the word. At least for a few years, most of the embassy staff will continue to reside and work in Tel Aviv, and even the ambassador – at least for some years until a larger site is identified and a new facility constructed there – will continue to spend much of his week in Tel Aviv. This will be true if for no other reason than that the country’s intellectual, economic, financial, entrepreneurial and academic leadership largely lives and works in Tel Aviv.
Still, such a presidential decision to move the embassy and recognise Jerusalem as the country’s official capital has an intensely symbolic quality to it – in every conceivable direction, and with serious future implications. In part, of course, it is because for most Israeli Jews, Jerusalem is, in many real, tangible senses of the word, Israel’s capital – most major government offices, the Israeli Supreme Court, its parliament are all there, and have been for many years. But for others, pre-eminently Palestinian Arabs, it represents a new, very unwelcome reality on the ground that makes an eventual peace between Israelis and Palestinian Arabs that much more distant and much less likely.
As far as Americans – at least Trump administration ones – are concerned, opening this embassy outpost represents the fulfilment of a prominent campaign promise from the 2016 presidential campaign in America, largely to gain the allegiance of the many millions of evangelical-born-again-fundamentalist Christians who were vital to Republican electoral success, as well as the views of a few right-wing Jewish campaign contributors such as Sheldon Adelson. (American Jews more broadly remain divided on the question, largely casting votes on more familiar socio-economic issues and thus generally voting against Trump in the election.)
Trump’s decision has been made in conjunction with a longstanding congressional mandate that presidents should move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, absent a waiver issued by the president to postpone that action on security or other grounds.
At the actual ceremony, speakers, from the US ambassador and Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, quoted or paraphrased the famous 1630 sermon by Rev John Winthrop while still on board a vessel bound to the new world to establish the new commonwealth of Massachusetts Bay, “A shining city upon a hill”.
Quoting a puritan religious leader (who was something of a religious zealot in his own time) had an interesting quality to it, given where the speakers were, and what they were committing to doing.
But then swivel the camera to the west, two hours or so by car, yet only a few minutes by jet, to the border between Gaza and Israel. At the same moment the speakers in Jerusalem were verbally backslapping each other over their presence at this event and the momentousness of it, tens of thousands of young Gaza Arabs were burning tyres to obscure their forward movements (and some were apparently throwing stones or more dangerous items), as they continued to carry out their attempts to cross the border to, in their words, “reclaim their homes” inside Israel.
Opposing them, not surprisingly, the Israeli Defence Force has been deployed on the other side of the line, ready with, yet again, tear gas, rubber bullets, and then, ultimately, rifle fire if so ordered each day. In the past two weeks numerous protesters have died, and some 41 protesters by the moment the new embassy plaque was being unveiled by Ivanka Trump and Treasury Secretary Mnuchin, had been fatally shot (the total went up to 52 by the end of the day), and more than 2400 had been seriously wounded. Not surprisingly, the simultaneous events in Jerusalem, at least from their perspective, are only adding a large dose of salt to already painful, longstanding wounds.
For Donald Trump and his team, this official transfer of the embassy to a spot in West Jerusalem (and adjacent to the Green Line separating the new West Jerusalem from the old walled city that had separated Israeli territory from the Jordanian-controlled West Bank from 1948 until 1967), this moment recognised the obvious reality of some truths on the ground. Moreover, the Trump administration seems to believe that this decision should even help kick-start a new, more reality-based effort to move to the promised Arab-Israeli settlement. Palestinian Authority spokesmen and women have, of course, said just the opposite, that the embassy relocation drives any possible peace accord ever further from coming to fruition.
While the Trump administration insists recognition of Jerusalem as the capital simply acknowledges the right of a nation to pick the site of its capital (and thus where embassies would be located), many critics argue that this embassy relocation further undermines the international consensus (let alone the original UN decision to support the establishment of two states) that the final determination of the status of Jerusalem – at the very minimum the Old City and surrounding territory – remains to be negotiated and agreed to by the parties concerned. And further, the status of any final frontiers for any possible Palestinian state similarly remains to be determined by further negotiations.
And so, like so much of the Trump administration’s fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants foreign policy efforts, there is no clear, obvious, or even stealthy, devious, and furtive plan that brings the two sides into active negotiations, let alone actual agreement. This is especially the case, given the real sense that, with this moment, the Trump administration has forfeited its position as any kind of honest broker between the parties by virtue of this decision. What remains totally unclear, so far, is what – if any – kind of quid pro quo the Israelis had offered in response to this decision. At least in public, there has been none.
But the relocation of the embassy, even if it is only a symbolic one, has wider repercussions in the world, and not many of them are good ones. And, moreover, it comes as combat in Syria between many sides in its baleful, vastly destructive, confused civil war may be reaching its final chapters, leading to victory by Bashar al-Assad’s government – with the active assistance of the Russian military presence, the Iranian military, and the Hezbollah militias. Further, this comes as the Trump administration has rescinded its participation in the Iran nuclear accord, creating further tensions between the US and the Western nations which are also party to the agreement.
Then, and perhaps most dangerously, this decision has became real as Iranian forces in Syria and Israeli forces in the north of Israel and on into the Golan Heights stand in ever closer possibilities of sustained combat. While the US embassy, whether it was in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, would likely have little direct impact on those flash points, it seems certain to make any of them still less amenable to resolution, especially as it hardens the sense that the US is on the side of a particularly hard-edged government under Benjamin Netanyahu that seems happier with the status quo than with potentially dangerous peace initiatives. And, most important – it makes it that much harder to find the ideas, the initiatives and the on-the-ground conditions designed to bring Palestinians and Israelis together in some way, under some workable framework.
It is true that the quiet, tacit alliance between Israel, Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf states and the US facing off against Iran, Assad’s Syria, Hezbollah, and Russian military support is unlikely to be shattered by this movement of the US embassy. But the Arab street is less likely to be assuaged by any comments from Donald Trump – via a prerecorded message – that this change in embassy address does not change the fact that final dispositions of borders and such remain the subject of negotiations. And it will make it that much easier for Iranians or others to stoke the anger. As this is written, for example, the Iranians are busy setting up a conference in Damascus dedicated to the theme: Jerusalem – the capital of Palestine.
Whatever happens in Gaza – and there is little doubt the Israelis will not allow a mass movement across the frontier by Gaza youth – the ceremonies in Jerusalem, given the rhetoric there and the enthusiasm by Israeli speakers that the city is indivisible, has just made it that much harder for diplomacy and that much easier for conflict. Accordingly, so far, the Trump foreign policy makes no consistent sense.
For one, there is this entirely self-designed own goal, making things more difficult for itself in the Arab-Israeli arena. Then there is the confused nature of its approach to Syria – with the incoherence of who or what it supports, and what it hopes to see as an outcome. Further, there is an increasingly hostile approach towards the Iranian nuclear agreement – and even against the interests of its erstwhile allies in that regard.
But then there is the counter-example of North Korea, with the president scheduled to meet in June in Singapore with North Korean President Kim Jong-un, the very man he had engaged with for over a year in a mutual rocket-waving, red button-wielding frenzy. At the minimum, one has to wonder who is in charge in Washington, and what sort of world they want to help create. DM
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