“Jerusalem celebrates…and Gaza bleeds – a surreal 24 hours,” read the headline in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
Indeed, there was something surreal about scenes of the celebration of the U.S. embassy’s move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, headed by first son-in-law Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, simultaneously with the Gaza carnage — where tens of thousands of Palestinians marched on the fence separating them from Israel and 60 were shot dead.
By surreal, I’m not just referring to the blessing of the ceremony by two U.S. evangelical pastors, John Hagee and Robert Jeffress, who have preached that Hitler was part of God’s plan and that Jews will go to hell unless they convert.
The most surreal element was the willful blindness of Donald Trump in deciding, in order to please his evangelical base, to move the embassy now. The decision ensured that Kushner’s long-awaited plan for Israel-Palestinian peace was dead before arrival. It also reinforced the Israeli government’s short-sighted failure to address a worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza, which practically guaranteed that Monday’s bloodshed would occur.
There was good reason why previous U.S. presidents chose not to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. No one questions the location of Israel’s historic capital in Jerusalem, which has been holy to Jews for millennia. But at least 38 percent of Jerusalem’s population is Palestinian, as are whole neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.
The fate of Jerusalem has always been the most sensitive issue in peace talks. When the United Nations recognized Israel in 1948, it gave Jerusalem a special status; every peace plan since has called for negotiations over the final status of the city – meaning Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem would become the Palestinian capital, and the two sides would work out control of the holy sites.
By unilaterally changing this formula, Trump doomed future peace negotiations. Despite White House claims that the embassy move doesn’t preclude talks over Jerusalem’s boundaries, the Israeli government and right-wing parliamentarians are moving to ensure that the entire city remains in Israel’s hands.
Leaks of the Kushner plan indicate that it calls for a Palestinian “capital” to be located in a West Bank suburb; Trump has said that Jerusalem is now “off the table” for talks. This is why the Palestinian Authority now refuses to accept the United States as a peace mediator.
“When you have zero hope, it makes the atmosphere more conducive to violence,” says Israeli lawyer Danny Seidemann, a renowned expert on Jerusalem and founder of Terrestrial Jerusalem, an NGO that works toward resolving the Jerusalem question.
Standing with Seidemann on Mount Scopus, looking over the city, during a recent visit I saw how a ring of Jewish suburbs built around its perimeter has almost cut Jerusalem off from the Palestinian West Bank. I also saw how small enclaves of radical Jewish settlers, some funded by right-wing U.S. groups, are moving into Arab neighborhoods and aggressively trying to expand their presence at the expense of Arab residents.
“Jerusalem is more contested than ever before,” Seidemann told me. “We are in an acute state of disequilibrium, which can only correct itself with political progress [on renewed peace talks] or an outbreak of violence.”
The embassy move may please some Trump backers (mega-donor and right-wing Jewish activist Sheldon Adelson was at the celebration). But it ensures that Israeli-Palestinian tensions will grow worse.
Which brings us to Gaza. Trump’s unquestioning embrace of Benjamin Netanyahu seems to have bolstered Netanyahu’s indifference to Gaza. How else to explain the Israeli leader’s failure to take any action to prevent the bloodbath this week, which was widely expected?
The White House and Kushner blamed the violence entirely on Hamas, the political movement that controls the strip and encouraged the demonstrations. But this tiny strip, around 5 by 25 miles in size and crammed with 1.8 million people, is blockaded by Israel. Its borders and exits into Israel (and one to Egypt) are shut tight, which means no exports and no work. Unemployment is around 60 percent, electricity sporadic, and 90 percent of the drinking water is not potable. Under such circumstances, with all hope of peace talks gone, why wouldn’t young men rush the security fence?
Proposals to ease the humanitarian disaster in Gaza have been rejected in Jerusalem. “Netanyahu has resisted all suggestions by the defense establishment for changes in the [Gaza] status quo,” I was told by Nimrod Novik, a leader of Commanders for Israel’s Security (a network of 280 retired Israeli generals) and a fellow of the Israel Policy Forum. “He is concerned that his opposition on the right will seize on it to brand him ‘soft on Hamas.’”
In other words, Netanyahu’s domestic politics in Israel plus Trump’s domestic politics have created a situation where more Palestinian violence is almost certain. Gaza conditions are dismal, and Palestinians see no hope for improvement.
At the Jerusalem ceremony, Kushner said the move would start “a journey to peace.” He added, “The United States is prepared to support a peace agreement in every way we can.” Given the realities in Jerusalem and Gaza, both statements were surreal.