The images coming out of the region today said it all. In one frame there is the Israeli president, Benjamin Netanyahu, looking like the cat who got the cream, sitting next to Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, at the opening of the new US embassy, which has just relocated to Jerusalem.
And in the second frame, there is Gaza, suffused in teargas smoke during protests in which 52 Palestinians were killed, and 1,200 wounded by Israeli fire. Perhaps reflecting on these images, the former US peace negotiator Martin Indyk bizarrely noted that the contrast was a “bittersweet moment.”
But this is not the usual duality of experience on the eve of the day that is both the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Israeli state and the concurrent Palestinian nakba – by which some 700,000 people were either forced from or fled their homes in the war that led to Israel’s creation. This is a violent escalation that was foretold, the result of a deliberate upturning of international conventions. It is the US presidency striking a match and throwing it into the tinderbox of Jerusalem, half of which is deemed by the international community to be occupied by Israel and intended as the capital of a future Palestinian state.
Amid widespread condemnation of both the US embassy move and Israel’s deadly, disproportionate response to unarmed protesters, rightwing agitators are already pushing their usual with-us-or-against-us binaries, suggesting such denunciations are by definition anti-Israel. Don’t fall for it. The Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem has issued a statement condemning Israel’s use of live ammunition in Gaza as showing “appalling indifference to human life.”
Daniel Seidemann, founder of the Israeli NGO Terrestrial Jerusalem, had warned about the US embassy move that “there will be blood,” adding: “Utter hopelessness is the great destabilizer.”
And Chemi Shalev, a senior columnist for Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, notes the “current bedrock of US-Israeli relations: fundamentalists, messianics and avid fans of end times” – referring to Trump’s evangelical Christian supporters who cheered the US embassy move, based on an Armageddon prophesy that does not end well for Jewish people.
Netanyahu had long been asking the US to move its embassy and ditch the Iran nuclear deal. In the past week Trump has delivered both, decisions that have rocked an already volatile region. Yet these dangerous shifts are not the sign of a new US policy. Letting the grinding Israeli-Palestinian conflict drift on, even while Palestinians are suffering the everyday realities of occupation, would be bad enough, but no worse than the default international stance has been for some time.
But with the embassy move, Trump has deployed that far-rightist trick of disruption for the sake of it. There is no follow-up, no renewed talks in the pipeline, no international diplomacy, just the usual, multipurpose mumblings from Trump about sealing a good deal.
This is no Middle East policy, unless you count as policy the practice of being a fire-starter and appearing to sanction overwhelming Israeli violence. And as we are seeing today, it is those living in the region who will suffer the punishing consequences of his folly.