On Sunday, the national-security adviser, John Bolton, told ABC’s “This Week” that the U.S. move of its Embassy to Jerusalem, the following day, was merely “a recognition of reality,” but it was actually a suspension of disbelief. Participants at the ceremonial opening, led by a delighted Benjamin Netanyahu and most of official Israel, advanced the fiction that Jerusalem, the “heart of the Jewish people for three thousand years,” has been an undivided, peaceful home to the great monotheistic religions for fifty years, since the city was unified under Israeli control; the fiction that Israel’s military steadfastness and sacrifice were implicitly being rewarded by the world’s superpower and Israel’s ally, the U.S.; and the fiction that Donald Trump’s transfer of the Embassy is as historically consequential as Harry Truman’s recognition of Israel at its founding. American participants in Monday’s festivities—Trump’s family and friends, many in official capacities; Republican legislators such as Lindsey Graham who pride themselves on being “pro-Israel”; assorted evangelicals; and select American Jews—came with a fiction of their own: namely, that the move “advances peace.” As the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, put it in a State Department briefing, the move forces “people” (by which he seemed to mean Palestinian leaders) to acknowledge that “circumstances are changing” and that they’d have to “get on board before events overtake them.”
Overtaking the ceremony, however, was a mounting toll of dead and injured on the border with Gaza. (As I write, hours after the ceremony, fifty-five Palestinians are reportedly dead and more than seventeen hundred are reportedly injured.) Despite the violence, the Embassy festivities continued, with red-white-and-blue laser shows on the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, and signs proclaiming Trump a true friend of Israel. Netta Barzilai, who won the Eurovision Song Contest for Israel, on Saturday, was scheduled to perform a concert in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square later on. By the end of the day, however, the joy seemed forced. What was supposed to be a symbolic celebration of Israel’s might producing a right—to have its disputed capital recognized by the U.S., to sustain the status quo in spite of Palestinian protest—was eclipsed by a far more appalling symbol of how unsustainable the status quo is. Carmela Menashe, a veteran security correspondent for Israel’s Reshet Bet radio station, foreshadowed the bloodshed when she explained the morning before the Embassy ceremony that the Army’s mission on the Gaza border would be to prevent Palestinians from taking pictures of themselves crossing into Israel—pictures that might be used as inspirational propaganda later on. Now Israel would have to contend with a different kind of imagery.
Hamas leaders, to be sure, are suspending disbelief in their own way, with fatal consequences for many of the organization’s young followers. I have written here about the extraordinary distress that Gazans are suffering. But it seems implausible and immoral, under the shadow of today’s deaths, for Hamas’s leaders to continue to promote a Palestinian “return” to Israel and to refuse to accept conditions that would allow for reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority, in the West Bank, and Gaza’s rehabilitation. These include the acceptance of prior diplomatic and security agreements, the recognition of Israel, and the renunciation of terror. Gaza, after all, is just sixty miles south of Tel Aviv, a vibrant, cybernetic city producing the intellectual capital that Gazans, and indeed all Palestinians, will need to create a viable economy. For Hamas’s leaders to look at Tel Aviv and see only the loss of Jaffa is as self-deluding as Israelis at the ceremony looking at the walls of Suleiman the Magnificent, surrounding the Old City, and seeing only the yearned-for abstraction of Jewish prayers.
Israel’s Interior Security Minister, Gilad Erdan, and the country’s opposition leader, Avi Gabbay, both insisted to television interviewers that the Army was doing what it needed to guard the border; that the penetration of the Gaza fence by hundreds of Palestinian demonstrators might endanger residents of nearby Israeli towns; that the I.D.F. had to be vigilant against the possibility of soldiers being kidnapped. None of this alleviated the sinking feeling that young Gazans had gained the world’s attention, and sympathy, through their deaths. Turkey recalled its Ambassadors to Israel and the United States. South Africa recalled its Ambassador to Israel. Egypt condemned Israel’s use of deadly force. The European Union called for Israeli “restraint.” The U.S. vetoed a U.N. Security Council call for an emergency session. Israelis had been told to party; they went to bed checking headlines.
Nothing as dramatic as the Gaza bloodshed was necessary to expose the limits of Netanyahu’s, and Friedman’s, fictions. The placement of the new Embassy was enough. The grounds of the American consulate, upon which the Embassy will be built, are eighteen acres of what was once a no-man’s-land between West Jerusalem and Jordan, which occupied East Jerusalem from 1948 to 1967. At the Embassy ceremony, Netanyahu reminisced about how, when he was a boy, he was warned not to walk there because of the danger of snipers. “That was then. This is now, today,” he said. “Today, the Embassy of the most powerful nation on Earth, our greatest ally, the United States of America, today its Embassy opened here.” What Netanyahu failed to note was that Ambassador Friedman, who had looked at the Mediterranean through his office window from the former Embassy, in Tel Aviv, would now look out on tens of thousandsof Palestinians in the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Sur Baher, Jabel Mukkaber, and Silwan. The city’s Arab residents would not need to start an insurgency to contradict Friedman’s fiction of Jerusalem as a city of Jews. As Sami Abu-Dayyeh, the Palestinian C.E.O. of Netours and the owner of the Ambassador Hotel, told me, “All we have to do is stay.”
Friedman has been a major contributor to the sprawling Orthodox Jewish Beit El settlement; when one drives to that part of the West Bank, the heart of the Palestinian economy, one can only imagine the mental switch that Friedman has to perform to see Beit El as an anchor for a future Israeli population and, ultimately, annexation. That improbable leap of the imagination is even less plausible in Jerusalem, where three hundred thousand Palestinians reside, integrated into the city’s economic life and increasingly politically active. The head of the municipal council in the Sur Baher neighborhood, Ramadam Dabash, told me that he is now mobilizing supporters to run for the city council. (Jerusalem’s Arabs have had the right to vote in municipal elections since 1967, but none have mounted serious campaigns before, largely because of opposition from Palestinian leaders in the West Bank.)
Friedman, Jared Kushner, and Trump insist that the Embassy’s move does not mean an end to the peace process. Their vaunted, still secret plan has yet to be released. One would like to believe that proximity to Jerusalem’s Arab residents may force Friedman to face realities that can no more be conjured away than Monday’s deaths in Gaza. Friedman says that all the Embassy move has done is deny Palestinians “a veto over the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.” It remains to be seen whether the Trump Administration has any intention of challenging Israel’s veto over whether Palestine is even to be. Today, at least, Netanyahu, Kushner, and Trump, enveloped in fiction, did not seem particularly troubled by the prospect.