By David K. Shipler
At the end of an interview I did several years ago with Palestinian high school students in Ramallah, the West Bank, the teenagers asked for my opinion about the conflict. I said, in part, that on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I thought the Palestinians were right; on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday I thought the Israelis were right, and on Sunday I thought they both deserved each other. (Their Palestinian teacher was outraged that I’d consider the Israelis right on any day.)
Now I’d add the United States to that mix, because it’s become a party that’s both right and wrong and deserves all the praise and criticism it’s getting for moving its embassy to the disputed city of Jerusalem.
Logically, yes, a country gets to pick its capital, and Israel chose Jerusalem both in ancient and modern times. As President Trump declared in a videotaped message, “For many years, we have failed to acknowledge the obvious, plain reality that the [Israeli] capital is Jerusalem.” But logic does not rule there. If it did, the clash of Israeli and Palestinian nationalisms, and their overlapping territorial claims, would have been resolved long ago. No, what Trump and his smiling acolytes at the embassy’s opening ceremony do not get is the power of symbols to trigger zealotry in that weary land, where Israel, the Palestinians, and now the United States indulge in fantasies.
It’s easy to see this by simply asking which image from that event represents reality: the jubilant Israeli and American officials, well-coifed in a clean, safe pageant of platitudes about peace, or the billowing black smoke, teargas, and bloody bodies of Palestinians who were raging toward Israel’s border with Gaza. Their demand? To return to villages that they had never seen, that mostly no longer exist, that had been emptied of their ancestors during Israel’s 1948 war of independence, which Palestinians call “Nakba,” Arabic for catastrophe.
Neither the embassy ceremony nor the Gaza protest is remotely realistic. Palestinian kids have been indoctrinated to dream angrily of a return after 70 years to their grandparents’ lands inside Israel proper, where the orange groves and vineyards were rarely as lush and idyllic as in their imagination. For both security and political reasons, Israel is not about to permit a largescale return, and that demand by Hamas, which rules Gaza, simply reinforces Israeli fears that Palestinians want the obliteration of the Jewish state.
More moderate past Israeli governments have floated a notion of some nominal Palestinian return in such small numbers as to be completely unsatisfying to the Palestinian mainstream, which has been propagandized to keep the fantasy alive.
On the other hand, the current Israeli government insists on Jews’ own right of return—to Palestinian but ancient Jewish lands on the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) where Jewish settlements founded on God’s biblical deed to Abraham have spread and multiplied enough to fragment the territory designed for a potential Palestinian state. The Israeli fantasy holds that peace can be achieved while thwarting Palestinian nationalism, and that Palestinian violence cannot be curbed except by harsh and deadly measures.
After decades of failed “peace processing,” as some cynics have called the fitful Arab-Israeli negotiations, the United States under Trump has tilted unabashedly toward Israel. Washington never got the two sides to roll up their sleeves and hammer out a deal for abandoning their respective rights of return or sharing the holy city of Jerusalem, which Palestinians crave as their capital as well. So the Palestinian Authority, created after the Oslo accords, now refuses to regard the US as an honest broker.
Trump doesn’t let facts get in the way of his pompous promises, however, so his surreal video message to the assembled dignitaries at the embassy opening pretended that all was well. Having stuck his finger in the Palestinians’ eyes, he declared, “Our greatest hope is for peace. The United States remains fully committed to facilitating a lasting peace agreement.” He said nothing about the Palestinians’ aspirations. The one gesture toward them was to reaffirm Washington’s commitment—shared by Israel— “to support the status quo in Jerusalem’s holy sites, including at the Temple Mount, also known as Haram al-Sharif.”
This was an important recognition of Islam’s connections to the city, and might have been more broadly appreciated in the Muslim world had Trump elaborated explicitly on Islam’s deep history there. That might have been surreal as well, given that the cleric invited by the Trump administration to lead the prayer at the ceremony was the Islam-hating Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress, who also, by the way, has said that Jews were going to hell. Sometimes you want to take Trump and just shake him.
If he understands the line he uttered about the status quo, Trump means that each major religion will continue to have jurisdiction over its own holy places, a key ingredient to relative calm in Jerusalem. Despite ancient Jewish ties, Israel has left in Muslim hands the plateau known to Jews as the Temple Mount, and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, where the First and Second Jewish Temples stood and where al-Aksa mosque and the Dome of the Rock now stand. The Dome encloses an outcropping of bedrock from which the Prophet Muhammad is believed to have ascended on his night journey to heaven, and where Abraham was prepared to obey God’s order to sacrifice his son Isaac.
Many Palestinians deny Jewish claims that there were ever Jewish temples on the site, and some radicals fear that Israel harbors ambitions to tear down the mosques and build a temple. (A small Jewish movement exists to do just that, but it has no government support at this point.)
On the other side of the fantasy coin, I once overheard a white-haired Israeli guide, at a viewpoint looking out at the Old City’s gleaming golden Dome of the Rock and al-Aksa mosque, tell a couple of foreign tourists, “The Palestinians were never here. They have no claim whatsoever. They claim Muhammad rose to heaven from the rock, but in the Koran there is no mention of it whatsoever. The Palestinians have no claim.”
The young couple looked confused. They had just been shown that even what you see with your own eyes in the Middle East can be dismissed as a mirage.