In theory, the relocation of the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is a big deal.
In theory. In reality, it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans, an issue of history and principle long since overtaken by hard power.
People have bizarre notions about Jerusalem: to some, it’s a celestial entity, barely of this earth. Billions of Jews, Christians and Muslims are taught from the cradle that it’s holy. An entire city, holy. Every building, every cobblestone, every dusty rock. I apparently lived on a holy street for five years.
Even Jerusalem’s official status in the eyes of the world is strange. It remains corpus separatum, which literally means separate entity – a supposedly internationalized city, the capital of neither Israel nor any Arab entity, and certainly not a place for embassies.
That status was conferred by UN resolution 71 years ago, and while it has been overtaken by the more modern idea that the city is divided by the so-called Green Line into East Jerusalem and West Jerusalem, the western sector being de facto Israeli and the eastern sector being largely Arab and occupied by Israel, even the United States has never officially changed its embrace of the corpus separatum status.
For anyone who has ever lived there or knows anything about the city, though, the notion is beyond ridiculous.
Hard power is ultimately all that matters, and Israel exercises iron control over the whole “corpus.”
Israeli politicians who utter the name of the city often add the rote “eternal and undivided capital of Israel.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, rejoicing at the opening of the new embassy Monday, repeated just that.
Since occupying East Jerusalem in 1967, the Israelis have implanted several Jewish settlements, all the while squeezing Palestinian residents, blocking them from nearly all new home construction. The idea was to “Judaize” the eastern sector, a work that continues apace.
All of which is to say that the official status of Jerusalem matters only to those who prefer to pretend that a “peace process” still exists, along with its promise of a two-state solution, and a negotiated sharing of the city, one of the five key points of the Oslo accords.
Those parties include just about every foreign affairs department of just about every government on earth (including, officially and puzzlingly, the United States).
The reason for that is easy enough to see; diplomats and their government masters adore the status quo and loathe, even fear, controversial change. Hence the weird, abiding shelf life of corpus separatum.
Palestinian leaders, with the exception of Hamas, which rules Gaza, also cling to the notion of the peace process as though their lives depend on it, probably because they do.
The Palestinians long ago developed a corrupt ruling class whose very existence, shored up and funded by foreign governments, depends on pretending there will someday be a Palestinian state, pretending to govern, and going through the motions of cooperating with the occasional push from American or European governments to resume negotiations with Israel.
It’s a supremely cynical act of self-preservation, and not much more than that.
Then there are the poor dupes who buy the false hope shoveled at them by the United Nations and foreign governments and their own leaders – the people who live in filth and poverty in refugee camps, or penned up in the vast prison camp-like area called Gaza, or in West Bank villages cut off from the world by the sort of wall Donald Trump so badly wants to build in America, their movements and lives utterly controlled by the Israeli military and the settlers.
At a guess, the tens of thousands of people who have shown up at protests in Gaza, many of whom have charged into the no-man’s land decreed by the Israeli military on their side of the fence that marks the boundary of their confinement, some running unarmed into gunfire, dying by the dozens and falling grievously wounded by the thousands, actually think Jerusalem, or some part of it, still belongs to them.
The death and maiming they endure in pursuit of this belief is beyond tragic; they are not making a bit of difference, other than perhaps expressing their hopelessness. Israel portrays their protests as terrorism, and the hundreds of dignitaries Trump dispatched to attend the official opening of the new embassy in Jerusalem are probably inclined to lift a glass of champagne and toast the Israel Defence Forces for the courage they’ve displayed in firing into the crowds. (Trump’s son-in-law used the occasion to scold the Palestinians for being violent, before everyone sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which will always make me hear that song differently).
Other nations, Canada included, confined themselves to muttering platitudes about the need for restraint, or remained silent.
The world media, meanwhile, depicted the Gaza killings in cowed, bland terms, referring to “protests turning deadly,” or “clashes,” as though largely unarmed protesters can turn deadly, or actually “clash” with snipers dispatched by a modern military. All they can do is absorb bullets, and Israel has an endless supply.
To give the Israelis credit, they ended the pretence of a “peace process” long ago. Former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir explicitly admitted he only ever attended the early peace conferences as a ruse to buy time and build more settlements. Current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and several of his ministers have flatly stated there will never be a Palestinian state as long as they are in government, and that Israel will continue to colonize the West Bank, and that Gazans must understand that to even approach the fence that contains them is to die.
That’s not to say the Israelis don’t use the notion of the peace process; they do, invoking it to maintain the status quo, which has been politically profitable to those who believe in re-creating “Greater Israel.” Netanyahu and several other important speakers actually declared on Monday that foreclosing the future of Jerusalem will help advance peace.
The trouble with that thinking, of course, is that the alternative to the two-state solution is the one-state solution, which means occupying a disenfranchised population in perpetuity, governing and punishing by fiat and military tribunal, even as the subjugated population continues to grow. Progressive Israelis believe that will poison the nation’s democracy, but they are mostly just ignored nowadays.
The Israeli right, snuggling ecstatically in the arms of Trump, seems to have no problem with the notion of apartheid-style governing or its long-term price.
The here and now is what matters to them, and in the here and now, their domination of the Palestinians is absolute. Future generations can worry about future Palestinian generations.
So Trump was quite correct when he declared that moving the American embassy to Jerusalem is merely a recognition of reality. A hard, mean reality, but an indisputable reality nonetheless. And running into live ammunition won’t change it.