As Trump’s visit looms, Netanyahu is sucked into a battle of symbols and gesturing over Jerusalem, but Palestinians want substantive action
Zaha Hassan, Haaretz
Though by definition symbols are void of substance, they, in fact, do speak volumes about relationships—think a gold band around a person’s finger or, for something that stakes a much higher claim—the golden-topped Dome of the Rock against Jerusalem’s skyline. Symbols reveal status and identity. Sometimes symbols are all you’ve got.
In the case of the history of Israel-Palestine peace efforts, symbols have been used as a weapon, like the pine forests planted over destroyed Palestinian villages, or as an empty substitute for sovereignty, like the Palestinian flag flying freely over the Muqata’a in Ramallah while the water beneath the city is siphoned off to fill the swimming pools of the settlements nearby.
As President Trump prepares for his visit to the Middle East, symbols and the denial of certain associated symbolic gestures are upstaging any substance that might take place between President Trump and the leaderships in Tel Aviv and Ramallah.
One of the most critical final status issues on the table has always been Jerusalem. It was precisely because of the importance of Jerusalem to Palestinians and Israelis that the negotiating teams on both sides agreed to postpone resolution of its status to a comprehensive agreement, so as not to stall talks on all other issues between them. Of course, Jerusalem was always there on the table—how can one talk about territory and security without considering it, after all?—but its contours were fuzzy and out of focus, Israel’s ultimate intentions for the city undefined.
To its credit, members of the Trump Administration are clearly sensitive to the importance of Jerusalem in Israel-Palestine peace efforts, or else the president would have made good on his campaign promise to move the U.S. embassy on his first day in office, as was widely reported he was contemplating. However, some around the president are well-aware that such precipitous action comes at the U.S.’s peril. Trump’s own defense secretary, retired General James Mattis, has warned that perceived bias towards Israel puts the security of the U.S. military at risk “every day” in the Middle East, and at his confirmation hearing stated: “The capital of Israel that I go to is Tel Aviv.”
Despite General Mattis’s words, members of Congress have already threatened to defund security for U.S. embassies around the world if President Trump doesn’t relocate the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. For these members of Congress—some of whom ironically were critical of the State Department’s insufficient funding for security in Benghazi – the symbolism of an embassy in Jerusalem is even more important than protecting U.S. lives and the American national interest.