Jerusalem: Neither peace nor a process
The only thing that can be said with certainty about Donald Trump’s recognition this week of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is that its actual impact will be inversely proportional to the amount of noise it generates. Like every other statement, pronouncement, policy proposal, doctrine, blueprint, understanding, pact and set of principles going back decades, it will vanish without a trace into the vortex of nothingness that goes by the name of “the Middle East peace process.”
The announcement will undoubtedly generate tension and violence along the Israeli-Palestinian seam and heated condemnation from Arab capitals, those same capitals that are cozying up to Israel in the regional vendetta against Iran. It’s very likely that people will die. It’s even possible that America will move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – a distasteful prospect for the American diplomats involved, but little more than a symbolic gesture in the greater scheme of things. Another token in a virtual reality in which symbol has long since replaced action.
The overall response to Trump’s announcement – other than the self-righteous satisfaction emanating from Israel and its supporters – is that the recognition of Jerusalem is a dramatic setback for the Middle East peace process and could even sound the death knell for the two-state solution. Which is roughly like saying that the Harvey Weinstein revelations disrupted centuries of male sensitivity to women.
There is no peace process. There hasn’t been one for over two decades and there is no sign of one in the conceivable future. That was true long before Trump’s announcement. The so-called peace process is a cocktail of sedatives and anti-depressants that enables Americans and Europeans to feel good about themselves without needing to actually do something. An opioid on which they’ve grown dangerously dependent, to the extent that its withdrawal fills them with despair and foreboding.
Hardly anyone in Israel believes in the peace process; that lack of belief is probably the only thing that Israelis have in common. Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, the poor and the filthy rich are all united in the knowledge that peace is unrealistic, unattainable and definitely unwanted. We’ve achieved relative social stability, and even affluence, without peace; why throw all that away now? Why risk awaking the demons of land transfer, reparations, social upheaval and potential civil war for something we’ve never known and don’t really believe in? Israel’s god preaches vengeance, not peace and kindness.
Ironically, Sigmund Freud maintained that Jewish monotheism – the ability to believe in an internal and invisible god – provided the facility for abstract thinking. If people can worship a god that is not there, they can also understand symbols and abstract concepts; they can think in terms that are not only tangible and immediate. Worshipping a god who cannot be seen means that, in Judaism, “a sensory perception was given second place to what may be called an abstract idea – a triumph of intellectuality over sensuality,” Freud wrote.
How quickly things change. At the precise time that Freud was lauding the Jewish capacity for abstraction, the early Zionists in Palestine were going about the creation of the New Jew; the antithesis of the caricature of the European ghetto Jew, with his long sidelocks, pasty pallor, weak eyes, seventeenth century garments and puny musculature. The New Jew would work the land, drain the swamps, eat pork and fight the heathen – a triumph of the sensual over the intellectual. The only remnant of Europe that would be propagated in the New Jew was hubris; the pride in having chosen an invisible god.
The Zionists did their work well. Today, even the most religious of Israelis seems to have lost the capacity for abstract thought. We may still worship a god that cannot be seen, but in everything else, seeing is believing. Modern Israelis worship the tangible values of land, money and power. We can’t fathom peace and therefore we don’t believe in it. We are unable to perceive any tangible benefit in comity, so we reject it. The Palestinians are mainly out of sight, so we needn’t bother thinking about them. Empathy is an intangible we can do without.
One thing the modern Israeli has not given up on is symbols. We love symbols – from Holocaust memorials to military cemeteries to national holidays based on biblical events (such as Passover) and archaeological digs that reach back into the distant Jewish past – mainly because we’ve denuded them of all historical context. Israeli symbols may represent the past, but they serve the purposes of the present. They are the building blocks of a collective memory that has been carefully curated to reinforce the Jewish claim to the land.
Jerusalem is one such symbol. Trump’s recognition of the city as the capital of Israel is bereft of any practical meaning. Israel has controlled Jerusalem for fifty years and has long since imposed its rule on Jewish and Arab neighborhoods alike. Trump’s declaration will not change that. It was purely symbolic – and it is there that its significance lies.
What Trump was saying, in effect, was that the United States under his administration has no intention of intervening in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. What was and is will continue to be. Those who had hoped that Trump would intervene boldly in the dispute – if only out of some typically unfathomable narcissistic impulse – have been put right. The president will leave it up to the two sides to reach an accommodation – meaning, in practice, that the dispute will continue to fester.
Anyone who has paid any attention to the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio over the last 50 years, should have realized by now that the two adversaries are incapable of achieving a solution. Only a concerted and dispassionate effort by the power blocs that have influence in the region – Europe and, in particular, the US – has any chance at all of making progress. But the Europeans are too beset with their own problems and Holocaust guilt to take the initiative and Trump has just announced that he won’t be doing anything either.
So the door is open for Palestinians and Israelis to continue doing what they’ve been doing for fifty years. It’s what they do best.