The opening of the American Embassy in Jerusalem and casualties from Monday’s Gaza border demonstrations elicited predictable responses,with each camp playing its assigned role: anti-Israel partisans saw their worst suspicions about Israel confirmed, with the Jewish state cast as a genocidal war machine, mowing down protestors for sport, while pro-Israel activists pointed to the very real fact some protestors were armed as proof that attendees were nothing but a pack of barbarians looking to spill Jewish blood. Hanging over the events was the much-repeated regret that if only the security establishment’s warning about addressing the unfolding humanitarian disaster in the Strip had been heeded, deterioration into violence might have been avoided. As always, there is an assumption by critics that the outrage caused by such a large number of deaths will shake the international community from its apathy and punish Israel for its transgressions. Yet those who see the events as another turning point may be sorely disappointed to discover how quickly such violence fall out of the headlines.
The awful truth is that violence – and especially the staggered kind – doesn’t hold the international community’s attention for very long anymore, if it ever really did. 2014’s Operation Protective Edge was able to capture and sustain the world’s focus by dint of its daily, wall-to-wall coverage inundating observers for nearly two months. But even such an onslaught of violent clips and images fades with the passing of time. Nearly four years later, the world has largely moved on. Even if they have not forgotten that summer’s events, most countries have failed to adopt a more assertive posture toward Israel. Gaza, it seems, is only to be given any attention when violence reaches a critical mass, or is otherwise exploited as a partisan football to embarrass the president and point to his ineptitude in the handling of foreign affairs (as so many on social media were quick to squarely blame President Donald Trump’s embassy decision for the events that transpired). When that violence subsides, Gazans are once again left alone to suffer the dual indignities of living under the boot of Hamas and a crippling Israeli and Egyptian blockade that has left the Strip’s economy teetering on the edge of disaster.
Despite all the hand wringing and bevy of opinion pieces on who was truly to blame, the protests were, unsurprisingly, soon overshadowed by yet another school shooting in Texas, preparations and coverage of the British Royal Wedding, and Trump’s announcement he was planning on asking the Justice Department to investigate claims it had spied on him during his presidential campaign. In today’s world of constant feed updates and presidential gaffes, a typical news cycle moves along much more quickly than it did in the past, forcing headline-grabbing stories to compete with whatever new outrage comes down the pipeline. This isn’t the first time a military operation in or near the Strip cost a large number of Gazans their lives and, given the current trajectory of leadership on all sides, it’s unlikely to be the last. Yet violence has, to a certain degree, been accepted as simply par for the course in this corner of the world, almost a force of nature that wreaks havoc and vanishes as quickly as it appeared.
The embassy opening was never going to be a tactfully-handled affair given Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his colleagues’ fawning over Trump’s decision. This is especially true when one takes into account the president’s insistence on carrying it through even in the face of widespread international condemnation. Even before the ceremony itself, the adulation took on an almost comical turn. Take for example, the coins commemorating the embassy’s dedication with a likeness of Trump and Cyrus the Great side by side, the notoriously racist soccer team Beitar Jerusalem adding “Trump” to its name in honor of the president, and Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat’s decision to rename a roundabout in the Arnona neighborhood next to the embassy “United States Square.” Yet all of these ridiculous examples paled in comparison to the spectacle of watching Bibi and other government officials chummily fraternize with members of Trump’s inner circle. Those in attendance read like a de facto rogue’s gallery for liberals everywhere: Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, and Bibi patron Sheldon Adelson. Adding insult to injury was the inclusion of Pastors John Hagee and Robert Jeffress, controversial figures who had in the past said disparaging things about Jews, Muslims, Mormons, and homosexuals, and whose participation was clearly a nod to Trump-voting Evangelicals enthused about the embassy’s opening. Shallow appeals to “peace” and reconciliation were made in the face of an Israeli government staunchly opposed to negotiating with the PLO in good faith, and whose intransigence was likely solidified by the embassy move. It was yet another event in a chain of embarrassing occurrences that continues to alienate Democrats and Jewish supporters of Israel alike; had no protests been held on that day or a much smaller number of people been killed, the optics of such a gaudy and tone-deaf ceremony would still have been terrible.
In some ways, the ceremony was meant to be a victory lap of sorts for Netanyahu, a vindication of his worldview that Israel could wait out international pressure over its handling of the conflict, yet it’s already proving to have negative ramifications likely to extend into the future. The events of the embassy opening, and their effect on perceptions of Israel by Democrats and progressives, might best be compared to Netanyahu’s speech to Congress in 2015 against the wishes of then President Barack Obama. Netanyahu was hardly a popular figure even before the speech, having developed an increasingly acrimonious relationship with the president over the course of their concurrent tenures. But the spectacle of a foreign leader addressing Congress in direct opposition to a sitting president was such an obnoxiously glaring spectacle that many supporters have internalized Netanyahu’s actions as a direct slight against Obama, and by extension, themselves. Netanyahu has somehow succeeded in discovering the only thing worse than not getting along with a Democratic president is to warmly embrace a figure so loathed by large swathes of the American electorate that any association with him is infinitely more toxic.
It’s only fair to point out that many if not most Israelis who are in favor of an American embassy in Jerusalem hardly view the move as controversial. After all, they might say, no one is asking for recognition of Israeli sovereignty over territory beyond the Green Line, but simply an acknowledgement of the obvious. Few are well-versed in Evangelical politics and the lengths to which Trump will go in order to satisfy his constituents, even as it risks instability thousands of miles away. The average Israeli, however, not the political class looking for cheap photo ops, will shoulder the burden of U.S. mistakes. Violent outbreaks in the Mideast will come and go, but the attention they bring to the conflict may continue to deliver diminishing returns; Trump’s ostensible association with Israel reflected in the embassy ceremony, however, is far more indelible, and far more damaging. Democrats are willing, as they have in the past, to forgive Israel for outbreaks of violence. They are less willing to do so for alliances that increasingly fly in the face of their most basic values.