Gaza Protests and Jerusalem Embassy Opening Unite Israelis

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(Bloomberg) -- In his speech at the new American embassy in Jerusalem Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed an audience that included senior American officials, Jewish Republic donors and Democratic U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman. He began by thanking a long list of those who had made the historic moment possible. When he got to the Israeli army, the audience burst into applause.

Everyone in the room knew that the Israeli Defense Forces were, at that very moment, engaged in forcefully repelling a Hamas-inspired assault on the Israel-Gaza border. Most were not yet aware that the Palestinian casualty count would exceed 50 dead and 2,000 wounded. But it wouldn’t have mattered to them. They were on Israel’s side, no matter what.

This is the new default under Donald Trump. America is now unabashedly and unquestioningly pro-Israel. Previous administrations would have called for peace (and, in the case of Obama, hinted that Israel was at fault for the violence, not just the death toll). Not this time. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and point man on the peace process, put the blame solely on Hamas. “Those provoking violence are part of the problem, not part of the solution,” he declared. That got a cheer, too.

Kushner was right: Hamas was responsible for provoking the violence. Only a few days earlier, one of its founders, Mahmoud al-Zahar, proclaimed the organization’s goal was “to place a million martyrs on this land until, God willing, we liberate it.” Then he sent young people out to build the body count. That those Palestinian youth were desperate enough — and indoctrinated so relentlessly — to rush blindly into such danger is part of a tragic hardening of views that has made this conflict so intractable.

Hamas knew it had no chance to overrun the Israeli army. Its strategy of bleeding its young people was aimed at influencing three target audiences.

First, it hoped to incite the masses of the West Bank and East Jerusalem to rise up in solidarity. This is a fraught week on the Palestinian calendar: It includes both the Nakba — which literally means “catastrophe” and refers to the events of the 1948 war that resulted in hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arab refugees — and the start of Ramadan. Hamas wanted their fellow Palestinians to see a blood bath on television.

The Palestinians of the West Bank and East Jerusalem did not take the bait. Compared to the residents of the Hamas mini-state in Gaza, they are relatively free and prosperous. The Palestinian Authority, whose security services control West Bank cities, hates Hamas even more than Israel does; PA President Mahmoud Abbas is backed by the more moderate Fatah faction which has been at odds with Hamas since the death of Yasser Arafat. And PA leaders vividly recall Israel’s military response to their last effort at rebellion. It is always possible that a Hamas spark will become a broader fire, but that increasingly appears unlikely.

The second audience Hamas targeted was the “international community.” Bloody Monday got the media coverage it expected. Amnesty International accused Israel of committing war crimes. Turkey and Iran, allies of Hamas and enemies of Zionism, were outraged. But other usually reliable friends of the Palestinians were less than effusive.

European Union Federica Mogherini issued a statement calling for “restraint” from both sides. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel conceded that Israel has a right to defend itself, although they suggested a more gentle approach. The Secretary General of the United Nations confessed to being “profoundly concerned.” Saudi Arabia and Egypt settled for pro forma condemnations, most likely coordinated in advance with Jerusalem. South Africa recalled its ambassador again.

To Israel, such tut-tutting is meaningless. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are allies in the fight against Iran. Europe is preoccupied and demonstrably weak. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Netanyahu have a respectful relationship, as evidenced by Netanyahu's most recent Moscow visit last week.

For Israel, America is now the whole ball game, the only foreign power that matters. Under Donald Trump, Washington can be counted on to keep its commitments, veto pesky UN Security Council resolutions, sanction and oppose Iranian aggression and give the IDF carte blanche in matters of Israeli national security. Never before has any American administration been so supportive. Some Israelis disapprove of Trump’s manners, but few find fault with his policies or doubt the sincerity of his support.

Hamas’s third target was Israeli public opinion. That hope, too, was misplaced. In the first Lebanon War, in 1982, when Lebanese Christian militiamen allied with Israel massacred Palestinian civilians in Beirut, hundreds of thousands of left-wing Israeli activists filled the main square of Tel Aviv to protest.

Those days are long gone. On Monday night, the main square of Tel Aviv was once again filled to overflowing, but not in protest. It was the site of a street party in honor of Netta Barzilai, a young, proudly plus-sized, rapping, chicken-dancing, #MeToo activist. (By virtue of her victory, next year’s Eurovision contest will be held in Israel’s capital, not far from the new American embassy.)

Israelis have been hardened by decades of intifada, Iraqi Scud missile attacks, Iranian threats of genocide, Hamas and Hezbollah rocket barrages, and the failure of even “moderate” Palestinian leaders to compromise for peace. In the case of Gaza in particular, sympathy in Israel has been replaced by apathy or worse. That isn’t a mindset conducive to peace efforts; but Kushner’s words that “peace is within reach” now seem fanciful from almost any angle.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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