At the opening ceremony for the American embassy in Jerusalem Monday, speakers intoned about the desire for peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. At about the same time, and 40 miles away, tens of thousands of Palestinians were attempting to breach the Gaza Strip’s border fence with Israel. Israeli snipers reportedly killed 61 Palestinians during the violent protests Monday and Tuesday, and a Palestinian official later said that 50 of them were members of the Hamas terrorist group.
The Gaza Health Ministry said another 1,360 Palestinians were wounded. There were initial reports that an eight or nine-month-old infant had died from inhaling tear gas, but another doctor said the infant died of a pre-existing condition. The child’s family said the baby presence near the protest was the result of a mix-up.
The violence overshadowed news coverage of the embassy opening and cast the future of any Palestinian-Israel peace accord deeper in doubt. Still, the administration maintains that it will reveal its peace plan in the next several months.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told CBS News that Hamas terrorists who control the Gaza Strip had pushed “civilians — women, children — into the line of fire with a view of getting casualties. We’ve tried to minimize casualties, they are trying to incur casualties in order to put pressure on Israel, which is horrible. These things are avoidable. If Hamas had not pushed them there, nothing would happen. Hamas holds responsibility for doing this and they’re deliberately doing it.”
In a statement the next day, the European Union called for both sides to exercise “utmost restraint to avoid further loss of life.”
There were also media reports that Hamas and other militant factions had urged Palestinians to rush the border fence, falsely claiming that it had been breached and that Palestinians were flooding into Israel.
A number of countries criticized Israel for using “excessive force” but the United States fully defended Israel’s actions. “The responsibility for these tragic deaths rests squarely with Hamas,” said White House deputy press secretary Raj Shah, who blamed the terrorist group for “intentionally and cynically provoking this response.” He added that Israel has the right to defend itself.
At the embassy ceremony, President Trump told the 800 guests in a video message, “Our greatest hope is for peace. The United States remains fully committed to facilitating a lasting peace agreement … . We extend a hand in friendship to Israel, the Palestinians and to all of their neighbors.”
Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law who is leading the administration’s efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, spoke of his belief that it is “possible for both sides to gain more than they give so that all people can live in peace, safe from danger, free from fear, and able to pursue their dreams.”
And Netanyahu said he hoped the embassy move would “advance a lasting peace between Israel and all our neighbors.”
But there have been no Israeli-Palestinian talks since September 2010, when they collapsed following a meeting between Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that had been intended to help “resolve all final-status issues.” Mideast experts acknowledge that the situation is at a low point with no indications of progress anytime soon.
The Trump administration has yet to unveil its own long-awaited peace proposal. Media reports have quoted senior White House officials as saying the plan is nearing completion and that it would be revealed within the next month or two. One of the officials was quoted as saying the administration hopes the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital would be “clarifying” for the Palestinians — a “recognition … that Israel isn’t going away.”
But Abbas greeted Trump’s decision with a declaration that any peace plan he puts forth would be dead on arrival, saying: “We will not accept anything from them.”
Sources insist that the Trump administration is not going to try to push the Palestinians to come to the peace table. Rather, it will seek to enlist the support of other Arab countries — including Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates — to cajole the Palestinians to engage. It is said that the peace plan would not have a set of guiding principles, unlike the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, nor would it mandate a two-state solution. It would, however, suggest ways to deal with the issue of Palestinian refugees.
Rabbi Marc Schneier, who as president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding has visited with leaders of the Persian Gulf states, said “the Trump administration has moved mountains to bring Israel and the Gulf states closer together,” and that this “new paradigm could be used to bring the Israelis and Palestinians closer.”
In interviews with more than a dozen Jewish leaders, former American and Israeli diplomats and leaders of advocacy groups, only a few believe the time is right to seek an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Wilson Center and a former adviser to six U.S. secretaries of state, said it all depends what the administration’s peace plan contains.
“If it says the Trump administration recognizes east Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state and that it intends to put an embassy there, that could help get the Palestinians back” to the negotiating table, he said.
Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman was reportedly told by U.S. officials two weeks ago that the Trump administration would be demanding that Israel make “painful concessions,” including transferring control to the Palestinians of four Arab neighborhoods in east Jerusalem (Jebl Mukabar, Issawiya, Shuafat and Abu Dis), so that they could become the capital of a future Palestinian state.
Asked about Lieberman’s comment, David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, told NPR: “We don’t look at things in terms of price. There’s either a better opportunity for Israel and a better opportunity for the Palestinians, such that they both look at it and say we’re better off with something new than the status quo, or it doesn’t work. And when he [Lieberman] talked about it in terms of prices, compensation, it sounds like a punishment, and then why would anybody do that?”
Miller questioned what the Trump peace plan is designed to accomplish “given the gaps and mistrust” between the two sides.
“What is the purpose in knowing that the gaps are Grand Canyon ones?” he asked. “Is it to get serious negotiations going? What do they believe the chances of success are? Right now, they are slim to none.”
“If [the peace plan] says the Trump administration recognizes east Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state and that it intends to put an embassy there, that could help get the Palestinians back” to the negotiating table.
Zalman Shoval, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said flatly: “I don’t think the time is propitious [for talks] because the Palestinians have not yet gotten around to realizing that this may be the worst moment in the history of their national struggle. They have lost the support of major parts of the Arab world and they started a quarrel with the United States that started long before the move of the embassy [from Tel Aviv]. Abu Mazen [Abbas’ nom de guerre] is an ineffective leader and the rest of the world no longer puts it [the Palestinian issue] at the top of their agenda.
“If Trump wants to make progress [towards peace], there would have to be a change [in leadership] on the Palestinian side, not to mention the troubles with Hamas,” he added. “How do you negotiate with the Palestinians if half of them are under a completely different regime that in a Palestinian state might become the dominant one?”
Hamas has reportedly expressed a willingness, through several backdoor channels, to enter into talks with Israel in an effort to arrange a long-term “cease-fire” in the Gaza Strip, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. It said Hamas was seeking in return a significant easing of Israel’s blockade over Gaza, the approval of large-scale infrastructure projects and a possible prisoner swap. An Israeli official confirmed the report this week but said Israel did not pursue the initiative because Hamas was not offering any concessions.
Daniel Mariaschin, executive vice president and CEO of B’nai B’rith International, pointed out that “Hamas has agreed to ceasefires in the past and each time used them to their advantage. The main issue is not whether you create a 12-month ceasefire, it is Hamas’ continued call for the destruction of Israel. And sending women and children to walk into the line of fire” this week, after Israel dropped leaflets warning Palestinians to stay away from the border fence and “called bus companies telling them not to bring people to the fence …. Buying time is not the answer.”
A Lebanese newspaper reported last month that Egypt had worked out a prisoner swap with Hamas on Israel’s behalf. But although Hamas’ Gaza leader, Yahya Sinwar, was interested, Hamas’ overall leader, Ismail Haniyeh, opposed it, leading to a screaming match between the two men, according to the Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom.
A spokesman for J Street, Logan Bayroff, said the dovish group believes the relocation of the American Embassy to Jerusalem “has completely alienated the Palestinian leadership by unilaterally adopting the position of Prime Minister Netanyahu.” The action, he said, indicates that “the Trump administration is not seriously interested in reaching a two-state solution or putting forth proposals about how to get to a two-state solution. Any plan that does not include the creation of a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital living alongside Israel in peace and security as its final goal has no chance of generating meaningful progress.”
A spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, Ori Nir, agreed, saying he doesn’t believe “anything the Trump administration will come up with will be constructive, and since the atmosphere is so polarized, it is probably better not to play with fire.”
That view was echoed by Josh Ruebner, policy director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, a national coalition of hundreds of groups advocating for Palestinian rights.
“By moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem … to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the Palestinian’s commemoration of the Nakba [Israel’s declaration of independence referred to by Palestinians as a catastrophe], has green-lighted not only Israel’s continued apartheid control but the horrific massacre of Palestinians in Gaza.”
And to put forth a peace plan that would not go anywhere “would needlessly raise expectations that a final status agreement can be reached,” said David Halperin, executive director of the Israel Policy Forum.
“To unveil a plan now that would almost certainly end in failure would suggest that a two-state solution is unachievable,” he said. “You have a weak and divided Palestinian leadership, an Israeli cabinet with a majority publicly opposed to the two-state vision, and a U.S. that is deeply mistrusted by the Palestinians and has not been coordinating its moves with its European allies, let alone its Arab allies outside of perhaps Saudi Arabia. Jordan and Egypt by all accounts have remained in the dark. … Not acknowledging political realities on the ground creates the danger of failure.”
But Yael Eckstein, global executive vice president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, said the peace plan should be released, explaining: “You have to do what is right without waiting for the perfect time.”
Richard Heideman, president of the American Zionist Movement, said what he heard from the Trump administration at the embassy ceremony convinced him that “the time for peace is now, the interest for peace is now and the need for peace is now. … The leadership of Hamas is doing a great disservice to its people. It’s a violation of humanitarian and international law to use young people to accomplish their political goal” by sacrificing their lives.