Opinion

From Jerusalem to Gaza: The Bloodstained First Act of the Trump Intifada

Trump got his name in big letters on the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. The violence triggered by his unbalanced and intemperate foreign policy towards Israel and the Palestinians may one day carry his brand as well

Palestinian demonstrators burn a U.S. flag and a poster of U.S. President Donald Trump at the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip. May 15, 2018.
\ IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS

One thing that the career of Donald Trump has taught us is that if you take a lousy product - be it a casino, mail-order steaks, or a bogus university - and put the Trump name on it, it is still going to fail. This is also true of bad foreign policy initiatives.  

This has never been clearer than with the recent Trumpification of U.S. foreign policy toward Israel.

We have seen the tell-tale signs of past efforts - the hoopla, the Twitter hype, the parties, the ribbon-cutting ceremonies featuring his daughter, America’s spokesmodel, Ivanka Trump, and even the Trump name carved in big letters in stone. In this case, they have all been linked to the opening this week of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem

Benjamin Netanyahu, his wife and Senior White House Advisers Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump applaud during the dedication ceremony of the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, May 14, 2018
\ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

The embassy opening, in turn, has been a part of a bold Trump administration experiment in which, in effect, the U.S. president has appointed the Israeli prime minister to also serve as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. In other words, Trumpification equals Bibification.  

The experiment has manifested itself not just in the decision to move the embassy but also in the U.S. decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, support for Israeli strikes against the Iranians in Syria, up-and-down-the-line support for Israel in the UN, and support for those initiatives of Arab states targeting Iran that meet with Israeli approval.  

This week, it even had the U.S. parroting Netanyahu’s talking points regarding the bloodshed on the Gaza border, blaming all the deaths and injuries in recent days on the Palestinians, and rejecting out-of-hand the idea that Israel had any choice but to gun down even those protesting on the border who were clearly innocent or were being used as "human shields."

In the past, even as the U.S. provided steadfast support for Israel, that support was heavily influenced by two factors that seem to have been discarded by Trump. One is U.S. national interests. The other is Israeli national interests.

Tear gas is fired at protestors during clashes with Israeli forces near the border between the Gaza strip and Israel, east of Gaza City on May 14, 2018
THOMAS COEX/AFP

For example, in terms of U.S. national interests, while the U.S. has always vigorously stood by Israel’s side, we were careful not to appear too one-sided when it came to Israel’s negotiations with the Palestinians, because this enabled us to play a more constructive role as an honest broker, it served to reduce tensions with those who support the Palestinians and, not coincidentally, it was the right thing to do. 

An illustration of this was the policy of recent U.S. presidents to support the move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalemat some point in the future.  

The theory was that waiting until a permanent, internationally recognized settlement of the disputed claims for Jerusalem was achieved, such a move would be seen as inflammatory (as it was) and that by not moving until a deal was reached, we might be able to gain helpful concessions in exchange for our decision to finally relocate the embassy (we did not).  

In past administrations, balance has manifested itself in other ways. The Obama administration supported Israel regularly in the UN, even blocking efforts at Palestinian statehood that were regarded as a "shortcut to peace."

But the administration was also critical of settlement expansion in disputed territory and, in the case of the 2014 Gaza conflict, the U.S. was harshly critical of some Israeli tactics, notably missile strikes on a UN shelter and school in the territory.  

The Obama years were seen as particularly acrimonious and the Obama-Netanyahu relationship as especially toxic. But until Trump the U.S. sought to at least appear to be even-handed. No longer. 

Palestinians carry a demonstrator injured during clashes with Israeli forces near the border between the Gaza strip and Israel east of Gaza City on May 14, 2018.
MAHMUD HAMS/AFP

The problem with Trump’s doggedly partisan approach is that it may help neither the U.S. nor Israel. 

Pulling out of the Iran deal has deeply alienated America’s European allies and the coming sanctions against their businesses (and potentially secondary sanctions) may exacerbate the rift. It has also undercut American international standing and supported the narrative of Iranian hardliners.  

The Embassy gambit may also backfire - as it was offered to the world in split-screen shots on television that also featured the mayhem in Gaza. This imagery compounded the sense of callousness of U.S. and Israeli leaders as they partied while Palestinian children died.

The White House spokesman’s words blaming the deaths exclusively on Palestinians added to a sense of U.S. complicity in the atrocities; America was clearly providing cover for unnecessary violence and human rights abuses.

Israel has every right to defend its borders. Hamas, a group with plenty of blood on its hands, is clearly behind the demonstrations at the border and has been seeking to provoke the Israelis into action. But America provided a counter-provocation with the embassy move and then supported Israel’s brutal, reckless, inhumane and unnecessary over-reaction.  

And this is where the twist comes in. Because now, as America’s great brander-in-chief sought to write his name in the storied history of the Holy Land (including possibly on a railway station near the Western Wall), he may end up with a different kind of branding.

These days of conflict may be the first steps in an uprising that, someday, could justifiably be known as the Trump Intifada.

The plaque commemorating the opening of the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. May 14, 2018.
Sebastian Scheiner/AP

And it may stand as an example of what happens when America chooses playing politics over longer-term interests - graphically illustrated by the total absence of Democrats at the embassy opening and the prominent place given to a big GOP donor.

And when America takes the advice of "friends" like Netanyahu, who themselves have embraced the ethno-nationalist politics of division - while, in actuality, neither side is doing each other, or their citizens, any favors at all.

It may be seen as what happens when two leaders who are under legal pressure seek to distract from their problems with grand but ill-considered and dangerous gestures. And it may be seen as what happens when adversaries like the leaders of Hamas take advantage of the ego and extremism of such leaders to advance their narrative and weaken the positions of both the U.S. and Israel.  

In other words, it may prove once again that the Trump name stands for rashness, bad judgment and noise over substance.

But unlike a Trump steak that just leaves a bad taste in the mouth, or a Trump tower that's just an eyesore, Trump foreign policy misfires will cause far more serious and lasting damage, as the Palestinians are, unfortunately, discovering at this bleak moment - and as the people of Israel and the United States will, at some future point, find out as well.

David Rothkopf is a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His most recent book is Great Questions of Tomorrow (Simon & Schuster/TED, 2017). Twitter: @djrothkopf