Though by definition symbols are void of substance, they, in fact, do speak volumes about relationships—think a gold band around a person’s finger or, for something that stakes a much higher claim—the golden-topped Dome of the Rock against Jerusalem’s skyline. Symbols reveal status and identity. Sometimes symbols are all you’ve got.
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In the case of the history of Israel-Palestine peace efforts, symbols have been used as a weapon, like the pine forests planted over destroyed Palestinian villages, or as an empty substitute for sovereignty, like the Palestinian flag flying freely over the Muqata’a in Ramallah while the water beneath the city is siphoned off to fill the swimming pools of the settlements nearby.
As President Trump prepares for his visit to the Middle East, symbols and the denial of certain associated symbolic gestures are upstaging any substance that might take place between President Trump and the leaderships in Tel Aviv and Ramallah.
One of the most critical final status issues on the table has always been Jerusalem. It was precisely because of the importance of Jerusalem to Palestinians and Israelis that the negotiating teams on both sides agreed to postpone resolution of its status to a comprehensive agreement, so as not to stall talks on all other issues between them. Of course, Jerusalem was always there on the table—how can one talk about territory and security without considering it, after all?—but its contours were fuzzy and out of focus, Israel’s ultimate intentions for the city undefined.
To its credit, members of the Trump Administration are clearly sensitive to the importance of Jerusalem in Israel-Palestine peace efforts, or else the president would have made good on his campaign promise to move the U.S. embassy on his first day in office, as was widely reported he was contemplating. However, some around the president are well-aware that such precipitous action comes at the U.S.’s peril. Trump’s own defense secretary, retired General James Mattis, has warned that perceived bias towards Israel puts the security of the U.S. military at risk “every day” in the Middle East, and at his confirmation hearing stated: "The capital of Israel that I go to is Tel Aviv."
Despite General Mattis’s words, members of Congress have already threatened to defund security for U.S. embassies around the world if President Trump doesn’t relocate the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. For these members of Congress—some of whom ironically were critical of the State Department’s insufficient funding for security in Benghazi - the symbolism of an embassy in Jerusalem is even more important than protecting U.S. lives and the American national interest.
Unlike these members of Congress, President Trump is “being careful to understand how such a decision would impact the peace process,” so says Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, perhaps playing to his right flank, believes to the contrary; moving the embassy would be good for peace, as it would shatter the “Palestinian fantasy that Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel.” However, the reality is that no country has its embassy in Jerusalem to date. This is because there is international law that speaks to the issue of Jerusalem and the illegality of Israel’s attempt to annex it, recently reaffirmed this year by the UN Security Council in Resolution 2334.
And no sitting U.S. president has been willing to visit the Western Wall, located in occupied East Jerusalem, for fear that it might signal U.S. aquiescence of Israeli sovereignty. Though President Trump, who has never visited Israel or Palestine, is reportedly contemplating a visit to the Jewish holy site as a part of his tour of the sacred sites holy to Muslims, Christians and Jews, he has refused to be accompanied by Prime Minister Netanyahu. A member of Trump’s preparation team clarified for Netanyahu’s staff that the Western Wall is not Israeli territory, but part of the West Bank, occupied since 1967; Trump’s National Security Advisor, H.R. McMaster, refused publicly to say whether the Wall is part of Israel, in effect confirming the same position.
Why is all this symbolism and gesturing so important? They are important because neither Palestinians nor Israelis have been able to read the tea leaves on where President Trump might be going with his stated interest in brokering the “ultimate deal.” Without any clue about the substance, symbols have become even more important to the leadership of both Israelis and Palestinians.
But for Palestinians, who have been holding a “Day of Rage” every Friday in solidarity with 1400 prisoners in Israeli jails on hunger strike for more than a month now, seeing a Palestinian flag behind President Trump at the White House, or holding a similar photo op at the Muqata’a in Ramallah, isn’t enough, not when young, unarmed protestors are being shot. President Trump must come to the region with substance, a real plan towards Palestinian self-determination that H. R. McMaster says President Trump himself supports. Symbols can't be all there is. Not anymore.
Zaha Hassan is a human rights lawyer and Middle East Fellow at New America, based in Washington, DC. Formerly, she was the coordinator and senior legal advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team.