‘Status Quo Minus’ in Israel and Palestine

A man holds a Palestinian flag during clashes with Israeli forces near the border between the Gaza strip and Israel, east of Gaza City on May 14, 2018, following the the controversial move to Jerusalem of the United States embassy.
A man holds a Palestinian flag during clashes with Israeli forces near the border between the Gaza strip and Israel, east of Gaza City on May 14, 2018, following the the controversial move to Jerusalem of the United States embassy. Photo: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

Today produced a series of surreal juxtapositions across Palestine and Israel. Israeli streets were filled with both revelers and protesters as the United States officially “opened” an embassy in Jerusalem. The city has long been the country’s functional capital, but Palestinians also aspire to have their capital in its historically Arab district, and its status was to have been left open until a final peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians. Just two hours to the south, tens of thousands of Palestinians demonstrated at the border of the Gaza Strip, where Israeli live fire and tear gas resulted in a reported 2,000 injuries and more than 50 deaths, including women, children, and rescue workers.

In the midst of all of that upheaval, Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, led a U.S. delegation to the official embassy opening. Prayers were offered, and not just by rabbis, as might be expected in the Jewish state, but by American pastor Robert Jeffress, who has called Islam an “evil, evil religion” and said that Muslims — as well as Mormons and Jews — are doomed to burn in hell.

One might assume that these twin assaults — on diplomatic niceties, and on human life — would produce weeks of reaction, a regional crisis that would shoot to the top of Washington’s priority list.

Yet the reaction from the U.S. was more muted, with expressions of either celebration or disappointment giving way to the expectation that matters in the region would continue, as former U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro put it, at “status quo minus.” How could this be?

Ten years ago, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was one of the central concerns of U.S. foreign policy and punditry. Moves by either side, or Washington, were telegraphed far in advance on front pages and endlessly debated on editorial pages. Those arguments rested on a set of shared bipartisan beliefs: American support for Israel was unshakable, founded on a commitment to a Jewish homeland after the U.S. and Europe had failed to protect Jews in the Holocaust. Israel itself was steadily growing in economic, military, and technological prowess, but also as a democracy. Yet Washington saw Palestinian institutions and development as a moderating influence against Hamas, Hezbollah, and other extremist groups. One day, an American president, with brave partners from both sides, would arrive at the magic formula for peace — a two-state solution that both Israeli and Palestinian voters would support.

In recent years, that world has moved from the realm of possibility to fairy tale, as the Trump administration’s move to open an official U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem has shown. It is possible that, in the long run, the end of this chapter will lead to something better. But it is certain that the people of the region — and perhaps Americans as well — will have to live through worse days first.

Here are the new realities. The Iraq War shifted the focus of U.S. involvement in the Middle East, and a new generation arose with little direct connection to the post–World War II Israeli narrative. American support for Israel has been redrawn as a partisan contest, with starkly differing motivations. Older Democrats, including but not only Jewish-Americans, still place great stock in Israel’s historic origins and democratic institutions. But younger voters do not, and are almost twice as likely as their elders to say that they sympathize with Palestinians more than Israelis.

On the other hand, Republican sympathy for Israel is at its highest point in four decades, a trend that has been driven by the fervent alliance between Evangelical Christians in the U.S. and right-of-center political figures in Israel. Imagine the outcry were a U.S. president to host a foreign official who had declared that all Christians would burn in hell. That the Israeli government could host Pastor Jeffress, without comment, given his long history of bigoted comments about Jews and many other groups, speaks volumes about how the alliance with Washington is understood.

Because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer much in the news, Americans have missed much of the turbulence of the Netanyahu government. In power since 2009, the prime minister survives despite being beset by corruption allegations and perpetually seeming to be on the brink of collapse. Members of his government have targeted human-rights groups, including American ones, and barred entry to critics from Europe and North America. As Israel is consumed by an internal debate about what to do with non-Jewish African migrants (whom a rabbi who spoke at the embassy event called “monkeys” earlier this year), it grows farther from the beautiful picture of liberal democracy that many Americans held of the “Zionist miracle.”

For its part, the Palestinian Authority has lost much of its perceived legitimacy and effectiveness. The control of the terrorist organization Hamas over Gaza is increasingly contested, not just by the Palestinian Authority but by more extreme groups as well — and drastic humanitarian failures in the territory, one of the most densely populated places on earth, have led the U.N. to declare that it may be uninhabitable by 2020.

Twenty-five years of American policy were premised on the idea that eventually Washington could help the two sides reach a peace deal that their publics would welcome. But the weaknesses of government on both sides, and the collapse in public trust in them — and in the U.S. as a mediator — made a peace deal seem ever-farther out of reach, even before the Trump administration’s action. Now, the optimists talk about “status quo minus,” which means that we don’t get any closer to peace, the security situation gets ragged around the edges, but we don’t get to full-on war either.

What does the “minus” in “status quo minus” mean? Palestinians, feeling that both the West and their own leaders have failed them, undertake actions like marching to the Gaza border. Israeli governments, needing to show strength to shore up their own weak positions against public cynicism, open fire. The appeal to Palestinians of violent extremist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS increases. The suffering of Palestinian civilians increases. The measures Israel takes to safeguard its own citizens in the face of Palestinian rage take a steady toll on the vibrancy of the country’s democracy, and on its reputation in Europe and elsewhere. Its sense of isolation increases.

Those dynamics won’t change regardless of where the U.S. embassy is located. But Washington’s choices about where America sits, and who speaks for us, produce almost the mirror opposite of good diplomacy. The U.S. will now have less influence over what happens on the ground, but be seen to have greater responsibility for all the minuses of the outcome. That’s a big minus not just for all of the civilians in the region who desire just to get on with their lives in dignity, but for Americans as well.

Israel & Palestine Slide Away From the Possibility of Peace