Amy Wilentz is a longtime contributing editor at The Nation and former Jerusalem correspondent for The New Yorker. She’s also the author of a novel about Palestinians and Israelis, set in Jerusalem: Martyrs’ Crossing. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Jon Wiener: Remind us what happened on Monday in Jerusalem and Gaza.
Amy Wilentz: Every day, Trump makes the world less safe. Monday was a big one. The Americans moved their embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and the Israel Defense Forces killed at least 60 Palestinian protesters. That’s the very bland version of the news.
JW: The dedication seemed like a festival of religion and American politics, rather than a diplomatic event.
AW: Well, the President didn’t go. One wonders why; possibly he doesn’t like angry Palestinian protesters. So he sent his Jewish relatives into the fray: Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner. Ivanka unveiled the plaque dedicating the American embassy in Jerusalem as if it were a headstone at a cemetery. The plaque has her father’s name prominently figured.
JW: The audience included leaders of the Jewish right in America.
AW: Among them was Sheldon Adelson, the Vegas mogul who’s been a huge Trump supporter. To my mind, he is single-handedly responsible for this grotesque change in US policy. He’s a giant contributor to the super PACs that funded Trump’s election. He supports conservative super PACs, both for the House and the Senate to the tune of $20 and $25 million for each. You could even say that there was a quid pro quo for this embassy: I give you $25 million, you move the embassy.
He has also offered to fund construction of the new embassy, because what we saw on television is just a temporary site. They’re going to build a huge new building, and Sheldon Adelson has offered to contribute to that construction. This will be the first time a private person has ever contributed money to a US government construction project.
JW: Seven presidents have refused pressure to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Why is that?
AW: Because Jerusalem is a contested city. The Palestinians claim it as theirs, the Muslims claim it as one of their holy cities, and of course the Jews claim it as one of theirs. But the hard right in Israel claims it as the unified and indisputable capital of Israel. That’s why the right in Israel has always wanted the Americans to move that embassy to Jerusalem. But American presidents until now have understood that peace is absolutely impossible between the Palestinians and the Israelis, if the Americans—by moving their embassy — declare Jerusalem to belong to Israel entirely, instead of being divided between the two peoples.
JW: This is not just the program of the Israeli right and the American Jewish right; there’s also a Christian evangelical movement that supports right-wing Zionism. At the dedication, the opening prayer was given by a Dallas megachurch pastor who has said, “Mormonism, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism lead people to an eternity of separation from God in hell.” And the closing prayer was given by one of America’s most prominent end time preachers, who once said that Hitler was sent by God to drive the Jews to their ancestral homeland in Israel.
AW: This is a situation where conservative fundamentalist Jewry meets conservative fundamentalist American Christianity. They’re pressing a button that is a very dangerous one in Israel.
JW: Meanwhile, at the Gaza border, nonviolent mass protests on Monday had thousands of Palestinians facing off with the Israeli army.
AW: This was organized to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, “the catastrophe,” the day when Palestinians observe the anniversary of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine and the replacement of the Palestinians with the State of Israel in 1948. And of course it’s also a protest against the horror of Gaza right now. There’s no clean water in Gaza, there’s massive unemployment, the borders are sealed, these people can’t get out, students who are brilliant can’t go abroad to study, people can’t be reunited with their families on the West Bank, except with the permission of Israel. To say that there’s no more Israeli occupation of Gaza just because the IDF is no longer present inside Gaza is not true.
JW: I said this was a nonviolent mass protest, but the Israelis say that their use of gunfire, snipers, machine guns is justified because these were not nonviolent protests. What exactly were the Palestinians’ tactics? Did the Palestinians come to the border with guns?
AW: Of course the Palestinians didn’t have any guns. The Palestinians almost never have guns. They and their leadership are careful not to use firearms in popular protests. But the Palestinians are very angry. They’ve been throwing rocks, and they have sent “fire kites” over Israel— it’s just a weird thing that they do, these beautiful childish things, but with some flaming tails on them that can start fires where they land, which they sometimes do—and sometimes don’t. These don’t seem to me to be reasons to use machine guns and snipers on a crowd.
JW: Throwing stones at the IDF has deep symbolism in Israel. Can I mention the names of David and Goliath?
AW: Yeah. David and Goliath. It’s something that the Israeli doves talk about: how Israel has become Goliath and the Palestinians are like David, yet David was the Israelite in the Biblical story, and Goliath—not so much. And the Palestinians are also well aware of the biblical symbolism. The slingshot has always been the favorite weapon of the Palestinian protesters, not just because that’s what David used but because that’s the easiest weapon to construct when you’re a poor villager or unemployed city kid. They wield them—and then the Israelis respond with gunfire. If Goliath had had gunfire, he would have won the battle against David.
JW: Meanwhile, at the American Embassy in Jerusalem, Jared Kushner gave a speech saying: “Peace is within reach.” What’s your assessment of Jared’s remarks?
AW: What can he possibly mean by peace? Throughout the Oslo peace talks and all the subsequent attempts at peace negotiations, moving the American embassy to Jerusalem was always contingent on the establishment of a Palestinian state there. But now the Trump presidency, the Trump family, Jared Kushner, and Sheldon Adelson have together taken away one major incentive for peace.
JW: Netanyahu, in his speech, did not say peace is within reach. He said, this is a great day for Israel.
AW: He’s not thinking about peace with the Palestinians. He doesn’t care. They can starve to death in Gaza for all he cares.
JW: How does the embassy move fit into the larger picture of Trump’s foreign policy?
AW: This event is consistent with his other actions. He’s pulled out of the Paris climate accord. He’s pulled out of the Iranian nuclear accord. He does not respect global agreements and norms. What he’s really doing here is making America not great. He’s making America less powerful, less important as a global player, showing total disrespect for historic American policy. But we are still a superpower. When you’re the bully on the playground, people still have to pay attention to you, they still have to deal with your behavior, even though you behave like an idiot.