The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s envoys take a hammer to Mideast peace

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In reckoning with the challenges facing Israelis and Palestinians, President Trump and his allies aren’t guilty of subtlety. Their heavy-handed approach has infuriated and alienated one side (the Palestinians) and bestowed upon Israel — and, in particular, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — a number of political gifts, including the unilateral recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem. There were many doubters before, but absolutely no one now can believe that the United States is an impartial or honest broker in mediating one of the most intractable conflicts in the Middle East.

And so, for good measure, Trump’s lieutenants decided to hammer the message home — literally.

On Sunday, David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, and White House Mideast peace envoy Jason Greenblatt journeyed underground to an archaeological dig near Jerusalem’s Old City. There, they participated in an inaugural ceremony for the subterranean “Pilgrimage Road,” what some archaeologists and a right-wing Jewish nationalist organization believe to be an ancient thoroughfare that led to Jerusalem’s holy sites.

In the company of figures including American Jewish billionaire Sheldon Adelson; Sara Netanyahu, the prime minister’s wife; and prominent former mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat, Friedman hoisted a sledgehammer and knocked holes in the last thin wall obstructing the passageway. Greenblatt followed suit. Footage of the event was live-streamed on Facebook.

As analysts noted, Friedman and Goldblatt’s stunt is not only about history. The parent organization of the City of David Foundation, which runs the project, is an Israeli settler group that helps move Jewish families into Palestinian neighborhoods and is backed by millions of dollars in private donations as well as government funds. The tunnel the organization carved out runs below the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, where residents complain that close to a decade of digging has led to cracks in the walls of their homes and caused the foundations of their houses to sink.

Many Palestinians see the endeavor as yet another blow to their rights in East Jerusalem, which remains the putative capital of a future Palestinian state. “It is very clear what they want: a Jewish majority here and in East Jerusalem,” local activist Jawad Siyam said to my colleagues Ruth Eglash and Loveday Morris this year.

Friedman, who has close ties to pro-settlement groups in Israel and the United States, told the Jerusalem Post that he could never imagine Israel relinquishing control over the City of David archaeological site. On Sunday, he hailed the project as an affirmation of “the accuracy, the wisdom, the propriety” of Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The evidence of this ancient passageway, Friedman argued, “lays all doubts to rest” of Jewish claims to the entirety of Jerusalem, which have been previously challenged by Palestinian leaders.

Critics argue that this project does not unearth an ancient Jewish past as much as obscure the centuries that followed, during which myriad other groups and peoples made a home in Jerusalem. “If you are Israeli or Jewish, then you feel very excited by what is shown here,” Yonathan Mizrachi, an Israeli archaeologist, told The Washington Post. “But the history of Jerusalem does not only belong to the Israelis.”

Friedman and Greenblatt made no mention of that complex and living history. Instead, the U.S. ambassador located in the site a biblical message for his president’s evangelical Christian base. “The spiritual underpinnings of our society, the bedrock of our principles in which we honor the dignity of every human life, came from Jerusalem,” he said. “This place is as much a heritage of the U.S. as it is a heritage of Israel.”

Meanwhile, Greenblatt once more sparred with senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat, urging the latter to accept the “truth” of Israeli claims over the entirety of Jerusalem. In a speech last week, he also downplayed the role of settlements — deemed illegal by much of the international community — as obstacles to peace with Palestinians and said he preferred to call them “neighborhoods and cities.”

Nevertheless, Greenblatt still insists that the White House can usher in a new era of Israeli-Palestinian understanding. Along with Trump adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, he helped host the much-maligned economic summit in Bahrain last week, a Davos-style gathering that the Palestinians boycotted. A meaningful political solution looks remote, if not entirely phantasmal.

For some onlookers, the scene in the tunnel captured in microcosm the radical nature of Trump’s Israel policy. Not only has the White House drifted far from previous U.S. positions on the status of Jerusalem by moving the U.S. Embassy there, but it has also systematically emboldened Israel’s far right, which actively opposes the creation of a Palestinian state.

“The ceremony distilled Trump’s radical departure from 70 years of U.S. foreign policy as practiced by his predecessors — including the decidedly pro-Israel Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush — into its macabre essence,” wrote Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev.

“Friedman and Greenblatt, who habitually reprimand Palestinians and praise Netanyahu with a fervor that puts Israeli propagandists to shame, damaged their own country’s reputation, first and foremost,” Shalev added. “The video of Friedman waving his hammer, a la superhero Thor, a few meters underneath the homes of Silwan’s Palestinian residents, provided world capitals with further proof, as if any was needed, of the dangerous preposterousness of Trump’s foreign policy, in the Middle East and around the world.”

Anshel Pfeffer, an Israeli journalist and biographer of Netanyahu, lamented the crassness of Trump’s envoys and Adelson, a casino mogul from Las Vegas, smashing “walls and coexistence” in Jerusalem.

“Their gleeful grins as they wielded hammers can’t disguise their true supremacist agendas,” Pfeffer wrote. “And although they can break down a wall, they cannot obscure Jerusalem’s realities. These people have no love for the real Jerusalem — an actual city where nearly a million Jews, Muslims and Christians, Israelis and Palestinians, have to find a way to continue living together.”

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