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A week of horrors and changing perceptions

May 21,2018 - Last updated at May 21,2018

This has been a week of horrors in Palestine. On Monday May 14, 63 mostly young Palestinians were shot dead by Israeli snipers. Another 2,700 were injured, mostly by live fire or tear gas. Adding insult to this injury, on the same day, the US opened its embassy in Jerusalem, pounding what may be the final nail in the coffin of the hopes for just Israeli/Palestinian peace.

For hours on May 14, we sat glued to our televisions, watching these two events playing out, on split screen, in real time. The juxtaposition of the scenes from Jerusalem and Gaza could not have been more stark and revealing.

In Jerusalem, the mood was celebratory, almost gloating. A very white and wealthy crowd of Israeli and American dignitaries and their guests, dressed in their finest, attended the embassy dedication event. They were on the left side of the screen.

On the right side, we saw young Palestinians, their haggard faces showing a range of emotions from anger to fear. Most often, they were running, choking on tear gas or dodging bullets. Periodically, the camera would catch one of them suddenly dropping to the ground clutching a leg or an arm, or a side that had been hit by an Israeli sniper.

At the Jerusalem event and later at a White House briefing, we were told that the embassy opening was making a contribution to peace, and that the violence occurring less than 80 kilometres away at the Gaza border was the fault of the Palestinians. The images that we saw playing out before us, however, laid bare that horrible lie.

It was as if the participants in the two events inhabited very separate worlds. I was reminded of the way the British lived in colonial India or scenes of life on Southern plantations, where the "cultured ways" of the white gentility coexisted alongside slavery. Closer to home, I thought of the disparate realities that define so many American cities, one of moneyed, self-satisfied, white elites and the other of poor and struggling people of colour.

Part of me, a very small part to be sure, could almost feel bad for Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. Having grown up in the rarefied world of wealth and privilege, looking down from their 50th story plush penthouses, what could they understand of life in Gaza, with its open sewage, its 70 per cent youth employment, it is two decades-long closure and now a full blockade.

But then I ask: "Why, without that awareness or the sensitivity it would bring, would Kushner even attempt to sit in judgment of these Palestinians or feel even the slightest bit qualified to construct 'the ultimate deal' that will bring peace between one group of people whom he knows. and the other about whom he knows so very little?"

The day's casualty toll was devastating and will leave long-lasting scars on the consciousness of a generation of Palestinians. But the cruelty of the disconnect, the juxtaposition of gloating and arrogance with despair and suffering took another toll. It too will last for a generation.

In polling, we have long noted a growing partisan divide on issues involving the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. To be sure, Israel continues to have an upper hand in US public opinion, the result of two generations of effective propaganda in which they have presented their story and humanised their image, while discrediting the Palestinian narrative, dehumanising and reducing them to a threatening and dangerous caricature.

As a result of this sustained propaganda effort, Americans are still inclined to support Israelis over Palestinians. But, increasingly, Americans, especially Democrats, question Israeli behaviours. This partisan split is, in fact, a demographic split with white, middle age, middle class, male, "born-again" Christians more strongly supporting Israel, and younger and more educated Americans and black, Hispanic and Asian Americans more inclined towards Palestinians and more likely to oppose Israeli policies.

This gap began to develop 30 years ago, when right-wing Christian evangelicals, with their ideological attachment to Israel, started their takeover of the Republican Party. When Bill Clinton took ownership the Oslo peace process and brought Yitzak Rabin and Yasser Arafat under his wing, Democrats embraced his stance. Republicans countered by embracing the Likud's anti-peace agenda and passing legislation designed to impede Clinton's efforts.

The gap widened under Obama, as he found himself stymied by both Republicans and Netanyahu's obstructionism. Now with Trump and Netanyahu in full accord, the partisan divide has deepened.

I have been at this too long and, therefore, have learned to be cautious before suggesting that the changes in attitudes created by the events of this week will be decisive. But from the initial responses I have seen, I feel confident enough to say that they will have an unsettling impact.

Trump, Republicans and their right-wing Christian support base have become wedded to Netanyahu. This is deeply alienating to Democrats and the constituencies that make up the Democratic Party. It is worth noting that there were no Democratic officials present in Jerusalem and, despite being invited, no Congressional Democrats attended the Washington celebration hosted by the Israeli embassy.

A cautionary note: Democrats in Congress may be repulsed by the Trump/Netanyahu embrace, but they will, nevertheless, face pressures from the Israel lobby to demonstrate their commitment to Israeli policies, most likely by passing extreme legislative measures and/or issuing bizarre testimonials to the Israeli cause.

But many Democratic elected officials will be concerned about getting too out of sync with their party's core constituencies. They will need to pay attention to the growth of alternative voices in the progressive Jewish community, the increased involvement of young black Americans in support of Palestinian rights, and the movement launched by Bernie Sanders and the House of Representatives' Progressive Caucus.

Change will not come overnight. But when it does come, the horrific events of this week will be seen as having played a role in further shifting attitudes toward Israeli policies.

 

The writer is president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute

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