The Jerusalem Question

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How the main Brazilian newspapers deal with the history of conflicts that mark Jerusalem

On January 28, 2020, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump announced a peace plan to resolve the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Called a “historic opportunity” by the two heads of state, the plan was drawn up without any dialogue with the Palestinian Authority. Among other things, the “historic” agreement designates Jerusalem as the indivisible capital of the State of Israel. This position is not unprecedented and has been built by President Trump since his 2016 election campaign, when he promised to carry out the transfer of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to that city.

Jerusalem has its history marked by conflict. The United Nations Organization, when partitioning Palestine, founding the State of Israel and allocating a territory to the Palestinians, without a declaration of State, determined that the western side of the city would belong to the Jews and the eastern side to the Palestinians, but that the city would remain under an international mandate. In July 1967, during the Six Day War with Egypt, Israeli forces annexed the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, the Golan Heights and eastern Jerusalem.

This text analyzes the columns and editorials of newspapers The Globe, Folha de São Paulo e The state of Sao Paulo that deal with two events prior to the construction of the treaty in 2020 and the recognition by the Trump administration of Jerusalem as the indivisible capital of Israel. These events being the announcement of the transfer of the embassy, ​​on December 6, 2017, and the actual transfer, on May 14, 2018.

Act One: The Announcement of Donald Trump

On December 7th, in the opinion session, The Globe published an announcement about the transfer of the embassy. The newspaper highlighted expressions of concern by world leaders over Trump's statement, describing the announcement as a "historic measure, with high incendiary potential" capable of deepening US isolation in the Middle East. There is an understanding of the United States as an active actor in Middle East politics that seeks, at least in formal discourse, peace and stability in the region, based on its definitions of freedom and democracy.

On the 8th to Folha de São Paulo publishes an editorial showing that the “recognition of the city as the capital of Israel undermines the role of the US as a mediator in the Palestinian issue, and can generate a new cycle of violence”. as in The Globe, the editor of Sheet raises concerns about the stability of the region, but ends the text by noting that Trump maintained his support for the two-state solution, which the newspaper believes would be the best solution to the conflict.

On the same page, Hélio Schwartsman writes that in a perfectly rational world the choice of where to install an embassy should not cause tempers, as it would be determined only by the price of the land and the convenience of the employees. But, he observes that we do not live in a perfectly rational world and adds “if there is a portion of the planet that reason is most absent, it is the Middle East”. For the columnist, Trump's decision is "weird". This is the first in a series of comments that analyze the situation, labeling it illogical and senseless with adjectives that transform it into yet another attack on Palestinian existence, something accidental and not an integral part of the Zionist project. From the US perspective, Schwartsman claims that Trump lost more support, that of Arab leaders, than he gained from Israelis. Internally, the action is perceived as a nod to the evangelical right and ultraconservative Jews, bases of support for the Trump administration. Schwartsman ends the text by saying “by all indications, it is not only in the Middle East that reason is lacking, but also in the White House”.

Three days after the announcement, on the 9th, Zuenir Ventura's column brings a study by the University of Oxford indicating the "perverse and narcissistic" profile of Donald Trump, who is compared to Adolf Hitler and Idi Amin Dada, former dictator of Uganda. The research provides a “basis” for the columnist's analysis of the decision considered unreasonable. It is common to observe in the Brazilian media analyzes in which Donald Trump's political project is disregarded and just labeled as irrationalHowever, every “crazy” decision has a political ramification. Ventura himself points out that “evangelicals are in ecstasy”. Thus, both Schwartsman and Ventura classify Trump's attitudes as irrational, but consider that his motivations may be linked to US domestic policy, more specifically, to meeting the demands of conservative sectors of that society.

On the same day, an article entitled “Another Trump blunder” mentions that the US does not formally consider Jerusalem as Israel's indivisible capital, thus leaving the doors open for negotiation. It is the first and only time that the term “indivisible capital” is used to address the issue. In the publication it is clear that despite this caveat, Israel follows its plan of works to make the city its capital and even historical US allies are skeptical of the statement that this decision does not prevent a negotiation for the conflict. The publication opted for a quote from the President of Turkey, Recep Erdogan, on the subject, but, like the other publications analyzed so far, it did not give any voice to the Palestinian Authority, or to any other group or institution that spoke on behalf of of that people.

On Monday (11), the Sheet gives way to the opinions of the director of the Israeli Confederation of Brazil, Milton Seligman, and Uliad Rabah, director of Institutional Relations of the Palestinian Arab Federation of Brazil. Seligman positions Jerusalem as a place where the three monotheistic religions coexist in their fullness and that this is purposely not usually mentioned when discussing Israel's conflict with a neighborhood considered hostile that denies any right of Jews over the region. The author classifies the attacks on Israel as irrational, emptying the geopolitical and historical content of the issue.

Seligman mentions that the western part of the city contains state institutions, noting that the region was established pre-war 1967 and that there is no international contestation over such an area. At this point, the author corroborates Trump's version that recognition would not be an impediment to peace, as the capital would be in the legal territory of the UN partition.

The discursive alignment between the US and Israel, fostered by the right-wing and conservative ideology of their leaders, is not something recent. The unconditional support of the United States to Israel dates back to the Seven Day War in which, officially, the Zionist State aligns itself with the capitalist bloc and distances itself from the Soviet Union, becoming the western hope amidst “Arab irrationality”.

Rabah's text contains the first actively anti-US opinion to appear in the news about the event. The author says “it is not surprising that the United States is issuing yet another act of aggression against the Palestinians” and points out the United States responsibility for the suffering of the Palestinian people, as a financier of Israeli armaments and as a veto player in the UN Security Council guaranteeing impunity of crimes committed by Israel. Rabah classifies the measure as “anti-historical, illegal and immoral” and ends by saying that the US seems more interested in helping in the “final solution” for Palestine and that “humanity has already known the consequences of supremacist pursuits of racial and ethnic purity ” making a clear link between the acts of the USA and Israel to those committed in the Holocaust. Rabah takes up a recurrent argument in defense of the Palestinian people: questioning how the Jewish people who suffered so many atrocities could subject other people to the same treatment.

Two highlighted sentences illustrate the divergent opinions. In Seligman's text, which defends the rational, democratic and therefore Western image of Israel, it reads in larger and bold letters: the more Israel feels threatened by hostility to its legitimate aspirations, the less it will be willing to compromise. This threat illustrates Israel's position in the game well: dealing the cards and being able to withdraw without major losses. But what game would that be? The dispute between one of the greatest military powers in the world and a population armed with stones. The phrase that stands out in Rabah's text makes a call to the USA to assume its responsibility for the Palestinian suffering: Trump only throws gasoline on the fire and disables the USA from the exempt mediator role in the search for peace between Palestinians and Israelis. In the highlighted passage, it is assumed that the United States, prior to Trump, was neutral on the issue, something that cannot be said with such accuracy, unless one ignores the historical relations of unconditional support from the United States to Israel. The same highlight calls for the resumption of the “exempt mediator”, as well as the Palestinian need for external mediation to be able to participate in the negotiations.

Second act: the transfer of the embassy

Less than a year after the announcement of the transfer and its largely negative repercussions, the US embassy in Jerusalem was inaugurated on May 14, 2018. The chosen date could not be better, or worse, for an event surrounded by such controversy. Like the embassy move, the chosen date is surrounded by two narratives. For Palestinians, on May 14, 1948, Al-Nakba, in Arabic, catastrophe, began, that is, the systematic expulsion of the Palestinian people from their homes and lands by armed Jewish-Zionist militias that later became the Israel's army. On the other side of the wall, Israel celebrates on May 14 the day of its independence, the end of the British mandate over the Palestinian territory and the founding of a Jewish nation-state. On the same date, the first Arab-Israeli War begins, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, which did not accept external interference in the region and the failure to fulfill British promises for the founding of a Palestinian nation-state, declare war on Israel . In the Jewish state the war is known as the War of Liberation.

Based on these two narratives, the Sheet on May 14, as it did on December 11, 2017, it features two articles with the theme “70 years of the founding of the State of Israel”. The first article “Seven decades of advances”, by Yossi Shelley, Israeli ambassador in Brazil, celebrates the achievements of the State that “started from nothing” and “from the ashes left over from the Holocaust”. The author cites the conquests in the field of economy, technology and well-being of its population in the midst of “19 countries that promised to destroy us”. With pride, he writes that Israel in recent years has become more than just a home for the Jewish people, it is also the 20th best country to be born in, according to the magazine The Economist,, with GDP per capita higher than some Western European countries. According to Shelley, “Israel is today a human mosaic that reflects a dynamic and plural society, being the only democracy in the region, which welcomes all its citizens, whether they are Jews, Druses, Muslims, Christians, Bahais, among others”. The author makes no mention of the Palestinian people and Palestine.

To oppose the ambassador, the Sheet invites the journalist Breno Altman who writes the article “O ovo da serpent”. In its first paragraph Altman reports the violent attacks on the Gaza dividing fence, with dozens of dead and hundreds injured, classifying the act as “the most recent portrait of a nefarious process since its inception”. The article takes up Zionism and the nationalist ideology responsible for the idealization of Israel. In the highlighted section we read: “Herzl's theory, thus, was always based on a fatal contradiction, which would end up purging its most humanist values: the sovereignty of a people through the submission of another people could only result in oppression, violence and war”. The author goes back to historical facts that led to the current situation in Israel, each time close to a “hybrid caste system”, and ends by saying that, for Jews, Israel is a modern and democratic country, but for Arab-Israelis there is a segregationist regime and second-class citizenship.

Both texts seek to make a historical resumption of May 14, 1948 to May 14, 2018, but on different narratives: one made by a Jewish citizen who can enjoy full rights in a “first world” State and another with the view of a population living in territory under military occupation for the past 70 years. 

On May 16, the opinion article “Insensatez mata” published in the State brings the numbers of dead, 60, and wounded, 2.700, in the protests against the inauguration of the embassy. The publication attributes the Palestinian bloodshed to a “succession of disastrous actions that served to stir up tempers in one of the most unstable regions in the world”. These correspond to Trump's decision and the application of disproportionate and lethal force by Israeli soldiers in order to quell the protests. The way in which the media classifies the actions, "disaster", removes the responsibility of the State of Israel for the murder and continuous violence inflicted on Palestine and its citizens, with the seal of approval of the USA and the international community, which at most, at most, launch rejection notes. It is not an accident, but a project of colonial conquest.

In an interview with Estadão, the consul of Israel in São Paulo, Dori Goren, compared the country to a sumo wrestler facing a 5-year-old boy who stabs him with a needle. The fighter asks the child to stop, but he continues to disturb and when the fighter loses patience and hits the boy, “the mother comes and makes a fuss, asking if the journalists filmed the aggression. This is what is happening in Gaza”. For the Estadão, the diplomat only put into words what the soldiers demonstrated in the bullet. In this statement, Goren unashamedly reaffirms Israel's control of the game, just as Yossi Shelley did with his article in Sheet in 2017.

On the same day (16), an article published in the Globe, “Understanding Trump-Netanyahu is the dream of every radical”, reports that despite the historical connection between the USA and Israel, this is the first time that there is such affinity between an American president, even among the republicans, and the party of the religious right Israeli Likud by Netanyahu. The text points out that much of this connection is due to the presence of warmongering radicals like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo in the US government, “the missing ingredient for Netanyahu’s radical agenda”. Radicalization, in this case, is put in a personal perspective and not integrated into the growing conservative and extremist wave around the world. The transition is also perceived as another isolationist move by Trump, as tear up the nuclear deal with Iran.

On May 25, the column entitled “We cannot take the Gaza massacre as normal” by journalist Rasheed Abou-Alsamh, adopts a Palestinian perspective when publicizing the history and crimes committed by Israel. The text reports the number of dead and wounded in Gaza and criticizes the position of the Israeli army, which justifies its behavior by suggesting that demonstrators were part of Hamas. That is, in Israeli rhetoric, the dead and wounded were terrorists, which justifies everything. The journalist presents the precarious reality of the population in Gaza, citing the lack of access to electricity and drinking water in a portrait of the city that symbolizes the suffering of the Palestinian people. And he ends by criticizing Israel's refusal to cooperate with investigations into the massacre while declaring itself the “most democratic and just” country in the Middle East.

The column “Suicide is induced in Gaza”, published on May 28 and authored by Osias Wurman, honorary consul of Israel, responds to Abou-Alsamh's text, considered “ridden with inaccuracies”. The author reaffirms the Israeli army's version of the protesters, "it is necessary to clarify that 50 victims were Hamas guerrillas", and considers that "children, pregnant women, disabled people and babies" were taken to the protests by the "irresponsible leadership of Gaza ”. Wurman declares that compensation was promised for the wounded and allowances for the families of terrorists arrested or killed by the Israeli army, which is a “common practice of the Palestinian authorities” according to the consul.

Israeli official discourse blames Palestinians for the violence, and suggests that defending against barbarism in Gaza is monetarily rewarded by Hamas. For Wurman, the report that while the embassy was inaugurated in Jerusalem, Palestinians were being killed in Gaza, is malicious, and is part of the fallacious “narrative of victimization that keeps the Palestinian people as eternal victims and subjugated refugees”. The columnist has repeatedly questioned the legitimacy of the popular protests in Gaza, attributing them to the unrest provoked by Hamas. After taking a position in the narrative dispute about May 14, 2018, the columnist starts to dispute the meaning of May 14, 1948, stating that the desire for the return of the 700 Palestinians expelled from their lands by Israel contrasts with the 800 Jews expelled from Arab countries after Israel's Declaration of Independence. The author ends the text by blaming the disunity of the Palestinian leaders, and their lack of political will to build peace, for the situation in the territories.


The analysis reveals three central arguments in the episodes involving Jerusalem. The first, from editorials, reflects the “institutional” opinion of newspapers and columnists who present themselves as “neutral” and willing to just analyze the facts. These view Trump's decision as irrational, impulsive and taken from a lack of political foresight and condemn the use of lethal violence against the protests in Gaza. Editorials tend to give special emphasis to actions perpetrated by the United States, discussing the country's role in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The other two opinions are divided between pro-Palestine and pro-Israel. Those who write from a Palestinian perspective, such as Rasheed Abou-Alsamh, highlight and seek to “disclose” the violations that Palestinians experience in the 70 years of Israeli occupation and the non-compliance with international resolutions. The effort of columnists representing the Israeli perspective is to highlight Israel's great achievements in contrast to the other states that make up the region. In addition to encouraging a false symmetry between the resistance of the Palestinian people and the violence carried out by Israel, this slight plurality is limited to the articles and opinion columns published by the newspaper.

Trump's decisions regarding Jerusalem pressure and influence several countries in the world to opt for the transfer of the embassy, ​​among which is Brazil under Jair Bolsonaro. For the Palestinian people, the position of the Brazilian president, although not implemented, showed a great setback in diplomatic relations. The recognition by the Brazilian government of the Palestinian State since 1947, and later, in 2010, of the territories within the 1967 borders, that is, considering the Israeli occupations as illegal, were landmarks of the Brazilian position based on non-interference and self-determination of the peoples, pillars that today are no longer part of the Bolsonaro government’s foreign policy agenda. We can only hope that with the departure of Donald Trump and the resignation of Ernesto Araújo, they will bring about a rescue, even if partial, of our worthy diplomatic tradition.

*Isadora Wadi Staduto é Master's student at the Graduate Program of Contemporary Integration in Latin America at the Federal University of Latin American Integration (UNILA).

*João Feres Junior is professor of political science at IESP-UERJ. He is coordinator of the Affirmative Action Multidisciplinary Study Group (GEMAA) and the Media and Public Space Studies Laboratory (LEMEP)

Originally published on the website of Manchetometer.


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