You wouldn't know it from the Human Rights Council -- which ritualistically adopted multiple anti-Israel resolutions last week, yet only lone ones on such scenes of unsurpassed carnage and deprivation as Syria, Iran and North Korea -- but the most elemental human right of Israelis, the right to life, has been denied and threatened in a particularly relentless and vicious way for about half a year now. The council was not even embarrassed to condemn Israel for its possession of, and human rights record on, the strategically vital and essentially tranquil Golan Heights at a time when religious minorities and the U.N.'s own personnel enjoy refuge there from the bloodletting by regime forces and terrorist groups alike across the border in Syria.
In a true manifestation of insult added to injury, and of abdicated political and ethical leadership, apathy in Geneva to Palestinian terrorism comes as little surprise, though, since the United Nations as a whole is all but explicit in its indifference to violence against Israelis -- unless and until Israel responds forcefully, at which point Israel itself is subjected to especially wild opprobrium.
A running compendium by the world body, "UN Response to Acts of Terrorism," lists its reactions to acts of violence against civilians globally -- from France to Lebanon to Mali to Afghanistan to Egypt to Turkey to Belgium and beyond -- and yet manages not to note even a single one of the stabbings, shootings or car rammings that have afflicted innocent Israelis on a near-daily basis over the last six months.
Forget solidarity marches by world leaders, the superimposing of the Israeli flag on social-media profile photos or declarations of "Je suis Jerusalem"; after all, even a fresh target of Islamist terror like Belgium continues to be among those denying Israel any understanding or decency in its voting at the Human Rights Council. Instead, the UN secretary-general recently rationalized Palestinian acts of terror as "human nature" -- and went as far as to respond to the subsequent objections of Israeli leaders by publishing an op-ed castigating them for "lashing out at every well-intentioned critic," among them "Israel's closest friends." When a few weeks ago I accompanied a group of diplomats on a visit to Israel -- one that was illuminating in its revelation of the country as a democratic, pluralistic haven amid upheaval, so humane as to be unassumingly treating wounded arrivals from hostile Syria -- UN officials stationed there did not let reality disrupt their relaying of a well-practiced narrative in which only Palestinians are associated with grievance and only Israelis are saddled with obligations.
For these bureaucrats, Palestinian suffering was worthy of detailing and magnification, while Israeli suffering was minimized or ignored completely. Indeed, with the UN never considering all those Israelis maimed or traumatized in terrorist attacks, the ongoing wave of Palestinian violence, we were told, does not rise to the level of a "political crisis." Meeting the same day with a non-religious Jewish girl and an Orthodox man who had been wounded in horrifying attacks -- by sheer randomness, in different areas that we ourselves had visited in Jerusalem that day, including the vicinity of the UN compound itself -- I found myself growing emotional in decrying the failure of UN data and officialdom to see any "crisis" in an untold number of Israelis whose scars, physical and otherwise, will permanently testify to their neighbors' conviction that their lives are somehow deserving of being brought to a cruel and arbitrary end.
Putting aside cruelty, today's multiplying Palestinian assailants, whose precursors had inaugurated in earnest the era of modern political terrorism, particularly the use of plane hijackings and suicide bombings, have again honed their brutal craft. Following phases dominated by cross-frontier rocket fire, hostage-taking and other tactics, ordinary Palestinians, endlessly incited to violent hatred not only by Hamas but also by the purportedly moderate Fatah, can now harm and terrorize Israelis with little training or resources, and little possibility for a decisive Israeli response. After all, will Israel deny all Palestinians access to steak knives or to automobiles that can then be exploited as weaponry? And whom can Israel effectively confront when any Palestinian youth rifling through a kitchen drawer is a potential perpetrator of warfare? Not least, by anonymously taking cleavers to Israelis one at a time -- without the dramatic footage and gore of ISIS decapitation videos -- Palestinians can broadly victimize Israelis, day after day for months on end, without the world's so much as taking notice, let alone discerning a crisis.
Which is why, if UN officials do actually care about peace in the region or at least about the stated aspirations of mainstream Palestinians, they must finally stop coddling the Palestinians, denying them all sense of responsibility or agency, and insist that they end the crude, ubiquitous incitement against Israel that inevitably results in the deaths of Palestinians.
The UN itself, for that matter, must stop serving as a global purveyor of such incitement.
A senior UN official, explaining in a New York Times essay this month why he was walking away from a long career at the organization, wrote: "If you lock a team of evil geniuses in a laboratory, they could not design a bureaucracy so maddeningly complex, requiring so much effort but in the end incapable of delivering the intended result. The system is a black hole into which disappear countless tax dollars and human aspirations, never to be seen again." At the UN, he acknowledged, "too many decisions are driven by political expediency instead of by the values of the United Nations or the facts on the ground." He concluded: "We need a United Nations led by people for whom 'doing the right thing' is normal and expected."
Serial abuse of Israel was not the subject of the former UN official's piece, and -- no surprise, since it is likely the most entrenched and politically untouchable of UN dogmas -- it was nowhere mentioned in it.
However, indifference to and complicity in the deep injustice that is bigotry against Israel are central to the departure of the UN from its intended purposes and from its real potential.
The UN will remain fundamentally corrupt, and most certainly a failure at peacemaking, until it is finally able to treat the deliberate murder of Jews as it does that of others among its constituents.
I've never been able to quite understand my Jewish identity. After all, I live in America, where many of my ancestors, in pursuit of benefits I now reap, assimilated into secular society. While no fault of their own, they have set in motion a decision that some say has slowly eroded the tenets of Jewish tradition for my generation. A transition has seemingly followed, forcing Jewish communal organizations to find new ways to engage an impatient youth drawn to immediate gratification and satisfaction — something antiquated religious practice does not seem fit to provide.
Such a haunting prospect has sent the Jewish world scrambling. Exemplifying these concerns, former World Jewish Congress President Edgar Bronfman voiced one final rallying cry to the Jewish people just before he died. If Jewish peoplehood is to continue as it has for thousands of years, we must build and strengthen the everlasting bonds between not only Jews across ages, but also Jews across borders.
B'nai B'rith's Cuban Jewish Relief Project answers this call and then some.
The trip was as much time travel to a bygone era as a humanitarian mission to assist a community stricken with the trials of a collapsing economy, and a government unable to keep pace with the demands of population growth, globalization and modernity. A glance in any direction produced the blur of a flaming red 1958 Cadillac straight out of Philip Roth's pastoral America.
Yet, the time travel exposed something even more poignant: an infantile Jewish community birthing from its own ashes. Following Castro's 1959 revolution, Jewish identity effectively ceased to exist. Those who were able fled to Israel or America. Those who remained were stymied by the fear of punitive action against religious expression. Only until such restrictions were eased in the 1990s was the community— some descendants of Holocaust survivors, some survivors themselves — able to freely return to Torah. Slowly, they did, and slowly, they still are. Led by a charismatic cadre of young Jews, five synagogues provide a haven for unity and Jewish programming, of which B'nai B'rith has been instrumental, and even offers Holocaust education to a Cuban population unaware of the details. The Jewish community, though, is not immune to the nation's broader economic woes, and many Cuban Jews struggle to find meals and other necessities.
Perhaps most fitting then was our trip's final day. Following a week of delivering food, medication and other supplies to a community that so desperately needs it, we celebrated Havdalah with the same Cuban Jews who are so instrumental to the community's sustenance. Amidst prayer, song and gentle conversation, an intertwined Havdalah candle became an apropos metaphor to our realization that no matter what, Jews across all ages and borders are there in support of each other.
As the flame danced, Bronfman's call was answered. B'nai B'rith's Cuban Jewish Relief Project is doing truly transformational work, not only in maintaining a storied tradition and community, but also in engaging a future generation of Jewishness.
Matthew Caplan, who is also active with our friend and partner organization Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi), has traveled with B’nai B’rith International before, including on a 2013 mission to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. Caplan is a native of Pittsburgh. He’s a 2016 graduate of Georgetown University.
Caregiver Support Bills: Protecting Social Security Benefits for Those who Leave Work to care for parents, children, Relatives
Over the last few years there have been several bills that would expand or improve social security benefits. We believe this is important because Social Security is the most secure retirement income vehicle we have, and for the majority of retirees it is their primary or only source. Some of these bills have been broadly designed to close the Social Security funding gap while addressing inadequacies in the benefit structure while others are focused on specific issues, like the lack of credit given to family caregivers.
These are people who take months or years out of the workforce to provide unpaid care to their parents, children or other relatives. For a variety of reasons, those workers have traditionally been women (though that trend is beginning to show signs of change). By staying out of the work force for a few years to take care of kids early in their careers or doing it (again) later in their careers, women’s social security benefits are disadvantaged in several ways. First, leaving the work force for any period of time can impact the trajectory of your career. In fact, this pattern of leaving the workforce and being the one primarily responsible for childcare is often cited as one non-discriminatory reason that women earn less than men. By working for lower wages, women earn less in Social Security benefits.
So, people (primarily women) are likely to see reduced benefits—and this is a population that is already likely to live longer and have lower benefits anyway! That’s one reason to find a way to give people some Social Security credit for the years they are out of the workforce. Another reason is this: as a country we want—we need—to encourage family caregiving. As many of you know, as well as I, we do not have much of a long-term care system in this country. Families with a relative who needs help with daily activities have limited options. Most Americans do not have long term disability insurance, and it can be very difficult to afford it. Medicare doesn’t cover most long-term care expenses in a home or a facility.
For many families, the most cost effective—or only—option is for someone to take off from work to care for their parent. According to AARP’s public policy institute, family caregivers provide nearly half of a trillion dollars in care each year. Though they are generally not paid, they are working, and they are providing a service both to their families and the country as a whole.
Therefore, we should find a way to prevent this critically important caregiving role from diminishing the retirement security of caregivers. Americans overwhelmingly support the idea of a Social Security caregiver credit (click here to read more about it). The caregiver credit proposals in Congress (notably those from Senator Chris Murphy and Representative Nita Lowey) include giving credit for months out of the work force, based on a formula as if the person had earned a wage (generally a percent of the average wage). There are also bills emerging this year that would do the same, but only for parental caregiving for children, which is good, but not good enough. This would certainly not replace earnings credit an average or high wage worker would have achieved back in the work force, but it can at least prevent those $0 years from slashing benefits in a “high 35” formula.
B’nai B’rith International is very pleased to see these bills as part of the conversation in Congress, even though 2016 might not be the most productive legislative year, given all attention being focused on elections. As a nation we depend on family caregivers, and the least we can do is help make sure that the men and women who perform this service are protected in retirement.
Photos via Flickr (1) (2)
Rachel Goldberg, Ph.D has been the B’nai B’rith International director of health and aging policy since 2003 and the deputy director of the B’nai B’rith International Senior Services since 2007. Before joining B'nai B'rith International, she taught politics and government at the University of Puget Sound and Georgetown University. To view some of her additional content, Click Here.
Despite leading on Gender Equality Issues, Israel is Predictably Bashed by U.N. Commission on the Status of Women
This week the 60th United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is wrapping up in New York. Diplomats and NGO representatives have come from around the world to discuss gender equality and the fight against gender-based violence and discrimination. But, as is U.N. fashion, only one country will find itself on the agenda. Only one country is worthy of its own report, and only one country will be condemned in a resolution.
Though that country is situated in the Middle East, it is not one of the failed or failing states whose roiling violence is sending refugees fleeing to Europe. Nor is it one of the many dictatorships that oppress the entirety of its population, with a particular emphasis on arcane laws and rules that women must follow or face harsh punishments. There are plenty of good candidates for extra scrutiny on these issues in the Middle East, but CSW has chosen to focus, as it does every year, on Israel, the sole democratic state in the region that guarantees gender equality.
I point out the human rights records of other Middle East countries to illustrate the sheer absurdity of the situation, but Israel’s neighbors provide a low bar to pass. The truth is that on the issue of gender equality, Israel stands at or above its Western democratic peers. Israel was one of the first countries in the world to elect a female leader, Golda Meir. Dorit Beinisch was president of Israel’s Supreme Court of Justice. Women are serving as pilots in Israel’s air force and are securing Israel’s borders in combat roles in co-ed units. Women are making important contributions to Israel’s high-tech, cultural and medical fields. And Israel, in turn, is flourishing because of the freedom enjoyed by all citizens: Jews and Arabs, men and women, religious and secular, LGBT and straight. Of course, there are still many issues of inequality and discrimination and domestic violence that need to be addressed, as there are in every society. Israeli NGOs and a lively and free press, however, can be counted upon to hold the government accountable to continue to push for progress.
The singling-out of Israel at CSW is a symptom of the problem: the unending anti-Israel obsession at the U.N. This obsession produces dozens of General Assembly and Human Rights Council (HRC) resolutions yearly (compared to maybe a handful for the most egregious of abusive countries), an agenda item at the HRC dedicated solely for Israel and another one for all other countries.
The U.N.’s organizational credibility on Middle East issues, already near zero, is eroded even further with each of these biased resolutions, reports, and statements. But the work of vital organs like CSW is also degraded by the double standard imposed on Israel, as it is seen to be politicized.
Oren Drori is the Program Officer for United Nations Affairs at B’nai B’rith International where he supports advocacy and programming efforts that advance B’nai B’rith’s goals at the U.N., which include: defending Israel, combating anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, and promoting global human rights and humanitarian concerns. He received a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Minnesota in 2004 and an M.A. in International Relations from the University of Chicago in 2006. To view some of his additional content, Click Here.
I, along with B’nai B’rith Latin America Chair Mario Wilhelm, represented B’nai B’rith at the World Jewish Congress (WJC) Plenary, held in Buenos Aires from March 15 to 17, which gathered 400 delegates from Jewish communities and Jewish international organizations from all over the world. B’nai B’rith is a longstanding member of the WJC governing board.
Attendees witnessed the warmth of the Argentinean government as the host country to the Jewish community and the State of Israel. President Mauricio Macri and Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra were very clear in their statements and reaffirmed the commitment of their government to fight terrorism, to dig deeper into prosecutor Alberto Nisman´s case and to try to find what happened when the Israeli Embassy was bombed in 1992 and when the Argentine-Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) building was bombed in 1994.
Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes received the Shalom Award. Cartes did not sign a biased statement of Mercosur during the Gaza war in 2014. Cartes told Mercosur members that Paraguay is against biased statements which are not clear against Hamas terror. Since Cartes has been president, Paraguay has never voted against Israel in the United Nations and its agencies.
Organization of American States (OAS) Secretary General Luis Almagro condemned vigorously the hate crime in Uruguay against a Jewish community leader in Paysandu, Uruguay and underlined the commitment of OAS to fight all forms of terrorism.
We had the opportunity to talk briefly with Cartes and with Almagro.
Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett was also keynote speaker at the Plenary. He said very clearly that Israel has all the will to achieve peace, but peace with security and peace with seriousness, not peace with incitement and Hamas terror.
The last day of the meeting there were two events. One, a tribute to AMIA victims in AMIA headquarters and the ceremony of remembrance of the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires 24 years ago. Bennett was the keynote speaker in the tribute to those who perished in the bombing of the embassy.
We had a conversation with Argentine Defense Minister Patricia Bullrich about anti-Semitism and the terrorist killing of a Jewish leader in Uruguay. We also had a conversation about anti-Semitism, Nazi pages of hate on the internet and other issues with Argentine Secretary of Human Rights Claudio Avruj.
We had a meeting with Uruguayan Ambassador in Argentina Hector Lezcano, and we mainly talked about the anti-Semitic killing in Uruguay, and the reaction of the government and the civil society. We also talked about the concern of the Argentinean government of the killing in Uruguay and its eventual links in the region.
We had a conversation with Israeli Ambassador in Argentina Dorit Shavit and with Israeli Ambassador in Paraguay Peleg Lewi, who was in the delegation of Cartes.
Eduardo Kohn, Ph.D., has been the B’nai B’rith executive vice president in Uruguay since 1981 and the B’nai B’rith International director of Latin American affairs since 1984. Before joining B'nai B'rith, he worked for the Israeli embassy in Uruguay, the Israel-Uruguay Chamber of Commerce and Hebrew College in Montevideo. He is a published author of “Zionism, 100 years of Theodor Herzl,” and writes op-eds for publications throughout Latin America. He graduated from the State University of Uruguay with a doctorate in diplomacy and international affairs. To view some of his additional content, Click Here.
In an op-ed for The Times of Israel, Executive Vice President Daniel S. Mariaschin has returned from the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva and he can report: It’s business as usual. Agenda Item 7 persists as the only country-specific item, maligning Israel year-in and year-out, while a number of regimes around the world violate their own people’s human rights. While in Geneva, Mariaschin spoke with a number of foreign representatives and diplomats, urging them to say “no” to Item 7.
Click here to read the op-ed on TimesofIsrael.com
It has been business as usual at the U.N. Human Rights Council, meeting in Geneva this month.
Here’s why it matters.
Notwithstanding the need for urgent attention to such serial abusers as Syria’s Assad regime, which continues to barrel-bomb its own citizens in the midst of a destructive civil war, and Iran, which most certainly vies for the lead in any number of human rights abuses, including the execution of juvenile offenders, Israel is still singled out for special opprobrium.
If this sounds like a broken record, it is. Each year, all countries up for discussion are lumped together into one agenda item, while Israel is always separated out from the rest for individual scrutiny under Item “7” which applies solely to the Jewish state, the only democracy in the Middle East. Subsumed under that item this year are a basket of separate resolutions, as well as six reports. The resolutions, which make no pretence at being objective, hammer Israel for “the human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” settlements, human rights abuses in the Golan Heights and a call for Palestinian self-determination.
The special reports include updates on the infamous Goldstone Commission Report, which was written in the wake of the 2009 Gaza war, and which suggested Israel might be guilty of war crimes. Judge Richard Goldstone, who chaired the group which wrote the report, ultimately backed away from its one-sided findings. In the U.N. system, however, vituperation against Israel has a life of its own, so the report lives on.
What does all of this have to do with the real world in 2016? The Middle East is not only in chaos, it is in meltdown mode in Iraq and Syria. Libya has now become the new ISIS target of opportunity. Iran, soon to be flush with cash from the nuclear deal with the P5+1, sends its Revolutionary Guards to Syria, along with its wholly-owned subsidiary Hezbollah, the terrorist organization that has taken over control of Lebanon, to back the Assad regime. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost in this conflict, Christians and Yazidis have been massacred and subject to humiliation, eviction and dispersal, with millions becoming part of the biggest refugee migration in decades.
This situation has received scant attention from a U.N. body “re-formed and reformed” 10 years ago to address real human rights crises. Its 47 members have really done no such thing. It is dominated by countries from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Non-Aligned Movement, and something called the Like-Minded Group of Developing Countries, said to represent 50 percent of the world’s population, whose worldview includes protecting many of those countries who are in the first line of human rights abusers.
This session, as a result of membership rotation, the United States is not on the Council. Nevertheless, it has spoken out strongly against the double standard Israel receives at the hands of the members of the body. Neither is Canada, which has been a staunch defender of Israel over the past decade. The EU countries choose not to participate in the debate on Item 7, though several of its member states, critical of Israel, find a way to do so. The EU could act more forcefully against this on-going diplomatic charade, but it refrains from doing that—another example of how its actions often don’t measure up to the values it claims to uphold.
As for the Palestinians it once again proves that, though largely crowded out of the news because of events in the region, their ability to manipulate the U.N. system continues. Whether it was attaining full membership at UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), non-member state status at the General Assembly, or getting its flag flown in front of the U.N. in New York and other U.N. venues (including Geneva), they continue to plug away, not feeling any pressure to return to the negotiating table with Israel. And why should they? The Palestinians feel they have the international community’s blindly supportive wind at their back—even at a time when the Middle East neighborhood in which the Palestinians are based, is imploding.
One European diplomat I met in Geneva, after a spirited discussion about how annual denunciations of Israel only embolden the Palestinians and discourage the Israelis, told me point blank that if they were to say “no’ to Item 7, “the Palestinian door would be closed to us.” My rejoinder was that if the EU—which has often been the Palestinians’ friend in court and which has for years funded the salaries of Palestinian Authority (PA) civil servants—really sought to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian issue, they would spend their time urging the PA to move to the negotiating table, rather than allow this yearly lacerating of Israel to continue.
So as the Middle East burns, Nero—in this case—the Human Rights Council, fiddles. An aversion to doubling down on real abusers of human rights, and a propensity to let the anti-Israel rhetoric flow in Item 7 and its accompanying reports, speaks to the hypocrisy and emptiness of the Council and the system that has produced it.
Living in a time where, from our smart phone screens we can learn, real time, about the abuses of human rights everywhere, a global conscience is AWOL. Each day it stays that way, real opportunities to help those who suffer, pass. Instead, at the Human Rights Council and elsewhere, there is always time to unfairly castigate Israel.
What a terrible waste.
Daniel S. Mariaschin is the Executive Vice President at B'nai B'rith International, and has spent nearly all of his professional life working on behalf of Jewish organizations. As the organization's top executive officer, he directs and supervises B'nai B'rith programs, activities and staff in the more than 50 countries where B'nai B'rith is organized. He also serves as director of B'nai B'rith's Center for Human Rights and Public Policy (CHRPP). In that capacity, he presents B'nai B'rith's perspective to a variety of audiences, including Congress and the media, and coordinates the center's programs and policies on issues of concern to the Jewish community. To view some of his additional content, Click Here.
B’nai B’rith International has made several connections with Japan via relationship building with Japanese diplomats who have served as representatives in Washington, D.C. or Israel. This relationship brought B’nai B’rith an opportunity to facilitate a mission to Japan to engage young people. This project is called the Kakehashi Project- Japan’s Friendship Ties, and has been designed to help build bridges between Japan and the United States, and strengthen the partnerships between these two countries via visits by schools and organizations.
The organizers of the mission requested young people. We were able to fill our ranks with the leadership of B’nai B’rith’s Young Leadership Network and chapter leaders of Alpha Epsilon Pi, an international Jewish fraternity and a long-standing partner of B’nai B’rith. Japan’s government was especially interested in connecting with the Jewish community in the United States, setting an agenda for a seven-night program for twelve participants. I had the opportunity to serve as the staff liaison, coordinating the application and preparations process and serving as the group leader for the trip.
Each day we were briefed by representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from various roles on the situation in the Middle East, the votes that Japan cast at the United Nations and the relationship it continues to foster with the State of Israel. For these young leaders, we have shown them the respect that these diplomats have had for B’nai B’rith, many because of their interaction with Executive Vice President Daniel S. Mariaschin, as well as the access that B’nai B’rith can provide. We shared casual conversations over a dinner in our honor, hosted by a member of Parliament.
At each of the official briefings we presented the speaker with a gift from the group, as our thank you for their time with us. We chose the commemorative 170th Anniversary B’nai B’rith International pin (B’nai B’rith was founded in 1843). This gift was our means of sharing our long history and our pride in the role B’nai B’rith has played in civil society and on the international scene.
One goal of the program was to ask participants to think about the perception they had of Japan before the visit, and later report on their feelings after they had immersed themselves in Japanese culture. We went from big cities like Tokyo, to rural mountain areas. We went from hotel beds to futons on tamari mats. We ate Japanese food— fish and rice with consideration of kosher needs with the provision of fresh vegetables. We participated in a “home stay” visit at several farms as guests of families. Many did not speak English, but with phrase books, we were made to feel more than welcome. We decided that the woman of the house was definitely linked to our Jewish mothers, who wanted to make sure we were fed and comfortable. When we left, the guests and hosts both had tears in their eyes when we said goodbye. We also learned that you can get Baskin Robbins ice cream and Krispy Kreme donuts at the mall or a 7-Eleven.
A geopolitical triangle: Israel, Greece and Cyprus lay foundations for new level of regional cooperation
Over the last two months, B’nai B’rith International has been at the cusp of an important emerging diplomatic development in the turbulent area of the Eastern Mediterranean—the establishment of a regional geopolitical consensus among the only three stable democracies in the area: Israel, Greece and Cyprus.
As other countries in the area, including Libya, Syria and Lebanon, deteriorate into chaos and as the United States continues to reduce its footprint in the region leaving open a vacuum that is being filled by other state and non-state players, the emerging partnership among these three countries, nurtured by their respective political leaders—Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades—holds out the prospect for ensuring a degree of stability and security in what has become the world’s most volatile neighborhood.
B’nai B’rith’s most recent contribution to this welcome development—after decades during which Greece and Cyprus were firmly in the pro-Palestinian camp—came on Feb. 17 and Feb. 18 when it co-organized an international conference entitled “Strategic Challenges in the Eastern Mediterranean” together with the eminent Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University. While conference presenters also discussed broader historical, superpower and regional perspectives, the meeting provided a platform for leading Israeli, Greek and Cypriot figures—including Greek Minister of Defense Panos Kammenos, Director of Policy and Political-Military Affairs at the Israel Ministry of Defense Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad, Former Israel National Security Advisor Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, former Greek Minister of Internal Security Vasilis Kikilias and long-serving DCM at the embassy of Cyprus in Tel Aviv Michalis Firillas—to focus on the interplay between these three key countries.
The conference came on the heels of B’nai B’rith’s most recent engagement with the tripartite Israeli-Greek-Cypriot relationship when it organized the second Greek American-Jewish American Leadership Mission to the three countries held in January in cooperation with the Conference of Presidents and two leading Greek American organizations. Taken together, the mission, which included meetings with the leaders of all three countries, and the conference helped to buttress one of the few promising signs of good neighborly relations in a region overrun with strife and rivalry
In opening comments, B’nai B’rith International Executive Vice President Daniel S. Mariaschin set the tone of the conference by correctly noting that the situation in the region is deteriorating quickly and that as possible solutions to stemming that tide seem far out of reach “some countries in the region are taking matters into their own hands, looking to forge joint efforts to stabilize the regional environment. The [historic] signal sent by the leaders of Israel, Greece, and Cyprus when they signed a joint cooperation declaration last month was unmistakable…The Tripartite Summit comes against the back-drop of chaos and uncertainty that it roiling the region. The list of challenges and threats is lengthening: ISIS and a coterie of Islamic radical and terrorist organizations, the break-up of Syria and Iraq, the problems in Sinai and Yemen, and the on-going presence and continuing militarization of Hezbollah and Hamas. And then there is the growing Russia factor. And casting a shadow over all of this is the re-entry of Iran into the international community, flush with cash as a result of the nuclear agreement, and which will surely increase efforts to advance its interests, and its hegemonistic aspirations in the region.”
In the absence of credible international initiatives to stem the tide of instability, the joint declaration stressed that the new trilateral cooperation is not closed to other countries with similar goals. Egypt and even Turkey—a country whose behavior and regional aspirations loomed over the conference—could find their way into the club, as could countries further afield in the Mediterranean, such as Italy.
Granted, Minister Kammenos and other speakers asserted that Turkey’s policies in this unstable region have been harmful to bringing about regional stability. However, Turkey is now seeking allies as its foreign relations with all bordering countries disintegrates, and as it faces a new superpower enemy, Russia, Whether that would open the door for Turkey to be part of this alignment in the eastern Mediterranean has yet to be seen.
While the two countries have been conducting a series of joint air and naval exercises annually, defense collaboration is just one of many new areas of cooperation between these new partners. Other dimensions include plans for joint development of the proximate significant natural gas fields discovered in the Exclusive Economic Zones of Israel and Cyprus that could be transported to an energy-hungry European market through Greece, the sharing of Israel’s impressive success in entrepreneurship and economic development and in the promotion of Greece and Cyprus as welcoming tourist destinations for vacationing Israeli who used to fill the hotels of Antalya until relations with Turkey went sour.
In the diplomatic field, Greece has already proven to be a reliable ally of Israel at the European Union, leading opposition to the EU’s initiative to label settlement products in a grossly discriminatory manner and to a resolution that would have committed the EU to continue to clearly and unequivocally differentiate between Israel and the disputed territories. Greece’s rejection of labeling and successful efforts to amend the resolution, later joined by Cyprus, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria and Poland, represent a sharp and welcome departure from past Greek policy within the EU.
With Israel now ranked as eighth most powerful country in the world (in a study published in late January by the prestigious Wharton School and U.S. News and World Report) this alliance also has clear benefits for Greece and Cyprus.
Mekel says that stronger tripartite relations may also serve to encourage Turkey to show more flexibility in negotiations regarding normalization of ties between Ankara and Jerusalem. He also believes that the hardiness of the relationships has already been tested, withstanding three changes of government in Greece—from Papandreou’s Socialists, to the Conservative government of Antonis Samaras and through to the two successive governments of current prime minister Tsipras from the Left-wing Syriza party that was very critical of Israel in the past. It also weathered unscathed the unanimous vote by the Greek parliament in December calling on the government to recognize the State of Palestine—a nonbinding resolution condemned by the Israeli government as being contrary to existing agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that rule out unilateral steps towards Palestinian statehood. In the case of Cyprus, the defense relationship between the two countries started under left-oriented President Demetris Christofia, and continues at full speed under current conservative leader Anastasiades.
As Prime Minister Netanyahu said at the summit in Nicosia on Jan. 28, the meeting of interests between the three countries is indeed remarkable: “I believe this meeting has historic implications. The last time Greeks, Cypriots and Jews sat around a table and talked on a common framework was 2,000 years ago.” Coupled with reported engagement between Israel and some Gulf States in reaction to common fears of both ISIS and a nuclear Iran following the adoption of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and plans to launch a major reengagement with African countries announced last week during the visit of Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta to Israel that reportedly include military dimensions to help these countries counter Iranian and radical Islamic expansion in the continent, it would seem that Israel is anything but isolated in today’s complex geopolitical environment.
While multiple threats remain the government seems agile in taking advantage of changing landscapes to position Israel as a pivotal country for all peace-seeking countries within a wide radius, not only because of its geographical placement but also because of its proven capabilities and success against all odds.
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Alan Schneider is the director of B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem, which serves as the hub of B'nai B'rith International activities in Israel. The World Center is the key link between Israel and B'nai B'rith members and supporters around the world. To view some of his additional content, Click Here.
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