The U.S. killing of Iran’s Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani and Iran’s subsequent mishandling of its Covid-19 response have left the country in political and economic disarray as its flailing regime gropes for answers.
Two years into a deep recession triggered by the return of U.S. sanctions, Iran is facing further economic struggles as the Coronavirus promises to shrink the country’s trade and slow its production and services. The death of Soleimani and his close advisors, meanwhile, has left a power vacuum in Iran’s military that has weakened Iran’s momentum in Iraq and in its other spheres of influence, such as Lebanon and Syria.
When Iran first began to exhibit an outbreak of the virus in late January, the regime responded with denials of the pandemic’s scope and predictable accusations that the U.S. both created the virus and attempted to spread it further through medication and equipment. Iran continued to encourage large religious gatherings, continued flights to China, and diverted funds and medical supplies that could have been used to contain the virus. With accurate numbers hard to gauge because of the regime's obfuscation, Iran to date has sustained at least 86,000 cases of Covid-19, more than China and more than any Middle Eastern country other than Turkey. A number of senior officials have tested positive for the virus and at least two members of parliament have died of it. To exacerbate matters, more than 300 Iranians have died after consuming methanol in response to a fake remedy that has spread across Iranian social media.
Soleimani, Iran’s second most powerful figure after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini, had used brutal violence to repress civic movements in Iraq and Lebanon that threatened Iran’s grip on their legislatures. He had also used his security machinery to consolidate a land corridor through Syria and steer the course of the war in that country.
Iran’s recent antagonistic naval maneuvers around U.S. warships demonstrate a desire to project strength in the wake of the U.S. airstrike that killed Soleimani and his core power structure. Eleven Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG) speed boats with mounted machine guns harassed American ships in the Persian Gulf. The IRG also launched its first ever space launch as part of a program that could hasten the country’s ballistic missile development. But without the onerous sanctions the U.S. has placed on Iran, the regime would undoubtedly have poured tens of billions more dollars into military spending, as evidenced by the dramatic spike in their military budget in the years following the 2015 nuclear deal.
These crises have thrown into sharp relief some of Iran’s most habitual tendencies: seizing political opportunity rather than improving conditions for their own population; deferring to the religious establishment, including religious practices that ignore social distancing; and, invariably, propagating anti-Semitism. Iran’s health ministry this month sponsored a Coronavirus cartoon contest in which ghastly anti-Semitic illustrations figured prominently.
Meanwhile, the Iranian press has promoted reports claiming “Zionist” culpability for the virus. “Zionist elements developed a deadlier strain of Coronavirus against Iran,” state-run Press TV asserted last month. Of course, this did not stop Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi from conceding that Iranians would be permitted to use a Coronavirus vaccine developed by Israel if “the treatment is unique and there is no substitute.”
Prior to the eruption of the virus, protests swept the country in the wake of the IRG downing of a Ukrainian airliner in January. The following month, parliamentary elections devolved into chaos after the hardline Guardian Council barred thousands of moderates from running. As the crises in Iran mount, the country’s economic, political, and health security may continue to founder. Given the uncertainty of Iran’s future and the threat the regime poses to Middle East stability and Israel’s existence, much hangs in the balance.
Eric Fusfield, Esq. has been B’nai B’rith International’s director of legislative affairs since 2003 and deputy director of the B’nai B’rith International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy since 2007. He holds a B.A. from Columbia University in history; an M.St. in modern Jewish studies from Oxford University; and a J.D./M.A. from American University in law and international affairs. Click here to read more from Eric Fusfield.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recently came to present to the U.N. Security Council a peace plan. The plan, which is really nothing but the same Palestinian positions re-hashed, aims, in part, to create a “multilateral mechanism” to move forward peace negotiations.
Abbas, in his anger over the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, has been traveling far and wide seeking to invite other players to be involved in Middle East peacemaking in order to push aside the traditional U.S. role as mediator, or at the very least dilute it until it is practically meaningless.
Abbas received applause at the Security Council for his speech where he presented his plan (while also spreading smears against Israel). Applause is extremely rare at the council, but exception is made, of course, for attacks on Israel (when resolution 2334 passed in December 2016, there was also a sickening display of euphoria at the council).
This multilateral ploy is another in a line of Palestinian attempts to avoid serious negotiations that will force uncomfortable compromises upon them. Increasing the actors in these negotiations has never been a recipe for success — it only means increasing the number of interests and personalities involved, which serves to inhibit the process, not encourage compromise.
The only times when real progress has been made in relations between Israel and her Arab neighbors has come when the two sides have taken the initiative and met in smaller settings and behind closed doors, sometimes with the U.S. helping to mediate differences and bridge gaps, but never imposing solutions. Negotiations between Israel and Egypt in the 1970’s, Israel and Jordan in the 1990’s and Israel and the Palestinians leading up to the Oslo Accords were two-party talks (three-party at most).
The Madrid Peace Conference was a breakthrough in some ways, as countries that had refused to recognize Israel joined the meeting and sat at the table with Israeli representatives. The Madrid process after the conference, however, became bogged down. The Middle East Quartet (made up of the U.S., Russia, E.U. and U.N.), which has been in existence for over 15 years, has not brought forth Palestinian goodwill into honest negotiations.
The Arab League’s Arab Peace Plan of 2003 sought to impose a solution on Israel (and an unacceptable solution, at that). Not surprisingly, it has not led to any significant breakthroughs either. France led an effort for a multilateral summit in Paris last year. It produced an outcome document, and little else.
The Palestinians are well aware of this history. The idea to create an expansive multilateral process is not new, and is unworkable. Abbas is not looking for a peaceful solution to the conflict; he is looking to avoid negotiations at all costs. A new multilateral mechanism will just be a waste time. It is difficult for entities (both countries and organizations) to resist the siren call of Middle East peacemaking — all except for the Palestinian leadership, that is — but those who are truly interested in seeking a true peace must decline to be a part of this latest Abbas farce. There will only be peace when the Palestinians are interested in ending the conflict. Unfortunately, Abbas is only proving that he is still not ready to engage seriously.
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. Click here to view more of his additional content.
The Algemeiner ran an op-ed written by B'nai B'rith International CEO Daniel S. Mariaschin on the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, and the current tensions between Iran and Israel.
You can read the full op-ed below or click to read it on algemeiner.com
The 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War will be commemorated in many ways in the coming days. Media retrospectives, conferences, new documentaries and first person remembrances of the battles and their aftermath will be seen and heard in Israel, here in the United States and elsewhere.
For those of a certain age, we’ll be asking each other: “Do you remember where you were on June 5, 1967?” I do.
I vividly recall being in my high school cafeteria waiting for the bell to ring for first period. Each morning, a group of us would gather at the back of the cafeteria, just shooting the breeze, as high school seniors do. But this morning was different; one of my friends, who had obviously seen the news before leaving for school, perhaps on the Today Show, said to me, “You guys are really beating the Arabs.”
I knew immediately that the war had begun. It was the culmination of more than three weeks of threats to destroy Israel emanating from Cairo and Damascus. Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser and Syria’s President Nureddin al-Atassi, and those who represented them, were clearly signaling their intention to finish off the Jewish state.
Actually, these threats began months earlier. A New York Timesheadline on October 15, 1966, read: “Israel Tells UN Syria Plans War to Destroy Her.” Abba Eban, then Israel’s foreign minister, addressed the Security Council, referencing dozens of Syrian threats against the Jewish state.
Between then and May 1967, hardly a day passed without threats from Nasser. On March 8, he declared: “We shall not enter Palestine with its soil covered in sand, we shall enter it with its soil covered in blood.” A month later, Syria Information Minister Mahmoud Zubi predicted that, “this battle will be…followed by more severe battles until Palestine is liberated and the Zionist presence ended.”
The pace picked up throughout May, with both official radio outlets in Cairo and Damascus promising to defeat the “Zionist entity.” Egypt demanded the withdrawal of UN peacekeepers from the Sinai Peninsula, who had been stationed there since the Suez campaign of 1956. Then Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, considered by some to be an act of war. Neither the UN, nor the international community, seemed willing — or even the slightest bit interested — in taking Israel out of its isolation. The best UN Secretary-General U Thant could utter, after Egypt’s demand that the peacekeeping forces leave, was a weak, “…may I advise you that I have serious misgivings about it… [the] withdrawal may have grave implications for peace.”
The closing of the Straits was criticized by both the United States and the United Kingdom as contravening international law, with Britain’s Prime Minister Harold Wilson stating “[Egypt’s blockade] must not be allowed to triumph; Britain would join with efforts to open the Straits.” But, in the end, nothing was done to stand up to Cairo and Damascus’ march toward war.
The Egyptians and Syrians were so confident of victory that Hafez Assad, then Syria’s defense minister and later its president, said on May 20: “Our forces are now entirely ready not only to repulse any aggression, but to initiate the act ourselves, and to explode the Zionist presence in the Arab homeland of Palestine. … I believe that the time has come to begin a battle of annihilation.”
Sitting in our living room in New Hampshire, my family watched and listened to this litany of threats unfold, one more belligerent than the next. Egypt’s UN Ambassador Mobared El-Kony and Syria’s, George Tomeh, were particularly threatening in Security Council debates on the crisis. We worried endlessly about our relatives living on a kibbutz not far from the Syrian border.
Each day brought even greater boasts from the region, and we took them all seriously. We comforted ourselves only by watching and listening to the oratorical skills of Eban, whose speeches at the UN Security Council not only outlined the Arab threats, but the rightness of Israel’s cause.
On May 30, Nasser ratcheted up the tone even more: “The armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon are poised on the borders of Israel…to face the challenge, while standing behind us are the armies of Iraq, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan and the whole Arab nation. The act will astound the world…”
And Iraq’s President Abdul Rahman Arif couldn’t have been more direct, when he said on May 31: “The existence of Israel is an error which must be rectified. This is our opportunity to wipe out the ignominy which has been with us since 1948. Our goal is clear — to wipe Israel off the map.”
The rest is history. Israel’s defense forces routed the Arab armies in six days, and the war — which was named for its length — has been enshrined in Jewish history as one of its most glorious chapters.
I rushed home from school on the afternoon of June 5, turning on CBS News on our local station, WKNE, to hear Michael Elkins reporting from Israel that the Israeli Air Force had destroyed the combined Arab air forces on the ground. We were jubilant.
Back at school the next day, I was able to follow events on the radio in the high school office. In the small city in which we lived, my father took a petition supporting Israel to merchants and friends on Main Street, asking that they sign in support of Israel. Nothing else in our lives mattered that week. As the days passed, the feelings of relief turned to triumph and then to pride in what we never imagined happening.
Today, it is the Iranian regime that is making the threats to annihilate Israel. The Jewish state is a “cancer” that needs to be eradicated, its leaders say. Tehran paints those very words on the sides of ballistic missiles that it parades, with hubris, in full sight of international TV coverage. Iran has a nuclear weapons program, and it makes no difference, really, if it is in mothballs for a few years. Already, European officials say that Tehran is shopping for dual use technologies to utilize when it is ready to do so. And Iran provides thousands of rockets to Hezbollah, and mentors and supports Hamas, both of which call for Israel’s destruction many times daily.
And the United Nations, which stood idly by in 1967, today has under its roof agencies like the UN Human Rights Council and UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), which year after year have sought to delegitimize, demonize and marginalize Israel. In 1967, Britain’s Sir Alec Douglas-Home, speaking about the closing of the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, presciently said: “…the first casualty (of this crisis) had been the United Nations. It would need an immense effort, an almost superhuman effort, to restore the prestige of that organization.” The more things change, the more they stay the same. The UN continues to risk irrelevancy by allowing the pummeling of Israel to continue.
The Six-Day War was a miracle, aided by courageous leaders and soldiers who had no choice but to win. It was a defining moment for young Jews of our generation. And it fortunately established the Jewish state as the regional power it is. But the battles that followed, including the Yom Kippur War, the First and Second Lebanon Wars and the Gaza campaigns, attest to the continuing desire of Israel’s enemies to bring it down — one way or another.
Iran is only the latest of these foes to threaten Israel, and its newfound bounty, by way of the nuclear agreement, has left it flush with cash to attempt to carry out its objectives. While we observe those momentous six days, let us all be sure to sleep with one eye open.
The U.N. and its system of “specialized agencies” is famous for barring down indiscriminately on the world’s only Jewish state—Israel—and serving as a kangaroo court to heap abuse on the only country in the Middle East that boasts democratic elections, peaceful transfer of power and an independent judiciary that ensures equality for all citizens. According to figures compiled by Fiamma Nirenstein, a journalist and former Italian parliamentarian, the U.N. Human Rights Council has adopted 135 resolutions from 2006 to 2015, of which 68 have been against Israel; the General Assembly has approved 97 from 2012 to 2015, of which 83 have been against Israel; and UNESCO adopts ten country-specific resolutions every year, and all of them against Israel.
This travesty continues despite the U.N.’s abysmal failure, since its establishment in 1945, to achieve its chief goal to “maintain international peace and security.” The number of deaths attributed to the 100-year old Israeli-Arab conflict are estimated at some 120,000—compared to the grotesque number of deaths attributed to other wars, massacres, slaughters and oppressions are upward of 200 million in the 20th Century. Still, the U.N. system continues to undermine its credibility by finding new and imaginative ways to attack Israel, serving as one of the chief enablers of anti-Semitism—a term which today includes, by most versions, anti-Israel bias.
The most recent series of tainted resolutions have come from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which is headquartered in Paris. In October, the Executive Board voted three times on resolutions that have denied the Jewish connection to Judaism’s holiest site—the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The resolutions, promoted by the Palestinians (which became a full member state at UNESCO in 2011), the Arab bloc and others, were allowed to pass—with diminishing majorities—by the feckless abstentions cast by many member states. This included Christian-majority countries that ostensibly have a vested interest in maintaining the Judeo-Christian historical narrative of the late Second Temple period in the cradle of Christianity.
These resolutions were so outrageous that they even elicited a rare written condemnation by UNESCO Secretary-General Irina Bokova of Bulgaria and expressions of remorse by the presidents of Mexico, Brazil and Italy at their country’s vote. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi went as far as to tell Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a subsequent telephone conversation that: “To say that the Jewish people have no connection to Jerusalem is like saying that the sun creates darkness.” Renzi promised to vote against such resolutions in the future, and to act to convince other European governments to adopt his position.
All of these efforts by world bodies whittle away at the legitimacy of Israel's presence in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the region, but they have little impact on the ground. These resolutions in fact are so outrageous that they have provided Israel with a perfect cover for keeping out recurrent committees of investigations that the U.N. has tried to send here—usually populated by "experts" whose anti-Israel bona fides are quite evident— in an effort to ignite an already flammable situation.
The UNESCO resolutions could in fact be credited for the record number of Jewish visitors to the Western Wall and the Temple Mount during the Sukkot holiday. On Oct. 23, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (Shas) called on all Israeli Jews to converge on the Western Wall for the Priestly Blessing. On a Facebook post he said: "This year, we’ll come, in our masses, to Jerusalem, to the Western Wall, to the Priestly Blessing. This Wednesday…we’ll all be there. We’ll send a clear message—nobody will separate us from our holy places.”
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Rabbi of the Western Wall, responded to the UNESCO decision by saying that, "In all of world history I don't know of an 'occupying power' whose land is full of the relics of its ancestors. The holiness of the Temple Mount and the Western Wall for the Jewish people goes back many generations. It does not need anyone's approval. It is ridiculous to deny the (archaeological) discoveries that are occurring all the time. The millions of worshipers who come to pray at the Western Wall in front of the Temple Mount are the Jewish answer to UNESCO."
And as if in perfect timing, two major archaeological discoveries that reinforce the Jewish narrative and connection to Jerusalem came to light just as the international community sought to deny it. On Oct. 27, compelling evidence of the breaching of Jerusalem’s so-called “third wall”—which was said to have surrounded the city during the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.—was announced by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). The new archaeological find included scores of ancient ballista and sling stones that the Romans fired from catapults at the Jewish guards stationed on top of the tower to defend the wall.
The excavation directors described the find: “This is a fascinating testimony of the intensive bombardment by the Roman army, led by Titus, on their way to conquering the city and destroying the Second Temple.” And a day earlier the IAA displayed an unprecedented document containing a reference to Jerusalem from the First Temple period.
Written in ancient Hebrew script and dating back to the Kingdom of Judah during the 7th century B.C.E., the rare relic—a shipping document made of papyrus—was seized from now-jailed Palestinian antiquities plunderers in a complex IAA unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery operation. The papyrus was pillaged from a remote Judean desert cave and represents the earliest extra-Biblical source yet found to mention Jerusalem in Hebrew writing.
While UNESCO's words might not yet have caused any physical harm, they do undoubtedly provide the grist for ongoing Palestinian efforts to engage in widespread damage to the physical elements of Jewish patrimony in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel. Those archaeological finds provide incontrovertible evidence of Jewish primacy in the Holy City from the time of King David and beyond.
As an avid hiker in the less traversed mountains and valleys of Judea and Samaria, I am confronted with this sad reality on a regular basis in all areas under Palestinian control: plundered Jewish burial caves, mikvas and wine presses. Nowhere is this destruction more prevalent than on Temple Mount controlled to this day by the Muslim Waqif (Holy Trust). In an article released on Oct. 27 at an IAA conference in Jerusalem spotlighting major archeological finds over the past decade, Yuval Baruch, IAA Jerusalem Region director, describes the vast destruction caused by the Waqif in 1999. Heavy machinery was used on the Temple Mount to dig out an entrance to "Solomon's Stables," which turned it into the largest mosque in Israel. In 2007, the Waqif dug a channel for laying electrical cables on the mount.
The debris from the first incident—dumped unceremoniously in the Kidron Valley—is still yielding artifacts that corroborate the biblical story. One of the most significant discoveries was presented by experts just last month—geometrically patterned marble floor tiles believed to have covered the porticos atop the Temple Mount during the Second Temple period. The tiles are so vivid, intricate and novel in design that you can still read the Talmudic teaching that “whoever has not seen Herod's building has not seen a beautiful building in his life.”
The second incident was approved and overseen by Baruch and yielded some of the only First Temple artifacts to be found in situ on Temple Mount. But other senior archaeologists fault IAA for what they argue is a continuing pattern of non-intervention in the Waqif's design to damage and destroy vestiges of Jewish presence on and around Temple Mount. They fault the state for allowing the Temple Mount artifacts to remain buried due to considerations of expediency (i.e. that such digs would cause turmoil in the Muslim world).
While confronting—with considerable success—the diplomatic war against the Jewish people's chronicle in Jerusalem, the State of Israel must do more to ensure that our physical patrimony is not eliminated under the same motivation. If Israel is unable at this time to engage in a comprehensive expert and vetted archaeological dig on Temple Mount—something which is long over do—due to political, diplomatic and other temporal considerations, it must ensure that these artifacts remain in situ until future generations will have the fortune to do so.
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.
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.
In a blog for the Times of Israel, Executive Vice President Daniel S. Mariaschin explores Israel's past efforts to create permanent ties to the Arab world with the news that the Jewish state will open an office in Abu Dhabi.
From the Camp David agreement with Egypt in 1979 to the 1991 Madrid Conference to the Israeli-Jordanian treaty of 1994, Mariaschin looks various points in time that seemed promising in opening relations, to the regression of those relations in the current day.
Could the Abu Dhabi office be the start of a new relationship between Israel and the Arab states?
Click here to the read the blog on The Times of Israel website.
Israel’s announcement that it will soon open an office in Abu Dhabi recalls a period in the mid-1990s which demonstrated some promise about the possibility of Israeli ties to the Arab world.
When considering those ties, the right place to begin the discussion would be the Camp David agreement and the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Egypt in 1979.The Israeli-Jordanian treaty of 1994 could be considered either the bookend of that effort begun in Jerusalem and Cairo, or the beginning of a second—and what appeared to be promising—stage in Israel’s relations with the Arab world. In the wake of the 1991 Madrid Conference, which openly brought Israelis and Arabs into the same room together, a number of Arab countries opened “offices” in Israel. Included among them were Morocco, Oman, Tunisia and Qatar. Little publicity surrounded the presence of these offices, which were not embassies or consulates, per se. They were billed primarily as “trade representations.”
The post-Madrid period produced other important results. India, which had diplomatic ties with Israel since 1950, upgraded its relations to full ambassadorial status. That “era of good feeling” also produced the relatively short-lived “multilateral talks” aimed at moving forward a nascent Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Indeed, no less than 11 Arab states participated in these discussions, on such topics as economic development and the environment. In addition to the core participants—Israel, Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinians—the multilaterals included 26 other countries (primarily from Europe and Asia) and several agencies of the United Nations.
I recall visiting Tunisia with a B’nai B’rith mission in December 1994 where, coincidentally, the Arms Control and Regional Security multilaterals were being held in Tunis. There was a real sense that a diplomatic and psychological Rubicon had been crossed, with Israelis and Arabs mingling and talking alongside diplomats from key members of the European Union and Asian economic giants.
Though Saudi Arabia participated in the multilaterals, I have always believed that had Riyadh not been a fence-sitter at a crucial moment, had it taken the leap and itself opened an “office” in Israel, we might have been much further along on the road to some kind of Israeli-Palestinian accommodation than we were then—or certainly are, today. Had the Saudis sent a clear message in that direction by actually opening an office or some other demonstration of cooperation, the Palestinians (who were certainly major recipients of Saudi largesse in those days), might have had to sit up and take notice.
Instead, the Yasser Arafat-led Palestinians pushed away intense efforts to strike a deal in the closing months of the second Clinton Administration. That rejectionism, in turn, fueled the Second Intifada, which took 1,000 Israeli lives in a paroxysm of suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks.
That then began a regression from the once-promising steps on a path toward normal relations with the Arab world, culminating in the abrupt closure of the Moroccan, Qatari, Omani and Tunisian offices in Israel in the wake of the Second Intifada.
The conventional wisdom at the time was that if the Israeli-Palestinian problem could be solved, all other Middle East issues would fall into place. But looking back, it suggests that the Palestinian leadership had no serious interest in any deal that was not zero-sum in its favor.
Fast forward to 2015. The decades-old Arab fixation on the Palestinians has faded rapidly in some quarters with an ascendant and threatening Iran and the rise of ISIS. Iran’s hegemonistic designs on the region have created palpable apprehension in a number of Arab capitals, generating an important commonality of interest between Israel and some of its Middle East Arab neighbors.
Hamas makes no bones about calling for Israel’s destruction. The Palestinians are divided into two warring camps, in Gaza and the West Bank. Palestinian leadership in the latter seems unwilling, or unable, to move toward a free and fair negotiation with Israel. The shibboleth that solving the Palestinian issue would fix all of the region’s problems has given way to a Sunni-Shiite fight-to-the-finish in one country after another in the region. The Arab Spring has become a misnomer, now commonly derided as the Arab Winter. Big powers now compete in Syria, as the old World War I-era borders are erased in a blaze of religious-secular warfare. New definitions of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ are being written daily.
From all of that comes the announcement of the Israel office in the UAE. It will not be a diplomatic mission; instead it will be a representation among some 144 countries who sit at the International Renewable Energy Agency, which is headquartered in Abu Dhabi.
This is not something that was done in the dark; announcements about the office have appeared and have been reported on everywhere. Where this welcome development will lead is not clear; it may just end with this; or, it may foretell a return to the promise of the mid-1990s, which began with the Madrid Conference.
There is clearly now a realization in some places in the Arab world that, contrary to being a threat, relations with Israel can serve everyone’s interest, and not just on the threat posed by Iran. Arab states have squandered decades in which, had they widely accepted Israel, they could have created a different environment in the region. But that need not be the case going forward.
As chaos grows in the region, some important things, fortunately, seem not to be spinning out of control.
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.
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