Wednesday, September 16, 2020

The "Abraham Accords" - Are We Any Closer to Middle East Peace?"

We watched the signing of the "Abraham Accords" yesterday with interest.  It was a big deal for Israel.  After all, any time that Israel can sign peace treaties (okay, normalization treaties) with other Arab countries, that is bound to be a big deal.  The deal and the process have elicited some very polarized reactions so I thought it would be worthwhile to provide a  few comments about this  process.

First of all, I think it is fair to acknowledge that, however we got here, this type  of deal is a favourable and beneficial deal for most players in the region.  Although it may be characterized primarily  as an "arms deal" between the U.S. and the UAE wherein the U.S. will now sell F-35s and other weaponry to the UAE, there is more to it than that.  The UAE and Israel have begun to negotiate deals and arrangements in a wide range of areas including technology, medicine, energy, tourism and, yes, defence.  This type of relationship, if it proceeds, will lead to a much warmer peace than Israel has with Egypt or  Jordan.  If it takes root and develops, it may well lead to a very different Middle East.  Other countries may come along and the peace between Israel and Egypt may develop further.   Israelis may soon find  themselves  visiting more Arab  countries regularly and vice-versa and that is exciting.

At the signing ceremony yesterday, including the accompanying press conferences, President Trump stated that he expected "5 or 6 other countries" to come along very soon.  Apparently, after the press conference he upped this to "7 to 9."   Now, I don't really think, given the track record, that anyone has any great reason to believe very much of what this president promises.  Who knows what these other countries are demanding in the negotiations?   Or how far apart they really are?  Or whether any of these deals can really be closed?  But I will say this - if Israel were to be able to enter deals with 5 or 6 other countries - including some large and significant ones - that would have to be considered a huge step towards Middle East  peace and a brighter future for the whole region.  So far, the names I have heard mentioned include Oman, Sudan, Morocco, Lebanon, and, ultimately, Saudi Arabia.  It would certainly be a huge credit to Trump and Kushner if they were able to close most or all of these deals.

If the other countries do not fall into line as expected, yesterday's  deal may not amount to very much and  may not change much in the region.  Some indications from yesterday's proceedings support a pessimistic view about the  whole ordeal.   Neither Bahrain nor the UAE brought their heads of state.  Instead, each side brought their foreign ministers (secretaries of state, if you will).  For Israel, the Foreign Minister, Gabi Ashkenazi (part of the Blue and White wing of the governing coalition) was left at home and did not attend with Prime Minister Netanyahu.  In fact, press reports here indicate that he wasn't even aware of the contents of the deal.  Neither the Israeli cabinet nor the Israeli Knesset have yet voted to approve the deal and it is unclear that anyone, other than Netanyahu, is aware of its full contents.

Prime Minister Netanyahu and the representatives from the UAE and Bahrain all spoke glowingly about President Trump.  That seems to have been one of the  key terms of the deal.  In fact, Netanyahu did not even acknowledge the foreign representatives from the UAE and Bahrain until later in his speech.  He did  not speak about plans for Israel and the UAE.  One might have thought he could  have publicly invited the UAE and Bahrain leaders to visit Israel during this speech or he could have reviewed some of the hopes and aspirations that citizens of each country might have.  But instead, the focus was on Netanyahu himself as well as Trump.  It is a shame that Netanyahu seems so willing to go  along with turning Israel into a partisan issue in United States politics.  I am not convinced that this is a policy that is in Israel's interests  long term, especially if Trump should lose the  November election.

For their part, the representatives of the UAE and Bahrain also went along with the cue to lavish praise upon President Trump,  repeatedly.  All that was missing was  an official ring-kissing procession.   They both said little about Israel but called for peace across the Middle East.  The Bahraini representative called for a "just  resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian" conflict but really did not discuss what was so great about this particular deal for Bahrain and Israel respectively.  The ceremony, overall, had the feel of a campaign rally for Trump and Netanyahu rather than a key diplomatic event.

Critics of the deal and of the Trump-Kushner approach to the Middle East  have argued that Trump has titled U.S. policy towards Israel and has effectively taken positions that Bibi himself would have put forward.  In some cases, this  is fair comment.  the Trump administration has cut aid to the Palestinians, has recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital and has recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.  The Trump administration has also put together a "Deal of the Century" proposal for peace between Israel and the Palestinians without Palestinian involvement.  And  yes, it is a fairly one-sided document.

That being said, the Trump-Kushner proposal, does call for an independent Palestinian State, something rejected  by Netanyahu,  his Likud party and the various parties to the right of Likud in the  Knesset.  It does not include all of the territory that the Palestinians would like and  it does  not include a right of return to Israel for the many Palestinian refugees.  But it does include territorial compromise by Israel and  it is a negotiable plan rather than the a bottom line.  It is unclear whether there would be any negotiations regarding Jerusalem.

It is true that  this approach tilts towards Israel.  But it has also true that previous plans including  the Arab League Plan and the Clinton plan tilted, almost  completely, to the  Palestinian side, especially the Arab League Plan which called for a Palestinian state on pre-1967 borders including  the Old City.  Even where Israeli leaders were willing to go along with a plan that included most of these terms (i.e. the Clinton plan in 2000) that was not acceptable to the Palestinians.  I  do think that a Clinton-type plan left the station shortly after Arafat rejected it.  Especially after political changes in Israel that were probably linked, to some extent, to the rejectionist approach of the Palestinians at the time.

For years the surrounding Arab countries have  been willing to support Palestinian intransigence by characterizing Israel as the main enemy and  threat in the  region and refusing to enter into peace and  normalization deals with Israel - for fear of having been viewed as  betraying the Palestinian cause.  But over the course of the past 53 years since the 1967 war and 72 years since the establishment of the State of Israel, this has been a failing policy.  It has led to  a great deal of war and violence, terrorism, perennial refugee camps and has helped bolster dictatorial regimes in the region who have  used the Palestinian cause to suppress their own populations and  downplay  other criticism about how their countries are run.  And it really hasn't brought the Palestinians any closer to their own state.

The current approach led by Trump and  Kushner marks a  significant departure from this failed policy.  On the  one hand, the U.S. has tilted towards Israel in some areas, much to the chagrin of the EU, the "progressive wing" of the Democratic Party, Turkey, Iran and some other countries.  On the other hand, the goal of the policy seems to be to  bring in other Arab nations, to become friends and allies of Israel - but also to help work towards a resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict in a way that is more realistic. 

It is noteworthy that Netanyahu has called the deals with the UAE and Bahrain "deals from strength" that trade "peace for peace" rather than "land for peace."  But Netanyahu is being disingenuous.  As  part of these deals, Israel has agreed to refrain from unilaterally annexing any of the disputed territories and has also agreed not to oppose a U.S. decision to sell the UAE F-35s.   

The Crown Prince of the UAE states that he believed that the UAE could be in a much better position to assist with the Israeli -Palestinian conflict if it were viewed with some measure of trust and  friendship by Israel.  The UAE and Israel have taken steps  to build that relationship since as early as 2010.  But this does mark  a new  phase - and concurrently, a potentially new level of influence for the UAE in its dealings with Israel.  By including a requirement that  Israel abandon any proposal  to unilaterally annex land, some of which is earmarked for a future Palestinian state, the UAE has signified that it will take an active role in trying to bring about a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

That brings us to the current situation.  There are really a few very different routes that  this process may now take.

If Trump and Kushner are correct that this process has the potential to bring about a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians - I believe that Saudi Arabia would be the key turning point.  Saudi Arabia may well have the clout to insist that it will only sign a full peace deal with Israel if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved.  

In this scenario, a proposal or  plan may be developed that is somewhere between the Trump-Kushner plan and the Clinton Plan.  It would result in the formation of a Palestinian State and a full resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian  conflict.  The problem is that it may not be acceptable, initially, to the Palestinians or even the Israelis.  But here the hope would be that the combination of the support  of a large number of other Arab countries, financial, economic and other  assistance for the Palestinians would leave the Palestinians with no other real alternatives.

On the other side of the equation, Netanyahu has actively campaigned against the creation of a Palestinian state and has suggested that he opposes this part of the Trump-Kushner plan.  He stated this repeatedly during the last Israeli election campaign.  But at some  point, if pushed by Trump and  Kushner - and with the possibility of having  diplomatic relations, even  warm ones, with a large number of countries in the Middle East, Israel may also have no other real alternative but to accept the deal.

On the other hand, no matter what Trump, Kushner or Netanyahu do, there will continue to be rejectionists in the Middle East.   Iran, Turkey, Qatar, Hezbollah and Hamas have all registered their strong opposition to this approach and the Palestinian Authority has called the UAE and Bahrain "back stabbers."  If the other Middle Eastern countries will not go along with the  Trump-Kushner approach and if the PA decides to  turn to violence as its response (as it has many times in the past), an Israeli-Palestinian deal may be as far off as it has ever been.

If, in November, Trump is re-elected, he may decide to pressure Israel to accept a plan that he can sell to the other Arab countries - and ultimately try to use those countries to get the Palestinians to agree  as well.  There are a lot of "ifs"  here and Trump is very unpredictable.  And, of course, there is a still a good chance that he will not be re-elected.

If Biden is elected, he will have a difficult decision to make.  If he takes the Obama approach to the Middle East, that would mean trying to open up negotiations with Iran immediately, restoring funding to the Palestinians unconditionally and cooling the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and  others.  This may effectively end the current track of pushing for peace deals between Israel and neighbouring countries as a first step  towards peace.

But if  Biden is elected and  he can be convinced that some genuine progress has been made  - and the U.S. is close to brokering a peace deal between Saudi Arabia and  Israel (that also involves an Israel-Palestinian deal), Biden might even continue a version of this path.  He  will almost certainly restore funding to the Palestinians either way and try to re-open dialogue with the PA.  But he might not tilt U.S. policy back to where it was under Obama.

Overall, I think this is all a great opportunity for Israel.  The Palestinians rejected the Clinton plan in 2000 and lost what was probably the best proposal they might ever get from Israel.  They probably regret having done so even if they will not publicly admit it.  At this juncture, if Israel could reach a deal with the Palestinians, along the  lines of what has been proposed by Trump and  Kushner, it would probably be about the best deal Israel could hope to get even if the final deal involves additional Israeli concessions.  If it is a deal that would also involve full peace deals with most of the  surrounding Arab countries, it would be an opportunity that Israel would probably not want to pass up.  

While President Obama and Netanyahu had a great deal of public  quarrels, the U.S.-Israel relationship remained very strong throughout  Obama's presidency.  This was the case despite some of the steps taken by Obama over the course of his presidency, especially his support for anti-Israel UN resolutions at the very end of his second term and the dispute with Israel over the wisdom of the Iranian nuclear deal.  But at the same time, throughout the  Obama presidency, the U.S. continued to cooperate with Israel fully in  a wide range of technological, military, economic and  other areas despite the often successful efforts of Netanyahu to portray the situation otherwise.  President Obama did not take any significant steps to try and impose a deal on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

If Biden is elected, he may well look at all aspects of the Obama-Netanyahu relationship and find a way to do things a bit differently.  He  may want to restore the public perception of the U.S.-Israel relationship as one that is non-partisan even while repairing the U.S. relationship with the Palestinians.  He will have a challenging  time with Netanyahu in this regard but if the ultimate result is comprehensive peace between Israel and the Palestinians with most other Arab countries in agreement - it may make sense to continue a version of the Trump-Kushner approach even if a Biden vision is viewed as being a bit more balanced.  

Friday, September 4, 2020

September 2020 Blog: What's New In Israel (Limited Survey)

We are quickly approaching the High Holy days - Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur - and I haven't written anything in about two months.  So I figured that it was about time to provide some  comments - not necessarily connected  about things going on here in Israel.  I have actually been here for quite a stretch now - given Covid-19 - but I have still been quite busy professionally.  After all, my line of work is a busy one these days.  So this blog will be a bit of a stream of consciousness - about a few different topics.  We'll see how that  works out.


As you may know, Israel was one of the early leaders in keeping a lid on Covid-19.   The country was virtually shut down for a period of time in March/April - including airports, malls and most everything else commercially other than essential services.  Israel managed to get the number of new Covid cases down to less than 10 a day.  It looked like the virus would disappear.

But the government did not accompany that closure with a support plan for affected businesses or furloughed employees (although many employees were eligible to collect Employment Insurance and will now be able to do so until June 2021). It was a quick, complete and probably half-baked closure plan.  Soon enough, many  sectors of the economy tanked and  the pressure on the  Israeli government to reopen was tremendous.  As a result, the government  (which itself was in quite a bit of political  turmoil) implemented an equally half-baked re-opening plan and opened just about everything very quickly.  Before you could say "Russian vaccine," there were 500 people at weddings and planeloads of infected people arriving on international flights, primarily from the U.S.  The numbers began to climb rapidly.  But the government had expended its political capital on its initial closure plan - and on its haphazard opening plan.  I think it is  fair to say that it lost the public trust (if it ever really had it).  The numbers climbed drastically and Israel has now hit numbers in the range of 3,000 new infections a day, while at the same time having reduced the number of tests.  The government is internally divided and has not really come up with any plan to combat the every increasing spread of the virus.  

The latest plan announced on Wednesday night is an impending closure of 30 "red" cities in Israel - due to come into effect on Monday.  (Heaven forbid you should  implement it immediately - that would interfere with the enjoyment of Shabbat - or in the case of the Arab towns and cities - the enjoyment of Friday...).  As of the writing of this blog, I don't think anyone can assume that the proposed closure will definitely go ahead.  We may not know for sure until Sunday night. But stay tuned.

The Chaggim / Yamim  Nora'im

As mentioned, the Holy Day season is quickly approaching.  Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are only weeks away.  This is the time of year when synagogues are usually packed with wall to wall worshippers.  If the infection rate for Covid-19 is still this high, the Holydays could be real  "super-spreader" events and we could see the numbers rise to tens of thousands of new infections a day.  The Israeli government is torn in trying to figure out how to deal with this.

On the one hand, the scientific advisors to the government, including the special "Covid-19 Project Manager" are urging the government to shut down or  dramatically limit synagogues to no more than 10 or 20 worshippers and  to hold services outside as much as possible.  But the current Israeli government includes a large number of ultra-religious members of Knesset.  They are urging the government to permit full worship in synagogues.  I guess it is fair to say that many of them figure that whether or not they get the virus is a decision made from  above, rather than one affected by actions they might take here on earth.   And given the general lack of trust that the Israeli government has engendered through its earlier mishandling of closures and openings, I would imagine that the  ultra-orthodox community will  simply disregard any government orders that affect worship for the High Holydays.

Even for those of us who are more moderate in our approach to observance, figuring out the Holydays is a real challenge.  Our synagogue is planning to conduct a  few different services - some inside and some outside to keep the number of worshippers really limited - and to allow for physical distancing.  But we have still been wrestling with whether it sounds safe to go.  We normally play a significant role in these tefillot, our family reads from the Torah (all three of our "children" - they can't really be called "children" now), and participates in leading the services.  I have lead Musaf on Rosh Hashanah and for other services.  So I guess we have a short window to decide what to do.

For Yom Kippur, we  usually run a satellite service in Ra'anana.  Sometimes it has even been at our house, though the past few years, we have used the facilities of another synagogue in Ra'anana.  But this year, we have a range of opinions and issues.   How to keep the numbers down to 20, where to hold the services and other issues.  Things to deal with in the coming weeks  I guess.  But some of this falls on yours truly as one of the organizers of these  services.   So something to think about in the coming weeks (while working on preparations for leading Kol Nidrei and Neilah).  

The Peace Deal with the UAE

Israelis are quite happy with the recent announcement that Israel would establish full diplomatic relations with the UAE.   What's not to like?  Israel has apparently been working on relations  with the  UAE going back to 2010.  There have been many unreported exchanges so for some it is not a surprise.

Interestingly, the current Israeli government did not put the proposed peace deal to a vote in the Knesset or even in its own cabinet.  In fact, Netanyahu apparently kept his Blue and White coalition partners in the dark about the deal.

It certainly looks like the terms of the deal included an agreement by the U.S. to sell F-35s to the  UAE,  an agreement by Israel to cancel its proposed unilateral annexation of parts of the disputed territories and, in exchange, full diplomatic relations including active tourism, scientific, academic and cultural exchanges and ramped up economic trade.   I doubt that  the Israeli government would have opposed the deal although, in a democracy, the  deal probably should have been presented to the government for approval.

As you know, President Trump sent Secretary of State Pompeo on a whirlwind tour of other countries in the Middle East to try and convince them follow the UAE.  Israel is hoping to reach peace deals with Bahrain, Oman, Sudan, Morocco and, eventually, Saudi Arabia.  But these  countries apparently made it clear that they will only agree to peace with Israel if there is a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.  Both Netanyahu  and Trump seem to be helping each other and trying to bolster their respective electoral prospects even though a new election has not yet  been announced in Israel.  I can imagine that if Israel were to announce peace deals with four or five countries between now and November, even without resolving the Palestinian issue, this would still give Trump and Netanyahu significant  boosts.  On the other hand, if the UAE  is the only country to  agree, the deal may not affect the political landscape in either place.

Meanwhile, many Israelis are already planning their flights to Dubai.   With permission to fly over Saudi Arabia having been granted, the flight will take only 3 1/2 hours.  UAE hotels have already announced that they are planning to offer Kosher food.   And the UAE is looking to support the opening of  a number of synagogues.  This is all very exciting.  If Israel could find a way to reach peace deals like this with a number of other countries in the region, the world would really start to look like a better place.

In the meantime, the UAE may decide to take a more active role in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.  Perhaps the Palestinians will take a new look at their "bottom line" demands as they realize that more and more countries in the region are about  to make peace with Israel.   Likewise, the Israeli government may be willing to make some concessions  if the concessions are  tied to a broader Middle Eastern peace agreement.  The  obstacles today, aside from the Palestinian Authority, seem to be Turkey, Iran, Syria and perhaps Qatar along with Hezbollah, Hamas and other extremist movements.  One never knows what the future brings but there is reason  to believe that, overall, the UAE deal is a hopeful development and the first of many steps to come.

The Israeli Government

The current Israeli government is a very unstable one - made up of a coalition of various political enemies.  Every few weeks, there is a threat the government will fall and new elections will be called.  The latest threat came as a result of the budget.  Netanyahu's Likud party had signed a deal calling for a two-year budget as part of the coalition agreement that it entered into with the Blue and White party.  But, Netanyahu soon saw that his political support was rising after he eviscerated the Blue and White party in coalition negotiations.  He is still hopeful that he can win a new election outright and get a "retroactive immunity deal" that would eliminate his current ongoing criminal proceedings.  He became  worried that a two year budget might mean no new elections for two years.  So he announced that "circumstances had changed" and the government needed a budget for one year only (just until the end of 2020).   Of  course the Blue and White party called foul and claimed that this was a violation of the coalition deal.  It certainly was.  But Netanyahu pressed ahead.  In the end, Blue and White partially conceded and the parties agreed that they would put off  deciding anything for another two months.  So the Israeli government carries on without a budget and without any immediate plans to implement one.  And no election will be called for at least the next two months. Some commentators have ruminated that Trump asked Netanyahu to hold off on having another election until after the U.S. elections in November.  But I haven't seen anything concrete to back up that rumour.  

Either way, we have no budget, an ongoing coalition made up of political enemies and no definitive plans to do anything.  But no plans to change these circumstances.  Go figure.  

Some Sports Comments

I couldn't let this blog pass without commenting  on the Leafs  and the  Raptors.  Watching North American sports is a bit challenging in Israel for a few reasons.   The games aren't shown on most channels and with the time difference, it can mean watching big games from 2 to 5 a.m.  

But  some of us here were up to the task, especially since I have no real interest in watching Israeli soccer or basketball.  Of course it  was tremendously disappointing to watch the  Toronto  Maple Leafs make their annual early exit.  For those of you who have no idea what I am talking about - or don't really care - the Toronto Maple Leafs have not won an NHL ice hockey  championship since 1967.  So being a fan of the Leafs is a recurrently painful undertaking.  

The Toronto Raptors, on the other hand, are the defending world champions, having won their first NBA basketball championship last year.  Although this year they are now without their former team superstar Kawhi  Leonard, who signed as  free  agent to go play for the LA Clippers.  This  year, the Raptors won their first round of their title defence but were  losing 2-0 in the second round to the Boston Celtics.  Last  night,  we had the good fortune of watching the Raptors win by one point with no time on the clock and a three-point buzzer beater.  Very exciting.   So they are still alive.

In case you are wondering, we are  using  a Virtual Private Network to be able to watch Canadian channels....Israeli channel 59 (On Yes) shows some games  but certainly not all of them.  Previously we subscribed to Fox  Sports Israel.  But it stopped broadcasting in Israel last year.  So watching NHL, NBA and NFL games in Israel has become an even bigger challenge.

In other sports news, football news to be exact, the Israeli national team is playing against Scotland tonight in a playoff game that could see Israel make it into the next Euro championship.  It is one of the most meaningful soccer games that  the Israeli national team has played in many years.  If they win tonight, they have game on Monday night that will decide whether or  not they advance.  The problem of course is that tonight's game conflicts with Shabbat...

Final Comments

It has been unseasonably hot here the past few days - mid to upper 30s C (high 90s for those of you on the F scale).  When you combine that level of heat with a mask - it becomes very uncomfortable to be outside for very long.  Though we can get to the beach for an early morning walk in less than 15 minutes and at that time of day, it is still very nice.  We are hoping to do something fun over the Labour Day Weekend.  (It's not really Labour Day or even a long weekend here in Israel, but since my schedule is a Canadian work  schedule, we might as well enjoy).

Shabbat Shalom to everyone  and all in the best in preparing for the coming holidays.  And enjoy the long weekend - the "last weekend of summer" in Canada and many parts of the U.S.  Here we probably have at least two more months of really nice weather coming up until we get that "horrible" winter weather - 15-20 C and occasional showers.  Best regards and stay in touch!