Biden's next stop was a military stop to look at one of Israel's newest missile defence systems, a project which Israel has apparently developed along with the U.S. After that, it was off to Yad Vashem, where President Biden spoke with two Holocaust survivors for more than 10 minutes.
Optically, this has already seemed like a far better visit than President Obama's first visit, even though Biden might ultimately carry some similar messages. But unlike Obama, Biden has gone out of his way, initially, to stress the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship and to do so with warmth and attention to messaging. It remains to be seen what follows.
Israeli political leaders were falling over themselves trying to be photographed with Biden. Former Prime Minister Bennett inserted himself into a runway walk along the red carpet before officials whisked him away. Current Prime Minister Lapid made sure that he had some wonderfully photogenic moments with Biden. Former Prime Minister and current leader of the opposition, Benjamin Netanyahu made sure that he actually got a warm handshake from Biden - even though Biden was generally giving fist pumps to most of the other attendees. Even Yamina leader Ayelet Shaked managed to make her way over to a position right next to Biden. It was actually quite amusing watching all of this.
In any event, it is a strange visit since not very much is expected. No major breakthroughs with the Palestinians are likely to take place and it sounds unlikely that there will be any major deals between Israel and the U.S. So what is the purpose of this visit, which was planned before the current Israeli government imploded?
There seem to be three answers. For one, President Biden is trying to round up support for the American approach to Iran and its quest for nuclear weapons. He is flying from Israel to Saudi Arabia, directly (a first) on Friday and will also be discussing Iran with the Saudis. So one objective is to try and bolster support for a potential revival of the Obama orchestrated nuclear deal. Neither the Israelis nor the Saudis are too excited about this prospective deal and, in fact, the Iranians have not even agreed to it. So it is unclear what, if anything, will happen on that track.
Secondly, President Biden is visiting Saudi Arabia to discuss oil and to see if the Saudis can help the current U.S. situation by increasing daily production of oil and, hopefully, lowering the prices. This is something that Americans are deeply concerned about as oil prices have rocketed up recently, as they have all over the world.
Finally, there is a geopolitical side to this as well. Biden is hoping to continue to build on the "Abraham Accords" by moving Saudi Arabia and, possibly other countries, closer to becoming participants. Saudi Arabia has, to date, indicated that it seeks a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians as a pre-condition to joining the accords. At the same time, Saudi Arabia is looking to protect itself against a potential Iranian threat and some sort of deal with Israel and the United States would be quite helpful in that regard. So it will be very interesting to see what, if anything, is announced in Saudi Arabia about the Saudi relationship with Israel. Rumours here are that more airlines from Israel will be able to overfly Saudi Arabia en route to the far east, which will save Israeli travellers many hours of travelling time.
President Biden also agreed to a very interesting interview with Channel 12 Israeli reporter Yonit Levy. She pushed him with some probing questions about his plans for 2024 (no comment), his relationship with Netanyahu, the real reasons for this current visit and whether or not he would authorize force against Iran if they won't join a nuclear deal (he said he would as a last resort). In particular, Levy asked him whether, if Netanyahu gets elected and becomes Prime Minister, there will again be a great "freeze" in the U.S. -Israel relationship. Biden answered that the relationship is with the country and not any particular leader - and that he would work with anyone who is elected. Great answer, I thought. This is really what Prime Minister Netanyahu should have been saying during the last U.S. election campaign but of course he chose to be partisan instead, almost stumping for Trump's re-election campaign.
Overall, it should be an interesting few days. President Biden is scheduled to attend the opening ceremonies of the Maccabbi games, which will take place tomorrow at 7 p.m. Israel time. (12 p.m. Eastern). There are some terrific Israeli musical acts scheduled to perform. I am really looking forward to watching. At $500 a ticket, we decided not to attend but I'm sure it will be great on TV. It would also be crazy getting in and out of Jerusalem. Aside from the opening ceremonies, I am also looking forward to watching my niece compete in the swimming competitions.
Israeli TV update
Over the past couple of weeks, we watched the Beauty Queen of Jerusalem. Of all the Israeli shows that I have seen over the past few years, including Fauda, Tehran, Shtisel and others, this was probably my favourite. I have always enjoyed historical fiction. Beauty Queen traces the fictional Ermosa family, a Sephardic family living in Jerusalem, from pre-World War I through to the mid 1940s (in the first season at least).
While at times the show might seem like a bit of a soap opera, it is set against the backdrop of life in Jerusalem, mostly in the 30s and 40s. It deals with the relationship between the Jewish community and the Ottoman rulers initially - then subsequently, the British authorities and the tensions with the Arab community. The politics of the time also play a role. There is discussion of the power of the Histadrut (the largest Israeli workers' union of the time) balanced against the "revisionists" (the pre-cursers to the modern more free-market Likud party). The show also looks at the pre-Independence military organizations in Israel (the Hagana and "Etzel") and the different types of operations these groups were carrying out. This is of course also set against the heavy backdrop of the rise of the Nazis in Germany, the outbreak of the second World War and initial reports of the Holocaust.
The first season of the show was originally aired by YES TV in Israel in 2021 over 44 episodes, each of which are about half hour in length. This year, Netflix picked up the series and edited the first 44 episodes into two seasons of 10 episodes each, with English subtitles. So we watched the first 10 episodes on Netflix - which covers about 20-22 episodes of the Israeli version. The rest hasn't yet been released on Netflix. So we were left hanging....what to do...
We found that all 44 episodes are available on sdarot.buzz but without English subtitles. We couldn't resist and watched the 20 or so episodes that are not yet on Netflix. It was quite compelling - we just couldn't stop watching. Perhaps it is not for everyone. Some people have apparently found it a bit slow and it does flip back and forth between the 1920s and the 1930s - sometimes you don't know what year you are in. But it all comes together. It helps if you are a history buff, particularly if you enjoy Israeli history. But I think that there is enough in the show to enjoy it even if you are not so keen on pre-Independence Israeli history. Netflix has the English subtitles. To watch on Sdarot, you will need fluent Hebrew.
In other Israeli TV news, the fourth season of Fauda is now out - or is being released weekly. The first episode was shown on Israeli TV tonight and it will run for the next 10 Wednesdays (or so). After that, apparently, it will be released on Netflix worldwide. So if you are a big Fauda fan, you will get another round of Fauda on Netflix this year. It was action packed, suspenseful and entertaining but it is too early to comment on the fourth season as a whole.
Finally, although this is in a slightly different category, we went to see Fiddler on the Roof, in Hebrew, at at the Cultural Centre in Tel Aviv a theatre in the heart of the city. I have, of course, seen the play many times in English in New York and Toronto. This was my first time in Hebrew though I had heard the soundtrack. Overall, it was an excellent production. The lead character, Tevia (he is named Tuvia in the Hebrew Production) was played by Natan Datner and he did an excellent job. He was a very convincing Tevia with a powerful voice. Some of the other performers were a bit weaker (for example Tevia's wife, Golda) But the Hudel performer was excellent as was Motel the Tailor.
Even though I have seen the play many times, it is still an emotionally draining experience, on so many levels. The complete disappearance of the Jewish communities of Europe is very real and personal. It is the story of my grandparents and great grandparents as it is for some many Jews around the world. Together with that, the play touches on the challenges of maintaining tradition in the face of post-enlightenment modern realities and that is a also a subject that is very close to home. What, if any, traditions will our children continue? And even the subject of intermarriage, which was already a big challenge for the U.S. Jewish community when the play was adapted in the 1960s (from Shalom Aleichem stories written at the turn of the century) seems to have an even more powerful impact in 2022 when U.S. intermarriage rates are higher than 50% and Canadian rates are not too far behind. So there is lots to think about as the town of Anatevka is eliminated and the population is expelled. I won't deny shedding a tear or two (or maybe more than that).
Quick Political Comment
As you may know, Israel is in the midst of another election campaign with voting to take place on November 1, 2022. I will write some more detailed election related blogs as the election draws closer. I will simply say at this point that it is too close to call.
Former Prime Minister Netanyahu is in the midst of his criminal trial, which is getting lots of press these days. He is hoping that he can come up with a coalition of more than 61 seats and get himself back in to the Prime Minister's chair. So far, polls seem to be indicating that this is possible but far from certain.
Former Prime Minister Bennett has announced that he is dropping out of politics. His party, Yamina, is now being led by Ayalet Shaked and it is not clear that Yamina will pass the electoral threshhold. Yamina may well join Likud or some other party before election day.
Current Prime Minister Lapid is polling at anywhere from 22 to 26 seats. It would be quite a feat for him to stay in power but anything is possible.
There are a variety of other political suitors pushing in different ideological directions. Should be quite entertaining over the next two months. I anticipate that there will be all kinds of mudslinging, underhanded tactics, insults and lies. Everything that western political campaigns seem to have these days.
I couldn't leave this without stating the obvious - that airports are crazy these days and flights between Toronto and Tel-Aviv are completely full, incredibly pricey and more disorganized than ever. Airport waiting times are very long. It can take 2-3 hours to get through all of the security and check-in procedures to leave Israel. Arriving in Israel is fairly efficient generally, in contrast to arriving in Toronto these days, which is a complete disaster.
With El Al scheduled to discontinue its Canadian service at the end of October, 2022, prices will undoubtedly rise sharply, which is unfortunate. I can't say that I have been a loyal supporter of El Al, since the benefits of flying Air Canada were overwhelmingly superior. But I know that many Israelis prefer to fly El Al since it "feels like home." They will be very disappointed that this option is no longer available to and from Toronto.
I suppose, soon enough, you will be able to fly Saudi Arabian Airlines to Tel-Aviv from Toronto. After all, you can already fly Emirates, though I haven't tried it yet. However, you might want to get here, Israel will be happy to welcome you.
And with that I will sign off on this one and wish you all the best until next time.