Two years ago, US Representative Ilhan Omar responded to a tweet from journalist Glenn Greenwald, who posted about House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy threatening to punish Omar and another congressional Representative for being critical of Israel. Omar wrote back, “It’s all about the Benjamin’s baby,” a line about $100 bills (that carry the picture of Benjamin Franklin) from a Puff Daddy song. Critics jumped on the tweet and said Omar was calling up a negative and harmful stereotype of Jewish Americans.
I will not re-enter the fray as to whether she did or did not mean it as an anti-Semitic slur. However, independent of the intent, the fact is that much of what all of us experience daily in our lives really is “all about the Benjamin’s.”
I was reminded of this when the good news broke on Thursday that a deal had been worked out for diplomatic ties to be established between Israel and the UAE, accomplished with the active involvement of the US government, for which all of us living here in Israel are appreciative.
There already has been a great deal of commentary about what prompted this about face after 72 years of no official contact between Israel and the UAE. However, bottom line, when it comes to such diplomatic achievements two standards always come into play. First, governments will always do (and should do) what is in their own best interests and, secondly, that business (i.e. “the Benjamin’s”) often represent a significant determinant in defining what is or is not in a government’s best interests.
For example, when former US President Richard Nixon reached out to Communist China with a landmark visit there in 1972 his motivation was a clear example of both principles. It was in the best diplomatic interests of the US to open communication with the world’s most populous country. (n.b. Even in 1972 China, with 1.439 billion people had already surpassed India, with 1.38 billion people, as the world’s most populous country.) As for GDP, China in 1972 was already the world’s seventh largest economy and growing. Clearly, the motivation to reach out and breakdown the diplomatic barriers were significant. There are, of course, a sufficient number of other examples since then as well.
Therefore, the move by the US to facilitate the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the US is simply the current example that proves the point. US President Trump decided that it was in the best interests of the US (as well as clearly in his own best political interests as well in an election year), to work on this process. The US and the UAE have a relatively (in diplomatic terms) long history of cooperation, the UAE is a huge customer of US defense industry output, and opening up relations with Israel creates a three country pathway for mutual defense and other commercial cooperation. There is, of course, no need to go further into the financial benefit involved where “the Benjamin’s” come to the surface once more. In this case, whatever the motivation, the benefit to Israel will be significant on both the commercial and diplomatic levels. I have no doubt that we will shortly see Emirati tourists in Israel and, for sure, as soon as the skies open up the Israelis will flock to Dubai by the tens of thousands…not even a question about that.
Nevertheless it is important to add that while official recognition is a good thing and will be extremely valuable to both Israel and the UAE, it is not as if there has been no previous activity and “under the radar” cooperation between the two countries. For those of us living in Israel with multiple passports, travel to the UAE is not anything new. I was in Dubai for the first time 10 years ago using my US passport. While travel there non-stop was not possible, it has been possible to travel there from Tel Aviv to Amman, Jordan and then transfer to a flight to Dubai or to go Tel Aviv to Istanbul and then on to Dubai.
For me, the most amazing thing was checking in at Dubai International Airport for the return flight and having the baggage agent tag my bag to Tel Aviv without batting an eyelash. I also recall standing on the front steps of the Renaissance Hotel in Dubai and speaking with another businessperson from Saudi Arabia. We exchanged cards and, when he saw I was from Jerusalem, again without skipping a beat, said: “Jerusalem? Very nice city and am sure you enjoy living there. I hope to be able to visit one day.” In our corporate role as commercial representatives here in the region for a number of US states, our people are in Dubai every year, working with US companies in our client states who exhibit at trade shows there.
To be sure, I would not walk the streets of Dubai wearing a kippah as I do here. But, then again, I don’t walk the streets of the US dressed like that either, sad to say.
At this moment, I cannot help but recall the famous 1967 Khartoum Arab League Summit convened in the wake of the Six-Day War. The summit lasted from August 29th to September 1st. Participating were eight Arab heads of state representing Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria, Kuwait and Sudan. At that summit, the group passed a resolution calling for a continued state of belligerency with Israel and was famous for what became known as the “Three Nos”: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel and no negotiations with it.
43 years later, we have diplomatic relations with both Egypt and Jordan, two of the participants in the conference as well as, shortly, with the United Arab Emirates. Say what you will but none of this would have come about had not the leadership of those three countries understood that it was (a) in their country’s best interests to move in this direction and (b) that it would benefit them financially as well. As a citizen of Israel, I can only hope that this process of positive political engagement continues to develop further.
After all, it was Benjamin Franklin, well before his face appeared on US currency, who said, “There never was a good war or a bad peace.” Indeed!