The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations (COP) annual mission to Israel was exciting, thought-provoking, and a little overwhelming as usual. While many of the discussions were off the record, there were general impressions and themes that became fairly obvious after we sat through enough sessions with experts, politicians, and thinkers of every imaginable background.
On “Muddle East”: Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf States (excepting Qatar) are essentially on the same page regarding regional threats, including Iran’s expansionism, the Muslim Brotherhood’s spread of Islamism and financing of terrorist organizations, Hizbullah, Hamas, and other jihadist groups and movements. However, neither separately nor even together under the best possible circumstances do they have what it takes to deal with all these threats without the leadership of the United States. However, the US appears to have no strategy in Syria; it is passive everywhere else, and despite close cooperation on many issues, with respect to a greater pushback against the Iranian threat, it is passing the buck back to the neighborhood.
The essential message from the allies was that US should support the Saudis, and the other Gulf states will follow suit. When pressed on whether it is possible to develop some sort of a strategic long term solution without the US involvement, not one person had anything positive to say. Either all the experts are tied in groupthink and cannot come with any creative solutions for operating in dire circumstances with limited resources, or they are, in fact, correct, and any real solution beyond bare-bones hang-on-for-dear-life survival has to include the US and her resources. Part of the problem is that even on the essential and helpful items such as tougher sanctions against Iran, there is no real movement forward because the Europeans are blocking all the initiatives. Essentially the way forward is to get the administration to force the Europeans to choose whether they want to business with the US or with Iran. For now, however, Israel is facing threats on at least five (and possibly six) fronts. With respect to the attack on its airplane, the damage and the threat were less in the physical attack than in the idea of a successful publicity stunt, which is why Israel had to counterattack with such fervor – to destroy any possibility of allowing Iranians to spin it as a a success story.
On Russia: Israel and Russia enjoy a close tactical cooperation, which helps prevent close encounters of the kind no one wants; however, they are not strategically on the same page. Putin either does not understand the full extent of Israel’s security threats or just doesn’t care, and for that reason Israel and Russia have not been able to come to an agreement concerning border security and Iranians, as well as utilizing the full possible force against Syria when it attacks or allows attacks against Israel to take place. The bottom line is, no one is really challenging Russia’s growing influence in the region; Russia is quickly and easily replacing US as the go-to power broker, and for that reason can afford to tell others what to do.
On Oil, Gas, and Water: With the oil prices crashing, Israel is finding itself in an increasingly advantageous position. The discovery of off-shore gas presents a perfect opportunity to do business, particularly with Egypt, which may actually have a significant not yet discovered repository of gas, so Israel was right on target with making the recent deal. In addition, there are multiple potential routes that have been historically considered and could be potentially reopened should the status of relationship with countries such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Iran ever change, that could ease the delivery of gas through both circuitous and direct routes. Currently, there are multiple options for disposing of the gas through the potential deals with Greece, Cyprus, Turkey and others, and Israel is considering what is most helpful in terms of its geopolitical interests. There were some deals with Turkey in the works, but given the deteriorating status of that unstable relationship, Israel may considering going in a different direction and bypassing Turkey altogether.
On the future: I was happy to note that Israel seems invested into both improving the quality of the education it offers and encouraging the students across the board to get more invested in education. We were presented with panels of very talented students, including an exceptional Beduin teenage girl, who instead of going to a special Beduin school for talented kids, decided to tough it out in the local public school. She managed to take double the credits in computer science/coding in high school, in addition to cybersecurity, and other skills, and is also already taking advanced courses from college. Her parents were there and seemed incredibly warm and supportive. While, of course, those individual stories are outstanding precisely because they are so exceptional, there is no doubt that there is real effort being placed into making such great achievements a possibility for everyone in Israel.
What I am personally concerned about (and that had nothing to do with any of the presentations, but rather, my own external exposure to internal Israeli matters), was that many of the Jewish kids, not even Charedi ones, are just not very motivated to pursue either higher education or some serious skill sets, and immediately after completing their military service, settle into years of dead end and not particularly profitable jobs selling cosmetics or cell phones in Israel and around the world. Obviously there are enough people doing other, more meaningful things to move the country forward and to be really inspirational, but I feel like the real crisis is not in the demographics of social growth, but in the demographics of education and accomplishment, and for a significant portion of the Israeli Jewish population it is just not trending well.
On the very positive thing, Israel is not only not an apartheid state, but in many ways an exceptionally well integrated state, with many many Arab graduates of medical schools who are becoming successful doctors, pharmacists, etc, and are living very well. I am genuinely happy to hear that, because contrary to what polemicists like to make it sound, just because I am a right-wing hardcore Zionist doesn’t mean that I only care “my” people. I want everyone in Israel and elsewhere to live well, and to be genuinely successful. Nothing would make me happier than to see the distrust break down and the Arab community in Israel overcome the issues that’s plaguing them and fully back the people who are committed to making the country they live in an actual home and not just a temporary base of operations. And when I was there, I saw that a lot of it is already in place. Don’t believe everything you see on TV, folks, and certainly, don’t think that a group of radical MPs in the Knesset speak for all the Arab population in Israel. I do hope, however, that in the future, fewer and fewer of the kooks will end up having a place in politics, and reasonable, open-minded candidates will find a growing community support. (P.S. I am blaming the European propaganda NGOs as much for contributing to the dissemination of falsehoods and anti-Israel sentiment as the Arab press and politicians).
On Benjamin Netanyahu and his various court cases: Depends on whom you ask. Seriously. There was no one real line, and everyone was so highly politicized that you literally had to take every single opinion on this issue with a great grain of salt. But the consensus was that Bibi is REALLY good at what he does, and whatever his failings, currently there is not even a single possibly measurable substitute to really take his place.
On Jerusalem: Trump’s decision to move the embassy was lauded and mentioned by most speakers, but it was not the central focus of the discussion.
On Israel-Diaspora ties: The primary concern for Israelis were foreign policy and security issues, but everyone acknowledged the need to overcome whatever divides and find a way of uniting the communities, while also handling the natural differences. One could tell that this was just the beginning of the discussion.
Israel-African ties: We had an extraordinary presentation from Mashav, which detailed all the exciting humanitarian aid Israel is providing for many African countries, and which is directly leading to better results for Israel in the international arena. Furthermore, Israel bypasses the corrupt tyrannical governments, and offers grassroots help and trainings that empower ordinary people and help them resolve local issues and regain some control over their own lives.
On the deportation of the African refugees: Apparently, many of these people were more illegal aliens than actual refugees and who snuck into Israel in a way that made it very difficult to control the flow into the country. Ideally, they should have been placed in detention camps and each case should have been reviewed on an individual basis. However, because that did not happen, and many of these people lacked proper papers or other credentials, Israelis were stuck with a major political and security problem, the extent of which is hard to measure and once again depends on whom you ask.
On MBS, MBZ, and the rest: According to the many Israeli voices that we heard, both Crown Princes are genuine in their efforts to modernize and reform their countries, are fully committed to countering Islamists and Iranian expansionism, and the defense alliances with Israel are growing – but need to get stronger (which will hopefully happen over time). It was implied, though not openly stated that KSA, UAE, Bahrain, and others are facing the internal challenges of various segments of populations who are… not particularly happy about the turn of events, and for that reason there are constraints as to the speed with which these relationships are developing. Although the desperation is bringing everyone closer, US assistance could help cement the alliances and diffuse some of the pushback. The officials and experts both said that the countries are doing a good job, and someone even pointed out a not-widely known fact that MBS, unlike many Saudis, was not, in fact, educated in the West at all, and yet despite all that is remarkably open to the West. Overall, everyone seemed hopeful about that aspect of things.
What was significantly less hopeful, however, was the general situation. Israelis now have advanced training camps for practicing tough runs against Hizbullah, and we had an incredible opportunity to visit one of them. Despite the usual Israeli resilience, tough-mindedness, and let’s face it, bravado, there are some serious concerns. Hizbullah’s 70,000+ missiles are not a joke. Hamas, although in an agreement with Israel not to fire rockets, keeps building tunnels. Iran’s incursions from the Syria’s borders are not expected to stop, despite the recent pushback, and if Iran gets any more advanced in its weapons and strengthens its forces, these border skirmishes will only become more frequent. In addition, Salafists and ISIS are proliferating in the area, and Iran has been trying to recruit, fund, and train Fatah-affiliated terrorist cells, which have not yet been completely wiped out (though Israel is keeping a close watch). The Salafist groups are being funded by the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as individual private donors within the Gulf. Add to that Qatar’s state cooperation with some of these organizations and closeness to Iran (the opinions of the experts were split on the extent of the issue, but the official Israeli government position is that Qatar is a problem and cannot be reasonably compared to UAE), – and the Middle East is basically a tinderbox. Meanwhile, KSA & co. are in need of real help in resolving the Qatar and Yemen issues, both of which, do not seem to be going anywhere. Enemy propaganda, too, is causing these countries real damage in the West, and further inflames the internal opposition – and not of the reformist type.
At this point, it’s vital for the administration and for Congress to reexamine the US relationship with the Gulf countries, and prioritize helping people we perceive as friends. The fact that US relationships with the countries that are directly facing the bulk of Iranian threats, with the exception of Israel have been reduced to transactional exchanges is making the situation even messier than it has to be based on the sheer multiplicity of threats. Leaving aside legitimate concerns about MBS’s experience, advisers, and personal competence, some of the problems that are riddling the region are too big for any one leader of a country to handle on his own – and yet, that is mostly the situation we are facing. UAE is largely following the Saudi lead, although they have their differences, particularly in Yemen – and it shows. Bahrain is a small country.
UAE’s military is mostly special forces and they punch below their weight, but at the end of the day, UAE’s native population is only approximately a million people. Saudis are more numerous and well equipped, but their military is notoriously weak – and now, also directly involved in Yemen, where the Saudis, and not just proxies, are now serving and dying. None of it comes out to a pretty picture overall. With Iran threatening KSA from both the North and the South (Yemen and Oman), it is difficult to deal with any one threat properly while also trying to manage the exceptionally complicated internal dynamics. In short, our allies – for, that is, in fact, what they are – are stuck in the rut – and need a helping hand and guidance. If they fall, not only will Israel remain isolated and surrounded by the forces of an implacable and extremely dangerous enemy, but the threat will continue to spread farther and farther, until it eventually reaches our own shores.
While there is much cause for optimism in terms of prospects of Middle East eventually becoming free of old prejudices and open to exciting new partnerships, little of that will come to fruition if Iran wins by taking over even one of the Gulf States. For that reason, it is imperative for the Trump administration to wake up and to engage in direct, integrated, and serious assistance to our allies – for our own sake, if not for theirs.
That was the main takeaway of the entire trip. Whatever I may have thought about MBS, the Saudis, and everything else prior to coming flew right out of the window (I was open-minded but skeptical for obvious reasons), because there will be plenty of time for skepticism and needling later. Right now… we have our allies, and the entire region to rescue.
- Benjamin Netanyahu
- Donald Trump
- IS Islamic State
- Israel-Africa Relations
- Israel-Diaspora Ties
- Israel-US Relations
- Israeli Economy
- Jewish-Muslim Relations
- Nonprofit Organizations
- Refugee Crisis
- Saudi Arabia
- Start-Up Israel
- Taylor Force
- Temple Mount
- Western Wall