I am speaking at a national level here in Israel, not a personal level. Nevertheless, before Yom Kippur is absolutely the right time to ask the question.
We have been watching the unfolding of a new international dynamic with several nations in turn – predominantly Arab/Muslim nations – agreeing/or giving consideration to establishing a diplomatic relationship with Israel, and perhaps even promising to locate their embassies in Jerusalem.
The enthusiasm and excitement regarding this shifting situation have been over the top, and I felt it was important to return to this topic for a closer look.
It’s not that I believe forging these new relationships is intrinsically a bad thing. Not at all! We are being told that Israel is now recognized by these countries as a legitimate member of the body of nations in the Middle East – rather than simply as a usurper of land. To the extent that this is true, and that it may advance the cause of peace, it is a very good thing indeed.
And yet, we need a solid, carefully thought-out perspective on what these new relationships mean and how they need to be approached.
Right now there is a tendency for Israeli leadership – or some significant part of that leadership ‒ to measure our national self-worth in terms of our acceptance by other nations rather than with regard to our intrinsic worth: they are seeking affirmation from the outside.
For an individual, in psychological terms, the dichotomy between the two is sometimes referred to as other-esteem vs. self-esteem.
But it is also true of nations. Treated as a pariah nation for so long, and in many different regards, we Israelis are hungry for international acceptance. And who could blame us? A host of international agencies, the UN, the ICC, etc. – undoubtedly fueled by anti-Semitism, conscious or not – have special categories for assessing the “wrong-doing” just of Israel.
How refreshing then, to have new and positive relationships with nations that were once hostile to us. How empowering this may be in the diplomatic sphere as well as in other regards.
This said, a broader perspective is badly needed.
In the end, our strength comes from who we are as a nation, and not from how others see us. We forget this at our own peril. Yet right now we are caught up in an external focus, and we risk losing sight of much that is important, and precious, domestically. Consider:
There are, of course, many amazing individuals in Israel who are responsible for fantastic hi tech achievements and medical advances – all of which benefit the larger world. But I’m thinking of something beyond this: Our society has a particular sensitivity based on Jewish values.
We make room in our army for people with disabilities, so that they feel they are contributing. We allow the elderly to move to the front of a line without waiting. We have multiple opportunities for religious young women, who don’t serve in the army, to instead serve the nation via Sherut Leumi (National Service). Because ours is a child-oriented culture, children are welcome almost everywhere, including at elegant weddings. We send army medical and rescue units around the world, to assist with natural disasters.
In short, we are a special people and must celebrate who we are, with heads held high.
What a loss it would be to our country, to our deepest sense of ourselves, if we should fail to do this – if we should stop paying attention to our own intrinsic national worth.
This is one piece of our story.
But today there is another piece, as well:
In the 19 plus years since I first made aliyah, I have never witnessed so much dissension within the nation, not only between groups – religious vs. secular, left vs. right, etc. – but within the government itself. The “unity government” is so devoid of unity it would be a joke, were it not so serious a matter.
(I am not going to specifically address the horrendous situation with regard to how corona is being handled. But that does not mean I am not painfully mindful of it or how it plays into our national crisis.)
We cannot be strong as a nation without a bonding, a sense of unity, and we are on the cusp of losing this. If we spend too much time looking outward, affirming our worth because of external factors, and fail to pay sufficient attention to internal problems, there will be a price paid in the end. We must find the way to heal ourselves domestically.
It may be more fun, and more ego-enhancing, to meet with foreign officials. But our leaders must understand that the hard work of internal healing is more important to our national future than whose embassy sits in Jerusalem at this particular juncture.
As we put matters into perspective, it is also imperative to remember that the nations prepared to forge formal ties with us now are not doing so because their leaders suddenly woke up and realized that Israel is a great country. Without exception it is because they need something, and they see Israel as an avenue for achieving it. I have already written about this.
—With an eye to Iran, they may be seeking enhanced intelligence-sharing and advice on methods for bolstering security, all of which Israel can provide.
—Or it could be procurement from the US of the F-35 fighter jets and other military equipment that they are after. They know that normalization established with Israel opens the door to increased American receptivity to such a sale. At the moment, this is the case with the UAE.
On Tuesday Benny Gantz, Alternate Prime Minister and Defense Minister, was in the US for meetings with US National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien and Defense Secretary Mark Esper. Reports are that the US hopes to finalize a deal with the UAE for purchase of F-35 jets by December. Although according to Ambassador David Friedman, it would be six or seven years before jets would actually be received by the UAE. Gantz discussed avenues for ensuring Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge in light of this sale. And Esper, to the left of Gantz in the picture below, provided assurances that the US would be responsive to this need.
Before flying to the US, Gantz had made a comment about the F-35 being only one military platform, with others available, thereby suggesting that cutting edge military equipment from the US might be forthcoming. In any event, it does not appear at this juncture that Israel is actively opposing the sale to the UAE.
—It might be assistance at a diplomatic level that is being indirectly sought. There is one very strange story in this regard involving Sudan:
A little over two weeks ago, Sudanese top diplomat Omer Ismail reported that the US had conditioned the removal of Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism on its normalization of diplomatic ties with Israel. This proposal was made by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a visit to Sudan; he was attempting to lure countries to thawing ties with Israel. There were other conditions as well, such as reparations payments to families of terror victims.
One of the benefits to Sudan of being removed from the list would be its ability to conduct badly needed international business deals; Sudan is in dire fiscal straits. When Sudanese officials met with American officials in the UAE to discuss this, they also demanded $3 billion in “humanitarian aid.” (I am assuming the expectation was that the money would come from the UAE.)
It is entirely unclear as to whether Sudanese normalization with Israel will actually occur: the transitional government currently ruling claims it does not have the authority to make such decisions.
But in any event, a successful diplomatic relationship with a country that has been pushed into recognizing Israel for the sake of other benefits seems unlikely. None of what is being reported remotely suggests that Sudan has any genuine desire for diplomatic ties with Israel on their own merit.
Something similar happened with regard to Serbia, which already had diplomatic ties with Israel, and Kosovo, a break-off from Serbia, which did not. At the close of economic meetings in Washington, it was announced that Kosovo and Israel would mutually recognize each other, and Serbia would move its embassy to Jerusalem.
Subsequently, Serbia – which was angry about Israel’s full diplomatic recognition of Kosova – said it would not honor its promise to move its embassy to Jerusalem. We have yet to see final resolution on this.
Interactions with Bahrain, however, are moving very smoothly. A high level Israeli delegation flew to Bahrain – on an Israir plane that utilized Saudi airspace. Details of normalization are expected to be established during meetings, which had been agreed upon in a phone call between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa (pictured).
The Saudis, while they have loosened up enough to allow use of their airspace, are still rejecting formal ties with Israel. Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud continues to hold to the position that Israel must first make peace with the Palestinian Authority in accordance with the 2002 Arab Peace Plan.
It is likely just a matter of time, however, until there is a change in this stance, as the king’s son, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, known as MBS (pictured with his father), is reportedly enthusiastic about ties with Israel to enhance the Saudi economy and tech sector.
So there we have it: There are major shifts in the air, some more successful in diplomatic terms than others and undoubtedly many more to follow.
It is at this point that we come full circle to what I wrote about above.
In order to contend with various negotiations from a position of strength, Israel must resolve internal tensions and establish greater governmental unity.
And, just as importantly, we Israelis must have a sufficient sense of our own worth so that they we do not sell ourselves short.
We can – we should – welcome these new situations of normalization, but must not fall into the trap of believing that our national self-worth depends upon them, and that we thus must make considerable concessions. At all times we must remember that the nations with which we are negotiating need us. And we should not appear too eager.
At the time of the signing of the Abraham Accords at the White House, I noted that the UAE and Bahrain sent their foreign ministers, while our foreign minister, Gaby Ashkenazi, was not asked to attend and Prime Minister Netanyahu attended instead.
While it was clear to me at the time that Netanyahu did not wish to relinquish the spotlight to Ashkenazi, it became apparent to me later that he had inadvertently sent the wrong message:
In refraining from sending their own heads of state to the signing, the UAE and Bahrain were indicating that, while this was an important event, they did not consider it of top level importance. They were holding back just a bit. It was Israel, represented by our head of state, which came across the most excited, the most eager.
This is not a position we want to be in. Anyone who understands the Arab market gets this.
At present I see two issues of importance that are impacted by Israel’s strength in protecting her security and her rights.
One has to do with the F-35 fighter jets to the UAE. The decision is ultimately made by the US, but Israel has input. It seems our government did not object, but everything I’ve been given to understand about the UAE indicates that it is highly stable and will not cause a problem.
See the piece by Ambassador Dore Gold, president of the JCPA, on why the UAE is uniquely stable:
But what happens if Saudi Arabia decides it wants to pursue normalization with Israel and demands the same deal regarding F-35s? This is one of the potential dangers of giving the planes to the UAE. Saudi Arabia is not as stable as the UAE, nor, in my humble opinion, is it particularly trustworthy. Would Israeli officials raise their voices in strenuous objection to this, even if it means the normalization deal with the Saudis – which is considered “the plum” – might then fall through?
And then, of even greater importance, is our strength in not surrendering our sovereignty or our rights to the Land. I’ve discussed this several times already and there is no resolution at this point in time. Israel has temporarily suspended plans for application of sovereignty in Judea and Samaria. But the resolution of this matter hangs in the air. This should not be permitted to go on for a lengthy period of time, unresolved.
In the end, it must not depend on what others demand of us, but on our own sense of our rights and our determination to act.
One place where we regularly surrender our sovereignty is on Har Habayit, the Temple Mount. This is an issue of grave importance. I had hoped to fold it into this discussion, as it is so relevant to Israel’s strength and sense of her rights. But this requires more attention than I can devote to it here, and I have decided to table it for a posting in the near future.
As Yom Kippur approaches, I pray for the strength and the peace of Medinat Yisrael, and for all of Am Yisrael.
May the scourge of corona disappear, and may each of you be inscribed and sealed for a year of blessings.
Gmar Chatima Tova!!
© Arlene Kushner. This material is produced by independent journalist Arlene Kushner. Permission is granted for it to be reproduced only with proper attribution.