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Rabbi's Blog

rabbi 05 smallsf badge lgRabbi Joel Landau  (rabbi@adathisraelsf.org) has been the Rabbi of Adath Israel since May 2013. He was ordained by the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem and has served previously as a congregational Rabbi in Charleston, South Carolina and Irvine, California. A full biography of Rabbi Landau is available here.


 

Last Thursday, the White House announced a historic agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, an oil-rich sheikhdom and long-time ally of the Palestinians, to normalize diplomatic relations. The surprise deal—expected to be signed at a White House ceremony in the coming weeks—will include opening embassies, trade and technology exchanges, direct flights and tourism, and cooperation on energy, security, and intelligence. 

As can be expected, reaction to the agreement has varied from euphoric to catastrophic and everything in between. In today’s polarized world, it’s hard to gain clarity without engaging in due diligence. Therefore, I share with you the perspectives of three insightful Jews on the significance of the agreement. Hopefully, their opinions will help inform the formulation of your own take on the agreement. The three people whose perspectives I chose to share with are:

Michael Oren - The American-born Israeli historian, author, politician and former Israeli ambassador to the United States. Oren was also a member of the Knesset for the Kulanu party and a former Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister's Office.

Yossi Klein Halevi - A senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Together with Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University, he co-directs the Institute's Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI), which teaches emerging young Muslim American leaders about Judaism, Jewish identity and Israel. In the past, Halevi worked as a senior writer for the bi-weekly magazine The Jerusalem Report from its founding in 1990 until 2002. He wrote a column for The Jerusalem Post and has written op-eds on Israeli issues for The Wall Street JournalThe New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and is a former contributing editor to The New Republic.

Naomi Chazan - An Israeli academic, activist, and politician. As a Meretz legislator, Chazan championed the causes of human rights, women's rights, and consumer protection. Chazan is a past president of the New Israel Fund. Today, she heads the School of Government and Society at the Academic College of Tel-Aviv-Yaffo

Blog #1: Stunning Israel-UAE deal upends the ‘rules’ about peace-making in Middle East – Michael Oren

The impending peace agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates is more than just a stunning diplomatic breakthrough. It represents a fundamental shift in the paradigm of peace-making.

For more than 50 years, that paradigm has been based on seemingly unassailable assumptions. The first of these was that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the core dispute in the Middle East. Resolve it, and peace would reign throughout the region. The premise was largely dispelled by the Arab Spring of 2011 and the subsequent civil wars in Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Yemen. Still, a large body of decision-makers, especially from Europe and the United States, continued to regard a solution to Israel-Palestine as the panacea for many, if not most, of the Middle East’s ills. Then-secretary of state John Kerry’s intense shuttle diplomacy, which paralleled the massacre of half a million Syrians in 2012-14, proceeded precisely on this assumption.

The next assumption was that core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was settlement-building in Judea/Samaria, East Jerusalem, and Gaza. Freeze it and the dispute would be easily mediated. This, theory, too, collapsed in the face of facts. Israel withdrew from Gaza, uprooting 21 settlements, in 2005, and then froze settlements for much of 2009-10. The conflict nevertheless continued and even worsened, but that did not prevent foreign policymakers from persisting in the belief that peace is incompatible with settlements.

And, in addition to ceasing construction in the territories, Israel was expected to give virtually all of them up. This was the third assumption — that peace with the Arab world could only be purchased with Israeli concessions of land. This belief is as old as Israel itself. The first Anglo-American peace plans — Alpha and Gamma — were predicated on Israeli concessions in the Negev and elsewhere. After 1967, the principle applied to areas captured by Israel in the Six Day War and, after the return of Sinai to Egypt in 1982, to Judea, Samaria, and Gaza. The same secretary of state Kerry repeatedly warned Israel that failure to forfeit those areas would result in its total international isolation.

Yet another assumption held that “everyone knows what the final agreement looks like.” With minor modifications and territorial swaps, this meant that a Palestinian state would be created along the pre-1967 lines with a capital in East Jerusalem. The Palestinians would give up the so-called right of return for Palestinian refugees, agree to end the conflict with Israel and to cease all further claims, and to accept the formula of “two states for two peoples.” Israel, in turn, would remove dozens of settlements, redivide its capital, and outsource West Bank security either to the Palestinians or some international source. Of all the assumptions, this was the most divorced from reality. Not a single aspect of it was achievable. In fact, no one knew what final agreement looked like.

Finally, successive peace-makers assumed that the Palestinians, as the weaker party, had to be rewarded, especially when they left the negotiating table. The Palestinian Authority could promote terror and reject far-reaching peace plans and in return receive major increments of aid, as well as increased international recognition. Not surprisingly, this reinforcing behavior merely incentivized the Palestinians to ramp up their support for terror and to keep rejecting peace.

But now comes the Israel-UAE agreement and overturns each of these assumptions. It shows that resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict is nowhere near as important as countering the Iranian threat and stimulating Middle East development. It proves that, in order to achieve peace with a powerful Arab state, Israel does not have to uproot a single settlement or withdraw from a meter of land. It opens the way to alternative approaches to addressing the dispute, one that is not dependent on Israelis and Palestinians offering concessions that neither can ever make. And the agreement punishes, rather than rewards, the Palestinians for leaving the table. It will not be surprising if, in the coming weeks, the Palestinian Authority begins to intimate its willingness to return.

For more than half of a century, the paradigm of Middle East peace-making has proven highly resistant to change. Yet even the fiercest advocates of that belief-system must recognize the seismic shift that will take place once the UAE-Israel treaty is signed. Some will no doubt insist on adhering to disproven assumptions. Those who care about peace will abandon them.

 

Blog #2: Born of internal Arab despair, UAE deal gives Israel genuine chance of peace – Yossi Klein Halevi

  1. A new Middle East

Last November, three dozen public figures from around the Arab world gathered in London to launch the Arab Council for Regional Integration – meaning, the integration of Israel into the Middle East. It was the first time in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict that a pan-Arab group had formed for the sole purpose of ending the Arab boycott of Israel. The group included a Lebanese Shiite cleric, a Saudi publisher, a member of the Egyptian parliament.

For all the fear of an imperialist Iran, what really motivated them to take the great personal risk of publicly calling for normalization was the Arab world’s existential crisis. The collapse of the Arab spring, the self-devouring of Syria, the destruction of Yemen and Libya and Iraq – all convinced Council members that the Arab world’s decades-long obsession with Israel was poisoning their own societies with hatred and a conspiracy mindset, undermining their ability to deal with chronic problems. Ending its war against Israel, Council members said, was a prerequisite for the Arab world’s ability to heal itself.

The founding of the Arab Council was a harbinger for the regional transformation that became explicit with the stunning announcement of a peace agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

Shimon Peres’ optimistic pronouncement of a “new Middle East” in the 1990s turned out to be a delusion. Yasser Arafat was the nightmare partner, turning the peace process into war by other means. Peres’ new Middle East ended in the second intifada of the early 2000s, four years of the worst terrorism in Israel’s history that destroyed the Israeli public’s faith in the chances for peace. The Gaza withdrawal in 2005, followed by years of rocket attacks on Israeli communities, along with the Syrian civil war and other atrocities in the region, ended the dream of a transformed Middle East.

Today’s new Middle East is being born not out of hope but anxiety and despair. Still, for all those negative incentives, the results could be no less compelling than Peres’ vision.

I experience this new Middle East in my daily life. Two years ago, I published a book, “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” that attempted to explain Israel and Zionism to my Palestinian neighbors. The book was translated into Arabic and made available to Arabic readers for free downloading. So far several thousand people – Palestinians as well as Arabs throughout the region – have downloaded the book. Hundreds have written me, sometimes with hatred, but also with reasoned disagreement and even appreciation.

As a result of those responses, I’ve been regularly Skyping and Zooming with readers across the Middle East: a student in Baghdad, a writer in Alexandria, a journalist in Kuwait City. I’ve encountered an almost desperate longing for normalcy – and the hope that connecting with Israelis may help the region to move on.

I have a team of young people – Palestinians and other Arabs – working to promote “Letters” in Arabic social media, reaching out to journalists and other thought leaders. Team members joined after they themselves read the book. Now, with the UAE announcement, the team is working overtime.

The emergence of new forms of media, along with growing desperation in the Arab world, has opened the way to unprecedented communication between Arabs and Israelis. In the era of social media, these connections cannot be suppressed.

Israelis need to appreciate this moment, and our responsibility to nurturing it. That means restraining settlement building and learning to speak to the Arab world not only in the language of deterrence and threat but also the language of outreach and reconciliation. Our enemies have hardly disappeared; we need to proceed with caution. Still, rising to this moment requires renewing our commitment to peace as a central Israeli aspiration.

  1. Regional peace — including a Palestinian state?

The agreement between Israel and the UAE proves, as Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Jordan’s King Hussein did a generation ago, that peace, however partial and inconclusive, cannot be held hostage to the Palestinian stalemate.

Still, there is no avoiding the necessity – for Israel’s sake – of an eventual two-state solution. This deal doesn’t change the fact that forcibly keeping several million people in a state of permanent limbo is a timebomb for Israel. Maintaining our two foundational identities – as a Jewish state, as a democratic state – depends on freeing ourselves from the untenable anomaly of the Jewish people as permanent occupier of another people.

Like most Israelis, I have despaired of the possibility of a bilateral Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement. Even if the leftwing Meretz party were running the Israeli government, I still don’t believe we would find a partner for reconciliation within the Palestinian national movement, which remains committed, in all its factions, to Israel’s ultimate disappearance. (Readers should turn to the superb new book by Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf, “The War of Return,” which explains, better than any other I know, the reasons for Palestinian rejectionism.)

But the Israeli-UAE deal offers a glimpse into a tantalizing alternative: a regional solution that would include a Palestinian state. In truth, the Palestinians have nothing to offer Israel except promises of peace – and almost no one here believes those promises anymore. (Israelis and Palestinians have amply earned each other’s mistrust.) But a deal of normalization with the Arab world in exchange for a Palestinian state is an offer that many Israelis may find compelling.

As the region changes, it is no longer fantastical to imagine Arab states as our allies in helping ensure a Palestinian state that would abandon the irredentist ambitions of “liberating” all of the land between the river to the sea.

The 2002 Saudi Peace Plan supposedly offered that possibility. But the Saudi plan – released after the September 11 attacks and intended not for Israeli but American consumption – wasn’t a credible offer. 

The first problem was that it was presented not as an invitation to negotiations but as a take-it-or-leave-it diktat. And the plan insisted on Palestinian right of return – not only to a Palestinian state but to Israel.

A revised Saudi plan can be the basis for negotiations for a regional agreement.

  1. How to Win Back the Israeli Public for Peace

Those advocating the boycott of Israel don’t understand that Israelis cannot be pressured into territorial concessions – not when they believe that a Palestinian state would threaten Israel’s ability to defend itself. But Israelis can be enticed into peace talks, not least by the recognition of our legitimacy.

Two historical moments prove this foundational truth of Israeli politics. The first occurred in 1975, when the UN voted to declare Zionism as a form of racism. An incensed Israeli public pushed back.

Three weeks after the Zionism is Racism resolution, the settlement movement organized a mass march into Samaria, the northern West Bank, setting up camp at an abandoned Ottoman railway station in Sabastia. Until that moment, every attempt by would-be settlers to establish a presence in Samaria was rebuffed by the Labor government, which sent in the army to uproot them. This time, though, the government hesitated, sensing that the Israeli public’s sympathy had turned toward the settlers. “This is the Zionist response to the UN,” a young Likud Knesset member named Ehud Olmert told a journalist.

The government relented and allowed a small group of settlers to remain. That victory is still celebrated by the settlement movement as its breakthrough moment. In large part, the settlers owed their victory to the UN.

By contrast, a majority of Israelis initially supported the Oslo peace process, in part because the international atmosphere toward Israel had changed. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the entire former Soviet bloc and most of Africa established relations with Israel. So did India and China and the Vatican. Even the UN revoked the Zionism-racism resolution. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin told Israelis: We need to overcome the mentality of “the whole world is against us.” And the public, at least initially, responded. That willingness to suspend our deep skepticism and give Oslo a chance proved what is possible when Israelis stop feeling judged and maligned by the international community.

Those opposing normalization as a betrayal of the Palestinians have it backward: Only by easing the siege against the Jewish state are Israelis willing to consider territorial concessions.

The only pressure Israelis can’t resist is an embrace.

  1. Pragmatists vs. ideologues: The divide within the right

Creating an Israeli majority for peace has always depended on accentuating the divide on the right between pragmatists and ideologues. The pragmatists are willing, if convinced the deal is credible, to trade land for peace. Those ideologues who believe Jewish claims to the land of Israel are paramount oppose concessions under any circumstances.

So far, the only leaders who gave up substantial territory and even uprooted settlements were from the right – Menachem Begin in Sinai, Ariel Sharon in Gaza. The cries of betrayal from settler leaders angry at the government for preferring normalization with an Arab country to annexing parts of the territories are true to long Israeli tradition. For peace to happen, the pragmatic right needs to betray the ideological right.

  1. Netanyahu is still Netanyahu

Once again, Benjamin Netanyahu proves that he is our most talented leader. No one on the current Israeli landscape comes close to matching his energy, his creativity, his ability to play in the global arena, his capacity to surprise.

And that is precisely our tragedy. Because no other Israeli politician has done more to incite hatred among Israelis, to undermine our democratic institutions and our faith in mamlachtiyut – respect for the state – than Benjamin Netanyahu.

Sooner or later the glory of this moment will fade. And then we will be left with the same Bibi, facing three criminal charges of corruption and subverting all his decisions to maneuvers aimed at averting a trial.

For all his remarkable achievements, the price to the fabric of Israeli society of keeping him in power is too high. The thousands of young people who gather every Saturday night to demonstrate against him aren’t going away. Despite the peace agreement, they were back again this week. As this handwritten sign put it: “My grandmother says, Thank you, Bibi. Now enough.”

Blog #3: Israel and the UAE: A reality check – Naomi Chazan

The Israeli agreement with the United Arab Emirates is being touted as everything from “huge,” “stunning,” and “historical” to a “betrayal,” “diversion,” or “sellout.” In truth, it is not any one of these, but contains something of all of the above. Given the plethora of reports, commentaries, analyses, and reactions, it is especially important to put the Israel-UAE rapprochement in perspective — to try to understand how it contributes to Israel’s integration into the region through the achievement of a comprehensive peace with its neighbors. In order to do so, it is necessary to specify what it is, what it is not, and where it could lead.

A normalization agreement, not a peace treaty. The impending formalization of the more than two-decade informal relationship between Israel and the United Arab Emirates is an important breakthrough in Israel’s ties with the Arab world. Motives aside, it constitutes a major achievement for Mohammed bin Zayed, Benjamin Netanyahu and for its broker, Donald Trump. It is yet another step in Israel’s continual quest for workable accords with Arab countries, following its successful treaties with Egypt and Jordan. It follows the same logic as its predecessors, forging long-term understandings with surrounding states — often on its periphery — but studiously bypassing the much knottier Palestinian core of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

What is proposed is not, however, a peace accord: it is impossible to sign such a document between two countries that have never been at war with each other. Therefore, the claim that this a clear instance of “peace for peace” rings hollow. Just as in the case of the short-lived formalization of relations between Israel and Mauritania — the first Arab League member after Egypt and Jordan to establish diplomatic ties with Israel, only to break them during the Gaza war in 2009 — what is being discussed is the initiation of official, direct, links involving diplomatic, economic, and a variety of other connections. The importance of such an event, especially in recent years, cannot be underestimated. It really should not, at the same time, be exaggerated.

Its ultimate significance, once details are ironed out, will lie in the extent and depth of the actual ties forged between the two countries in the coming years. It will also depend on the role this new relationship plays in paving the way for additional arrangements with other states in the region (there is much talk about similar moves by Bahrain, Oman, and even Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Sudan, but these have yet to coalesce into full-fledged treaties). In the meantime, it behooves all involved to treat this milestone for what it is: an important step forward, but hardly in itself a harbinger of peace.

A halt to annexation, not an end to occupation. Israel’s agreement with the leadership in Dubai is the outcome of a very overt deal: normalization of relations in return for foregoing the implementation of a unilateral annexation of parts of the West Bank in accordance with provisions included in the Trump plan (“Peace for Prosperity”) unveiled in January of this year. In this respect, Prime Minister Netanyahu — regardless of his ongoing protestations — abandoned plans for annexation. An exchange of sorts, therefore, lies at the root of the understanding reached with both bin Zayed and Trump — one which obtains recognition in return for a freeze on annexation. This, in itself, constitutes another form of repudiation of the “peace for peace” claim repeated so frequently in recent days. Indeed, it is not too far-fetched to suggest that annexation plans (or, as the right puts it, “the extension of Israeli sovereignty”), once taken off the table, will be difficult, if not impossible, to revive — as settler leaders have justifiably been quick to point out.

Removing the specter of imminent annexation in no way implies an end to the occupation. In fact, the UAE-Israel deal totally bypasses the Palestinians. At best, it normalizes occupation; at worst, it might, by removing any impetus for change on the ground, actually entrench Israel’s long-term rule over Palestinians and their territories. From this vantage point, the rapid and complete denunciation of the Israeli-UAE-US move by the Palestinian leadership is totally understandable.

The Palestinian-Israeli conundrum, nevertheless, remains. This latest twist in Israeli-Arab relations does not have a direct bearing — again, multiple conjectures notwithstanding — either on whether or how this long-festering conflict will be resolved. This depends in no small measure on the precise role allotted to the Emirates in any future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, on political developments in the United States, on the response of the international community, and above all on the actions of Israelis and Palestinians in the months ahead (here the ongoing implementation of settlement expansion, especially in the E1 area, growing Palestinian resistance to cooperation with Israel, and the reignited skirmishes along the Gaza border are causes for ongoing concern).

A shift in the rules of the game, not in the need for a successful peace process. The formalization of relations between Israel and the UAE confirms, with renewed vigor, the centrality of diplomacy in the stabilization of Israeli-Arab relations. Military confrontations and ongoing skirmishes have not yielded any positive results over the years. Now the force of successful diplomacy is reaffirmed. But the manner in which this new phase has been achieved upends the major procedural assumption informing the quest for peace since the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993. The presumption that peace with the Palestinians is the necessary first step in the acceptance of Israel in the region — the guiding principle of the Arab Peace Initiative — has essentially been reversed. The announcement of the establishment of official ties between Israel and the Arab Emirates gives a boost to those who would like to see a similar process with other countries, in effect regionalizing the solution to the Arab-Israel conflict in a sequence different than that envisaged until now.

This change does not, however, provide any insights about how to proceed from here, especially in addressing the much more difficult issue of Israel’s relations with its closer and more recalcitrant Palestinian — not to mention Lebanese or even Syrian — adversaries. In fact, should Israel continue to avoid this critical challenge while pursuing improved links primarily with other Gulf states, it runs the risk of finding itself enmeshed in several Middle East disputes it has successfully avoided in the past without securing its relations with its most immediate neighbors.

In short, the issue of how to proceed from here looms large. The shifting sequence introduced at this stage is not, and cannot become, a substitute for direct negotiations for a durable and just Israeli-Palestinian peace. This, in turn, has always — and will continue to be — the key to a comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace.

The Israel-UAE rapprochement is thus neither the door to paradise nor yet another plate of bitter lemons. It is not an all-consuming achievement nor a convincing diversion from the harsh health, economic and social repercussions of COVID-19. It is no more nor any less than what it appears to be: an intriguing step in Israeli-Arab relations which opens some doors and closes others. Its significance rests on the capacity of those involved to use it as a springboard for a just and lasting peace in the region.