Israel’s reaches out to its neighbours

Together with the recent #BDSFails around the world (more of which later), there have been interesting developments in Israel’s relations with its neighbours and “further neighbours”.

Our biggest and most important close neighbour is Egypt, and relations have been cool to frosty for decades. However with the rise of Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to the presidency, relations have warmed up to a marked degree. This week, after a hiatus of some years Israel welcomed a new Egyptian ambassador:

There was great excitement at the President’s Residence on Thursday morning, as four ambassadors arrived at half-hour intervals to present their credentials to President Reuven Rivlin. The one who caused the biggest flurry was Egyptian Ambassador Hazem Khairat, who was the second envoy on the list, but the one who received the most attention from the media.

Egyptian Ambassador Hazem Khairat is welcomed by President Reuven Rivlin

… Rivlin referred to Egypt in Arabic, using the expression “Um el Donya” – Mother of the World.

He told Khairat that he had been to Egypt many times both in war and in peace. The peace agreement between Israel and Egypt is a top priority for both, he said. “We may not agree on everything, but we respect each other, and because of this we will build a shared future.”

Rivlin conveyed his warm regards to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and congratulated him for what he is doing for his people and what he has achieved in the region.

Khairat responded that, as neighbors, “we have to do our utmost to implement a just and comprehensive peace.” He later wrote something to that effect in Arabic in the presidential guest book, including the fact that he and Rivlin had engaged in constructive talks on urgent matters.

Khairat and Rivlin also talked about how to strengthen relations between Egypt and Israel, with the ambassador acknowledging that his presence in Israel would contribute to the strengthening of relations and peace not only in a bilateral sense, but also in a regional sense. There has not been an Egyptian ambassador in Israel for more than three years.

The goodwill was returned in a rare interview by the Isareli Ambassador to Egypt to Egyptian journalists. In a sign of the times, and a reminder of the previous sad state of affairs (emphases are mine):

Israeli Ambassador to Egypt Haim Koren gave a rare interview to Egyptian journalists in his residence in Cairo on Tuesday, and surprisingly, the transcript of the interview was published, and what’s more, the journalists were not afraid to expose the fact that they had spoken to the representative from Israel.

On the Israeli Embassy in Egypt’s Facebook page, the entire transcript was published next to a picture of Ambassador Koren with the flags of both Israel and Egypt.

Israeli Ambassador Haim Koren in Egypt in a rare interview with Egyptian media

…” We respect the President of Egypt, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, because he is an open president who is interested in bringing stability to the region in general and Egypt in particular, and because he knows the face of the Middle East has changed, and knows the experiences of Egypt the best, and the experiences of Israel,” Koren said to the journalists, one of them from important government newspaper “Al-Ahram.”

When asked about his work in Egypt, Koren stated that “the neighborly relations and cooperation between us are very good. I love the Egyptian nation. As you all know, there is a mutual interest between Egypt and Israel, as there is a mutual interest between Israel and the Arab world in general – be it Saudi Arabia, Jordan, or the other countries in the Arabian Gulf.”

Further in the transcript of the interviews, the ambassador noted that “we can’t only cooperate on the security level. We need to establish economic relations, cultural relations, and also relations relating to investing in Egyptian businesses. This ideology has to be implemented from a young age through schools. It is important to learn about the Camp David Agreement. Times have changed, and it is the leaders’ responsibility to change themselves in order to adjust to this new era.”

In a move which reinforces the new imporved enighbourly relations between the two countries, an Egyptian MP has asked Israel for help in resolving dispute with Ethiopia:

Israeli ambassador to Cairo, Haim Koren, had dinner at the home of controversial Egyptian member of Parliament, Dr. Tawfiq Okasha, in order to discuss possible Israeli mediation in a conflict between Ethiopia and Egypt that could have dire consequences if not resolved.

Okasha personally invited Koren to his home during a broadcast on the television station he owns. The invitation drew immediate condemnation from other Egyptian MPs who have no interest in seeing a warming up of the cold peace between the two countries.

Okasha claims that Israeli intervention can help the Ethiopians and the Egyptians reach a compromise that would help both parties maintain their interests. Ethiopia is planning to build a dam on the Nile that could endanger Egypt’s water supply. Okasha suggested Egypt could offer Israel water in exchange for its part in resolving the dispute.

The renewed ties and budding normalization between Israel and Egypt is one of the most important developments in the region and the most promising for Israle in recetn years. What a far cry from the shambles of only a couple of years ago when the gas pipeline through the Sinai was constantly bombed. Let us hope relations continue to develop and warm up.

In a new initiative from the Israeli Foreign Ministry, four Arab journalists arrived on a visit to Israel to learn about a different side of the story:

“The visit to Israel was exciting and unique. It is a shame that most people in the Arab world are still filled with blind hatred and prejudice toward Israel,” said G.M., an Iraqi journalist living in exile in Germany.

The four journalists, of Iraqi, Syrian, and Egyptian descent, write from Europe for a variety of Arabic-language news outlets, including Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Sky News, the BBC Arabic, Deutsche Welle Arabic, and Kitatbat.

Two of the journalists visit Haifa University

They asked that their identities not be revealed because if it became known that they visited Israel, they would not only be risking their job, but also their lives.

The Foreign Ministry’s hasbara (public relations) department has significantly increased its work in the Arabic-speaking world, launching an Arabic-language Facebook page that has garnered more than 750,000 followers, where they’ve been posting short videos that have surpassed 1 million views. Dore Gold, the director general of the Foreign Ministry, has also given interviews to Arab media.

During their stay in Israel, the journalists visited the Holocaust Museum Yad VaShem, the Kneesset, the Supreme Court. They also toured Jerusalem, met with members of Knesset, the Foreign Ministry, and Israeli journalists.

“The visit presented them with the complex reality of the region from the Israeli perspective, providing concrete and direct examples,” said Hassan Kaabiah, deputy spokesperson of the Foreign Ministry, who accompanied the delegation.

“Our exposure to Israel is welcomed,” said one journalist. “We can argue about things, including the Palestinian issue, but we must not fall into the trap of hatred and incitement. This visit to Israel changed the way we think about all of you.”

“The visit afforded us with a deep understanding of the State of Israel,” another journalist said. “We saw official representatives, spoke with ordinary Israelis on the street and learned things we did not know before. We also learned about the social, cultural, ethnic, and religious structure of Israel and how it is a pluralistic state. This trip undoubtedly will allow us to convey a different image of Israel to our readers. Would that this could lead to reconciliation between the nations.”

Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Emmanuel Nahshon concluded, “Of all the delegations the Foreign Ministy has hosted, the Arab journalist delegation is the most important. From our point of view, dialogue with the Arab world is a top priority. We hope that more delegations will arrive soon.”

It’s not often that I congratulate the Foreign Ministry on their hasbara efforts, but this is one of those times when I say a hearty kol hakavod to all those involved in this project. Maybe hearts and minds really can be changed through visits like these. And of course kudos to the brave Arab journalists who risked life and limb – not from Israel but from their own brethren – to visit Israel and see the reality of the country, and not the propaganda.

Israel’s actions helping Syrian refugees have not got unnoticed amongst the refugees themselves, and one Syrian refugee, Aboud Dandachi, has set up a website thanking Israel for their help:

Dandachi, a Sunni Muslim, says that he was neutral when demonstrations against the Assad regime began in March of 2011. “I didn’t support anyone because my life was good,” he recalls. “I did not need the government and I only wanted them to leave me alone.”  But he reached a turning point when, he says, the government murdered 100 protesters one night.

Aboud Dandachi in Syria 10 years ago

He expected the war to be over sooner rather than later, but by September 2013, when Assad had begun using chemical weapons and ISIS had overrun Raqqa, he knew he had to leave. After a two-week stay in Lebanon, Dandachi realized he had traded one conflict zone for another, and moved on to Turkey, where he has since rented an apartment.

He says one clear conclusion from the past five years is that Israel is not at all the Great Satan – quite the opposite, in fact.

“Israel is doing exactly what it must do,” he says. “It is not taking part in the war, but is helping wounded Syrians who need help. And it’s not only the government. Israelis are helping Syrian refugees in Jordan, in Greece, Serbia, North America. No one would have blamed the Jews and the Israelis if they had said it was not their problem. That is, by the way, what many Arabs and Arab countries did. The Gulf states, for example, shut their doors to Syrians – and these are the countries that call themselves friends of Syria.”

Dandachi recalls his education growing up. “I grew up with statements like ‘these people are your enemies. The Jews are evil’. And then I saw that the Jews are the most humane and generous people of this era. When I see that Hezbollah and the Iranians are coming to kill me and I’m forced from my home by Syrians, and then I hear that Israelis and Jews are helping Syrians, my view of the world changes.”

“Why are we the Jews’ enemies?” he asks. “At a time when Donald Trump is defaming us, when Denmark and Switzerland confiscate Syrian refugees’ belongings, when all these countries are against us – we have the Jews who even endanger themselves to help us. So why should I be an enemy of the Jews? They have proven that they want to be my friends. They held out their hand, so why should I turn against them?”

In December 2015, Dandachi launched a site called Thank You Am Israel, which tells the tales of Jews and Israelis who are helping and have helped the Syrian people. “There are so many stories that I want to put up,” he says. “There are new stories of Israelis helping Syrians every day. As far as I’m concerned, because we as Syrians cannot give back to Jews what they give to us, so we should at least thank them.

Kol hakavod to Aboud Dandachi for expressing his thanks and those of the other refugees. We Israelis know that it is the right thing to do, even though we get nothing tangible in return. All the same it is very heart-warming to know that our efforts have not gone unnoticed and that they are highly appreciated. Maybe one day, when Assad is gone and the Russians and Americans stop using Syria for their playground, people like Aboud Dandachi could come to power in Syria and begin a new relationship with Israel. It happened in Egypt, why should it not happen in Syria?

A recent interesting column by a Kuwaiti columnist points out that “Israel has outdone us in everything”:

“As for Israel, many [of us] view it as a political-religious foe, as opposed to a cultural danger, and this is a serious mistake. Even though our conflict with it has never ceased, we have remained ignorant regarding everything it represents, and for 70 years we have lacked, and continue to lack, all knowledge about it, and have learned nothing from it.

Ahmad al Sarraf, Kuwaiti columnist

“Israel has outdone us in all fields – military, scientific, and cultural – but despite this we have refused to consider the reason for its obvious superiority to us, and have never stopped calling it ‘the monstrous entity’…

“Since its founding, Israel has been committed to democracy, while we refuse to even speak of it [i.e. democracy], let alone adopt it…

“Israel has given its minorities rights that most citizens in most Arab countries do not even dream of. Furthermore, the freedom of worship there exceeds that in any Arab or Islamic country.

“Israel has focused its attention on science, spending large sums on research, while we are still focused on whether drinking camel urine or using it medicinally is actually helpful.

“Israel has managed to unite people emigrating to it from 50 countries, and to forge a single people from them, while we have not managed [even] to create a [joint] army out of the [Arab] people, with its deep historical roots.

“Israel has known law and order since its first day, while we still try to comprehend the meaning of both these words. Two of [Israel’s] senior leaders went to prison for corruption, while we still argue over how to convict the master thieves in our midst.

“Israel has developed its technologies and developed its agriculture, industry, and military, becoming an advanced and respected country, while we currently occupy the bottom slot in every field.

“Israel has managed to get its companies traded on the international stock market, while we consider liquidating our assets after nearing bankruptcy.

If enough Arab commentators start reporting like this (and this is magnified by the organized tour of Israel by the Arab journalists) maybe there is hope for the future.

Moving away from our Arab neighbours to Africa, President Rivlin welcomed the President of Kenya to the President’s Residence in Jerusalem. President Uhuru Kenyatta wrote in the visitor’s book: G-d bless the two great nations: Israel and Kenya:

President Rivlin opened his remarks, with remembering Kenya’s role in Entebbe.

We have had a remarkable relationship between our two peoples. It’s a partnership that dates back over half a century. Your father, Jomo Kenyatta, is the founding father of the Kenyan nation, and the leader of your country’s struggle for independence. He was also the architect of the friendship between Israel and Kenya. He demonstrated that friendship most dramatically 40 years ago in helping Israel in the raid in Entebbe to rescue our hostages. This is something that has left a deep imprint on Israel. The people of Israel are grateful for that. And I’m personally grateful for that.

Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta responded clearly in English and concluded saying:

We have no room for extremism, we must do everything that we can to protect the freedoms and the beliefs and the principles and the common values that we share and we look forward to further strengthening our cooperation in the security area. We look forward to partnering with you and with the rest of the world in combatting violent extremism and all this in order to be able to give our people the freedoms necessary to be able to enjoy a prosperous, stable, free society. So, I am looking forward to engaging with you and your government in these ends as well as further deepening our cooperation in agriculture, as you said, in irrigation, in water management and the experiences that Israel itself has had as well as information technology where we in Kenya can learn a lot from your own particular experiences.

As RJStreets pointed out, with regards to the BDS boycott attempts:

But in Jerusalem, Israel today, the truth is that a large delegation of Kenyan officials arrived to do business with Israel, in security, technology, water, investment and more.

Meanwhile, outside the Middle East – besides the #BDSFails of the US, UK France, Germany, last week Canada also voted against BDS. (h/t cba).  This is amazing news considering its new left-liberal government:

By a vote of 229 for and 51 against, the Canadian Parliament passed a historic motion this afternoon which formally condemned the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) anti-Israel movement.

The Conservatives (including former Prime Minister Stephen Harper who attended the session to cast his vote against BDS), as well as the Liberals voted for the motion. Tom Muclair, leader of the NDP, opposed it as well as Bloc Québécois and three MPs of the Liberal Party (René Arseneault, Larry Bagnell and Nick Whalen).

The motion, which was brought on November 18 by Conservative MP’s Tony Clement and Michelle Rempel, called on Canada to reject BDS.

After the announcement that the Liberals will join the Conservatives in rejecting BDS, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion said that “the world will win nothing for boycotting Israel but depriving itself of the talents of its inventiveness”.

On February 18, during the debate on the motion urging the House to reject BDS, Michael Levitt, Liberal candidate for the riding of York Centre, pointed out that “BDS is about intolerance. It’s a broader movement to demonize and delegitimize Israel, and to collectively punish all Israelis by holding Israel alone responsible for the Arab-Israeli conflict”.

“Whereas anti-Semites have long targeted Jews throughout the world as the root of all society’s ills, this new form of anti-Semitism targets Israel as the Jew among the nations, singling out the Jewish State as the root of all ills in the world”, he continued.

“Why are they not condemning Saudi Arabia, which does not even let women drive, and does not let women have any kind of rights? Why are they not condemning Syria, where the Assad regime has killed thousands and actually displaced millions of its own people? What about China? What about North Korea? There is not a word from the BDS movement about any of these other countries. Only Israel is condemned, as BDS holds it to a complete double standard. Indeed, I have been to many meeting where there is talk of BDS. I have heard that Israel should be held to a higher standard, that people do not think it is like other Arab countries. That is the new form of anti-Semitism. The whole idea of holding Israel to a higher moral standard than anyone else is clearly anti-Semitic.”

Closely following on from this vote, after first voting in favour of BDS, an online ratification of the vote at Montreal’s McGill University rejected a BDS motion:

In an online ratification process that followed last Monday’s Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) general assembly, McGill undergraduates have voted against a motion to support the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement against Israel.

SSMU announced Saturday morning that the online vote on the BDS motion failed by a margin of 57 per cent to 43 per cent. Six per cent of those voting abstained.

Following the announcement of the vote, Principal and Vice-Chancellor Suzanne Fortier issued the following statement to the McGill community:

The General Assembly of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) recently passed a motion to support the Boycott, Divest and Sanction campaign against Israel. That decision has been defeated in a subsequent online ratification process.

Now that the online vote is complete, I wish to explain why the University’s administration continues to steadfastly oppose the BDS movement, of which this motion is a part.

The BDS movement, which among other things, calls for universities to cut ties with Israeli universities, flies in the face of the tolerance and respect we cherish as values fundamental to a university. It proposes actions that are contrary to the principles of academic freedom, equity, inclusiveness and the exchange of views and ideas in responsible, open discourse. These are the core principles of McGill University, as affirmed by its Senate and Board, which should always guide the McGill community.

Our mission is to advance learning and create and disseminate knowledge by offering the best possible education, by carrying out research and scholarly activities judged to be excellent by the highest international standards, and by providing service to society.

For these reasons, while we respect the freedom of expression of all members of our community, the administration of the University will have no part of the BDS movement.

Kol hakavod to the students who took the time to vote online and reject this sorry motion. Kol hakavod too to Vice-Chancellor Suzanne Fortier for her steadfast supprot for Israel. It’s just a shame that she didn’t speak out to condemn the motion before it ever arose.

Interestingly a previous motion last year was defeated with the surprise assistance from the new Liberal PM Justin Trudeau, who is not known for his pro-Israel stance. He tweeted at the time:

Ahead of Sunday’s vote, Liberal Party leader Trudeau turned to Twitter on March 13 and posted, “The BDS movement, like Israeli Apartheid Week, has no place on Canadian campuses. As a @McGillU alum, I’m disappointed. #EnoughIsEnough.”

Kol hakavod to the Canadian Parliament for his principled stance despite his political affiliations, and kudos again to the McGill University management.

It is clear that BDS is not popular with governments worldwide. Now Israel has to enlist support amongst these governments and local communities in order to prevent BDS motions from arising in places like academia and the media in the first place.

If our Arab neighbors can learn to look at us with new eyes then it’s about time that leftist media and academics do the same.

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4 Responses to Israel’s reaches out to its neighbours

  1. Reality says:

    It’s definitely good news that finally instead of a “cold truce”we have finally made peace.I was soooo embarrassed by our Presidents welcoming speech in awful English!!Honestly you would think they would tell him to speak in ivrit and have his speech translated!!

  2. Brian Goldfarb says:

    “Two of [Israel’s] senior leaders went to prison for corruption…” Of course they did, the independent judicial system found them guilty. Isn’t this the epitome and definition of “the rule of law”?

    We’re Jews. It’s what we do: pursue justice and democracy. Only under these two flags can we survive in peace and comfort.

  3. Brian Goldfarb says:

    And El-Sissi is (was) a soldier: he knows very well what a war with Israel will cost both sides, but especially, as an Egyptian, what it would cost the Egyptian armed forces.

    And he is a realist: it happened before, it would happen again. Why risk all those deaths?

    • anneinpt says:

      Indeed. El-Sisi may not be the world’s greatest democrat, and he certainly an autocrat and something of a dictator, but at least he is seeing the world as it is and not as he would like it to be, as Nasser did. Mubarak was similar to a certain extent, but el-Sisi seems to be making an effort to restore a modicum of democracy and reduce corruption. I hope that’s not just my wishful thinking.

      He’s certainly the best option for Israel in Egypt at the moment.

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