Analysis from Israel

Whenever I express optimism about the incremental improvements in Israel’s relations with the Arab world, I always get the same question: How can I be optimistic about relations with countries whose populations overwhelmingly loathe Israel and are often anti-Semitic to boot; whose governments actively propagate such sentiments through school curricula and state-run media, while working against Israel in every possible international forum? My answer is that none of that is new. What’s new is the growing number of people in the Arab world willing to publicly challenge these attitudes. Indeed, in recent weeks, scarcely a day has passed without another example.

Perhaps the most remarkable was an offshoot of last weekend’s Egyptian-Saudi deal under which Egypt will transfer two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia. Those islands can effectively blockade access to Israel’s port of Eilat, and one such blockade was the proximate cause of the 1967 Six-Day War, during which Israel captured them. The 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty returned them to Egypt in exchange for a promise of Israeli freedom of navigation in the Red Sea – a promise threatened by the islands’ move to Saudi control, and consequently, a change in the peace treaty that required Israel’s consent.

Israel gave this consent because Riyadh provided a written pledge to honor the terms of the Israeli-Egyptian treaty. Moreover, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir reiterated this pledge publicly in an interview with Arab media: “The commitments that Egypt approved [in the peace treaty] we are also committed to, including the stationing of an international force on the islands… We are committed to what Egypt committed to before the international community.”

That’s a stunning shift for a country once so opposed to the treaty that it severed relations with Egypt for daring to sign it, and which still has no diplomatic relations with Israel itself: Saudi Arabia just formally committed itself to a peace treaty with a state it officially doesn’t recognize.

A few days later, a former Iraqi diplomat arrived in Israel as an official and very public guest of Israel’s Foreign Ministry. Hamad al-Sharifi served in the Iraqi embassies in Kuwait and Jordan and as an advisor to Iraq’s Defense Ministry. Before coming, he declared, “I consider myself a friend of Israel. At this time, Arabs need to understand that there is no conflict between Israel and Arab states, rather there is an Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” And after arriving, he told Israeli officials they should stop permitting secret visits by Arab officials, because “In order for the barriers to be broken, the visits should be done in full public view.”

Then there’s last week’s report from a Lebanese daily about an unprecedented initiative by a group of Lebanese schoolteachers: They want the country’s school curriculum revised to drop “animosity toward the oppressing Zionist entity” from the list of goals. They “do not want to educate our children to hate,” they explained. And besides, it’s silly to focus solely on Israel when there are other pressing priorities, like “the struggle against the religious extremism that threatens Arab states.”

While Lebanon is just discussing changing its curriculum, another Arab country actually did so earlier this year: For the first time in the 37 years since the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty was signed, Egyptian textbooks have started characterizing it as a positive development that offers Egypt numerous benefits, including “maintaining the Arab countries’ internal stability”; “advancing economic and social development and upgrading the state’s infrastructures”; “encouraging Arab and foreign capital investment in Egypt and in the other Arab states”; and increasing tourism. Also for the first time, the textbooks now note that the treaty called for establishing “friendly relations” with Israel rather than merely “normal relations.”

Further evidence of the thawing relationship came last month, when a major state-owned Egyptian bank for the first time published the official exchange rate between the Egyptian pound and the Israeli shekel.

Clearly, every such move toward normalization provokes a backlash, and it’s not surprising that the backlash sometimes works. Last month, for instance, a Dubai security chief made waves by launching a Twitter campaign for friendly relations with Israel, inter alia, calling for “a coalition with the Jews against the enemies of the Middle East” and urging his followers “not to treat Jews as enemies, rather as cousins with conflict over land inheritance.” But he soon reverted to the standard Arab diet of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel tweets.

The surprising part is how often proponents of change refuse to be intimidated. In February, for instance, I wrote about Tawfik Okasha, the Egyptian parliamentarian who publicly met with Israel’s ambassador and proposed that Israel be asked to mediate Egypt’s water dispute with Ethiopia. Soon afterward, his parliamentary colleagues overwhelmingly voted to expel him from the legislature for the crime of violating their anti-normalization policy. You’d think that would suffice to intimidate anyone sharing his views. But one month later, another Egyptian MP, Sayyid Faraj, announced that he wants to organize a parliamentary delegation to visit the Knesset so as to “learn from Israel’s economic development and in general learn from Israel’s experience.”

Obviously, all of the above are just the first baby steps on a very long road; it will take decades, if not generations, for these views to spread to the broader Arab public. But for most of the seven decades since Israel’s establishment, there has been no movement at all toward reshaping public attitudes; even major events like the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan were strictly government-to-government, and entailed no effort to change popular perceptions of Israel as a loathed enemy. The Egyptian textbooks’ treatment of the treaty is a perfect example; so, too, is the fact that for decades after the treaty was signed, Egypt’s military continued to train primarily for war with Israel.

Thus the fact that these attitudes are finally being challenged by Arabs themselves is of real significance. It won’t lead to any practical change in Arab-Israeli relations for a long time to come. But it’s a necessary first step toward such a change, and as such, constitutes genuine grounds for optimism.

Originally published in Commentary on April 15, 2016

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Why Israel Needs a Better Political Class

Note: This piece is a response to an essay by Haviv Rettig Gur, which can be found here

Israel’s current political crisis exemplifies the maxim that hard cases make bad law. This case is desperate. Six months after the coronavirus erupted and nine months after the fiscal year began, Israel still lacks both a functioning contact-tracing system and an approved 2020 budget, mainly because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is more worried about politics than the domestic problems that Israel now confronts. The government’s failure to perform these basic tasks obviously invites the conclusion that civil servants’ far-reaching powers must not only be preserved, but perhaps even increased.

This would be the wrong conclusion. Bureaucrats, especially when they have great power, are vulnerable to the same ills as elected politicians. But unlike politicians, they are completely unaccountable to the public.

That doesn’t mean Haviv Rettig Gur is wrong to deem them indispensable. They provide institutional memory, flesh out elected officials’ policies, and supply information the politicians may not know and options they may not have considered. Yet the current crisis shows in several ways why they neither can nor should substitute for elected politicians.

First, bureaucrats are no less prone to poor judgment than politicians. As evidence, consider Siegal Sadetzki, part of the Netanyahu-led triumvirate that ran Israel’s initial response to the coronavirus. It’s unsurprising that Gur never mentioned Sadetzki even as he lauded the triumvirate’s third member, former Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov; she and her fellow Health Ministry staffers are a major reason why Israel still lacks a functional test-and-trace system.

Sadetzki, an epidemiologist, was the ministry’s director of public-health services and the only member of the triumvirate with professional expertise in epidemics (Bar Siman-Tov is an economist). As such, her input was crucial. Yet she adamantly opposed expanding virus testing, even publicly asserting that “Too much testing will increase complacence.” She opposed letting organizations outside the public-health system do lab work for coronavirus tests, even though the system was overwhelmed. She opposed sewage monitoring to track the spread of the virus. And on, and on.

Moreover, even after acknowledging that test-and-trace was necessary, ministry bureaucrats insisted for months that their ministry do the tracing despite its glaringly inadequate manpower. Only in August was the job finally given to the army, which does have the requisite personnel. And the system still isn’t fully operational.

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