A swan song – of sorts: Saying farewell amidst great challenges

By my count, this is the 363rd Weekly Briefing (there have been more before I started numbering them…) - and so it can be easily calculated that for seven years and more, week by week, I did what I could to keep the broad AJC family informed, enlightened, and occasionally entertained by my perspectives on Israeli and regional affairs. It was a labor of love; I will miss it, even as I turn my writing skills to the drearier domain of policy papers for decision makers. But this will indeed be my last, for the time being: tomorrow I will be taking up my duties as deputy for policy to the National Security Advisor at Israel’s equivalent of the NSC Staff.

It is a strange time to say goodbye – as an intensive visit by an AJC leadership mission draws to a close; as Tzippi Barnea, Arnona Shir-On and Yael Avnon, our PI team prepares for a number of high-powered and important missions; as Ed Rettig – who takes over as Acting Director – and I reflect on the immense work which yet needs to be done to bridge over the painful gaps of mutual ignorance that seem to be slowly opening between the two great wings of the modern Jewish bird, Israelis and American Jews. For years, assisted by Ayelet Zelig-Tischler, Noa Kauffman, and our experienced librarian, Michelle Ben Ami, we have tried to be of service to this cause, and have left a mark (not least, through the association we forged with the National Defense College of Israel and other institutions); but much still needs to be done.
And yet it is also a time to be of service to Israeli decision makers when so much is at stake. I joined AJC in the wake of 9/11: and the battles which began back then are still our battles today, even as the region faces new and dramatic dynamics. Just at a glance, utilizing some of what we heard over the last few days form Israel leaders, let me recount the scope of the challenges:-
  • In Iran, the regime has survived the wave of angry protest – and may now see itself vindicated in its defiant stance towards the world as well as towards the liberal and reformist urges within Iranian society. The prospects of successfully engaging with these leaders on the nuclear question seem remote (although a serious bid to negotiate in good faith may be a necessary step at this time): and dangerous decisions loom ahead.
  • On the regional and Palestinian agenda, there is much that is promising (but would need hard work and attention to detail) that flows from the vision presented by president Obama in Cairo. But for the time being, this is held up by a politically painful dispute over the settlements: a dispute that could have been easily prevented if more attention was paid to political realities, on both sides of the Atlantic. Now it is necessary to build elaborate ladders for all to climb down carefully from their high horses; but once this happens, there will be legitimate expectations on the Israeli side that some visible response should come form the Arab camp at large (and the Saudis in particular).
  • Meanwhile, internal Palestinian divisions, and Hamas’ refusal to abide by the three conditions stipulated by the international Quartet (and reiterated by Obama in Cairo) – namely, recognition of Israel’s right to exist, adherence to existing agreements, and desisting from violence – pose a serious question as to “how do we go from here”. So does the refusal of President Mahmoud Abbas to answer Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s call and recognize Israel as the embodiment of the Jewish People’s right of self-determination: a refusal which hurts the Palestinians’ own ability to understand the nature of the conflict (national rights vs. national rights, not “native” justice vs. “colonialist” wrong.
  • Israel faces, in the international arena, a complex effort to re-define and “re-brand” our place in the world; and more specifically, in our multilayered relationship with Europe, a bid to find our place in the Mediterranean context. Thus, we need (as we heard from an old friend, Muhammad Darawshe, yesterday) to find ways to turn our problems into assets: our relationship with our Arab citizens – nowhere else, he reminded us, do Muslim women enjoy such access to higher education; our cultural diversity; our challenging duties as custodians of the world’s most disputed holy places. At the same time, in this effort to re-position ourselves, the military and intelligence capabilities that have been forced upon us by adversity can become assets, too, as we forge closer links with NATO, India, and further afield.
  • Amidst all this, as we learned from the Governor of the Bank of Israel, Stanley Fischer, a country which exports a full 45% of her GDP must by necessity be mindful and alert to global trends: in fact, that loaded Hebrew word – Ha-Matzav, “the situation” – which once referred to the work of suicide bombers now equally applies to the ill winds blowing in from Wall Street or the East Asian money markets. And yet, being small, agile, and (surprise!) rather disciplined compared with other advanced economies has proved to be of benefit, limiting the damage so far and opening prospects for a return to rapid growth in the not too distant future.
  • Finally, the work which still lies ahead to promote closer ties between the key parts of the Jewish People needs to be done from within the Israeli government. This should, of course, be done in partnership with AJC and other great voluntary JONGOs – Jewishly Organized Non-Governmental Organizations, such as those who did battle (and won, this time) in Geneva against the nasty array of GONGOs – Governmentally-Organized NGOs – which went after Israel and her Jewish supporters in the shameful events of Durban 2001. With Natan Sharansky at the helm of the Jewish Agency, new alliances can be forged to advance this vital strategic goal – recognizing that our strength lies in understanding our interdependence.
And so, with this baggage in mind, I am off to see the wizard… But what I gained, in knowledge, in insight, and above all in the warmth and depth of interactions with so many good and dedicated people, will be very much with me in this tour of duty. In other words, this is not, in good American, Good Bye – but rather, le-hitra’ot, See you Soon.
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