Grapevine August 19, 2020: Still never missing an opportunity

Benjamin Netanyahu accompanies Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a visit to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem in 2017. (photo credit: ABIR SULTAN/POOL/VIA REUTERS)
If he could speak from the grave, Israel’s master statesman Abba Eban would in all probability say: “The Palestinians are doing it again. They will never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Indeed, that will be the case for as long as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas continues to hold the reins of leadership. He is symbolic of the old adage that one can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Abbas refuses to see that the world has changed, and inasmuch as everyone pays lip service to peace and a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in the new geopolitical order it’s no longer a precondition for recognition of Israel on the part of most Arab states.
Hating to blow my own whistle, but unable to resist on this occasion, having said all along that all that is needed for Israel and some of the major Arab states to form an alliance is a common enemy, credit for the new status quo must in some measure be given to Iran. Without a common need to stand firm against Iran, it is doubtful that all the recent and now anticipated developments in the region would have been more than an unfulfilled pipe dream. The Iranian threat has been a powerful force for change.

Following the announcement of a full and open relationship with the United Arab Emirates, after cooperation had been going on for years under the radar, there were some brief euphoric moments, with even Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg, who always tries to shout down Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he is speaking in the Knesset, acknowledging that he’d done a good thing. Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, though informed only after the fact, received congratulatory messages from counterparts around the world, and Israel ambassadors in the countries of their dispersion were also the recipients of goodwill messages.
However, it was not all rosy in the garden.
In the 32nd chapter of the Book of Exodus, our ancient ancestors were labeled a stiff-necked people. That in itself would be bad enough. But we’re also ungracious and malicious, unwilling to let Netanyahu have a brief spell of glory. On Friday, some 1,000 people gathered in the orbit of the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem for the weekly, noisy Kabbalat Shabbat, and then on Saturday there was the mammoth patchwork quilt of human needs and frustrations hell-bent on making life miserable not only for the prime minister but also for his neighbors.
An exception, as far as lack of graciousness goes, was President Reuven Rivlin, who on Monday of this week hosted Netanyahu in the arbor of the President’s Residence. Rivlin was effusive in congratulating Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump on “a great achievement that could bring extremely important change in the history of the Middle East and in the history of the Israeli people and the Jewish people.”
Also this week, in an early morning interview on Israel Radio’s Reshet Bet, Chemi Peres, one of the sons of Shimon Peres, said that kudos are certainly due to Netanyahu for what he has accomplished. Not only is the Middle East changing, but the whole world is changing, he said.
The younger Peres recalled that his father had visited some of the Gulf states as far back as 1994, and had met several of the Gulf state leaders in his peregrinations around the world. In response to a rhetorical question from program host Aryeh Golan, Chemi Peres agreed that Shimon Peres had envisaged the new Middle East, and that Netanyahu had brought that dream to reality, albeit in his own way, but it wasn’t something that happened overnight, he noted. It was the outcome of many years of intensive work, “and there is still much more work to be done.”
■ VARIOUS ISRAELI media outlets immediately sent reporters to Dubai last Friday, in addition to which they quickly found Israelis and Hebrew-speaking Jews who live in Dubai to provide in-depth information about the quality of life and the freedom to worship. Most in demand was Solly Wolf, the president of the 1,500-2,000 strong Jewish community, whose spiritual leader is American-born Chabadnik Rabbi Levi Duchman. Wolf, who left Israel in the 1960s and built up a business in Europe before taking up residence in Dubai 20 years ago, has found himself speaking Hebrew with ever greater frequency in recent days.
Among the various Israelis interviewed was Petah Tikva-born Ilan Ouzan, a dealer in luxury cars, who has been living in Dubai for eight years. Before that he lived in Italy and entered the UAE on an Italian passport, which states that he was born in Israel. Ouzan says there is no crime in Dubai. “You can walk down the street with $2 million in cash and no one will accost you.”
Ouzon is one of many Israelis who are dual nationals, or who carry the passports of several countries, who have been visiting and residing in the UAE and other Gulf states for well over a decade.
In fact, Israeli visitors to Morocco, which is on the short list of countries expected to enter into full diplomatic relations with Israel, don’t need a foreign passport. Israeli passports are accepted in Morocco.
■ OF THE many Israelis who have been to Dubai and beyond, is Jerusalem-based businessman David Zwebner, who was featured on this page in February of last year following his return from an eight-day trip to Bahrain, Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Zwebner had been one of two Israelis who joined a group of American Jewish participants in an Insight Seminar led by Dr. Eric Mandel, founder of the Middle East Political and Information Network, and Yitzhak Sokoloff, founder of Keshet International Encounters and Keshet Educational journeys, which at that time had been conducting annual in-depth seminars focusing on strategic and cultural issues in the Arab world. Aside from that, many Jews, including Israeli multinationals, do business in Arab countries, and the people with whom they engage know their religion and where they actually live.
From conversations that Zwebner had with various individuals, including senior officials such as Dr. Abdulaziz Yusuf Janahi, former Bahraini ambassador to the UK, and Nasif Kayed, the founder and CEO of the Arab Culturalist in Dubai, as well as communications professionals and businesspeople, Zwebner came away with the impression that the Arab states wanted to get closer to Israel not only because Iran is a common enemy, but also because they want to share in Israel’s technological know-how, and they’re sick of the Palestinian problem, which for too long has hampered any progress toward peace in the Middle East. At the same time, said Zwebner, they were worried that Israel may have expansionist ambitions that stretch all the way to the Euphrates.
Zwebner said that at no time in any of the three destinations, did he feel any antagonism toward Jews or toward Israel.
External antagonism does not always mean that real antagonism exists. Eban, long after serving as head of Israel’s permanent mission to the United Nations, used to relate that his opposite numbers from Arab states would not acknowledge his presence in public – not even with a curt nod. But behind closed doors he had many discussions with representatives of Arab states, and in some cases even formed friendships.
■ AS FOR Saudi Arabia, which purchases defense equipment from Israel, has already made airspace concessions to Israel and has engaged in other areas of cooperation with the Jewish state, UK-born Jerusalemite Rabbi David Rosen, as far as he is aware, is the first Orthodox rabbi – certainly the first Israeli rabbi – to be hosted by King Salman in Riyadh. Rosen, who is the American Jewish Committee’s international director of interreligious affairs, is also the only Jewish member and one of nine governors of the King Abdullah International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue. This was the first time that the governors, representing five faiths, were meeting in Saudi Arabia.
In February of this year, Rosen flew to Istanbul to take a Saudi Arabian Airlines connecting flight to Riyadh. As he settled into his seat, a Saudi fellow passenger came over to him and said: “I just wanted to tell you how happy I am that a religious Jewish man is coming to Saudi Arabia. It is a sign of new and good times for our country.” Rosen then realized that he had forgotten to remove his kippah.
Pursuing the conversation, the Saudi gentleman asked him whether he was aware that Dr. Mohammed al-Issa, the secretary-general of the Muslim World League from Mecca, had led a delegation of Arab Muslim leaders to Auschwitz in January. Rosen was very much aware, because he had been part of an AJC delegation that had traveled together with the Muslim delegation. That experience had been historic, and en route to Riyadh he was on his way to once again make history. Historic events are not exactly a novelty for Rosen, who, for instance, is the only rabbi who happens to be a papal knight.
■ THE CROWDED reception that in the past marked India’s Independence Day was absent this year due to the coronavirus crisis, but Netanyahu did not forget to send good wishes to his friend, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in which he stated that India has so much to be proud of.
In his wide-ranging address to his nation, Modi did not forget the role of women and said: “Whenever women got the opportunity, they made India proud.” Women were permitted to vote in India from the first day of independence in 1947. Women were involved in the struggle to liberate India from British rule, and India was among the first countries in which the government was headed by a woman. In fact, Indira Gandhi, who first came into office in 1966, was elected for four consecutive terms. Unfortunately, she was assassinated during the fourth term. Known as the Iron Lady of India, in a BBC poll in December 1999 she was voted as the Woman of the Millennium.
■ THE SCINTILLATING tell-all book about Trump and other members of his family which was written by his niece, Mary Trump, became an instant best-seller when it was released last month, partially because of attempts by legal means to prevent its publication. Leading the battle on the legal front was the president’s late brother Robert, who died last weekend. Trying to prevent the launch of the book was an exercise in futility, as scores of review copies had already been disseminated to various media outlets. On the day that the book became available to the public 950,000 copies were sold. That kind of a record is extremely rare.
Now, people who eagerly read Too Much and Never Enough are waiting for the next public laundering of the life of the US president by way of a memoir by Trump’s longtime lawyer turned nemesis Michael Cohen, who was privy to many of Trump’s innermost secrets. The book is scheduled to hit the stores on September 8.
■ ALTHOUGH SOME would-be Israeli vacationers who had hoped to fly to Greece this week were turned back at the airport because their documents confirming that they had been tested for coronavirus were incomplete, one of the Israelis who succeeded in reaching his destination in Corfu was veteran broadcaster and Grecophile Yaron Enosh, who last Friday bid a final farewell to book detective Itamar Levy after a 20-year broadcasting association.
Levy, who had a special corner in Enosh’s weekly Friday program on Reshet Bet, is a genius at finding secondhand books that have gone out of print. Radio listeners who called in with requests did not always know the title of the book they were seeking; but after describing the contents, Levy often supplied the title and the author within seconds, and put the book on his list of search assignments. Listeners loved him, and several called in to wish him well and to say how much they would miss him.
This is not the first time that Levy has taken leave of the program, but he says that this time it’s permanent, because he is suffering from burnout, and feels that he’s gone as far as he can go, and there are still other things that he wants to do in life that have been put on hold for far too long.
■ IN 1997, four mothers of Israeli soldiers serving in Lebanon started a movement aimed at Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. It took nearly three years for Israel’s unilateral withdrawal. During that three-year period soldiers were wounded, maimed and killed. But many more lives were saved by the persistence of the mothers.
Now a group of Arab mothers and sisters want to save the lives of young Arabs in the cities, towns and villages, where there have been more than 50 killings since the beginning of this year.
Leaders of the Joint List in the Knesset, along with Arab mayors and regional council heads, have complained that the police more or less turn a blind eye to Arab violence when Arab kills Arab.
The Women for Life, whose members last week led a march from Haifa to Jerusalem, where they arrived on Sunday to voice their appeal to Rivlin, are the mothers and sisters of four Israeli Arabs murdered this year. They were joined by Arab List chairman MK Ayman Odeh and MK Osama Saadi.
Although dozens of supporters crowded the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway near Sha’ar Hagai as the marchers neared Jerusalem, the women have not received the volume of encouragement from Arab society in general that could be comparable to the groundswell that accompanied the campaign of the four Jewish mothers more than 20 years ago.
The four Arab women are Muna Khalil from Haifa, whose son Khalil, 28, was killed; Jiaza Jabali, who lost her son Said in Taiba; Fardous Habiballah, who lost her only daughter, 16-year-old Arub, who was killed by a hit-and-run driver in Nof Hagalil; and Kipach Agbariah, whose brother was killed in Umm el-Fahm.
Violence in general in the Arab communities often stems from family feuds, but there are also hardened criminals who go on shooting sprees, and local authorities are powerless against them. This may be one of the reasons that the four women, despite coverage in the Arabic, Hebrew and foreign-language media, have not been able to drum up sufficient support from among the Arab communities, whose members prefer to lay low rather than expose themselves to criminal elements, which they might not be able to avoid under any circumstances.
Rivlin offered his condolences to the four women and declared that the state must protect all its citizens. Moreover, he said, the citizens, must see the police as being their defenders. Rivlin insisted that this is not just an Arab issue. “This is something we must all tackle. It is our joint responsibility.”
He urged a joint effort on the part of all citizens of Israel to pool resources in fighting crime and the illegal possession of weapons wherever such felonies occur.
He also made the point that Arab society as a whole must engage schools, colleges and workplaces to say no to violence and to lawlessness, as well as no to illegal possession of weapons.
In recent years, more Arabs have been encouraged to join the police force so that greater law enforcement could be carried out in all the places that Arab citizens call home, but the effort has not been particularly effective.
■ VEGANS, VEGETARIANS and animal lovers may be interested in tuning in to an August 20 Zoom presentation on an initiative to restore the ancient New Year for Animals and to transform it into a day devoted to promoting awareness of Jewish teachings about compassion for animals, coupled with the realization of how far current realities are from these teachings. Speakers will also share their views on how animal-based diets and agriculture seriously violate basic Jewish teachings about preserving human health, treating animals with compassion, protecting the environment, conserving natural resources, helping hungry people, and pursuing peace.
Scheduled participants are: Miriam Maisel, MD, family practitioner, with emphasis on nutrition and lifestyle; Rabbi Yonatan Neril, founder and director of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development; Richard Schwartz, PhD, president emeritus of Jewish Veg and author of Judaism and Vegetarianism; Yael Shemesh, professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University; Alon Tal, PhD, chairman of the Public Policy Department at Tel Aviv University and author of Pollution in the Promised Land; and Isaac Thomas, director of Vegan Nation. The Zoom link is
■ FANS OF composer and musician Nachum Heiman this week marked the fourth anniversary of his death. In his twilight years, Heiman worked diligently to preserve Jewish and Israeli music through the Jewish Music Research Center. His aim was to catalogue and archive not only Jewish and Israeli compositions, but also the names of the singers and musicians who gave expression to those compositions.
No one sings Heiman’s hauntingly beautiful composition “Kmo Tzemah Bar” (Like a wild plant) better than his daughter Si Heiman, who in addition to her singing career has become a concert producer. In the face of the present reality in which the size of audiences is severely limited, Si Heiman began giving backyard concerts, first in her own home and subsequently all over the country. Realizing that other singers were prepared to perform for small audiences and for symbolic fees just so that they could once again feel that special connection between an entertainer and a live audience, she started calling top-notch singers, who under ordinary circumstances would not be available, and without exception they jumped at the opportunity.
■ THESPIANS ARE no less anxious to reconnect with live audiences, and this week Habimah Theater director Noam Semel and the ensemble’s artistic director, Moshe Kepten, announced that rehearsals were in progress for five new original productions which will initially be featured online from September onward, until such time as the coronavirus cabinet decides that theater halls can be reopened.
Semel underscored that elsewhere in the world the powers that be realized that a culture-hungry public cannot be starved indefinitely, and more than a hundred theater halls around the world have opened up and reinstalled live audiences to applaud performances. The only benefits to online productions are that the actors can at least get a chance to perform, and that the audiences, wherever they are, have the best seats in the house. But it doesn’t compensate for being at a live performance, feeling the buzz in the air and joining in stand-up ovations when the performers have excelled themselves. By all present indications, that’s still a long wait away.
Beit Lessin is also preparing for online performances, and on August 22 will formally change its name in honor of Baruch Ivcher. Last year, Ivcher, a billionaire expatriate who lives in Peru, but whose heart remains in Israel, donated NIS 25m. toward the cost of renovating the theater that will soon bear his name.
On its Facebook page, Beit Lessin announced that due to Health Ministry restrictions, theater activities have once again been frozen, but that once activities recommence, ticket holders and subscribers will be contacted so that their attendance at performances can be rescheduled.
■ ALTHOUGH ISRAEL’s medical network in public hospitals and health clinics is already short-staffed, according to a report on KAN 11, a thousand medical practitioners will be leaving soon, not in protest but because they have reached the mandatory retirement age of 67.
Why is it that judges can work till the age of 70, and there is no age limit for a prime minister or a president of the state (Rivlin will be 81 next month, and Netanyahu 71 in October), nor for members of Knesset, yet most of the rest of the working population is forced to retire at a specific age?
There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. Many people are brought back on personal contracts or as freelancers instead of being part of a collective work agreement, but it’s a senseless bureaucracy that should be abolished.
Among the exceptions to the present situation is broadcast Walter Bingham, who hosts Walter’s World on Arutz Sheva. Bingham, who presented his 800th program this week, previously wanted to work for Israel Radio, which rejected him because he was 80 at the time. He was told that he was too old. Now he’s heading toward his 97th birthday and still going strong. He’s also heard on Israel Newstalk Radio and in Melbourne Australia on J Air Radio.

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