The Bahrain Conference, June 2019

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Known for his memorable aphorisms, Abba Eban, the quick-witted and silver-tongued Israeli diplomat, famously remarked, “The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” 

The context for this quip was at the Geneva Conference in December 1973, but was it accurate then and is it relevant now?  

It should be noted that many academics like Neil Caplan, Elie Podeh and others argue that the “missed opportunities” or the “blame-game” approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict is incomplete and simplistic. 

While I agree with aspects of Caplan and Podeh’s arguments (and I think it’s important to bring their perspectives to your community), it behooves us as Jewish leaders and educators to ask how the Israeli community is meant to deal with consistent Palestinian rejectionism. Typically known for his nuance, empathic approach, and his ability to think in the grey, Micah Goodman is quite direct on this point, saying in no uncertain terms: “It is an undeniable historical fact that the Palestinians are a people without a country. It is also an undeniable fact that the reason is not Israeli aggression but Palestinian rejectionism [my emphasis].” He continues, “The tragic reality is that the stateless Palestinians are victims of their own rejectionism [my emphasis].”

Without taking a stance on Jared Kushner’s  “Peace to Prosperity” workshop in Bahrain, I could not help but wonder if the Palestinian dismissal of this event fell within the consistent history of rejecting opprortunities to forge forward in this century-long dispute or not. That is one big question of mine. 

But there is something else that caught my attention. As with all things surrounding the conflict in Israel, even the language describing it has become a battle. Is it the “Arab-Israeli” conflict or the “Palestinian-Israeli” conflict?  We won’t provide you with THE answer, but we’re here to provoke your thoughts, provide a framework to explore, and ask you the tough and critical questions to ponder and bring up with your students, your campers, your children, and your colleagues.

What Happened?

Last week, President Donald Trump’s senior advisor and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, led a “Peace to Prosperity” workshop in Manama, Bahrain. The workshop intentionally focused on the economic, rather than political, aspects of the Middle East. Kushner stated, “Agreeing on an economic pathway forward is a necessary precondition to resolving the previously unsolvable political issues.” He also said that the plan, which would invest $50 billion in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring Arab countries, is the “opportunity of the century.”

Among those in attendance were Arab finance ministers, heads of international financial organizations, and private business executives from several countries. Israeli business executives participated, though there was no official delegation. However, the Palestinians officially boycotted the conference because it was not framed as a political discussion, guiding them towards a state. Around a dozen Palestinian businessmen defied their government’s decision, with one of them, Abu Mayala, arrested upon his return home for his crime of attending, which was “tantamount to betrayal.” 

Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al Khalifa found the event to be promising and is quoted as saying, “As much as Camp David 1 was a major gamechanger, after the visit of President Sadat — if this succeeds, and we build on it, and it attracts attention and momentum, this would be the second gamechanger.” However, many Iraqis were less than thrilled with the Bahraini position and stormed the Bahrain embassy in Baghdad, placing a Palestinian banner on the Bahraini embassy compound.

Why Does This Matter? 5 Points

1. Another display of rejectionism? Former Israeli diplomat Abba Eban famously said: “The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” He was referring to proposed opportunities that Arabs received and rejected, including the Peel Commission of 1936, the partition plan of 1947, the UN Security Council Resolution 242 in 1967 (and, after his time, PM Ehud Olmert’s 2008 peace plan). The Palestinian perspective is perhaps that Israel has rejected their offers as well, and has never really offered to end the occupation. What’s behind the Palestinian boycott of the conference?  In a JNS column, Evelyn Gordon contended that this is “further proof” that the Palestinian leadership does not actually want a viable Palestinian state, considering that “economic development now would increase the viability of any future state.” But, Arutz Sheva quoted Hanan Ashrawi, who said the conference is an “insult to our intelligence” and, “The elephant in the room in Manama is of course the occupation itself, which was never mentioned — not once.”

2. From Arab-Israeli conflict to Israeli-Palestinian conflict From 1948 – 1973, the conflict was between surrounding Arab countries and Israel, and it was appropriately called the “Arab-Israeli conflict.” But when Egypt made peace with at the first Camp David, and then a further shift appeared during the First Intifada, the conflict slowly became more of a Palestinian-Israeli conflict than an Arab-Israeli one. Today, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boasts of Israel’s good relations with surrounding countries, such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE (though not everyone is so impressed). While Israel certainly has enemies to the north due to Hezbollah, and Iran (NOT an Arab country) is a menace to the east, the conflict today is centered on Israel and the Palestinians, and this shift was reflected at the Bahrain conference

3. Worst kept secret since Dimona… Real Arab-Israeli relationships developing

Israel has been proud of its developing relationships with many Gulf countries. Noa Landau from Ha’aretz credits the Iranians for this, “which has been pushing the moderate Sunni countries right into Israel’s arms.” Landau notes that the Arab-Israeli relationship is inextricably tied to what happens with the Palestinians, that “the Palestinian issue still stands between them and full peace with Israel.” But she also contends that the Palestinian leadership was the main casualty of this event, calling them “a bone stuck in the throats of very influential parties in the region…preventing progress on cooperative security, technological and economic projects.” This is no small critique, and, combined with the Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al Khalifa granting the Times of Israel an interview, and stressing that Israel has “the right to exist,” there might be a wedge developing between the Palestinians and their Arab brethren regarding Israel.  

4. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? Psychologist Abraham Maslow is well known for his “hierarchy of needs” theory. The five-tier model of human needs suggests that humans must meet their more basic needs before they can achieve their higher-order ones, ascending from physiological→ safety→ belongingness and love→ esteem→ self-actualization. In Kushner’s conference, the U.S.’s working assumption is that the Palestinians must have their most basic needs (food, water, shelter – which require money) met before they can prosper and thrive among nations. The Palestinian response, though, is: no, what we need most of all is self-respect, which comes with a state of one’s own – something that certainly falls into “self-actualization,” the pinnacle of Maslow’s pyramid. The question we’re pondering is: are basic needs a prerequisite for statehood? Is Washington right that those must come first, or are the Palestinians correct in saying that’s not the most important thing to them? After all, Maslow himself was shocked that people took what he said wholesale; in fact, this hierarchy of needs has been mostly debunked. The central criticism of his theory is that people can in fact satisfy multiple needs simultaneously or “out of order.” (And, to complicate matters, does the PA even represent the Palestinian people? See an analysis here.)

5. Is money the solution? The Bahrain conference focused on the economy in the Middle East. The question is, will money help solve the conflict? Stanford economics professor and contributor to the White House’s plan, Michael Boskin, argues that it would change the landscape drastically. Others are less convinced, including the EU, with whom the U.S. would expect to partner in footing the bill.

Diversity of Perspectives

A LOT of people are talking about this conference. Here’s the lowdown on some different perspectives on the topic:

Author and Senior Associate for Public Diplomacy at the Israeli Institute for Strategic Studies Barry Shaw sees the Palestinian boycott as a clear example of rejectionism. He writes: “Sadly, expectedly, the Palestinian Authority has pre-empted this initiative by rejecting the notion of any peace with Israel. After decades of complaints, they have, yet again, shown their unwillingness to compromise on the political and theocratic dogmas that have held back peace and a better future for their people.” 

Author Jack Engelhard raises a pragmatic concern: who would get the money? Working with the assumption that the U.S. knows that the PA/PLO/Hamas leaders squander the money received in international aid, living in villas and giving the leftovers to those in need, he wants to know how this money would be handled differently.

Former congresswoman Mel Levine and president of the Arab American Institute James Zogby warn that the Bahrain conference was doomed to fail. The pair, who served as co-chairs of Builders for Peace, Al Gore’s project to promote Palestinian economic development in support of the Oslo peace process, argue that the Palestinians have “been down this road before, and they know that unless there is a political horizon that provides for an end to the occupation and the freedom and independence they need to grow their economy, they will not prosper.”

Discussion Questions

  1. Notably, the Palestinians mostly boycotted the conference, while the Israelis were not invited to send an official delegation. Can talks regarding the conflict advance if the two major players are not present? (See tip #3 below.)
  2. If you were a Palestinian leader, what arguments would you make for the value of this conference? What arguments would you make about the lack of value for this conference?
  3. Based on what you’ve read, is the White House’s proposal groundbreaking or recycled?
  4. While Bahrain’s foreign minister, Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, recently acknowledged Israel’s presence in the region and that “it is here to stay,” former Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal “warned the Arab countries participating in the Bahrain conference that Israel ‘will remain an enemy.’” Can Israel achieve peace with neighbors who vow to remain its enemy? Can Israel leverage its developing relationships with its Arab neighbors to influence the prospects of peace with the Palestinians?  

Practical Classroom Tips

  1. Watch Kushner’s opening speech at the conference to see the events first-hand. What feelings does the speech invoke? Hope? Frustration? Enthusiasm? Disillusionment?
  2. Play this video and use the accompanying resources to learn about the unlikely friendship and peace treaty between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
  3. This Haaretz article makes things interesting. Discuss it with your students and ask how this take complicates the picture. 

In Other News…

  1. At the recent Paris Air Show, Israeli company Eviation Aircraft unveiled its sleek and efficient electric plane. It is set to be ready for commercial takeoff in 2022. 
  2. In time for summer, read about Israel’s Ben & Jerry’s production; Israel is the only country with an independent maker of the sweet treat outside of Vermont.
  3. After Israel sent the Beresheet spacecraft to the moon back in April, which gathered important information before its “rough landing” on (or into) the moon, its makers, SpaceIL, vowed to build another. Last week SpaceIL confirmed that it is shifting its mission from the moon to elsewhere, though the new mission has yet to be named. 

Noam Weissman

Dr. Noam Weissman is the Senior Vice President of Education at Jerusalem U. Noam holds a doctorate in educational psychology from USC with a focus on curriculum design. Before joining Jerusalem U, he was the principal of Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, where he spent 9 years actively engaging and empowering students to find meaning in their Jewish learning.

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