👋 Good Monday morning!
In today’s Daily Kickoff, we interview Sen. Joni Ernst about Riyadh’s role in the Middle East, and profile Liron Zaslansky, Israel’s top diplomat in Dubai. Also in today’s Daily Kickoff: Scott Wiener, Gaby Aghion and Mark Dubowitz.
Just over a week since the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the Allenby Bridge Border Terminal launched a 24-hour operational schedule yesterday — a key project pushed by U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides — which seeks to ease passage for Palestinians traveling between the West Bank and Jordan.
Accompanied by representatives from the U.S. Embassy and USAID, as well as Israeli officials from the Israel Airports Authority and COGAT (the Israeli military authority that coordinates government activities in the West Bank), Nides told Jewish Insider’s Ruth Marks Eglash, “We’re in the middle of Ramadan right now and anything that keeps things calm is very important.”
“I am focused on the security of Israel, and I fundamentally believe that a better life for the Palestinian people also helps the security of Israel,” Nides explained, describing the scene at the crossing as still “chaotic.” He added that the next stage of the plan is to find investments and funding that will improve the physical access to the border crossing.
The border crossing will now remain open through the night, five days a week – reducing hours only for the Jewish Sabbath starting Friday evening through Saturday night, at least through the summer months. Read the full story here.
Is a regional realignment in the Middle East in sight? Saudi Arabia plans to invite Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Riyadh for an Arab League summit in May, in a move that would formally end Damascus’ isolation in the region.
Syria and Egypt are also reportedly in talks to restore full diplomatic relations after more than a decade, in what The Wall Street Journal described as “fast-evolving developments that are reshaping the Middle East’s geopolitics.” A meeting between Assad and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi could come shortly after Ramadan ends later this month, the Journal reports.
Where is the White House on this? The Biden administration, the Washington Post’s Josh Rogin writes, “has abdicated diplomatic leadership to Moscow and is turning a blind eye as Gulf states welcome the Assad regime back into the diplomatic fold.”
“Washington is sorely mistaken if it thinks that allowing regional players to reestablish diplomatic and economic ties with Bashar al-Assad will lead to greater stability,” Rogin adds.
Mark Dubowitz, the CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told us this morning that the regional shift “is a major victory for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Vladimir Putin as well as Assad. It sends a signal that no matter how horrendous your war crimes, eventually you can be rehabilitated if you’re sufficiently ruthless and patient. It’s a shameful display from Gulf countries who have welcomed Assad back into the fold. But it is also a disappointment for those who believed the Biden administration would vigorously enforce the Caesar Act, a 2019 human rights law passed overwhelmingly by Congress.”
Even if a regional realignment is in sight, one thing has not changed: tensions along Israel’s border with Syria. The Israeli military said it shot down a Syrian drone that had crossed into Israeli airspace, hours after Syrian officials accused Israel of conducting airstrikes in the Homs province.
Ernst: Riyadh an ‘incredibly important partner’ on security and economy
Having served 23 years in the United States Army — during which time she spent a year on the front lines in Kuwait as a commanding officer during the Iraq War — Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) became the first-ever female combat veteran elected to federal office when she assumed Iowa’s open Senate seat in 2015. Ernst is also the first woman to hold an Iowa congressional seat in either chamber. On this week’s episode of Jewish Insider’s podcast, Ernst, who is a co-founder of the bipartisan Senate Abraham Accords Caucus, joined co-hosts Rich Goldberg and Jarrod Bernstein for a conversation on Israel’s current political climate, U.S.-Middle Eastern relations, China, Iran and American foreign policy.
On engaging with Saudi Arabia: “I think we absolutely must pay attention to Saudi [Arabia] and we’ve had our own disagreements with Saudi Arabia, and they are by no means perfect, but that nation is so critical,” Ernst, who recently traveled to the region, noted. “The relationship with Saudi Arabia is so important, they are probably one of the most significant partners in the region, and we really do need to promote closer cooperation on those issues of mutual interest, including regional security cooperation, which is why we continue to encourage them to engage in activities like the Abraham Accords.”
On Israel’s proposed judicial reform: “Well, I simply believe that we shouldn’t be dictating to other countries what their judicial systems are, any more than we would want them dictating to us. So I really disagreed with President [Joe] Biden and the way he handled this,” Ernst said. “I think it’s important that we focus on our judiciary and other countries focus on theirs. And the thing to remember here is that Israel has a very robust democratic process, and that sometimes will include protests, it will sometimes include dissent, and we’re seeing that in Israel right now. But again, it’s not unlike our own system here in the United States.”
Bonus lightning round:Favorite Yiddish, Hebrew or Arabic word or phrase? “I would probably have to say ‘schlepping.’” Favorite place visited in any Abraham Accords country? “I’m gonna pick this one because it’s also important to my dear friend and brand new senator, Katie Britt of Alabama. In the Old City, one of the little shops in Jerusalem is an actual Alabama store. And so Katie Britt and I, and the rest of the members of the congressional delegation, visited this store and I bought a T-shirt. OK, I’m not an Alabama fan, but I bought a T-shirt from there, because half of it was in Hebrew, the other half in English — it was obviously ‘Roll Tide’ — and it was just a reminder that our countries are so interconnected.” Favorite Jewish food? “Matzah ball soup.”
Scott Wiener’s delicate balancing act
A lifelong supporter of Israel, Scott Wiener, a Jewish Democrat and California state senator, found himself on unfamiliar ground when he gathered with protestors in San Francisco last month to speak out against Israel’s governing coalition as it moved forward with a contentious judicial overhaul. “It’s very painful,” he said in a recent interview with Jewish Insider’s Matthew Kassel. “I am a strong supporter of the State of Israel. It has a right to exist. It’s critical that it exists. It plays such an essential role in the world, for Jews and others.”
‘Stand up for our community’: Even as Wiener, 52, now seeks to distinguish his passion for Israel from revulsion at its current government, the staunchly progressive state lawmaker has long balanced his social justice activism with a commitment to pro-Israel values. He has pressed that position even amid growing resistance from California’s hard-left contingent. “My approach would be the same in any office I hold,” he told JI. “My identity as a Jew is a really important part of who I am, and as a Jewish elected official, it’s incredibly important for me to stand up for our community.”
Exploratory committee: If Wiener was speaking conditionally, it was in large part because he had recently launched an exploratory committee to begin fundraising for a potential House bid, the creation of which has fueled speculation over his plans for higher office as Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), a fellow Democrat in San Francisco, prepares to announce whether she will run for another term. For Wiener, the optics associated with his early maneuver have required a different sort of balancing act. When news of his committee went public in early March, he made sure to clarify in a deferential statement that he would move forward with a campaign only if Pelosi, 83, decides to retire.
‘Just being prepared’: Wiener’s allies insist there are no ulterior motives afoot. “He’s just being prepared,” Sam Lauter, a Jewish community activist in San Francisco who invited Wiener to speak at the recent demonstration against Israel’s now-suspended judicial reforms, told JI. “I think he is being 100% genuine when he says that if she runs for reelection, he is all in supporting her.”
diplomacy in dubai
Israel’s consul general in Dubai builds new ties
Liron Zaslansky is no stranger to Israeli diplomacy. A veteran of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the 44-year-old diplomat has served at no fewer than six missions from Europe to South America and the Arab world. But now, as Israel’s first-ever consul general in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, she is embarking on new territory – literally. “We are the first generation of Israelis here,” Zaslansky, who received her diplomatic credentials last September, two years after Israel signed the historic Abraham Accords normalization agreements with the UAE and Bahrain, told Jewish Insider’s Ruth Marks Eglash in an interview.
Seizing the opportunity: “We are laying down the foundations of the bilateral agreements that were signed between our countries,” she continued. “And we are doing our best to get to know the other side and to let the other side know us; it’s a great responsibility.” While there have been some logistical hurdles to setting up a diplomatic operation from scratch – Israel’s consulate in Dubai formally opened the doors to its permanent offices earlier this week – Zaslansky said she sees starting such a mission as an opportunity, rather than a challenge.
Instant click: Living in Dubai with her husband, Ohad Horsandi, who is Israel’s deputy ambassador to the UAE in Abu Dhabi, and their three children, Zaslansky said the family received an unexpectedly warm welcome in a place that less than three years ago had no formal diplomatic ties with Israel. “My theory is that it takes at least a year to get used to a new place, until you’re settled in, until your family is settled in, and until you all feel at home,” she theorized. “But in Dubai, that happened almost immediately – after only two or three months, it felt like we’d been here for forever.”
Glimpse of Israel: “First, we are trying to create a higher profile for Israel in Dubai,” explained Zaslansky. “We want to give Emiratis and other nationals living here a glimpse of Israel because [before the Abraham Accords] the region was used to only seeing Israel through the pages of newspapers and politics.” Among the activities that have already taken place, the consul general described Israel’s participation in a food festival — which included the culinary offerings of Israeli celebrity chef, Tom Aviv — and the first-ever Holocaust Remembrance Day event held last January at the Crossroads of Civilization Museum.
Investors dream big at Saudi-backed Florida summit
From WeWork founder Adam Neumann and former White House advisor Jared Kushner to LIV Golf Commissioner Greg Norman, a parade of investors and entrepreneurs mounted a stage in Miami Beach, Fla., last week to talk about why Saudi Arabia looms large in their future business plans, The Circuit’s Jonathan H. Ferziger reports.
Neumann’s new outlook: Neumann, now building a residential real estate business called Flow that secured $350 million in funding from Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, told the Future Investment Initiative’s Global Priority Summit on Friday that he sees the desert kingdom as an ideal environment for reinventing the way people live and work. “What’s happening in Saudi right now is they’re dreaming up cities,” the 43-year-old Israeli who popularized the concept of shared office space said in an onstage conversation with investors Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz. “You’re starting from scratch. And that’s unbelievable, because you can apply the right technology and the right energy from the first day.”
Eye on growth: Yasir Al-Rumayyan, governor of PIF and chairman of state oil company Saudi Aramco, opened the proceedings on Thursday by saying he expects the PIF to grow to $1 trillion in assets by 2025 and between $2 trillion and $3 trillion by 2030. As head of Aramco, whose 2022 net income of $161 billion was the highest of any publicly traded company in the world, Al-Rumayyan said the company is committed to mitigating climate change but that shifting to sustainable energy sources needs to be gradual. “Some of the governments around the world bullied the oil and gas companies,” Al-Rumayyan said. “It takes time to have a transition from fossil fuels to renewables.”
Regional reflection: Reflecting on the Abraham Accords, Kushner said he was gratified to see regional political changes leading to wider commercial opportunities. “The practical implications have been tremendous right now,” he said. “You have business happening in the Middle East that would not have been… you have defense agreements that are happening, which wouldn’t happen… The biggest thing for me is really two things. Number one is you’re seeing Arabs now, finally, and Muslims being able to say nice things about Israel and Jews, and you’re having human-to-human connections, which I think is now finally pushing back against the opposition, which is hard.”
📓 A Reporter’s Backstory: The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Parkinson and Drew Hinshaw reveal more about the personal and professional background of their colleague Evan Gershokovich, following the Jewish Moscow-based reporter’s detention and allegations of espionage. “Mr. Gershkovich’s fascination with Russia stemmed from his earliest years speaking Russian at home in New York and New Jersey. When his mother, Ella, was 22, she fled the Soviet Union using Israeli documents. She was whisked across the Iron Curtain by her own mother, a Ukrainian nurse and Holocaust survivor who would weep when she talked about the survivors of extermination camps she treated at a Polish military hospital at the end of World War II. Before fleeing, they heard rumors that Soviet Jews were about to be deported to Siberia… One day, decades after the fall of Communism, [Gershkovich’s mother] took him to a building that she had been afraid to visit as a teenager: a synagogue. She had been told that anybody entering it would be photographed and detained by the secret service. ‘That’s when Evan started to understand us better,’ she said.” [WSJ]
👁️ Eye on AOC: Politico’s Nicholas Wu and Jordain Carney interview Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) about her future ambitions and evolution on Capitol Hill. “The co-founder of the progressive ‘squad’ — who rocketed to prominence with her willingness to take on party leaders when others on the left would not — is acquiring power via more traditional means now. She snagged a senior position on a plum committee, putting her in closer proximity to top House Democrats. At a recent party retreat, she coached fellow Democrats on how to up their communications game. And after years of on-and-off sparring with former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Ocasio-Cortez is forging ties with new Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries — a fellow New Yorker whose centrist instincts aren’t always aligned with her own. Her evolution is driven partly by a new political reality for her party: Democrats lost the House last year, and progressives have found a lot to like in Joe Biden’s first two years in the White House. But Ocasio-Cortez’s shift also comes as the 33-year-old lawmaker is mulling her next steps.” [Politico]
🇸🇦 Saudi’s Strings: The New York Times’ Vivian Nereim and Vivian Yee assess Saudi Arabia’s efforts to attach conditions to the aid it gives to regional allies, as Riyadh looks to reposition itself in the Middle East. “Underpinning this more broadly is the crown prince’s effort to remake the kingdom’s own economy after oil prices plummeted in 2014, saddling the country with eight years of budget deficits. The focus is on spending that helps the conservative Islamic country to develop sectors beyond oil and to become a hub for a wider array of businesses as well as culture. He is building on a model that smaller Gulf countries like the United Arab Emirates and Qatar followed years ago, partly to increase their international influence. ‘What the Gulf has that almost no one else in the world has is quite a lot of excess capital,’ said Timothy E. Kaldas, an expert in Egypt’s political economy at the Washington-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. ‘That comes with power.’” [NYTimes]
👩 The Other Assad: The Financial Times’ Raya Jalabi spotlights Lady Asma al-Assad, as the Syrian first lady and her husband, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, emerge from a decade-long civil war that politically isolated the couple. “In public, she styles herself as the Mother of the Nation, radiating maternal care as she tends to Syria’s military families, cancer-stricken children and survivors of the February 6 earthquake. She sports delicate ribbons in her hair, her petite frame draped in dresses sewn by the widows of men martyred in her husband’s war. But privately, Asma has manoeuvred herself into a position of remarkable power, according to interviews with 18 people familiar with the regime’s operations, including heads of business, aid workers and former government officials. She now controls some of the key levers in Syria’s battered economy, both as policymaker and profiteer, helping consolidate the family’s grip over a country in bloodied ruin. An ex-JP Morgan banker, Asma sits at the head of the president’s secretive economic council, staffed with the first couple’s close acolytes and business associates. Her NGOs have helped build the Assads a vast patronage network, while controlling where international aid money flows in the country. As early as 2020, ‘it had become clear that Asma was becoming a central funnel of economic power in Syria,’ says Joel Rayburn, who served as special envoy for Syria at the state department under President Trump.” [FT]
Around the Web
🗳️ He’s Running: Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, announced the launch of his 2024 presidential campaign, and called for former President Donald Trump to withdraw from the race.
📄 On the Hill: Bipartisan groups of senators and House members reintroduced legislation seeking to provide grants for collaborative U.S.-Israel PTSD research.
🇺🇸 Blurred Lines: Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that he has discussed with the Biden administration the possibility of “reversing some measures that the Trump administration took in the very final weeks of the Trump administration that blurred the lines between Israel and the West Bank with respect to the conduct of U.S. policy.”
🪧 Protest Push: Several American Jewish leaders launched a new organization in support of the ongoing protests in Iran, offering funding for different initiatives organized by members of the Iranian diaspora and by Iranian activists located outside the Islamic republic, eJewishPhilanthropy reports.
🕌 Community News: Three mosques in the Queens neighborhood of Astoria are sounding the call to prayer after receiving the neighborhood’s first permits to do so.
🛫 Expat Problems: In The Wall Street Journal, James E. Lieber and Peter Spiro argue for a change in the voting policy for U.S. expats.
👨 All About Altman: The New York Times and Wall Street Journal feature interviews with Open AI head Sam Altman, whose ChatGPT has fast gained widespread popularity and raised questions about the future of artificial intelligence.
👗 Coming Soon: A new exhibition on French fashion company Chloé and its founder Gaby Aghion is set to open at the Jewish Museum in the fall.
💎 Surprising Support: Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi reportedly asked the Treasury Department to roll back its sanctions against Israeli businessman Dan Gertler.
📚 Bookshelf: The Financial Times’ Michael Skapinker reviews Saskia Coenen Snyder’s book A Brilliant Commodity: Diamonds and Jews in a Modern Setting, about how Jews became central to the global diamond industry.
👋 Tishby’s Exit: Noa Tishbyannounced her official dismissal as Israel’s special envoy for combating antisemitism and the delegitimization of Israel, several months after the appointment formally ended.
🕵️ Mixed Messages: The New York Times reports on a secret contract between a company acting as a front for the U.S. government and the American affiliate of the Israel’s NSO firm that gave a government agency use of its spyware after the White House placed the company on a blacklist.
👨⚖️ Leifer Verdict: Malka Leifer, the former principal of an Orthodox Jewish school in Melbourne, Australia, was found guilty by the Victorian county court of 18 sexual abuse offenses against two former students.
⚖️ Call to Action: The New York Times editorial board called for “sustained” pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by “Israelis and by Israel’s true friends, especially the United States,” following Netanyahu’s pause in moving forward with proposed judicial reforms.
🥃 L’Chaim: The World Whiskies Awards named Tel Aviv’s M&H whiskey the world’s best single malt.
🚑 West Bank Clashes: Israeli troops reportedly killed two Palestinian gunmen in the West Bank city of Nablus this morning, in clashes during the arrest of two Palestinians suspected of carrying out a shooting attack on soldiers in Huwara in March.
🇵🇰 Denial: Pakistan yesterday denied having trade relations with Israel after Pakistani Jewish businessman Fishel Benkhald tweeted about his first kosher shipment to the Jewish state.
👴 Law of Return: National Unity Party leader Avi Maoz, the party’s sole representative in the Knesset, introduced legislation to repeal Israel’s “grandfather clause,” which qualifies for Israeli citizenship anyone with a Jewish grandparent.
👮 National Guard: The Israeli government yesterday approved yesterday the formation of a national guard, which will be headed by National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who was promised that the new body would be established in exchange for his support of the freeze of the judicial reform legislation.
💵 Money Trail: The Washington Post challenges a story about Russian President Vladimir Putin having bought a former teacher of his an apartment in Tel Aviv, reporting on newly obtained financial records that show that the property was purchased by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich.
🛥️ Iran Alert: An Iranian state-run media agency reports that the Iranian navy warned off a U.S. reconnaissance plane near the Gulf of Oman.
☢️ Saudi Sights: The New York Timeslooks at Saudi engagement with the U.S. and China in Riyadh’s ongoing efforts to attain nuclear power.
🛢️ New Cuts: A group of oil producers — led by Riyadh — announced it plans to cut production of oil by more than a million barrels a day beginning next month.
👶 Mazal Tov: Tehran’s Jewish community celebrated three brit milahs yesterday, conducted by Chief Rabbi of Iran Yehuda Gerami.
🕯️ Remembering: Seymour Stein, entrepreneur and music mogul who discovered Madonna, died at 80. Songwriter Keith Reid, whose lyrics for rock band Procol Harum included “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” died at 76.
Pic of the Day
United Arab Emirates Ambassador to the U.S. Yousef Al Otaiba and the UAE Embassy hosted the sixth annual Interfaith Iftar last week for nearly 100 guests on Thursday evening in Washington, D.C.
Speaking at the event, Abdulla Al Shehhi, the director of the Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi, said that the interfaith complex “is the living embodiment of the UAE’s values of peaceful coexistence and mutual respect. It is the home of three distinct and vibrant faith communities, and a place for discovery and dialogue for people of all faiths and none.”
Notable guests in attendance from the U.S. government included special envoy on antisemitism Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL), Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Rashad Hussain, White House Jewish Liaison Shelley Greenspan, Deputy Special Envoy Aaron Keyak and the State Department’s Ludovic Hood.
Pic of the Day
Jewish Insider’s wine columnist Yitz Applbaum previews wines for this year’s Seder table.
“I apologize to my faithful readers: I have been a bit too busy to deliver my regular wine column the past few weeks. But I could not fathom missing my yearly Pesach recommendations – the eight cups of the Seder. Four cups we drink in the service of God, and four cups we drink to celebrate the remarkable Pesach meal we will be feasting on.
The first cup is the Odem Mountain Forest Red Blend 2021. This blend of cabernet, syrah and nebbiolo opens with soft notes of strawberry and leads to a mid-palate of cantaloupe juice. The finish will take the edge off of the seder and is meaty enough not to require any food.
The second glass is the Jezreel Alfa Special Reserve 2018. This wine is a blend of syrah, argaman (offspring of souzão and carignan) and cabernet. It has a very Middle Eastern flavor that engulfs your entire mouth. There are strong tannins in the mid-palate and the finish is of a Moroccan tannery.
The third becher of wine must be the 2018 Nevo Petit Verdot. It has a monolithic mouth feel from start to finish, and the tannins mellow after your third sip.
The fourth and final goblet should be filled to the brim with 2019 Yarden Cabernet. I love the simplicity and complexity of this wine all wrapped into one great bottle. It opens with big berries which turn to muscular, spicy, dark raspberry in the middle palate and heavy French oaked dark chocolate cradling your palate on the finish. This wine will have you singing “next year in Jerusalem!”
Freelance director and journalist, his debut film is based on his four years reporting inside the alt-right movement, Daniel Lombroso turns 30…
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author who held a series of posts at The New York Times from 1952 until 2000, including eight years as executive editor, Max Frankel turns 93… Democratic political strategist, Gina Glantz turns 80… Member of the Los Angeles City Council until four months ago, he was previously a three-term member of the California State Assembly, Paul Koretz turns 68… Dean at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University and a contributing editor of The Atlantic, Eliot A. Cohen turns 67… Singer, songwriter and music producer, Craig Reid Taubman turns 65… Jazz pianist, arranger and composer, James Gelfand turns 64… Rabbi, author, speaker and dean at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, Bradley Shavit Artson turns 64… CEO of Phase 2 Media and former Chairman of the Fox Television Entertainment Group, Sandy Grushow turns 63… President and CEO of MLB’s Toronto Blue Jays, Mark Shapiro turns 56… Defense attorney and CNN commentator, he has represented four U.S. governors facing impeachment proceedings, Ross H. Garber turns 56… Associate justice of the Washington State Supreme Court, Raquel Montoya-Lewis turns 55… Member of the Knesset for the National Unity party, Ze’ev Elkin turns 52… Executive director of public affairs at Jewish United Fund – Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, Daniel Goldwin… Award-winning Israeli classical pianist who currently lives in NYC, Ran Dank turns 41… Israeli screen, stage and television actress, Dana Ivgy turns 41… NYC-based independent filmmaker, who, together with his younger brother Benjamin, directed and wrote the 2019 film Uncut Gems starring Adam Sandler, Joshua Safdie turns 39… Television and film actress, Amanda Bynes turns 37… Actress, comedian, singer, writer, producer and songwriter, Rachel Bloom turns 36… Professional tennis player currently on the WTA Tour, Madison Brengle turns 33… Product marketing, developer experience at Square, Eva Sasson… Harry Zieve Cohen… Junior at Emory, Zach Pearlstone… Washington correspondent for Israel’s public broadcasting corporation, Nathan Guttman…