Progressive reps push antisemitism definitions that allow for increased criticism of Israel

A group of progressive House Democrats plans to encourage Secretary of State Tony Blinken to consider alternatives to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of antisemitism, suggesting two definitions that allow for broader criticism of Israel. 

A draft of a letter to Blinken obtained by Jewish Insider, which is being led by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), and has been signed by Reps. Mark Pocan (D-WI), Andy Levin (D-MI), Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), urges Blinken to “consider multiple definitions of antisemitism, including two new definitions that have been formulated and embraced by the Jewish community,” pointing to the Nexus Document and the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism.

The IHRA definition, first developed in the mid-aughts by a collective of government officials and subject experts, was used as guidance by successive Republican and Democratic administrations dating back to the George W. Bush administration, and codified by a 2019 executive order from former President Donald Trump. The push to codify the definition was born out of a 2014 meeting in then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-NV) office.

While there is some overlap between the two more recent definitions and the IHRA working definition of antisemitism — which has been adopted by dozens of countries, many of them European — both the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, a majority of whose signatories are academics, and the Nexus Document, which was authored by U.S.-based academics, allow more space for criticism of Israel. The Jerusalem Declaration describes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement as “not, in and of themselves, antisemitic.”

The Nexus Document pushes back on the idea — included in some of the IHRA definition’s associated examples — that applying double standards to Israel is inherently antisemitic. The Nexus Document argues instead that “paying disproportionate attention to Israel and treating Israel differently than other countries is not prima facie proof of anti-Semitism” and that “there are numerous reasons for devoting special attention to Israel and treating Israel differently.” The Jerusalem Declaration similarly argues that boycotts of Israel are not inherently antisemitic.

“While the IHRA definition can be informative, in order to most effectively combat antisemitism, we should use all of the best tools at our disposal,” the letter argues. The letter will remain open for signatures until Tuesday.

Left-wing Jewish groups, including J Street, have been vocal about their concerns with the IHRA definition.

Abe Foxman, the former director of the Anti-Defamation League who led the organization while the IHRA definition was being developed, argued that this criticism stems from disagreements with Israeli policy, rather than legitimate issues with the IHRA definition itself.

“The common denominator of all the groups who don’t like the current definition are groups that have issues with Israel,” Foxman said. “[The IHRA definition] included a new dimension of antisemitism which was anti-Israel and anti-Zionism because in the last 20 years or so, antisemitism metastasized to use Israel as a euphemism for attacking Jews.”

In a letter to the American Zionist Movement in February, Blinken said that the Biden administration “enthusiastically embraces” the IHRA definition, indicating that efforts to implement alternative definitions may struggle to gain traction at the State Department. 

Foxman told JI that he is concerned that considering other definitions of antisemitism, as Schakowsky’s letter urges, would “water down” the State Department’s efforts to fight antisemitism and could also lead the range of other governments and private institutions that have adopted the IHRA definition to reconsider doing so.

Other House Democrats have defended the IHRA definition in the past and its adoption by the federal government. In a 2019 Times of Israel op-ed, Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) urged the government to adopt the IHRA definition as “an important tool to guide our government’s response to antisemitism.”

“Opponents of this definition argue that it would encroach on Americans’ right to freedom of speech,” Deutch wrote. “But this definition was drafted not to regulate free speech or punish people for expressing their beliefs, however hateful they may be. It would not suddenly make it illegal to tweet denial of the Holocaust or go on television accusing Jews of being more loyal to Israel than the United States. But it would identify those views as anti-Semitic.”

In January, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations adopted the IHRA definition, and it has the support of major mainstream Jewish organizations including the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League.

Read the full text of the letter here:

Dear Secretary Blinken:

We write to thank you and the entire Biden Administration for your commitment to fighting against the rising threat of antisemitism, both globally, and here in the United States. We applaud your prioritization of combatting this ancient hatred. In carrying out this critical work, we urge you to consider multiple definitions of antisemitism, including two new definitions that have been formulated and embraced by the Jewish community.

In 2016, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), of which the United States is a member, adopted a non-legally binding definition of antisemitism. The Department of State began using this working definition at this time. In September of 2018, the Trump Administration announced that it was expanding the use of the IHRA definition to the Department of Education. This was followed by the 2019 “White House Executive Order on Combatting Antisemitism” that formally directed federal agencies to consider the IHRA working definition and contemporary examples of antisemitism in enforcing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

While the IHRA definition can be informative, in order to most effectively combat antisemitism, we should use all of the best tools at our disposal. Recently, two new definitions have been introduced that can and should be equally considered by the State Department and the entire Administration. The first is the Nexus Document, drafted by the Nexus Task Force, “which examines the issues at the nexus of antisemitism and Israel in American politics.” The Task Force is a project of the Knight Program on Media and Religion at the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism at USC. The definition is designed as a guide for policymakers and community leaders as they grapple with the complexities at the intersection of Israel and antisemitism.

Another valuable resource is the recently released Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA).  The JDA is a tool to identify, confront and raise awareness about antisemitism as it manifests in countries around the world today. It includes a preamble, definition, and a set of 15 guidelines that provide detailed guidance for those seeking to recognize antisemitism in order to craft responses. It was developed by a group of scholars in the fields of Holocaust history, Jewish studies, and Middle East studies to meet what has become a growing challenge: providing clear guidance to identify and fight antisemitism while protecting free expression.

These two efforts are the work of hundreds of scholars and experts in the fields of antisemitism, Israel and Middle East Policy, and Jewish communal affairs, and have been helpful to us as we grapple with these complex issues. We believe that the Administration should, in addition to the IHRA definition, consider these two important documents as resources to help guide your thinking and actions when addressing issues of combatting antisemitism.

Once again, we thank you and President Biden for prioritizing this important matter and urge you to use all tools at your disposal to combat the threat of antisemitism.

Israelis expect a different approach from the Biden administration

Former Israeli defense officials offered differing views of the incoming Biden administration’s top Middle East priorities this week. Former Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon celebrated the former vice president’s victory, while former Defense Minister Naftali Bennett praised President Donald Trump for his work in the region and expressed hope that President-elect Joe Biden’s administration will chart a different course from previous Democratic administrations.

Bennett said the outgoing Trump administration “was simply outstanding in so many dimensions of support of Israel,” highlighting the U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem; the killing earlier this year of Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force; and the maximum pressure campaign on Iran. 

For Ayalon, Biden’s election and the selection of his national security team are a welcome moment for the security and future of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. 

In a recent interview with Jewish Insider, Ayalon emphasized that the Biden administration’s emphasis on diplomacy will prioritize both resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as part of a broad initiative to move forward with advancing peace and countering Iran’s efforts to destabilize the region. 

“Israel will not be safe, it will not be a Jewish democracy, unless we come to an agreement with the Palestinians,” posited Ayalon, who co-founded the Israeli NGO Blue White Future in 2009 to push for a negotiated peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. “I believe that in order to create this Sunni coalition as a future basis to confront Iran and create more stability in the region, we have to come to an agreement with the Palestinians.” 

Ayalon suggested that while Israelis appreciated Trump’s support of Israel, the foreign policy team Biden has assembled will gauge Israeli concerns about a return to the Obama administration’s approach to the conflict, which was perceived by Israeli leadership at the time as aggressive and somewhat hostile. “Even if they are the same people [who served in the Obama administration], they are older and they are much more experienced,” he stressed.

Israeli leaders may also be more willing to consider peace process concessions depending on the next administration’s approach to Iran, Ayalon said. “If Israelis will feel that [a two-state solution] is the price that Israel will have to pay in order to remove the Iranian threat, a majority will support it,” he suggested. 

Bennett expressed different expectations from the Biden administration. In a Zoom call hosted by the Zionist Organization of America on Wednesday, Bennett — whose party, Yamina, is polling in second place behind its right-wing rival Likud — projected that the Biden administration will learn from the mistakes of the past and take a different approach that will be more acceptable to the nationalist camp. 

“The other path has been taken so many times and failed so many times, and brought immense damage and suffering on the region,” Bennett asserted. “There is a price to pay for failed so-called peace attempts — usually it ends up with another round of violence and people die. And I think the incoming administration is very experienced. They’ve been there, seen that, done that. I’m not ignoring the well-known opinions, but I do think that we need to sit down and think thoroughly about how to manage the disagreements that we might have.” 

It is unlikely that U.S.-Israel ties will be as strained as they were during the Obama administration, Bennett said, explaining that the peace process is likely to be “far down the list” of Biden’s priorities. Bennett also expressed hope that “stopping Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon does not become a partisan issue” in the U.S.

The former defense minister predicted that as more Arab countries express willingness to normalize relations with Israel, the paradigm of first resolving the Palestinian issue will become irrelevant. “I’ve always said that I’m okay with ‘land for peace’ — we are willing to accept land for peace from anyone who wants to provide us [with land],” Bennett quipped, adding, that “more seriously, the notion of ‘land for peace’ is crazy, and certainly, this will be one of the issues that we’re going to have to address.” 

Jewish groups lay out priorities for Biden administration, next Congress

As President-elect Joe Biden’s cabinet shapes up and the final few days of the 116th Congress tick by, national Jewish and pro-Israel groups are planning out their agendas for the next administration and new Congress.

Priorities and approaches, laid out in a series of interviews with Jewish Insider, vary from group to group, but frequent themes for at least three — including J Street, the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Federations of North America — unsurprisingly include diplomacy with Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and tackling domestic antisemitism.

Some of the organizations, like JFNA, have communicated with Biden’s transition team in the weeks following the election. The group laid out a detailed set of priorities in a memo to Biden’s transition team, according to Elana Broitman, JFNA’s senior vice president for public affairs, that fall into several categories including COVID relief, increasing nonprofit security funding and fighting antisemitism. Broitman added that the organization is pushing legislators to codify the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of antisemitism, prioritize healthcare and increase efforts to support Holocaust survivors.

J Street’s policy agenda includes reentering the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and deescalating military tensions, rolling back Trump administration actions the organization sees as antithetical to Israeli-Palestinian peace, opposing annexation and settlement expansion and otherwise promoting peace.

Dylan Williams, J Street’s senior vice president for policy and strategy, told JI the Biden administration should take a number of major early steps toward peace, including reestablishing a separate consulate in Jerusalem to serve Palestinians, reissuing State Department guidance on discussing settlements and reinstating and expanding humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, including through the U.N. agency tasked with working with Palestinians.

Williams added that the organization has urged Palestinian leadership to “take advantage of the opportunity that this new administration provides” and change its policy of paying Palestinian prisoners jailed for terrorist activities — something the Palestinian Authority is reportedly working toward.

“I think that you will see a vast amount of opportunity for improvements in U.S.-Palestinian relations, in the event that Palestinian leadership follows through on those discussions,” he added.

In the longer term, Williams argued that Congress will be critical in pushing back against “deepening occupation and creeping annexation,” and called for legislators to investigate the Trump administration’s efforts to “blur the distinction between Israel and the settlements,” introducing new measures to clarify that distinction and conducting oversight of how Israel is using American aid.

J Street communications director Logan Bayroff added that he’s hopeful the Biden transition team and Congress will signal their commitment to re-entering the Iran deal to counter what he described as the Trump administration’s efforts to foreclose the possibility of diplomacy with Iran.

“Trump’s trying to start a lot of fires and deliberately trying to provoke the Iranians into saying, ‘Well, we can’t work with any American administration,’” Bayroff said.

The American Jewish Committee, which opposed the JCPOA in 2015, is taking a more restrained approach. “We had grave concerns about the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” said Jason Isaacson, the group’s chief policy and political affairs officer. “We will be urging the Biden administration to work in close coordination with our European and Middle East allies.”

The group — in contrast with J Street — will encourage the administration not to “remove from the U.S. negotiating arsenal the leverage that exists because of the sanctions imposed under President Trump,” Isaacson added.

AJC intends to focus on two pieces of legislation it supported during the current session of Congress in the event that they do not pass this year: the Jabara-Heyer NO HATE Act and the Partnership for Peace Act.

AIPAC declined to discuss its policy agenda until it announces its priorities for the new Congress next year, but spokesman Marshall Wittmann said: “We look forward to working with the incoming administration and Congress on an agenda of further strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship and advancing our mutual interests in the region.”

Each group will also have to contend with a potentially divided Congress, should Democrats not sweep January’s Senate run-offs, and a shrunken Democratic majority in the House, which will likely create hurdles for lawmaking on a range of issues.

While Williams was not optimistic about the possibility of bipartisan compromise, he noted that a divided Congress is “a situation we’ve been in for some time.”  

“I can’t point to anything that we’re not pushing for anymore, just because the Senate doesn’t happen to be held by Democrats,” he added.

Leaders from AJC and JFNA highlighted their groups’ abilities to work with both Republicans and Democrats.

“AJC has always been an organization that values nonpartisanship, that worked with members of Congress from both sides, administrations of both parties, that hews to the center representing the broad mainstream of the American Jewish community,” Isaacson said. “I believe that in the center lie solutions to many of the problems we’re discussing.”

“We’ve been in the business of advocacy on issues of concern to our community for more than a century… We have found ways over the years to work with leaders on both sides of the Hill and both sides of the aisle,” Isaacson continued. “I believe the message from the voters is stop playing games. Try solutions.”

JFNA President Eric Fingerhut said his organization is in a similar position.

“Our strength is in bipartisan work,” he said, noting JFNA’s longstanding relationships with officials in Washington and among state and local legislators.

“This is, I think, the moment when the longstanding work of our community to build relationships on all sides comes to fruition,” Fingerhut said. “We’re in a very strong position to put forward the priorities of the Jewish community… We have leaders who are on both sides of the aisle, and we’ve always had that.” 

House letter raises concerns about Israeli demolition of Bedouin settlement

A letter sent by several dozen congressional Democrats to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week raises concerns about the Israeli government’s demolition of a Palestinian Bedouin community earlier this month.

The Israeli government demolished the Khirbet Humsah village in the West Bank, displacing 73 Palestinians, in early November. The Israeli military claimed the settlement was illegally constructed in a firing range in the Jordan Valley.

The letter, spearheaded by Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) urges Pompeo, who is visiting Israel this week, to communicate U.S. disapproval of the demolition to the Israeli government, and push the Israeli government to cease similar actions going forward.

The letter — which describes the demolition as “a serious violation of international law” and a “grave humanitarian issue” — also requests information on whether Israel used military equipment it received from the U.S. in the demolition.

Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA), one of the letter’s signatories, told Jewish Insider he signed on because he sees the Israeli government’s actions as impediments to peace.

“I think these Israeli demolitions bring us further away from a two-state solution at a time when we need to see both sides moving in the opposite and more peaceful direction,” Lowenthal said. “We do not believe the U.S. should support, directly or indirectly, any action which undermines a two-state solution.”

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) characterized Pompeo’s failure to address the demolitions as particularly concerning given his upcoming visit to a West Bank settlement.

“For the secretary of state to visit the West Bank without even acknowledging the home demolitions, that’s counter to American values and our framework for a two state solution,” Khanna said. “The only way we’ll make progress in the region is by standing up for both Israel’s security and the human rights of Palestinians.”

Other notable signatories include Reps. Joaquín Castro (D-TX) — a candidate for the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairmanship — Debbie Dingell (D-MI), Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and Nydia Velázquez (D-NY).

Obama: Netanyahu paints himself as ‘chief defender’ of Jews to justify political moves

In a new book looking back at his eight years in the White House, former President Barack Obama details his sometimes turbulent relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu going back to 2009, when both world leaders took office. A Promised Land, the first of two memoirs the former president is writing about his time in office, is set to be released on Tuesday. 

Obama describes Netanyahu as “smart, canny, tough and a gifted communicator” who could be “charming, or at least solicitous” when it benefited him, Obama writes in the book, a copy of which was reviewed in advance by Jewish Insider.

Obama points to a conversation the pair had in a Chicago airport lounge in 2005, shortly after Obama was elected to the Senate, in which Netanyahu was “lavishing praise” on him for “an inconsequential pro-Israel bill” the newly elected senator had supported when he served in the Illinois state legislature. But when it came to policy disagreements, Obama observed, Netanyahu was able to use his familiarity with U.S. politics and media to push back against efforts by his administration.

Netanyahu’s “vision of himself as the chief defender of the Jewish people against calamity allowed him to justify almost anything that would keep him in power,” Obama wrote.

The former president writes that his chief of staff at the time, former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, warned him when he took office, “You don’t get progress on peace when the American president and the Israeli prime minister come from different political backgrounds.” Obama said he began to understand that perspective as he spent time with Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. 

Looking back, Obama wrote, he sometimes wondered whether “things might have played out differently” if there was a different president in the Oval Office, if someone other than Netanyahu represented Israel and if Abbas had been younger. 

In the book, the former president also grumbles about the treatment he received from leaders of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), who questioned his policies on Israel. Obama wrote that as Israeli politics moved to the right, AIPAC’s broad policy positions shifted accordingly, “even when Israel took actions that were contrary to U.S. policy” and that lawmakers and candidates who “criticized Israel policy too loudly risked being tagged as ‘anti-Israel’ (and possibly anti-Semitic) and [were] confronted with a well-funded opponent in the next election.” 

Obama writes that he was “on the receiving end” of a “whisper campaign” that portrayed him as being “insufficiently supportive — or even hostile toward — Israel” during his 2008 presidential run. “On Election Day, I’d end up getting more than 70 percent of the Jewish vote, but as far as many AIPAC board members were concerned, I remained suspect, a man of divided loyalties; someone whose support for Israel, as one of [David Axelrod’s] friends colorfully put it, wasn’t ‘felt in his kishkes’ — ‘guts,’ in Yiddish.” 

Obama wrote that former deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes, who worked as a speechwriter for the 2008 campaign, told him that the attacks against him were a result of him being “a Black man with a Muslim name who lived in the same neighborhood as Louis Farrakhan and went to Jeremia Wright’s church” and not based on his policy views that were aligned with the positions of other political candidates. 

The former president writes that while in college, he was intrigued by the influence of Jewish philosophers on the civil rights movement. He noted that some of his “most stalwart friends and supporters” came from the Chicago’s Jewish community and that he had admired how Jewish voters “tended to be more progressive” on issues than any other“ethnic group. Obama writes that a feeling of being bound to the Jewish community by “a common story of exile and suffering” made him “fiercely protective” of the rights of the Jewish people to have a state of their own, though these values also made it “impossible to ignore the conditions under which Palestinians in the occupied territories were forced to live.”

President Barack Obama talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel in the Oval Office Monday, May 18, 2009.

According to Obama, while Republican lawmakers cared less about the right of Palestinians to have a state of their own, Democratic members of Congress — who represented districts with sizable Jewish populations — were reluctant to speak out about the matter because they were “worried” about losing support from AIPAC’s key supporters and donors and imperiling their reelection chances. 

In the memoir, Obama recalled his visit to the Western Wall as a presidential candidate in the summer of 2008 and the publication of the prayer note he stuffed into the cracks of the wall by an Israeli newspaper. The episode was a reminder of the price that came with stepping onto the world stage, he wrote. “Get used to it, I told myself. It’s part of the deal.”

The book provides an inside look into the political jockeying between the Israeli government and the administration over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Obama maintains that he thought it was “reasonable” to ask for Israel, which he viewed as the “stronger party,” to take a “bigger first step” and freeze settlements in the West Bank. But “as expected,” Netanyahu’s response was “sharply negative.” That was followed by an aggressive pressure campaign by the prime minister’s allies in Washington. 

“The White House phones started ringing off the hook,” Obama recounts, as his national security team fielded calls from lawmakers, Jewish leaders and reporters “wondering why we were picking on Israel.” He wrote that Rhodes once arrived late for a staff meeting “looking particularly harried” after a lengthy phone call with a “highly agitated” liberal Democratic congressman who pushed back against the administration’s attempt to stop settlement activity. 

Obama accused Netanyahu of an “orchestrated” effort to put his administration on the defensive, “reminding me that normal policy differences with an Israeli prime minister exacted a domestic political cost” that didn’t exist in relations with other world leaders. 

In 2010, when Netanyahu visited Washington to attend the annual AIPAC policy conference, media reports claimed that Obama deliberately “snubbed” Netanyahu by walking out from a tense meeting and leaving the Israeli leader and his aides in the Roosevelt Room until they came up with a solution to the impasse in peace talks. 

But in the book, Obama insists he suggested to Netanyahu to “pause” their meeting and reconvene after he returned from a previously scheduled commitment. The discussion, the former president said, ran well over the allotted time, and “Netanyahu still had a few items he wanted to cover.” Netanyahu said “he was happy to wait,” Obama writes, and the second meeting ended on “cordial terms.” However, the next morning, Emanuel “stormed into” the Oval Office citing the media reports that he humiliated Netanyahu, “leading to accusations” that the president had allowed his personal feelings to damage the U.S.-Israel relationship. “That was a rare instance when I outcursed Rahm,” Obama writes, referencing Emanuel’s well-known use of profanity.

Danon warns Iran deal could test U.S.-Israel ties under Biden

As the Biden-Harris transition team begins to build out its incoming administration and speak with foreign leaders, Israeli political observers caution that an immediate return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran — while renegotiating the agreement’s terms — could put the Biden administration and the Israeli government on a collision course. 

“I believe that on most issues, we will be able to work with the new administration. But I think the key question is the Iranian issue,” former Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon said in an interview with Jewish Insider. “This is a crucial issue for Israel. We heard Joe Biden speak about re-entering the JCPOA with some amendments. And the question is how it will look at the end. If the U.S. returns to an agreement that will be similar to the [previous] agreement, it means that Israel will have to recalculate its approach regarding Iran.” 

Danon suggested that if a new Iran deal were to have the same outcome, just “with different titles,” Israel would be obligated to oppose the deal and “take the necessary steps to ensure Iran will never obtain nuclear capabilities.” 

The former Israeli diplomat, who is a member of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, said that Israel will have to “carefully” examine the Biden administration’s approach to the Middle East and engagement with international organizations as it shifts away from President Donald Trump’s policies. Danon, who represented Israel at the U.N. during the last year of former President Barack Obama’s second term and for most of Trump’s time in office, said that while he expects some changes to Israel’s standing at the U.N. — especially if the new administration rejoins the Human Rights Council and reinstates currently frozen U.S. funds to the U.N. body that supports Palestinian refugees — “I think we will still have the support of the U.S., but it will require more effort from our side.” 

Danon added that if Biden is “supportive of Israel, he will gain the trust and support of Israelis very fast.” 

Israeli author Yossi Klein Halevi suggested that the two sides will “inevitably come into conflict” over the Iranian issue, predicting a “tough fight” for Israel to keep the U.S. from returning to the terms of the 2015 deal. 

“The Palestinian issue is not going to cause a major rupture between Israel and America,” explained Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. “Biden isn’t Obama. He’s not going to go to war for a two-state solution. He is a seasoned enough politician to understand what Obama did not understand, which is that you don’t go for broke on an issue that you don’t have sufficient leverage on for both sides.” 

But on the Iranian threat, he argued, Israel has more leverage than it had in 2015. In the wake of the recently signed normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, Klein Halevi suggested, Israel now has “a shared strategic structure to confront the international community.” 

On Tuesday, Netanyahu pushed back against the notion that strained ties between Israel and the Democratic Party in recent years would undercut a good working relationship with the Biden administration. “What I see before my eyes is not Democrats and not Republicans. It is just the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said during a speech at the Knesset. “I am committed to stand behind the interests that are crucial to our future and our existence and this is how I will continue even with the next American administration.”

In his remarks, Netanyahu pointed to his decades-long relationship with Biden and the personal moments they shared “that are beyond politics and beyond diplomacy.”

The Israeli premier said that over the last four years, he has met with 134 Democratic members of Congress — of the 292 who have visited Israel since 2017 — including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), as well as Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. Netanyahu said the meetings occurred “because I believe that strengthening the bipartisan support for Israel is a basic foundation of our foreign policy.” 

Netanyahu noted that even amid tension with the Obama administration, Israel and the U.S. signed a record $38 billion memorandum of understanding of security assistance. “That’s how a prime minister in Israel must act,” he said. “Not by submitting or groveling and also not arrogantly but with the wisdom, courage, dignity of a person who fights for his people, for his land and for his country.”

Shimrit Meir, an Israeli analyst and commentator, told JI that Netanyahu’s defense “was mainly about domestic politics at the moment.” According to Meir, Netanyahu needs to position himself as “a strong experienced prime minister” who is able to handle relations with the U.S. regardless of which party controls the White House. 

Meir noted that while Netanyahu speaks perfect English, “I don’t think he speaks their language.” 

Klein Halevi concurred: “Bibi has burned most bridges with the Democrats.”

Rep. Brad Schneider introduces bipartisan resolution on Israel as F-35 deal looms

As the Trump administration reportedly nears a deal to sell F-35 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates, a group of Democratic and Republican members of Congress are reaffirming their commitment to Israel maintaining its qualitative military edge (QME).

On Friday, Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL) introduced a bill, with 17 cosponsors, reaffirming U.S. support for Israel’s QME and adding new requirements, including mandating the president consult with Israeli government officials before making any arms sales in the Middle East that could affect the QME. The bill’s cosponsors include Reps. Ted Deutch (D-FL), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL). Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA), who is vying for chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is also a cosponsor.

The bill would also require the president to submit an assessment to Congress of the impact such a deal would have on Israel’s QME within 60 days of notifying Congress of a Middle East arms deal. 

While Schneider’s bill does not specifically mention the F-35 sale to the UAE, he stressed to Jewish Insider that the issue was the impetus for the legislation.

“I thought it was important to reiterate that the United States has a commitment to ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge,” Schneider told JI. “God willing, there’ll be peace, not just with the UAE and Bahrain, but with all of Israel’s Arab neighbors. That doesn’t change the fact that Israel always needs to have that qualitative military advantage, because things change. Just look at Turkey.”

Although House Democrats have been more vocal in their opposition to the F-35 sale, Schneider believes that support for Israel remains bipartisan.

“I think that’s reflected in the fact that this was a bill introduced with Republican and Democratic support,” he said. “And I have no doubt that my Republican colleagues are just as committed to Israel’s security as my Democratic colleagues.”

Schneider added that he is concerned that an F-35 sale to the UAE would create a precedent and lead other Arab nations to seek the aircraft as well.

“We’ll look for the president to take whatever steps necessary to comply with the law and protect our ally,” Schneider said.

UAE chief rabbi: 10,000 Jews could soon live in gulf nation

United Arab Emirates Chief Rabbi Yehuda Sarna predicted during a Jewish Insider webcast yesterday that the small Jewish community in Dubai and Abu Dhabi could soon number in the thousands.

“It would not surprise me if in a number of years, if we’re not looking at 1,000 Jews in the UAE, but we’re looking at something closer to 10,000 — and we’re looking at hundreds of thousands of Israeli and Jewish tourists a year,” Sarna said.

When Sarna was named the inaugural chief rabbi of the UAE in March 2019, the announcement made waves around the world. But, said UAE Ambassador to the United Nations Lana Nusseibeh during the JI virtual event, the appointment marked an important moment in relations between Israel and the UAE, and more broadly, between Jews and Muslims across the globe. 

“I think what it demonstrated to colleagues at the U.N. is that this is what is at stake in our work every day in multilateral diplomacy and these agreements that we sign, that ultimately they are about the people-to-people connection,” Nusseibeh said.

Sarna first visited the UAE after New York University — where he has served as a university chaplain since 2002 — opened a campus in Abu Dhabi in 2008.

“When I received the invitation from [then NYU] President John Sexton to come to Abu Dhabi, truth is I’d never heard of it before, I could not have pointed to it on a map and knew nothing of its history or heritage,” Sarna admitted.

“From that first moment when I landed in the airport in Abu Dhabi and was just treated like everyone else, was treated with such a sense of welcoming and hospitality. But [what] it almost immediately did is it began pulling apart my own stereotypes. Even though I had been the one working to combat Islamophobia, nevertheless, there were still remnants, which I had to come to terms with on my own.”

And the recent UAE-Israel peace accord, Sarna said, will have a major global impact.

“I think what we’re looking at is really a tipping point in Muslim-Jewish relations worldwide,” Sarna added. “There is a tremendous, tremendous enthusiasm, curiosity, energy, excitement, about building out not just the political dimensions of the accord, but building out everything else that it’s giving a platform to.”

UAE Ambassador to the United Nations Lana Nusseibeh

Nusseibeh agreed, telling the webcast: “I don’t find it surprising that I spent Yom Kippur yesterday speaking to a synagogue in Rye, [New York].”

Both panelists agreed that the normalization process could serve as a model for future relationships in the region.

“Our foreign minister announced today that we would be seeking election to the U.N. Security Council, the highest body for peace and security,” Nusseibeh shared. “The vote will happen in June next year. And I think it’s an opportunity for us to demonstrate everything that we have been discussing here today about our model, our perspective for the region, a perspective of openness, tolerance, integration, working to find regional solutions.”

Beyond the political and cultural impacts of the normalization agreement, both Nusseibeh and Sarna expressed optimism for the economic opportunities afforded by the normalization of two growing economies. 

“Jews who are living in the UAE came, for the most part, because they feel safe there. And for economic opportunity, whether they’re coming from Europe or South Africa, or the United States, or Canada, or Syria, or Lebanon or Tunisia,” Sarna explained. “With rising antisemitism in several countries, and with economies in certain countries not being as strong, they felt like there was opportunity.”

Nusseibeh echoed that sentiment. “I think, on the people-to-people level, everyone is looking for the opportunities for growth,” she said. “We understand we have a massive youth demographic, we need to provide opportunities for that youth demographic around our region. And we’re looking at ways to innovate startups, AI, and all these other industries.”

“What struck me is that while we’re witnessing a moment and an opportunity,” she continued, “we’re also taking on a responsibility, all of us who witnessed that, who supported that, who thought it was the right step for the region. And I think that responsibility is to make this work, to realize this vision for peace in our region.”

Sarna shared with the webcast that he spent Rosh Hashanah in Abu Dhabi this year. He said he met Israelis who had already moved to the UAE in the weeks since the Abraham Accords were announced. And he believes the free movement between the countries will have a long-lasting effect.

“I think one unforeseen consequence of this is that a deeper engagement between Israelis and Emiratis will actually challenge, for many Israelis, their notion of what does it mean to be Arab,” Sarna concluded. “And I think that will very much have a bit of a moderating effect on the Israeli political spectrum.”

UAE’s Al Otaiba goes behind the scenes of the Abraham Accords

United Arab Emirates Ambassador to the United States Yousef Al Otaiba on Tuesday hailed the Trump administration for working to finalize a normalization agreement between the UAE and Israel, which he said came as a result of Emirati efforts to halt Israel’s planned annexation of parts of the West Bank.

During a Jewish Insider webcast alongside Israeli-American businessman Haim Saban — moderated by former White House deputy national security advisor Dina Powell McCormick — Al Otaiba described the behind-the-scenes efforts that culminated in the groundbreaking Abraham Accords.

One of the first steps in the process, Al Otaiba said, came when he asked Saban to help him publish an op-ed aimed at the Israeli public during the time that annexation was being considered. “Haim told me where it should be placed, when it should be placed and, the most important piece of advice on this was, you have to do it in Hebrew,” the ambassador said. “If you really want to speak to the Israelis, it has to be translated in Hebrew.”

“I remember a subsequent conversation with [Saban], asking, ‘Hey, do you think this article made an impact?’” Al Otaiba recalled. “He started laughing at me, like laughing loudly. He’s like, ‘You have no idea how much impact this article had.’ And it was shortly after the article we then started thinking of actual concrete ideas to avoid annexation.”

Al Otaiba said he remembered “having a really serious conversation with [White House Mideast peace envoy] Avi Berkowitz on July 2, right after he returned from Israel, and figuring out what we can do to prevent [annexation], how do we trade this? How do we give something better?”

The deal, which was formally signed earlier this month during a ceremony on the White House South Lawn, jump-started the normalization of relations between the two countries in exchange for Israel’s commitment to shelve a planned annexation of West Bank territory.

The panelists noted that while the threat of annexation may have brought the sides to the negotiating table, there was little doubt that the larger threat posed by Iran was also a driving force. “There is no question that when you have a common enemy that is, basically, a cancer in the region, you unite forces against that enemy,” remarked Saban, who explained that “people have realized that there is much more upside, aligning with Israel, and forming a front against Iran.”

Both Saban and Al Otaiba credited U.S. leadership for helping to manage the negotiation process and deliver on the agreements. “I think the United States government came through every single time,” Al Otaiba said. “And that’s the reason we had the signing ceremony two weeks ago at the White House.”

The Emirati ambassador lauded Berkowitz, Jared Kushner and Brig. Gen. Miguel Correa for their efforts. “I spoke and talked to them and met with them, probably more in that four weeks than I did with anybody else, including my own family. If it wasn’t for them, I’m not sure this deal would be done,” Al Otaiba said, adding: “for anything like this to happen, it takes an incredible amount of trust.”

Saban, a longtime donor to Democratic candidates and causes, including the presidential campaign of former Vice President Joe Biden, also praised Kushner, Al Otaiba, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin Zayed, Emirati Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Zayed and Mossad director Yossi Cohen for paving the way for the deal. The Israeli-American businessman called the agreement “game-changing,” explaining: “There was no precedent for public commitment to normalization… Israelis would give their right arm to have peace with all its Arab neighbors.”

Al Otaiba echoed a similar interest in bilateral peace on the Emirati side, telling the webcast: “People always think we do not pay attention to public opinion inside the Emirates because we’re not a democracy. And it’s actually quite the opposite. Because we’re not a democracy, we have to be very in tune with what our people want, and what the streets feel. And people really wanted this. This is not something that we are forcing against the popular will of the parties that live in the country. There is a genuine energy, that people are excited about this.”

The three participants also sought to emphasize the economic benefits of the recent agreement.

Powell McCormick, who serves on Goldman Sachs’s management committee, noted that “we’re already having clients call us and ask about investment opportunities.”

Al Otaiba said he thinks “people forget about the immediate benefits that we’re going to have once you have direct commercial flights and tourism, about trade, investment, research, development, COVID research.” The ambassador added: “It is not a coincidence that when Jared Kushner came from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi on that historic flight, the first set of MOUs that we submitted to the United States to get done were on consular affairs, civil aviation, trade, prevention of double taxation, protection of investments — what we feel is the foundation, the infrastructure for any healthy relationship, so we can have mutual wins, so you can have trade investment R&D.”

Saban said at least five Israeli entrepreneurs have reached out to him with ideas to invest in the UAE. “Even my chief investment officer and the head of my VC division, they came to me and they said, ‘We have an idea that we can do with the Emiratis.’”

Al Otaiba noted how much has already occurred in just the few weeks since the accord was announced.

“We’ve already seen MOUs on AI, on COVID research, on health care and just today, a very prominent soccer club in Dubai bought an Israeli soccer player,” he noted. “Once an Emirati investor feels that he can invest in Israel safely, and an Israeli investor feels that he can invest in the UAE safely and not get taxed twice… I think the stars are the limit.”

UAE Ambassadors Yousef Al Otaiba and Lana Nusseibeh to join a JI webcast on peace

Following the historic signing of the Abraham Accords earlier this week, Jewish Insider will be hosting a pair of back-to-back panel discussions featuring leaders from the United Arab Emirates in conversation with other top JI readers. 

On September 29 at 1 p.m. ET, hear from Ambassador of the United Arab Emirates Yousef Al Otaiba in conversation with business leader Haim Saban and Dina Powell McCormick, the former U.S. deputy national security director, on how the peace agreement between Israel and the UAE came to be. 

Al Otaiba has met with a number of Jewish organizations in recent weeks, including several in the last few days, but this event will be his first public conversation with a largely Jewish audience. Saban, a close friend of Al Otaiba and UAE Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed, is credited with helping broker the normalization agreement between Israel and the UAE and encouraging Al Otaiba to write a groundbreaking op-ed in an Israeli newspaper earlier this year. 

Ambassador Lana Zaki Nusseibeh has served as the Emirates’ representative at the United Nations since 2013. Nusseibeh holds a masters degree in Israeli and Jewish Diaspora Studies from the University of London. Earlier this year, Nusseibeh addressed an American Jewish Committee webcast on combating the coronavirus. For this conversation, she’ll be joined by Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, the inaugural chief rabbi of the UAE, to discuss the growing relationship between the UAE and the Jewish community, both locally and around the world. 

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