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New Israel envoy shakes up US Jewish views

Read much more on the US Embassy move – will it or won’t it move? Apart from this piece, there are links to all other related JR Online offers. Readers can also follow a host of optional views – and comment on them too.

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Israel

RON KAMPEAS

Nearly six years ago, when US President Barack Obama was set to elevate one of his top emissaries to the Jewish community to the Israel ambassadorship, Dan Shapiro asked for – and got – the endorsement of one of Obama’s fiercest pro-Israel critics.

“Dan has always spoken to us, patiently and carefully explaining the administration’s position, and he does so with aplomb, with concern, and with intense appreciation of the other side’s position,” Morton Klein, the Zionist Organisation of America president, said at the time.

Don’t expect J Street, or the Reform movement – or, really, anyone on the liberal side of the pro-Israel spectrum – to extend that embrace to David Friedman, the bankruptcy lawyer who is one of President-elect Donald Trump’s top emissaries to the Jewish community and whom he nominated to be ambassador to Israel.

An “intense appreciation of the other side’s position” does not describe Friedman’s denigration of J Street as “not Jewish” and “worse than” Jewish collaborators with Nazis; his calling Obama “blatantly anti-Semitic”, and his lament that more than half of American Jews are not pro-Israel.

The nomination of Friedman has sent shock waves through a chunk of the organised Jewish community because of the signal it sends to the 71 per cent of American Jews who voted for Hillary Clinton: One of marginalisation, not of outreach.

While Friedman’s nomination was hailed by a hawkish but influential minority as a sign that Israel will get the US support it deserves, it possibly sidelines a pro-Israel mainstream that believes moderation best builds a pro-Israel consensus.

“We’re all trying to figure out how to navigate this administration,” said Jeremy Burton, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston. “But the notion that someone who would represent the United States would describe people as ‘not Jewish’ and ‘kapos’” – the Jews who collaborated with the Nazi death machine – “what does that say about respect for civil discourse and what does it say about temperament in a particularly volatile region?”

There are less than a handful of ambassadors who must navigate domestic constituencies as assiduously as they do their host countries, and are chosen with both audiences in mind. They include the envoys to Israel, Ireland and, occasionally, Greece and Italy.

American Jewish leaders have long expected a warm reception from their ambassador when their delegations pay a visit to Israel.

“It’s a very multifaceted position, they do a lot of outreach to Jewish communities in the United States,” Ron Halber, the director of the Jewish Community relations Council of Greater Washington, said of ambassadors to Israel.

“It’s more than diplomatic, it’s symbolic. I’m concerned that symbol could be tarnished by someone who has staked out extreme ideological positions on internal Israeli matters.”

Those positions include a rejection of the two-state solution and unchecked expansion of the settlements – the former counter to the stated position of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the latter also a challenge to longstanding US and international policy.
Friedman did not return a request for comment.

A range of liberal Jewish groups have already denounced Friedman, citing his online history thick with broadsides against liberals, many appearing on the pro-settlement Israeli news site, Israel National News, as well as his extensive fundraising for the settlement movement.

Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat New York, a Jewish congressman known for his close ties to the organised community, said in a statement that Friedman’s “extreme views and use of such hateful language is an insult to the majority of American Jews”.

J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group, joined a number of groups in pledging to do its best to keep the Senate from confirming Friedman. “Friedman should be beyond the pale for senators considering who should represent the United States in Israel,” the group said in a statement last week.

The New Israel Fund launched a fundraising appeal on Monday based on what they called Trump’s “dangerous” nomination of Friedman.

Hawkish Jewish groups have welcomed the appointment, most pronouncedly Klein’s ZOA. It said Friedman “has the potential to be the greatest US Ambassador to Israel ever”.

In an interview, Klein said he stood by his 2011 endorsement of Shapiro, who strove to reach out to right-wing Jews in the United States and hard-liners in Israel as a staffer on Obama’s National Security Council and then as ambassador.

“I said I found Shapiro to be a person of integrity,” Klein said. “That’s true of Dan and it’s true of David Friedman.”

Friedman was reported to have said earlier this month at an off-the-record segment of the annual Saban Forum colloquy of US and Israeli influencers that were he to become ambassador, he would not take meetings with J Street.

“He’s not there to represent the views of most Jews,” Klein said of Friedman, although he said he believed that Friedman’s support for moving the embassy to Jerusalem and for settlement expansion was representative of the Jewish community.

Klein said he would not use “kapos” to describe J Street, which opposes settlement expansion and advocates for an assertive US posture in bringing about a two-state solution, but he understood how Friedman might have done so out of “anguish and misery”.

The Union for Reform Judaism stopped short of saying it would oppose Friedman, but expressed concerns about his statements and his rejection for the two-state solution.

In an interview, URJ President Rick Jacobs said that the Reform movement has relied on US administrations to represent to Israel, through their ambassadors, the broad range of American Jewish opinion.

An ambassador who represented only one segment of the Jewish community would diminish attachment to Israel among Jews already unsettled by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s settlement policies, and by exclusion of non-Orthodox groups from civil matters like marriage and divorce, he said.

“Our larger project has been to keep people connected to Israel,” Jacobs said of the URJ. “We may be seeing a series of policy shifts” under Trump “that make it harder for non-Orthodox Jews to see Israel as a place they love.”

Larger groups were treading carefully around the nomination. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, in response to a JTA request for comment, stuck to its longstanding position of not pronouncing on nominees. The Anti-Defamation League was also not forthcoming.

The American Jewish Committee said in a statement that it was noteworthy that nominating a Jew for the job no longer raised hackles (that’s been the case for close to three decades) and that it wanted to know more about what picking Friedman said about Trump’s Israel policies.

“We shall be eager to understand Trump Administration policy regarding the special US-Israel bilateral link, as well as the quest for a two-state Israeli-Palestinian accord – which AJC continues to believe is the only tenable solution to the conflict – and, of course, the larger regional context in which Israel lives,” the AJC said.

Nathan Diament, the Washington director of the Orthodox Union, said in reply to a JTA query that Friedman was representative of the minority of Jews (and a majority in his community) who voted for Trump.

“Trump’s selection of David Friedman to be his Administration’s ambassador to Israel is consistent with the policy view Trump expressed during the campaign and consistent with the view of most of those American Jews who actually voted for Trump for president,” he said.

Burton, whose Boston JCRC called on Friedman to apologise for his past remarks, said that it was key for Jews who object to Friedman not to be drawn into the polarising invective that characterised Friedman’s writings in the past.

“We have to acknowledge that some members of our community are optimistic about the next administration,” he said, noting parts of Trump’s Israel message that should please most Jews, including his expressions of friendship to the country and his desire for peace. “We do ourselves a disservice collectively if we are in the black or white zone on everything.” (JTA)

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Israel-UAE deal brings hope of further normalisation

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Bahrain, Kuwait, Mauretania, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia… will these be the next Arab or Muslim states to establish full diplomatic and economic ties with Israel?

They could be, if the seeds of moderation and normalisation sprout successfully in the wake of the Israel-United Arab Emirates (UAE) deal.

Unthinkable a decade ago, the new discourse in the Middle East is about peace and prosperity, rather than the Palestinians.

This message emerged from a Zoom webinar on Monday night, ‘Israel/UAE Deal: Insights from behind the scenes’, hosted by the South African Zionist Federation. Moderated by Mpho Tsedu, chief executive of the Institute of Foreign Affairs, the speakers were Dr Nir Boms, a research fellow at Tel Aviv University and member of the Israeli Council on Foreign Relations, and Haisam Hassanein from Egypt, an expert on commercial diplomacy in the Middle East, recently based in Abu Dhabi.

On 13 August, the UAE became the third Arab country to formally recognise Israel’s right to exist, following Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. The telephone lines have been unblocked, and an El Al flight overflew Saudi airspace for the first time last week as it brought diplomats and businesspeople to Abu Dhabi. Embassies are set to open in both states soon.

Dubbed the ‘Abraham Accord’, this deal did not emerge overnight. Relations were subterranean for decades. There was substantial interaction by entrepreneurs, academics, and civil society organisations before an elite peace deal was struck. Some 500 Israeli companies already operate in the UAE, according to Boms.

“It was the right time to bring these relations into the open, from under the table,” Boms said. “It was a win-win-win formula for Israel, the United States (US) [which backed the deal] and the UAE. Their interests aligned.”

The agreement supports Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political approach. US President Donald Trump could do with a foreign policy win heading into the November elections, to show the world and his constituency that he can, in fact, make a deal. For the UAE, it promised closer collaboration with both countries, including for military hardware and Israel’s high-tech knowhow.

“This agreement offers Israel the greatest chance to restore its image in the region,” Hassanein said. “It has been seen through the prism of Arab nationalism since the 1950s, and was negatively portrayed. The peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan never resulted in normalising people-to-people relations.” The Arab countries punished their citizens for drawing closer to Israel, which had a chilling effect.

Hassanein sees the Israel-UAE deal differently. Both sets of leaders and businesspeople have given interviews on each other’s TV stations and in newspapers. Intellectuals in both countries have supported the accords. Soon, Muslims from around the world may be praying at the Al Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount by travelling through Abu Dhabi. The geopolitical centre of the Arab world has shifted from Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad to the capital cities of the Persian Gulf.

Neither analyst was naïve enough to believe this rapprochement would be universally praised. As expected, there has been opposition for the UAE’s enemies, including Iran, Qatar, and Turkey. Much of the Arab media has rubbished the deal. “But it has opened the door for more moderate voices to speak up for the first time, to speak about the advantages of peace,” Hassanein said.

Boms said that the deal could break a stalemate. “Ten years ago, everything was seen through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Arab Spring changed that paradigm, but it ushered in an Islamist Winter … the Gulf States are worried about Shi’a radicalism from Iran and Sunni radicalism from ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood, and their interests align with Israel’s.”

Hassanein noted that there is a difference between the older generation of Arab nationalists that blamed everything on Israel, and a younger generation that recognises the havoc Iran is causing. Boms agreed, noting that 70% of the Middle East’s population is under the age of 30.

Boms said the UAE offers a positive third way, different from the Islamism of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, and the anti-normalisation and delegitimisation strategy of the Palestinian Authority. “The Palestinians have to realise that the train may leave without them,” said Boms. “If this deal works, if it brings better medicines, technology and jobs, it’s an alternative to old ideologies. It must therefore show tangible results and progress.”

There are early signs that this normalisation can spread to the region and to Africa. Malawi is opening an embassy in Jerusalem and Serbia, and Kosovo and Mali are talking about moving their embassies from Tel Aviv. The UAE is the only place in the Arab world where the Jewish population is growing, and a kosher restaurant has opened in Abu Dhabi.

Boms said this new discourse and mindset made South Africa’s support for the delegitimisation of Israel “obsolete”.

Asked Hassanein, “Who should South Africa applaud and support? Those demonstrating peace, tolerance and acceptance, or those who destroy and have no vision?”

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Malawi may be first African country to open embassy in Jerusalem

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The president of Malawi has said that his country would open an embassy in Jerusalem, making it the first African country to take this step, either for a diplomatic office or an embassy.

Local analysts say this is a significant move and may have been influenced by the recent ‘Abraham Accords’ between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Malawian President Dr Lazarus Chakwera made the announcement on Saturday. “The reforms will also include a review of our diplomatic presence, including our resolve to have new diplomatic missions in Lagos, Nigeria, and Jerusalem, Israel. I will be sharing more details about this in the near future,” he said as he addressed his country’s parliament. He became president in June 2020. Although he spoke of a diplomatic mission, experts believe he is referring to an embassy.

Chakwera was in Israel in November 2019 and visited Jerusalem, including the Old City and the Western Wall. Malawi is a mostly Christian country with 19.2 million inhabitants. Israel’s non-resident ambassador to Malawi, Oded Joseph, is based in Nairobi, Kenya.

On Sunday, chief Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat announced that the Palestinian Authority would sever relations with any country that opens an embassy in Jerusalem. Within Malawi, a group of concerned citizens voiced their opposition to the plan, according to the Nyasa Times. “We object to having a Malawi embassy in Jerusalem. If Malawi is to open an embassy in Israel, let it be approved by parliament, and the mission should be in Tel Aviv,” said a member of the group, Mussa Ibrahim.

The head of the African Governance and Diplomacy Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs, Steven Gruzd, says: “The announcement could be connected to the positive momentum generated by the UAE deal.

“Remember, Chakwera is a newly-elected president in a court-ordered rerun election in Malawi,” says Gruzd. “He is setting out his governing agenda. Although both countries have maintained relations since 1964, neither has had an embassy in the other country.”

Gruzd says the announcement is significant. “If a small and resource-strapped country like Malawi sees opening an embassy in Jerusalem as strategic for its interests, it may encourage others to move their embassies from Tel Aviv. It may also be a move to draw closer to the Trump administration. Once it is opening an embassy, it does not make sense to open in Tel Aviv and then have to move.”

He believes the move may encourage other countries to think about opening embassies in Jerusalem. “It may well have a demonstration effect. In the last five years, Prime Minister Netanyahu has put considerable effort into wooing African states and breaking the anti-Israel bloc in forums like the United Nations.

“These efforts seem to be paying off. The decision to move embassies is a highly politicised one, and not without risks. So far, only Guatemala has followed the United States lead on moving its embassy. Kosovo, Serbia, and Mali are said to be considering it. But sovereign states will make their own choices.”

Local political analyst Dr Ralph Mathekga says: “I think the opposition victory in Malawi provides an interesting turn of events, and anomaly in the region. I do not find it surprising the country is intending to open an embassy in Jerusalem – this seems to usher different politics in the country.

“Malawi is trending an interesting path that has not been seen in the region. A response to this on a regional level is difficult to anticipate, in the sense that most member countries on the continent seem to prioritise a bilateral relationship with Israel, while at the same time maintaining solidarity on the Palestine matter at the United Nations level or at a multilateral level,” he adds.

“The global community would watch in anticipation how Malawi might further break the ranks with other countries in the region or the continent on Israel matters or other matters. A lot is possible with Malawi, yet one cannot tell exactly how it will go.”

Sara Gon, head of strategic engagement at the Institute of Race Relations, also believes that the UAE deal has opened the space for Malawi, even though it is not a Muslim country.

“I suspect that it has wanted to support Israel wholeheartedly hence going for an embassy in Jerusalem, but the opprobrium that has faced the United States for the move has held it back,” she says. “The UAE deal makes it less risky. I think the fact that it is going to Jerusalem signals that Malawi wants a completely normal relationship with Israel – no-holds-barred. The intention is a good, solid relationship.”

Looking at how this may impact Israel’s relationships with other African countries and if they will also think about opening embassies in Jerusalem, she says: “I think they might, on the basis that in diplomacy there are usually other countries who want to make the same move but they need just one country to make the first move. I think this is particularly so with the majority of Christian countries who are tired of having to show support to the Palestinians and hatred against Israel just because they belong to the block of what were once ‘non-aligned states’.”

Regarding the global community’s response if Malawi went ahead with this, Gon says she “suspects it will be more muted than previously, except of course from the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, Iran, Hezbollah, etcetera”.

She continues: “The problem is they have nothing to offer Malawi, so they’ll be ignored. Obviously, Malawi is desperately poor and not particularly influential, and it needs what Israel can offer it, but it is a start.”

“The South African Zionist Federation warmly welcomes Malawi’s decision to establish an embassy in Jerusalem as the recognised capital of Israel,” says its national chairperson Rowan Polovin. “This news is part of a momentous tide of improved relations between Israel, the Middle East, and Africa. We encourage the South African government to participate in this momentum of improved relations that Israel is achieving across the world, and share in the benefits that it will bring.”

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Arab-Israeli actor finds himself with Fauda

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For Arab-Israeli actor Ala Dakka, a character isn’t just a role. It’s another identity. Known to millions as Bashar the boxer from hit Israeli TV series Fauda, the 25-year-old superstar commits himself to acting in the most authentic way possible, and his career is on the rise.

Dakka shared stories from on and off the set with South Africans this past Saturday night in a live Zoom event hosted by the SA Jewish Report in partnership with the South African Zionist Federation and World Zionist Organization.

Born to Muslim parents, Dakka was raised in Be’er Sheva, surrounded by a predominantly Jewish population. “I grew up in the Jewish community, and throughout my life, I wondered where I belonged,” he said. “I didn’t know where to put myself. As a kid, I just wanted to be popular, so I decided to be friends with everyone.

“My life was pretty usual. I didn’t experience racism, though I knew I was different, and it made some things a little harder. I grew up in a beautiful mixture of all kinds of identities that you find in Israel. At the time, though, I cared only about soccer.”

A career in acting was never a foregone conclusion, says Dakka. In fact, he set his heart on becoming a singer, but only towards the end of his high-school career.

“I never sang before I was 17,” he laughed. “It was only in Grade 12 that I stood on a stage and sang. It really came late for me. Only when I turned 22 did I feel I wanted to be an actor, and until today, I’m not sure if I will be an actor for the rest of my life. I’ll just go with the flow.”

Dakka spent a year doing volunteer work with children in Bat Yam after matriculating, and when he contemplated a career, his family wanted him to pursue law.

“My dad is a lawyer, and he really wanted me to go to law school,” he says. “I wasn’t sure, but after volunteering, I realised that I wanted to do something that had nothing to do with law or university just yet. I wanted to be a singer.”

Dakka auditioned on the Israeli version of The Voice, but his initial reception wasn’t too encouraging. None of the judges turned their chairs when he performed, casting doubt on his aspirations.

“It was heartbreaking,” he says. “It took me some time to be willing to try again as an artist. I haven’t been back on stage as a musician since then, but I decided then to become an actor. I’m still optimistic about going back to music one day but acting quickly became the best thing in my life.”

Dakka honed his skills, starring in productions at his local theatre in Be’er Sheva, slowly growing in ability and confidence. He eventually auditioned for roles in television and film, landing his first screen role in an Israeli comedy series before starring in his first film, Beyond the Mountains and Hills, in 2016. More was to follow.

“The roles came one after the other, and I started making a living as an artist, which is a lot more than you can wish for,” Dakka says. “My parents were very scared, afraid I wouldn’t be able to support myself or a family. They’re still scared, but they saw I could be successful.”

Dakka clinched his now famous role in Fauda last year after hearing about the role of Bashar in July.

“I signed up at the gym and started running, slowly changing my way of living,” he says. “I was a smoker, and used to wake up late. I realised I needed to give it 100%, so I committed to getting up to go to gym and change my state of mind. It wasn’t easy, but it gave me a new opening in life.”

After auditioning in July, Dakka was informed that he had landed the role only in December. He says he took to the role immediately, finding a boxing coach and giving himself completely to the part. Even his family seemed to welcome the development.

“My family admits that I’m talented, and my dad says I should be proud of myself,” Dakka says. “Since I started, my family has started believing in me more and more, and it’s brought me closer to them. They really like the show, and are proud of what I have done.”

“The role in Fauda taught me how much you need to put yourself through for a role. I was never an athlete, so I needed to learn how to be one first. My commitment has enabled me to make a living and be proud of what I do, so I enjoy every moment.”

While shooting scenes can be gruelling, Dakka enjoys the time he shares with his co-stars on and off set.

“It’s a 12-hour day,” he says. “It’s tough, but it’s fun, and it’s what we love doing. We want it to be unique. We always try to make it the best we can for the audience so they can enjoy it and feel it’s authentic.”

There’s is a real bond on set, he says. “We spend hours together. We’ve had parties together, and we’re still in touch today. As an actor, you work with a team and have to make sure everyone feels comfortable. If one person is upset on set, we all feel it. We build connections between us, and we share the same love.”

Dakka has received mixed reviews from fans and detractors of the series, but says he welcomes all views because the show itself presents a variety of viewpoints.

Fauda talks about a conflict and its complexities,” he says. “How good people become evil or how evil people become good. The good and bad is so mixed, you never know what’s actually good or bad.

“The fact that it talks about the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is what’s making a change. People are talking about it, and the fact they are is a good thing.”

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