By BB Portnoy
Despite the challenges it faces, Israel has much to be optimistic about in the coming year, a top US Jewish leader told The Algemeiner in a post-Rosh Hashanah interview on Thursday.
“Israel went through a very tumultuous and challenging year and came out better than it started, in the sense that many of its relationships with surrounding countries — both publicly and non-publicly — improved,” Malcolm Hoenlein — the executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations told The Algemeiner.
Hoenlein highlighted Israel’s growing ties with many nations around the globe — particularly in Asia, Africa and South America.
“Predictions of Israel’s isolation were really shattered this year — with China adding tens of thousands of seats next year for travel to Israel, which is representative of increased trade and exchanges with Israel; India is adding tens of thousands of seats; and Japan is opening up to Israel,” he said. “So we are seeing the Asia pivot.”
“In Africa, there are many countries wanting to develop ties with Israel,” Hoenlein continued. “Israel has what they need — whether it’s post-harvest reclamation, water self-sufficiency, high-tech agriculture, there are so many areas of interest. And Israel has also done much more outreach to South America.”
Furthermore, Hoenlein noted, Israel’s relations with its regional neighbors are being strengthened.
“We are also seeing the emergence of a potential eastern Mediterranean coalescence — with Cyprus, Greece and Israel forming the hub, but Egypt and many other countries have expressed interest,” Hoenlein said. “And Israel’s relationship with Turkey has improved significantly, although I wouldn’t say it was back fully to where it was.”
However, Hoenlein pointed out, “there are still serious problems.”
“The United Nations remains a bastion of anti-Israel sentiment and biased resolutions at the Security Council, General Assembly and Human Rights Council,” he said. “And relationships with European nations continue to be very mixed. But Europe is now much more focused on its internal problems.”
Assessing Israel’s current security situation, Hoenlein said, “Looking at the region, there is no existential threat to Israel, per se, right now. Syria is in no position to attack Israel, although it can harass it and there are Hezbollah and other terrorist groups active in the Golan Heights region. Egypt today is working with Israel. Jordan is occupied with its own problems and it is quietly working together with Israel…But it’s a tumultuous region. The Middle East volcano is going to continue to erupt for the foreseeable future and things could change dramatically very quickly.”
The most secure place in the region, Hoenlein said, is Israel. “And that’s why even many countries who criticize Israel admit it’s a source of stability, rather than instability in the Middle East,” he stated.
The gravest problem facing the entire region, not just Israel, is an “emboldened” Iran in the wake of the nuclear deal it reached with six world powers last year, Hoenlein emphasized.
“With the influx of funds it got from sanctions relief, we see Iran being more aggressive in the region and around the world — spreading terrorism and establishing its network in central Asia, South America, Europe and North America,” he said. “Iran remains the fulcrum of instability in the Middle East.”
Russia, Hoenlein said, has acted to “fill the void” in the Middle East left by the “distancing” between the US and many of its traditional regional allies in recent years.
“[Russian President Vladimir] Putin, with limited resources, has been able to take advantage of a perceived vacuum and step in to maximize his leverage,” Hoenlein said. “Russia will partner with whoever serves its purposes. Putin is very shrewd.”
To illustrate his point, Hoenlein mentioned a “very critical, but little noticed” recent event — the meeting in August in Baku of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Putin.
“This was a very odd trio, because they don’t like each other,” Hoenlein said. “Certainly, the Azeris are concerned by Russian encroachment and Iranian threats, but the three announced a new railroad that will go from Russia through Azerbaijan to a warm water port in Iran,” Hoenlein said. “This reflects the alienation from the West that is being exploited by the likes of Russia and Iran.”
Turning to US President Barack Obama, Hoenlein said he had “some concerns about what Obama and others may do” regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process before the next president takes office in January.
“This is based on things I heard from him a year ago about his priorities and the understandable importance of his legacy to him,” Hoenlein said. “And I listen to his speeches and I have seen some of the harsh statements that are being issued, even this week, about Israeli settlement policies. The language being used is much stronger than we’ve seen in the past and I’m afraid that this could be indicative of what a forthcoming UN Security Council resolution against settlements, or something that goes even further, might look like.”
Hoenlein expressed hope that the Palestinian Authority would change course and become “ready to sit down and talk to [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and start a process that will contribute positively to both parties.”
As for the ongoing American presidential campaign, Hoenlein said, “So far, foreign policy has not been a major focus. Perhaps it will be in the coming debates. Both candidates have expressed strong support for Israel. Hillary Clinton has her record from her years in the Senate and Donald Trump has personal associations. You have to look at the people who will be around them and you have to look at the total picture. And don’t forget about what happens in Congress, because traditionally when there have been problems with presidents, Congress has been a bedrock of support for Israel.”
Hoenlein said one of his fears for the coming year was “growing violence against Jewish students on campuses.”
“Every Jewish student should feel safe and secure on campus and that’s not the case today,” he said. “We have a collective responsibility to ensure that on every campus pro-Israel students can speak freely and safely. Universities must act against any hate crime, violence or intimidation.”
Taking aim at the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, Hoenlein said, “BDS is not seeking in any way to improve the lives of Palestinians. Rather, its goal is to delegitimize and denigrate the Jewish state, to ultimately deny its right to exist. I think it’s time to take the ‘D’ out of BDS and expose it for what it is.”
Speaking about rising antisemitism in Europe, Hoenlein said, “I worry about the rise of extremist parties in response to some of the issues, especially immigration. Many of these parties manifest antisemitic attitudes, even if antisemitism is not part of their platforms and sometimes leaders try to cover it.”
Hoenlein also made sure to criticize the UN’s cultural body, UNESCO, for the resolution it passed this year that ignored the Jewish people’s historic ties with Jerusalem.
“What I had been warning about for more than two years came to fruition over the past year,” Hoenlein said. “This is a war on Jewish history. It’s an attempt to deny our past in order to deny our future. It’s a fundamental challenge that was not taken seriously by enough people when this process began more than two years ago. In one fell swoop, UNESCO did more to change the status quo [in Jerusalem] than Israel did in 60 years. With one resolution, UNESCO took away 3,800 years of Jewish history and 2,000 years of Christian history.”
For Hoenlein, two of the best stories of the past year were archaeological finds in Israel — one in Jerusalem and one in Lachish — that he said were “completely consistent with the Bible” and represented “irrefutable proof of all our claims going back thousands of years regarding the Jewish presence, history and traditions in the Land of Israel.”
Such discoveries, Hoenlein said, “remind us of our responsibilities to the past and to the future. It’s up to us, and what we do, not what our enemies do. We must be realists — and believe in miracles.”
Ending on a positive note about the state of American Jewry, Hoenlein brought up a 1964 Look magazine cover story that was titled, “The Vanishing American Jew.”
“Look magazine vanished and American Jews are here — strong and vibrant,” Hoenlein quipped.