Not Yet Hanukkah: A Story of Miracles

By BERNIE FARBER

November is Holocaust Education Month, a time we tell stories of survival. My father, the sole Jewish survivor of his small Polish village, used to say that it took 1,000 miracles to survive the Shoah because 999 were simply not enough.

The following is not only the story of 1,000 miracles, but at its conclusion we will understand what the circle of life is really all about.

In 1939, when Samuel Pisar was 10 years old, both the Nazi and Soviet armies invaded his native Poland. Interestingly, Samuel came from Bialystok, 50 kilometers from my father’s village of Bothki. When Adolf Hitler broke the Nazi/Soviet pact in 1941, Samuel was captured along with thousands of other Jews. He was young and strong and survived incarcerations at Majdanek, Auschwitz and other camps whose only purpose was to murder Jews.

His final camp, Dachau, became the concluding volume in this first chapter of his life. It was the spring of 1945. Young Samuel was out on a Nazi slave labour detail as Allied forces approached. Nazi SS guards gathered the work detail and marched them away from the advancing Americans. They marched for three days with little water or food. Many succumbed. Still young, Samuel stayed alive.

It was on the third day when a number of Allied fighter planes spotted both the Nazis and their slave labour detail. Thinking it was a column of Nazi soldiers, the planes’ pilots descended sharply and strafed the area. Taking advantage of the ensuing confusion, a number of prisoners made a break for the forest. The bombing and Nazi bullets mowed most of them down but young Samuel used up one of his thousand miracles and made it to the safety of the embracing forest.

Starving, emaciated, Samuel hid in an abandoned hayloft. A few mornings later, he was awakened by the sound of a rumbling motor. Cautiously looking out from his hiding place, sure that he would see the dreaded swastika, he saw instead an American insignia.

Washed over with relief, he stumbled from the hayloft in tears of joy. The hatch of the tank popped open and emerging was Corporal Bill Ellington, the son of a former slave and member of the storied 761st Tank Battalion, known for being comprised primarily of African-Americans. They were the original “Black Panthers.”

The son of a former slave and the young survivor of the Nazi death camps held each other while Samuel cried the only words he knew in English, “God Bless America.”

He was just 16, the sole Jewish survivor of his family in Poland when he emerged into what would become the second volume of his life.

Miracles followed Samuel. He was raised by the remnants of his French and Australian family, graduated from the University of Melbourne, and later earned doctorates of law from Harvard and the Sorbonne.

His rise was rapid. He worked for the United Nations and UNESCO and was appointed a special advisor to President John F. Kennedy. He counseled the State Department and worked as legal adviser to both the House of Representatives and Senate. He was one of the youngest, most respected government advisers – so much so that in 1961, through a special act of Congress, Pisar was awarded U.S. citizenship.

His legacy continued. He counselled governments and world- renowned personalities from pianist Arthur Rubenstein to tech whiz Steve Jobs. His passion became human rights and he took up the causes of the novelist Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov.

He became a trustee of the Brookings Institute, was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and has addressed international conferences and world leaders at Davos, the International Monetary Fund and the European Parliament.

Samuel was twice married upon his death in July 2015 and left two daughters, one from his first marriage, Leah and Norma, from his second wife, Judith.

Here’s the promised kicker: Samuel also left a step-son from his marriage to Judith: Antony Blinken who, on Nov. 23, was nominated to become U.S. Secretary of State in the administration of President-in-Waiting Joe Biden.

Samuel Pisar was a man of many miracles, maybe even 1,000. May his memory continue to be a blessing.


Bernie Farber
Bernie Farber

Bernie Farber is publisher and co-founder of the Canadian Jewish Record, Chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, a writer and human rights advocate. 

Wishing Biden and Harris Well Online? Buckle Up…

Nov. 17, 2020

By RAFI YABLONSKY

My parents were born in Israel. I was born in Israel. All four of my grandparents were Holocaust survivors who immigrated to Israel. All four of my wife’s grandparents are Holocaust survivors who immigrated to Canada. My wife’s grandfather, Bill Glied, with whom I sat at the verdict of Reinhold Hanning, one of the last Nazis to be tried for war crimes, had spent the last two decades of his life pursuing Holocaust education and telling his story to thousands of students. I have spent my adult life working in the Jewish community, raising millions of dollars for Israel and Jewish communal organizations.

And somehow, here was a comment on my Facebook post telling me that I was no longer Jewish, no longer Israeli.

What was my crime? My unforgivable sin, according to too many commenters?

After four years of the bigotry and venom that Donald Trump and his followers unleashed on the world, and after nearly four days of vote counting, Joe Biden had been declared President-elect in the United States. His running mate, Kamala Harris, had made history by becoming the first woman and first person of colour to hold the title of Vice President-elect.

Her election is an inspiration to millions of young girls across the United States. I was elated to see an end to the sexism, misogyny, homophobia, and racism coming from the White House. I didn’t think too much of it. Maybe that would be the end of the happy story. 

I put up a brief post on my Facebook wall – a picture of the VP-elect, and a message of congratulations.

I didn’t expect what was to come. 

I didn’t expect to be bombarded with over 100 comments attacking me. I didn’t expect to be sworn at, to be told that I was anti-Israel, antisemitic, and a Nazi party supporter to boot.

A sampler:

– For a Jew like you to support Biden is like supporting Nazi Germany.

– Congratulations on cheating.

– F**k you Rafi, you’re pathetic.

Paraphrasing, one commenter said I’m not Jewish. I’m not Israeli. I’m a Canadian communist for supporting Biden/Harris.

I founded the Hasbara at York group, a student organization at the university which focuses on Israel education. I’ve been called a fascist and a racist for supporting Israel in the past. I’ve been called an occupier and Nazi for supporting Israel. I’ve never had my Jewishness negated by a fellow Jew.

I didn’t expect to have my Judaism diminished. And I certainly didn’t expect that an old friend I’ve known for almost two decades would like that comment. 

I received a number of messages of support. From friends, from family, from current and former members of Parliament and heads of major Toronto Jewish institutions. But I barely slept that night. This was the first time I’ve blocked people on Facebook. I had to “unfriend” someone in real life. 

The truth is, I cannot remember a time when the Jewish community has been this starkly divided, and never this viscerally. Our community is drenched in sinat chinam, baseless hatred. Donald Trump has divided the Jewish community into two kinds of Jews. There are Jews who, ignore, or worse, laud and emulate his hatred towards women, minorities, immigrants, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and anyone who opposes him. These sentiments stem mainly from his decision to move the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and several other pro-Israel policy shifts. And then there are the rest of us. 

My grandparents who, thank G-d, survived Auschwitz, used to tell me how in the cattle cars, there were Jews of every denomination, from every corner of the political spectrum. Their destination didn’t care if they were secular or Hasidic, right or left wing. They were just Jews destined for the same fate. 

Jews argue. We disagree with each other. It’s a trait that is deep and celebrated in our history and our texts. But the Talmud tells us kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh – all of Israel is responsible for one another. We are not the enemy. But there is a part of our community – one that has been growing over the past four years – that treats any Jews who dislike Donald Trump as heretics. 

In the days since Biden and Harris were elected, there’s been a lot of calls for unity. I think that’s great. We are in desperate need of reconciliation, in the Jewish community as much as the rest of society. But reconciliation and unity doesn’t mean we meet in the middle. 

We meet in a place that respects women, Indigenous peoples and people of colour – and we in the Jewish community must dig particularly deep for Jewish women, and Jewish women of colour. We meet in a place that accepts and celebrates the LGBTQ+ community and the Jews who I’ve marched with in the Toronto Pride Parade when Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QAIA) tried to have us barred from participating.

I replied to that Facebook commenter, saying that while I pitied him, I didn’t think his support for Trump had cost him his Judaism. I still think about all the negative comments I received over the past few days and I hope daughters never see what their fathers wrote. I hope they instead see Harris shatter the glass ceiling and be encouraged to follow their dreams. 

And more than anything else, I hope that those Jews who have taken to dismissing our Jewishness remember that kol Yisrael arevim ze bazeh and that we are all Jews and will always be family.


Rafi Yablonksy
Rafi Yablonksy

Rafi Yablonsky holds a BComm from York University and worked in the hi-tech industry before working at United Jewish Appeal as Manager of Strategic Initiatives. Rafi has worked as the Toronto Director of Chai Lifeline, as campaign director at JNF Toronto, and most recently, at the Baycrest Foundation as Manager of Major Gifts.

JNF Montreal Launches $1M Prize to Make Israel a Climate Change Leader

Nov. 16, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—Jewish National Fund (JNF) of Montreal is aiming high in its Negev campaign this year. The goal is nothing less than to solve the global climate crisis.

A planned $1 million (U.S.) prize to encourage Israel to take the lead in combating climate change was announced at JNF Montreal’s virtual Negev gala on Nov. 11.

The campaign, chaired by Jonathan Goodman, founder and CEO of Knight Therapeutics Inc., aims to enable the prize to be awarded annually.

The Climate Solutions Prize will go to the Israeli researcher or not-for-profit organization which proposes an innovation that promises to have the greatest impact in the world, as judged by an expert panel.

Israel, it is believed, is well placed to make such a breakthrough given its strength in technological development and entrepreneurial spirit. However, most investment has been going into the information, medical and financial fields, Goodman points out, and less into green technology.

“Climate change was not a primary concern for me until my (teenaged) son Noah told me it is his priority,” Goodman said. A JNF youth group is playing a strong role in this project.

JNF Montreal Negev 2020-2021 honoree Jeff Hart, president of Victoria Park Medispa, said the prize “will leverage Israel’s special ability to solve seemingly impossible challenges in order to bring literal tikun olam – healing of the world.”

Given its 119-year history of making the desert bloom and more recent environmental leadership, JNF is considered to be in a position to oversee this initiative. Israel is experiencing the harmful effects of climate change, evidenced by record-breaking temperatures and, in Tel Aviv, unprecedented flooding, for example, Hart said.

The campaign will continue through to late spring, and it is hoped the first prize can be awarded next fall, in a live ceremony to be broadcast worldwide, said Hart.

A related $100,000 prize to recognize a Quebec organization making an outstanding contribution to mitigate climate change, which might lead to a partnership with Israel, is also planned.

Despite the gravity of the subject, the Zoom gala was filled with humour. The emcee was Andy Nulman, co-founder of the Just for Laughs festival, who alternately could be seen in a parka and tuque against a frozen background and in a tank top in a room on fire.

Hart got into the lightheartedness by wearing a T-shirt with the logo, “There is No Planet B.”

The biggest laughs were generated by the guest speaker Yossi Abramowitz, aka “Captain Sunshine,” who was live from Israel even though it was the wee hours of the morning there.

That didn’t dampen his exuberance for his mission to power Israel – and the rest of the world – by renewable energy, in particular the power coming from the sun.

A Boston native, the activist and entrepreneur made aliyah in 2006 with his wife, Rabbi Susan Silverman (sister of comedian Sarah Silverman), and immediately co-founded the Arava Power Company in the Negev Desert, which set up Israel’s first grid-connected solar field, proving many doubters wrong.

His aim is 100 percent daytime reliance on solar energy from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea.

Since 2013, Abramowitz has been president and CEO of Energiya Global Capital, which supports affordable solar power projects outside Israel, especially in developing countries, including Rwanda and Burundi.

He would like to see Israel become “the energy superpower of goodness in the world…the renewable light unto the nations.”

Abramowitz thinks the JNF prize will leverage more investment from the government and private sector in sustainability, as was the case in Arava.

Abramowitz recalled how the then California Senator Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff privately visited Arava in 2017 and were highly impressed with the development of solar energy.

He likes to think the “seeds were planted” for the Joe Biden-Harris platform, which emphasizes renewable energy, “or at least was nurtured around our Shabbat table.”

“It’s time the Jewish people steps up, not just for ourselves, but everyone,” Abramowitz said. “We’re a global people that has always strived to be ethical. And this [the climate crisis] is the big one.”

More information is available at climatesolutionsprize.com.

Trump’s Muddled Foreign Policy Examined at FSWC Event

Nov. 13, 2020

By STEVE ARNOLD

Donald Trump did not make the world safer for Jews, or anyone else, say two prominent officials who worked directly with the soon-to-be former American president.

John Bolton
John Bolton

John Bolton, former national security advisor to the president, and David Petraeus, former director of the CIA and retired four-star general, told a Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre event on Nov. 9 that Trump’s often incoherent foreign policy did nothing to counter the threats of terrorism, a nuclear Iran, or Chinese aggression.

The speakers were the feature attractions at FSWC’s State of the Union fundraiser. They told their virtual audience that while the Trump era did produce some promising results, such as the Abraham Accords peace agreements between Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, the safety of the world remains threatened.

David Petraeus
David Petraeus

The Middle East agreements, they said, were more driven by domestic politics in the Arab world than by American leadership.

“Both of these agreements reflect changes that are tectonic in their effect in this region,” said Bolton, adding that the move to peace could be attributed to a decreased concern over Palestinian issues, rising concern about a nuclear Iran, and concerns about American staying power as an influence in the region.

Those forces will result in more peace agreements “sooner rather than later.”

Petraeus, who commanded American military efforts in both Afghanistan and Iraq, said that another major piece that brought the deals together was Israel’s agreement to halt settler incursions into disputed land, at least temporarily.

“There are lots of pluses here, it is clearly a positive step forward,” he said. “The question is, can it stick? There’s not much else here for the Palestinians.”

Petraeus added those small gains are the best that can be hoped for now. Anything more will have to wait for new leadership in Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

“Now isn’t the time to be swinging for the fences,” he said. “This is the time to hit singles and doubles, no home runs.”

There are also potential benefits to the region from some parts of the so-called Deal of the Century, Petraeus noted. Among those are the creation of a 25-mile long tunnel between the West Bank and Gaza Strip; allowing travel between the regions without having to pass through Israeli checkpoints; ideas about developing the Red Sea-area Egyptian Riviera that could bring economic benefit to Palestinians; and Israel’s prospects of becoming an energy superpower through the development of natural gas.

That’s all in addition to potential benefits from Israel’s already strong, and growing economy.

“The start-up nation is becoming the scale-up nation,” Petraeus said.

Bolton added a political restructuring in the region is needed.

Rather than the one or two-state solutions that have been so bitterly debated for years, he suggested a three-state deal that would see the Gaza Strip become part of Egypt while Israel and Jordan jointly rule over the West Bank.

Hovering over those potential promises, however, is the continued threat of Islamic terrorism.

Bolton said the radicalization driving some young Muslims to strap bombs to their bodies in the hope of killing Israelis is continuing to spread through both the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam.

“The West seems to forget how deeply religious feeling can go toward motivating political action,” Bolton said.

That concern is heightened, he added, as American and allied troops are pulled out of Afghanistan, leaving room of Taliban terrorists from Pakistan to return to the region.

The soldier and the security advisor both said China remains a particular concern to world peace, one Trump failed to handle.

“There was simply no coherent Trump Administration policy on China,” Bolton said. “China is a huge question we have to face and we are not ready for it.”

Beyond seeking trade deals to sell American grain to China, Bolton said the Trump Administration ignored China’s growing economic strength – a strength he said is based on stolen intellectual property and is used to build a military machine.

How the situation changes once President-Elect Joe Biden takes office in January is an open question, they said.

“Right now there’s just no clear indication of where Biden wants to go,” Bolton said.

Despite Trump’s current allegations of voter fraud, both agreed the transfer of power will take place.

“It will happen, but there may be some wild rhetoric first,” Bolton said. “A president has to operate on the basis of facts, but this president does not.”

The State of the Union event raised $3.3 million.

Editorial: The Smiling Dead

Nov. 11, 2020

Some good news according to recent reports: We are inching closer to a COVID vaccine. Even so, we must remain cognizant of the need for proper masking, handwashing, and social distancing. Places like Singapore, South Korea, New Zealand and others, where citizens followed these simple rules and locked down as necessary, have managed to control this beast.

Future generations will study some responses to the virus and scratch their heads in amazement at humans’ stubborn refusal to follow simple rules. They will wonder whether we had a death wish. They will ask how Americans – to pick on citizens of one country – didn’t immediately shame leaders who publicly suggested witchcraft-type cures, from ingesting bleach to shining sunlight down throats.

Academics will study this time in sheer amazement. Research papers will be written on the phenomenon of humans defying common sense because one man convinced them to follow him over a cliff.

Here in Canada, more sense has prevailed but frighteningly, there are eerie signs that the bullheadedness from our southern neighbours is creeping across the border.

This past weekend in Aylmer, Ont. more than 2,000 people demanded an end to public health regulations. No more social distancing, no more masks. “Freedom!” they cried, while others, like protest conspiracy leader Pastor Henry Hildebrant from the controversial Church of God, wondered, “how many people died? Where? Where is the emergency? There is nothing to back it up. We want our freedom back. We want to live.” Others demanded the right to smile in public.

It will be these people who, when the numbers are counted, will be known as the “smiling dead.”

Welcome Back to Sanity

The elections in the United States have come to a shaky end. Most people felt as though a huge weight was lifted from their shoulders when Joseph R. Biden was proclaimed the 46th president of the United States.

However, along with elation came the sobering reality that more than 70 million people cast a vote for the other ticket, perhaps out of an ongoing sense of disenfranchisement, frustration with an establishment they see as rigged, or just to keep a thumb in the eye of the so-called elites who look down on them.

Many of them may have legitimate grievances but many others voted to give voice to the darker angels of their nature. These millions turned a blind eye to the callousness of an American leader who chose to lie and spread conspiracy theories instead of listening to science. As a result, over 200,000 of Donald Trump’s fellow citizens succumbed to the coronavirus. He could have saved tens of thousands with faster, smarter action. His legacy on this and many other files will stain America for generations.

We welcome back sanity and normalcy (even though Trump, it’s fair to say, will not go away quietly.) Mazal tov to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the first bi-racial woman to hold the second highest office in the land. And let us not forget the Second Gentleman, Doug Emhoff, the first Jew and the first man to be so named. From strength to strength.

Loss of American Dream Bodes Ill for Jews: Atlantic Editor

Oct. 19, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL – The weakening of American democracy and status of the United States globally is “bad for the Jews,” whose flourishing has been tied to the country’s founding ideals, says Jeffrey Goldberg, editor-in-chief of The Atlantic magazine.

Jeffrey Goldberg
Jeffrey Goldberg

The influential journalist offered a bleak assessment of the state of America in a virtual lecture hosted by Congregation Shaar Hashomayim on Oct. 13, and he placed the blame squarely on President Donald Trump.

Trump’s mishandling of the COVID crisis has not only been disastrous for Americans, but accelerated the United States’ waning prestige in the eyes of its allies and those who hold it as a model, Goldberg said.

“The last four years have been a slow-rolling catastrophe that has profound consequences for the world…I think it is too early to say that America is in a kind of decline, but it is on a downward slope and headed to a bad place if we are not careful,” he said.

Undemocratic China, Russia and Iran are moving in to fill the vacuum left by the U.S.’s retreat from dominance, he said, and these countries are not “models of good behaviour.”

The trend is “not irreversible,” though Goldberg stopped short of predicting the outcome of the Nov. 3 election.

If Democratic candidate Joe Biden wins, Goldberg’s advice to him is to first get control of the coronavirus. “We will have no respect in the world unless we do that.”

Then, Biden should set about repairing the country’s reputation by going to its friends and essentially apologizing for what had been a “weird” episode in American history, he thinks.

The U.S. can and should resume its “exceptional role” in the world, Goldberg believes.

“Trump could have coasted to re-election if he had taken the virus seriously and gotten it under control,” he said. Instead, Goldberg regrets that his country has been “a sad joke over the past four years.”

The U.S. is accustomed to sometimes being hated or feared, but not to being “pitied” as it is today, especially in Europe, said Goldberg, who finds it shocking that a country so advanced could account for one-fifth of the world’s COVID deaths but only 4.25 percent of the population.

The situation is particularly worrisome for Goldberg because the “American dream is very much intertwined with the Jewish dream,” and the loss of the former puts the future of the latter in doubt.

“Historically, extremism and polarization have been bad for the Jews,’’ he said. The bitter fracturing between the political right and left, and the pitting of racial groups against each other do not bode well for the community, Goldberg said.

Trump, whom he called a racist and xenophobe, became president because he appealed to white reactionaries frightened by the change in the country’s racial makeup.

American Jewry represents almost half of the world’s Jewish population, he pointed out. A diminished U.S. is also not good for Israel, for which the United States has been a “blessing,’’ he added.

Even Jews in Canada are affected, he suggested.

“The Canadian Jewish community is unusually unified and organized, but it is still small. It benefits from having happy, secure brethren to the south.”

Goldberg was praised for being “fiercely courageous” by Lewis Dobrin, co-chair of the Shaar’s Tuesday Night Learning series, of which this talk was a part. He referred to Goldberg’s “bombshell” article in The Atlantic in September reporting that Trump had called American war dead “losers” and “suckers” during a 2018 visit to a French military cemetery – a report the president vehemently denied.

Amb. David Friedman’s Unforgiveable Misstep

Oct. 7, 2020

By DAVID H. GOLDBERG

U.S. President Donald Trump takes great pride in being a rule breaker, and in the fact that his administration has taken an approach to policymaking that has been, to put it mildly, contrary to traditional methods.

This non-traditional approach is certainly reflected in the Trump Administration’s approach toward Israel and the Middle East, and the list is substantial: Recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights; recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, with the transfer of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem; that the presence of Israeli civilians living on the West Bank does not violate international law; the promotion of a peace plan that favours Israel over the Palestinians, in part by seemingly supporting the application of Israeli sovereignty over a significant area of the West Bank; midwifing the historic Abraham Accords involving formal recognition agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, and doing so without the involvement of the Palestinians – thereby belying the longstanding belief that regional peace is dependent on a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Value judgments aside, one must acknowledge that the above achieved the desired goal of demonstrating Trump’s determination to do diplomacy his way, by speaking painful truths and shake players from their complacency.

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David M. Friedman has played a key role in formulating and facilitating the implementation of the “Trump Doctrine” vis-à-vis the Middle East. An Orthodox Jew and a bankruptcy lawyer by profession, Friedman is a longtime personal friend and political supporter of the president. He has proven to be an effective advocate of Trump’s strategy of shaking up Middle East diplomacy. Consistent with Trump’s policy, he has been a strong critic of the Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas’s refusal to return to the negotiating table. He also has been a vocal supporter of the interests of Jewish settlers in the West Bank, for which he has reportedly occasionally been rebuked by the U.S. State Department.

However contentious his behaviour might be considered, Friedman was performing his professional duties. However, by recently adopting an overtly partisan position on the U.S. electoral process, he exceeded his professional boundaries and must resign.

In an interview on Oct. 6 with the UAE-based media outlet Al Ain News, Friedman cautioned that a victory in next month’s presidential election by Joe Biden would have an adverse effect on the region, especially with regard to efforts to curb the threat of Iran.

Linking then-Vice President Biden to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal pushed by the Obama Administration, “something that President Trump – and I share his view – thinks was the worst international deal the U.S. has ever entered into,” Friedman implied that a Biden victory would precipitate a U.S. re-entry into the Iran deal and to a weakening of sanctions against Iran’s efforts to expedite the acquisition of nuclear weapons.

“We worked really hard to get Iran, I think, to a much better place. I would hate to think a new administration would undermine that but, regrettably, if Biden wins, I think they might,” Friedman added. “If Biden wins, we will see a policy shift that, in my personal opinion, will be wrong and will be bad for the region, including for Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait,” he continued.

As an American citizen, Friedman has every right to express his personal opinion about policy issues driving the current U.S. electoral cycle. But he must do so only as a private citizen, not as a senior government official, and most certainly not as one of the most visible U.S. ambassadors.

The Trump Administration may pride itself on having broken many rules, but this one it cannot. Ambassador Friedman must go.


David Goldberg
David Goldberg

David H. Goldberg PhD, the author of eight books on Israel, formerly served as director of research and education for the Canada-Israel Committee and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

The Abraham Accords: Winners and Losers

Sept. 24, 2020 – By JON ALLEN

The recent UAE-Israel-U.S.A. agreement takes the immediate prospects of Israel’s illegal annexation of part of the West Bank off the table in exchange for full diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates. Bahrain has followed suit, and others – Oman, Sudan and Morocco – could soon. These accords have been variously described as breakthrough peace agreements, an arms deal, and a stab in the back of the Palestinian people.

Clearly, where one stands on this agreement depends on where one sits. For the UAE, the U.S. and Israel, this is a good deal, with multiple benefits. For Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Palestinians it’s either unwelcome or very bad news.

For the UAE, the accords bring into the open a relationship with Israel that, until now, has flown under the radar. The deal will allow the transfer of strategic defence and intelligence equipment, technology and training that could reinforce its credibility as a leading Gulf state, and help defend itself against its existential enemy, Iran.

The accord also puts the UAE in the good books of the U.S. Congress, the Trump Administration, and Joe Biden. In return for helping Donald Trump dig himself out of his failed Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, and depending on the will of the next Congress, the agreement could pave the way for the sale to the UAE of F-35 stealth fighter jets, radar scrambling aircraft, and other American defence equipment.

For the U.S., the agreements are also a plus. By diverting attention from Trump’s “deal of the century” that was going nowhere, and by helping Israel obtain two breakthrough recognition agreements, Trump solidifies his support among the right wing of the U.S. Jewish community and among American evangelicals. The billions that the UAE may spend on F-35s and other materiel are bonuses.

Finally, by taking annexation off the table, the deal removes potential acrimony between the Netanyahu government and the Biden campaign, and between Biden and the right wing of the Jewish community. 

That said, foreign policy issues rarely play a major role in U.S. elections, and these accords are unlikely to give Trump much of a bump in the polls or a fast track to the Nobel Peace Prize that he so desperately seeks.

For Israel, establishment of full relations with important Gulf states – and the legitimacy that confers – and the hope that more could follow, is huge. If the accords lead to a strategic relationship centred on confronting Iran, that development could signal an even greater shift in the region. And that could come without Israel having to negotiate a peace agreement with the Palestinians – the previous sine qua non to any recognition by Arab states.

Finally, the deal was a personal victory for Netanyahu and a brief respite at a time when he is being criticized at home for his failure to manage the economy and the COVID crisis.

Possible downsides of the agreement for Bibi include incurring the wrath of the pro-annexation settler movement. For Israel, a concern is the possible shifting of the strategic balance in the region as a result of the sale of sophisticated equipment to the UAE and other Gulf states that could potentially challenge Israel’s qualitative military edge.

In the medium term, if the agreement convinces Israelis that they can now somehow ignore the Palestinian question, such a notion could pose an existential threat to the nation’s future as a democratic state and the home of the Jewish people.

As mentioned, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia lost ground as a result of the accords. Turkey, which has had diplomatic relations with Israel since 1949, attacked the UAE for its act of recognition. Turkey also is in conflict with the UAE in both Libya and Yemen, and finds common cause with Iran on various issues, including support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. The deal clearly poses challenges on all these fronts.

Of course, Iran is Israel’s strongest and most vocal enemy. By boosting Israel’s legitimacy, breaking ranks among Arab and Muslim nations, and allowing the UAE to enhance its defence capabilities, the deal poses a direct threat to Iran’s credibility in the region at a time when U.S. sanctions, COVID, and a failing economy are already weakening Iranian leadership.

Saudi Arabia and its Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, also lost some ground. The Saudis’ disastrous forays into Yemen and Libya, coupled with the Jamal Khashoggi assassination, had already put the prince in the U.S. Congress’ bad books. The UAE departed Yemen last year in part to disassociate itself from the Saudis. By offering recognition to Israel without meeting the Arab Peace Initiative’s preconditions, the UAE further disassociated itself from the Saudis. Finally, if Congress does approve the sale of weapons and planes, the UAE will have an enhanced strategic relationship with both the U.S. and Israel that could leave the Saudis playing second fiddle for a time.

As suggested, however, this agreement bodes the worst for the Palestinians. To this point, the quid pro quo for any Arab recognition of Israel was a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians based on the Arab Peace Initiative. The Abraham Accords instead trade removing the threat of annexation – an illegal act that was heavily criticized by the international community – for full diplomatic relations.

To add insult to injury, all efforts by the Palestinians to bring the issue before the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council failed miserably. No consensus on criticizing the agreements could be achieved. Palestinian hopes that the Arab street in the UAE, Bahrain, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia might react strongly also were dashed. The only notable protests occurred in the Territories themselves.

Indeed, the only two positive elements of the accords for the Palestinians are that they united Palestinians (Hamas, Fatah, Islamic Jihad) in their opposition to them, and that they staved off legislated annexation, at least for now.

The accords’ long-term prospects are harder to predict when it comes to the Palestinians. The UAE and Bahrain claim that they have not forgotten the Palestinians. Will they and others now pressure Israel to begin negotiations with the Palestinian Authority on realistic terms? Will they oppose further settlement expansion? What role will Mohammed Dachlan, a pretender to PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ throne and an important adviser to the UAE, play in the future?

I agree with some who say it is crucial for the Palestinian Authority to replace its sclerotic leadership with new blood through open and transparent elections, to bring forward its own proposals for a two-state solution, and to dispel the notion that the Palestinians are only able to say no.

I disagree, however, with those who suggest that the time is now ripe for such a move. No legitimate proposal for a two-state solution that requires compromises on both sides will be negotiated as long as Netanyahu remains prime minister. He has made clear more than once that Palestinian statehood will not happen on his watch. Moreover, the blatantly pro-Israel terms of Trump’s so-called peace plan belies any hope that his Administration might act as an honest broker in such a negotiation.

Rather, the Palestinians should reform their political class, develop a serious draft peace proposal, consult with key Arab states and American allies on the substance and the process going forward, and act boldly once both Trump and Bibi have left the scene.


Jon Allen

Jon Allen is a Senior Fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, and served as Canada’s ambassador to Israel from 2006 to 2010.