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Friday, February 3, 2023

Bennett must convince Biden: Our enemies are also yours

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Last week, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett visited Taibe, an Israeli-Arab city. Urging his fellow citizens to get vaccinated, Bennett declared: “Echpat li me’habriyut shelachem” (I care about your health).

That “echpat li” (I care) went far beyond your usual public health announcement. Under former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the quality of life of Israeli Arabs soared by most standards – from percentage educated to average salary, etc. While seeking to expand those numbers even more quickly, Bennett and his coalition are also changing the tone. Bennett wants all Israelis to feel cherished.

In the Talmud, this Aramaic word “echpat” appears in the negative, as in Mah echpat li? (Why should I care?) or Lo echpat li (I don’t care). Israelis also use “echpat” positively – to care – including a more enveloping concept echpatiyut (state of caring).

Bennett’s historic word choice highlights the improvements he and his coalition are making in the Arab sector (and must reinforce with cuts in crime and surges in building permits). He understands that words matter, tone counts, chemistry is key to leadership.

These magic Pied-Piper-beans are keys to diplomacy, too. Nervous Nelsons may fear the timing of this week’s Israel-America summit, with the Afghanistan debacle distracting US President Joe Biden while terrifying Israelis that they too could be abandoned.

Actually, the timing’s perfect. If Bennett tells Biden, “We have not only shared values and shared interests, but also shared challenges,” he will echo the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann telling Winston Churchill in the 1940s about anti-Zionists, from Nazis to Arab terrorists: “Remember, sir, our enemies are also yours.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett ahead of his trip to America (credit: AVI OHAYON – GPO)

Even more so than a month ago, Biden now feels what it’s like to have relentless, illiberal, anti-democratic, Islamist enemies. Watch who is celebrating Afghanistan’s collapse: from Iran to Hamas to Hezbollah to ISIS and who mourns it. And today, Biden also knows the perils of broadcasting what the philosopher Isaiah Berlin called the “gloomy condition of decline” through “Political appeasement, weakness, nervous fears, blindness to distasteful facts.”

Israel is the un-Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s endemic corruption spawned a hollow army rife with no-show jobs, and no motivation to fight the evil Taliban. By contrast, Israeli democracy has created a strong, proud, independent army that courageously defends Israelis – and democracy worldwide. Israelis appreciate our mutually beneficial American friendship, but America has never propped up Israel.

Without saying anything, Bennett should broadcast Israeli confidence and echpatiyut (concern) for a shocked ally and president. He can commiserate, acknowledging Israel’s unhappy experiences with retreating from Southern Lebanon and Gaza – which emboldened fanatics and led them to underestimate Israeli resolve. As a former Israeli commando with deep American ties, Bennett can also emphasize how Israelis appreciate the sacrifices America’s soldiers made; we know their lives weren’t wasted. After September 11, 2001, everyone “knew” that terror attacks on a 9/11 scale would become common, with countries like Israel especially vulnerable. By fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, America’s soldiers put the terrorists on the defensive – just as Israel learned to do after the March 2002 Passover Seder Massacre.

Although the broader Afghani mission sputtered, America’s soldiers helped Americans – and the rest of the civilized world – return to normal after September 11, mostly living safely for 20 years. That’s what strategic depth offers – you fight away from the home front, on your terms – on the enemy’s turf.

Clearly, Bennett is visiting Washington to convey the Israeli consensus that a nuclear Iran would be catastrophic for the “big Satan” – America – not just the “little Satan” – Israel. But Biden still has a blind spot regarding Iran and Barack Obama’s flawed JCPOA agreement. The more Bennett can add intelligence-based specifics about Iran and its new butcher-in-chief abusing human rights, threatening the region, propagating illiberalism, sexism and homophobia, the more traction he is likely to get.

And the more Bennett emphasizes the need to build a new anti-Islamist pro-American firewall in the region, the more the brainstorming can commence about how American and Israeli interests overlap.

This newly Talibanized world makes allies like the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, the Saudis and Israel ever-more essential. Bennett and Biden should talk about using the September 15 anniversary celebrating the Abraham Accords’ signing to brand that achievement as theirs – as an American-Israeli breakthrough that is not the exclusive property of Bibi Netanyahu and Donald Trump. 

Israel knows that these new Arab partners aren’t democracies – but this neighborhood offers no sister democracies to befriend. Israel nevertheless trusts this peace process because it is cemented by mutual interests, common enemies, and bottom-up cultural, economic and people-to-people ties.

These Accords counter the claims that Israel is anti-Arab or anti-peace. They expose the Palestinian boycott strategy of negating any small, benign, trust-building interactions as truly anti-peace. The Accords therefore provide the right framework for discussing the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic. President Biden must realize that Israeli settlements are not the main obstacles to peace – Palestinian rejectionism, terrorism and dictatorship are.

Bennett and Biden should brainstorm about leveraging the new UAE ties to improve Palestinian lives. Perhaps some UAE investors can help build Palestinian housing – and improve Palestinian life more broadly. Such conversations can shift the Middle East dynamic from zero-sum to win-win.

Ultimately, this summit must give Joe Biden a foreign policy victory – with optics emphasizing the power, prestige and popularity America enjoys among its true allies. The needed warmth, the good vibes, will come from a mutual “echpat li”-fest: Biden needs to hear that Israel doesn’t just care about America – but still trusts America. And, as usual, Israel needs to hear that America doesn’t just care about Israel – but has our back.

The writer is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University and the author of nine books on American History and three books on Zionism. His book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.  


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