Analysts: Arab states are ‘washing their hands’ of Palestinians
Practical governments are seeking mutually beneficial relations with Israel.
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(May 24, 2021 / JNS) In what proved to be a snapshot of professional views of the Arab-Israeli conflict on the eve of war, Georgetown University adjunct professor and Middle East Institute (MEI) senior fellow Khaled Elgindy concluded that the “Arab world is sort of washing their hands” of the Palestinian cause during a May 3 MEI webinar. He agreed with his fellow panelists addressing “Arab-Israeli Normalization: A Viable Avenue Towards Peace?” that America and Arab states are prioritizing practical self-interests over an increasingly failed, violent Palestinian state project.
The panelists examined the implications of Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates establishing normal diplomatic relations with Israel during former President Donald Trump’s final months in office. These agreements initiated by Bahrain and UAE’s Abraham Accords have become only more remarkable in the days following the panel. The Iranian-supported Hamas terror group in Gaza renewed rocket attacks against Israel on May 10, firing thousands of rockets at Tel Aviv and other Israeli civilian population centers. Israel retaliated with airstrikes and artillery. UAE officials warned Hamas of sanctions if its campaign persists.
These Arab state recognitions of Israel “robbed the Palestinians of one of the very few points of leverage that they had vis-à-vis Israel,” noted Elgindy. Palestinians suffer “already pretty stark power asymmetry” with Israel. Given this “existential threat to the Palestinian national project,” he added, the “Palestinian response across the political spectrum was extremely negative.”
Richardson Center for Global Engagement vice president and executive director Mickey Bergman, Elgindy’s fellow Georgetown adjunct, argued that these Arab states had been “very opportunistic” in making deals with Israel. The panelists noted that Trump recognized Morocco’s claim to the disputed Western Sahara and delisted Sudan as a state sponsor of terror. Meanwhile, Bahrain and the UAE wanted closer ties with Israel and the United States, particularly given growing Iranian threats.
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Focusing on the Gulf states, MEI nonresident scholar Mohammed Soliman noted that for them, “geopolitics is back.” Since Trump’s 2016 election, “America has less local capital and willingness to invest in a lot of problems around the world.” In particular, “America is leaving everything behind for the Indo-Pacific,” he noted.
“In order to reorganize the region in a post-U.S. dominated architecture,” analyzed Soliman, Gulf states “need to solve certain problems and realign with certain forces.” This precluded trying to resolve the interminable Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the moribund solution of creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel. “The current status quo cannot be sustained,” he explained, “based on a dream of having a two-state solution soon.” As Elgindy concurred, “basically, what Arab states are saying is, we cannot simply wait around forever, either to pursue our bilateral interests or to pursue other geopolitical interests,” on “this unicorn called a two-state solution.”
By contrast, Gulf states seemed more interested in military alliances among themselves and with Israel to counter threats like Iran, said Soliman. “The idea of an Arab-Israeli NATO” goes back to President George W. Bush, and “we are getting there. It’s not a fancy idea anymore; however, it is going to take time.” Webinar moderator Joyce Karam, Washington correspondent for The National, noted that an “Arab NATO” was an “idea that was first started with Harry Truman” with initiatives that led to the failed 1955 Baghdad Pact.
Elgindy additionally cited the practical realities that facilitated Israel’s relations with Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan and the UAE. Unlike Egypt and Jordan, which made peace agreements with Israel in 1979 and 1994, respectively, this Arab quartet had never engaged in military hostilities with Israel. Correspondingly, several of these states have had “under-the-table relations with the Israelis anyway” and now merely “are consecrating an existing geopolitical order.”
Meanwhile, Arab states “will continue to pay lip service to two states because everyone needs some place to hang their hat” concerning a strategy for the Palestinians, observed Elgindy. Yet international actors are increasingly practicing “conflict management” and “risk aversion” towards the Palestinians, United States Institute of Peace Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Program, explained director Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen​. In tandem, she added, Israeli “trends are clear that the body politic has moved very much and largely to the right,” to the detriment of concessions to the Palestinians. This trend has only accelerated with the latest eruption of violence.
Yet even before Hamas’s latest jihad, Elgindy correctly faulted Palestinians for their plight, as the Palestinian Authority’s recent cancellation of long overdue elections—the first since 2006—further exposed the corruption of the P.A. dictatorship. The cancellation “is another sign of a, I don’t any other way to put it, but a bankrupt leadership, that has no strategic vision, that is incapable of even minimally doing what is required to put its own house in order.” “You can never really underestimate the Palestinian leadership’s dysfunction,” he added.
The election fiasco “is very much a self-inflicted wound,” said Elgindy, and Palestinians have “become their own worst enemies” by showing themselves unworthy of serious international consideration. This societal incompetence “is self-reinforcing” against Palestinian state aspirations, as Arab nations are “not inclined to want to move ahead with two states.” In this context, he chastised Israel, the United States and other countries for “opposing Palestinian reconciliation efforts” between the P.A. and Hamas, as if giving power to jihadist terrorists could solve anything.
The situational analysis of the Palestinian cause left Elgindy in a gloomy mood. Israelis continue to settle disputed West Bank territories, the historic Jewish heartland of Judea and Samaria, thereby continually limiting the extent of any future Palestinian sovereignty. “De facto annexation is happening on the ground as we speak, with nary a word of opposition” globally, he said; the situation “is deteriorating really, really rapidly.”
Yet what for Elgindy is Palestinian defeat is for others Israeli victory over a hitherto implacable foe that has resorted to futile bloodshed yet again. After decades of Israeli resilience against Arab efforts to destroy the Jewish state, practical Arab governments are seeking mutually beneficial relations with Israel and abandoning extremist, rejectionist Palestinians. If this acceptance of reality spreads to other Arab states, perhaps one day even Middle East studies professors will follow suit.
Andrew E. Harrod, a Campus Watch Fellow, freelance researcher and writer, is a fellow with the Lawfare Project. Follow him on Twitter at: @AEHarrod.
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New immigrants from Ethiopia at the Hadera absorption center in 1991. Credit: Israeli Tsvika/GPO.
Two of the 14,325 stories behind ‘Operation Solomon’
Avi Mizrachi and Racheli Tadesa Malkai recall a turbulent, yet inspiring time.
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(May 24, 2021 / JNS) Ethiopia was in the midst of a brutal civil war in 1991 when Israel decided to launch an intrepid mission that would bring 14,325 Ethiopian Jews to Israel over the course of 36 hours. The covert operation used 35 aircraft to do so, with the Israeli Air Force and its national carrier El Al having stripped its planes of seats to cram in as many souls on board as possible. It was accomplished while Yitzhak Shamir was prime minister.
While “Operation Solomon” was the third major mission (after “Operations Moses” in 1984 and “Operation Joshua” in 1985) bringing Ethiopian immigrants to Israel, it was also the largest and most complex aliyah mission to date, according to those involved.
The Jewish Agency for Israel, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Mossad and the Israel Defense Forces all worked alongside the Jewish Federation of North America and the American Association for Ethiopian Jews to bring this group of men, women and children home and save them from a fate where, at best, they were certain to be subjected to political upheaval.
Avi Mizrachi (left) with Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, then-deputy chief of staff and commander of “Operation Solomon.” Photo by Nomi Levitsky.
But behind the logistics are very real emotions regarding what people felt 30 years ago during that time and what they’ve held in their heart since. Below are just two of so many different stories.
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Avi Mizrachi: The man on the ground
As the Jewish Agency official in charge of operations at Addis Ababa airport where those 35 planes were set to whisk Ethiopian Jews to Israel, Avi Mizrachi had his work cut out for him. A year earlier, in September of 1990, the 38-year-old was sent to Ethiopia to help set the stage for the mission that would take place six months later.
“I couldn’t sleep all night when the authorities approved the operation because I knew at 6 a.m. sharp, I would need to help usher thousands of people onto the plane in an efficient and quiet manner,” he remembers. “I was up with my staff all night. I think we slept maybe an hour.”
At dawn, the Ethiopians began to trickle in, and his heart sank when he saw many of them with suitcases. Because of weight limits, they were instructed to leave their belongings at home, save for a few Judaica items.
New immigrants from Ethiopia after their arrival in Israel as part of “Operation Solomon” in 1991. Credit: Alpert Nathan/GPO.
“We had to confiscate the suitcases and put them aside; that was not an easy choice. These families had nothing, so taking anything from them felt cruel, but it’s what we had to do if we wanted to get everyone safely on the plane,” he lamented.
Thirty years later, he marvels at the Ethiopians’ patience and compliance, many of whom had never left their city, much less ever seen a plane before.
“ ‘Operation Solomon’ couldn’t have happened with any other ethnic group other than Ethiopians,” said Mizrachi. “Nobody pushed or shoved to be first in line; I never heard a single child cry, even though there were many of them. They were orderly, quiet and paid attention to instructions.
“And when they landed in Israel, they immediately kissed the ground,” he added. “I’ll never forget that moment.”
Although Mizrachi no longer works for the Jewish Agency, he makes a point of greeting every single flight of Ethiopian new olim, who as a people carved a huge place in his heart.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s the first flight or the 20th, the heightened emotions are still the same,” he said. “I’ll never be immune. It’s like having another child; every time you come home with the baby in your arms from the hospital, it’s a life-changing experience.”
Racheli Tadesa Malkai: The voice for Ethiopian women
Today, Racheli Tadesa Malkai runs a successful nonprofit organization that encourages and empowers Ethiopian women to become independent and self-sufficient in their personal and professional lives. But at 8 years old, the little girl who tentatively boarded a plane for the first time certainly didn’t know what the future would hold in the land of “milk and honey.”
“I had seven brothers and was the only daughter. It was expected of me to help a lot around the house, so I grew up very fast,” she explained. “This made me very independent and why I care so much for women. I want them to know that they don’t need to wait for someone to give them permission to change their lives. They can do it themselves.”
Malkai, though, believed that had she stayed in Ethiopia, this realization of female empowerment would never have dawned on her.
Racheli Tadesa Malkai. Credit: Courtesy.
Not only because in Ethiopia she wouldn’t have had the freedom to become a self-starting entrepreneur, but also because diving into the deep end of the aliyah pool at a young age made her acquire instant adult life skills.
“I was the one responsible for helping my parents with the language [Hebrew] and adjusting to life here. The older generation had more of a difficult time acclimating to life in Israel. They often left their entire career back home and never really started up again when they arrived here,” she said. “So the younger generation had to look out for them.”
Although the mission was a successful one, adjusting to Israel’s modern lifestyle, customs and traditions proved challenging for Malaki and her peers.
Adding to the adjustment process, upon arriving in Israel, she was asked to change the Ethiopian name her parents gave her, Amevet, to the one she goes by today. That, of course, was common in the early days of Eastern European immigration and the original Zionist pioneers, and even for Americans who moved to Israel after the establishment of the modern-day state in 1948, but harder for children.
She noted that “subsequent olim from Ethiopia are not expected to change their names, and many bring over their traditions from back home with pride.”
In many ways, she said “Operation Solomon” sparked an evolution of Ethiopian aliyah where transitioning to Israeli life became markedly easier, both because Ethiopians knew what to expect from Israel and vice versa.
“Luckily, olim today don’t have to go through the same drastic changes we did. We were so naive, and we didn’t know we could push back. Now we know to fight for what’s ours. So with every operation, each oleh is a little bit more empowered.”
Still, maintaining Ethiopian identity is one of the driving forces in Malkai’s organization. “This is one of the reasons I want to preserve our identity. Connecting to one’s heritage is so important because once you know where you’re from, only then can you really know where you’re going,” she added.
And despite the hardships, Malkai stressed that she is grateful for the ground she walks on.
“I’m so happy to be here. I never even think back to what my life would have been if I stayed in Ethiopia. Even with Israel’s faults, this is my country,” she said. “I’m a Zionist, and I’m always thinking about how I can make life better here for my community, who dreamed for generations to be part of Am Israel—“the People of Israel.”
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