Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.
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Ori Nir 00:01
Hello, everyone. Welcome to this Americans for Peace Now webinar. I'm Ori Nir and with me is my colleague Madeleine Cereghino. She's our Director of Government Relations. Hi Madeline. Our guest this week is Amir Tibon. He's the diplomatic correspondent of Haaretz. He is still, I suppose, battling jet lag after covering Prime Minister Netanyahu's trip to the United States last week. We will soon introduce Amir. But before that, as you probably are familiar with our usual housekeeping notes. So as you know this conversation is being recorded. It will be posted on our YouTube channel sometime tomorrow, and on our podcast PeaceCast sometime later today. Also, as you know, you can ask questions, you're actually encouraged to ask questions and you can start doing it at any time beginning now. Please keep them short, because we try to, you know, we vet them as we go along. So Amir is one of Israel's leading journalists. As the diplomatic correspondent for Haaretz, he covers Israel's foreign relations with an emphasis on the US Israel relationship and diplomacy in the Middle East. Previously, he was Haaretz's US news editor. And he was Haaretz's news editor. And from 2017 to 2020, he was Haaret's correspondent here in Washington, we saw each other quite often when he was here. And he is also the co-author of an interesting book that we featured not that long ago on our podcast. It's called The Last Palestinian: The Rise and Reign of Mahmoud Abbas. He's joined us from his home at Kibbutz Nahal Oz. It's on the Israel Gaza border. A few years ago, he hosted us at his home at the kibbutz when we were there with an APN study tour group. And it was a really fascinating experience. So Amir, thank you very much for joining us.
Amir Tibon 03:00
My pleasure. Hi, how are you? Hi, Madeline. Hello, everyone. Thanks for having me.
Madeleine Cereghino 03:05
We have a lot of ground to cover, the Saudi deal, the Visa Waiver Program, the protests, Netanyahu's relations with the White House to the American jury, the future of his coalition and the judicial reform, and probably more. But let's start since this is, I think, on the top of everyone's minds, in the last 24 hours or so with the acceptance of Israel into the Visa Waiver Program. I know it's been a long time coming and a major coup for Netanyahu. But can you tell us more about what the political significance of this is? And to what extent Israel had to make serious concessions to be admitted, and how it's playing domestically in Israeli politics.
Amir Tibon 04:00
So yeah, Madeleine, that's definitely the biggest story of the day here in Israel. Yesterday, the US State Department announced that Israel has been accepted into the Visa Waiver Program. And it means that we are now the 41st country in the world, number 41, that will see an opportunity for its citizens to travel to the US without having to go through the long process of heading physically to the embassy and asking for a visa. Instead, Israelis will be able to use an electronic system called ESTA that basically allows you to submit your information online and get a permit. And assuming you're not a criminal or have a history of trying to enter illegally into the US, you enter your details into the system through your phone and within 48 hours, you get an entry permission into the United States which is valid for three months and only for tourism purposes. It's not that Israelis can now Use this for work or study. For those purposes, we still have to get a visa. Of course, this will make the lives of many Israelis much easier because Israelis love to travel to the United States. And I think this will impact everyone in Israel, because basically, there are people who are eligible to travel and until now had to get a visa. And now they can do it without a visa, which is fun. And there were people whose visa applications were rejected over the years because their English wasn't good enough for the interview, because they couldn't convince the embassy staff that they were actually going for short tourism purposes and they were suspected of trying to come illegally for work or things like that. And now they will also not have to go through this process. So obviously, this makes a lot of people in Israel happy. The efforts to get Israel into the Visa Waiver Program started under the previous government in Israel, the government of Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, it I think it was raised in the first meeting that the Bennett had with President Biden more than two years ago in the Oval Office, and a lot of work was put into it both by the previous government and the current administration in the United States. One of the leading people behind the effort was Tom Nides, the American ambassador. Just over a year ago, this issue got stuck because there was a political crisis in Israel, the Lapid-Bennett government fell apart, and a crucial vote on some issues that Israel had to take care of in order to enter the Visa Waiver Program was delayed in the Israeli Knesset, because the opposition at the time led by Netanyahu refused to cooperate with this vote. This was about all kinds of technical adjustments that the Israeli Minister of the Interior had to take. I'm not going to bore you with the details. At the time, Ambassador Nides was begging Netanyahu and the leader of the opposition, to put the interests of the country above his own personal political interests and allow this legislation to pass so the process could move forward. Netanyahu refused to do it, everything got stuck. And only after the election that we had last year was over, and a new government was founded, this one, you know, the current government led by Netanyahu, was the process renewed, and eventually it reached fruition this week, the most important thing that Israel had to agree to, in order to receive its membership in the Visa Waiver Program, was to offer much easier travel conditions for American-Palestinians who are entering Israel at any of the country's entry points, which can mean, American citizens living in the US or anywhere in the world who wants to land at Ben Gurion Airport and be able to enter Israel, or enter the occupied West Bank for family trips, for example, for visiting relatives. Until recently, these people had to either go through a very long and unusual interview process that would differentiate them significantly from other American citizens. Like you know, my cousins who live in New York and in Boston and in Portland, Oregon, I have family in many different places in the United States. If they want to come and visit our family in Israel, they just get on a plane, land in Israel and show their American passport. Tell the border officer that they're visiting relatives in Kibbutz Nahal Oz or in Tel Aviv, and they just get into the country. But Palestinian Americans went through a much more difficult process. And a lot of times they couldn't even go into Israel, they had to land first of all in Jordan, cross through the Allenby bridge that separates Jordan from the West Bank. So now that's over. Now, Israel has agreed that they will be able to land in Ben Gurion Airport like any other American citizen. And there are also implications for American citizens living in the occupied territories. We're talking about dozens of thousands of Palestinian Americans living in the West Bank, and something like five, six or seven hundred Palestinian Americans who are living in the Gaza Strip. And they will also now be able to enter easily, much more easily into Israel. Until now, this is something that we published in Haaretz about a month ago, up until early September, the Israeli security system believes that more than 12,000 Palestinian Americans from the West Bank alone, have already used the eased travel conditions to go into Israel. Okay, more than 12,000 people who are American citizens but are living permanently in the West Bank, have used this new policy that Israel agreed to in order to enter the Visa Waiver Program to get into Israel through checkpoints in the West Bank much more easily. There are still some technical issues that have to be resolved. The most significant is that Israel still does not allow Palestinian Americans who live In the West Bank to enter using a car. Okay, today, if again, my relatives in Portland, Oregon want to land in Israel, they can land in Ben Gurion. Now Palestinian Americans can do the same, they can get a car. But my relatives can take their car and drive to some settlements in the West Bank if they want to do that for some reason. And then they can take the car and go back to the beach in Tel Aviv. But Palestinian Americans living in Ramallah or in Nablus cannot just take a car and drive to the beach in Tel Aviv, they have to stop the car at an Israeli checkpoint, get off the car, cross by foot and then take a taxi on the other side. This is obviously discrimination between different groups of American citizens. And so the American administration received the commitment from Israel that this will be resolved. There are some security considerations that are involved, obviously. And so Israel is committed to solve this and to find a formula that will allow them to bring cars into Israel as well. It's being discussed between the countries. But bottom line, I think what all of this proves, I'll just try to summarize it in three very short points. Number one, it proves that a lot of what we have said over the years in Israel, regarding travel conditions for Palestinians, in general Palestinian Americans, specifically, and also Arab citizens of Israel does sometimes get discriminated against when they try to travel out of the country, a lot of it was actually not true. Because if there were only security considerations involved, then we would never cancel those security considerations just because of the visa waiver opportunity, right? I mean, we don't want to risk the life of even one Israeli citizen for the prospect of the visa waiver, as great as it is. So either, we lied before, and some of these security conditions weren't actually necessary, which is not a great option. Or these rarely, the security establishment actually didn't lie. It said the truth all along, but now it was forced to bend its own position and accept the American demands, because the government wanted a big political win in the, you know, sense of the visa waiver. I don't know which option is true. And I don't know which option is worse, but it has to be one of them. That's number one. Number two. I think this shows that when Netanyahu and I think my friend Barak Ravid wrote something along those lines today, when Netanyahu wants to achieve something, he's actually willing to make all sorts of concessions. I mean, I'm trying to imagine the alternative history in which the Bennett-Lapid government is still in power in Israel, that government agreed to all kinds of easements, travel restrictions for Palestinians in order to get into the Visa Waiver Program. Under that government, 12,000 Palestinians enter Israel more easily from the West Bank into Israel. Under that government, Americans living in Gaza get a permit to come into Israel for 90 days. I just cannot even imagine the response from Netanyahu as the leader of the opposition. And some of you know other members of the current government Smotrich, Ben-Gvir, they will just explode if this was done under the previous government. But now that they're in power, suddenly it's kosher. And the third point I want to make, I think this has been a huge political gift for Netanyahu. And it's actually the second time in a week that Biden has given something valuable to Netanyahu and, you know, really propelled his political standing in Israel. Netanyahu overall, is in a terrible political situation. His government is extremely unpopular. It's a failure on so many fronts. And that is reflected in public opinion. The only two bits of good news that he has received in the last month, I would argue, were President Biden's invitation to the White House that was relayed to him last week, and the visa waiver news that came yesterday. So basically, Biden is now Netanyahu's lifeline. make of it what you will.
Madeleine Cereghino 14:13
I think there's a lot that could be made of that. You know, I think for those of you on this call or Zoom webinar, who didn't see, we did come out with a, you know, a position yesterday seeing clearly and reiterating really what we felt all along that without reaching all of the prerequisites to be added into the program... you mentioned that they're still negotiating how to work out the driving-into-Israel element. Without meeting all the requirements is premature and feels a bit like, you know, giving, you know singling out or giving some sort of special consideration that, you know, isn't quite consistent with the way that this program is supposed to be structured. So it is a little surprising given, you know...
Amir Tibon 15:07
I mean... I will say about this matter, I'm not an expert on visa waiver in general. And it's hard for me to compare the Israeli case to other countries. I know there have been letters by senators and members of Congress and other civil society organizations that have made this argument. For me, the interesting point, again, is that, you know, whether I accept the American government's argument that actually there was no special treatment of Israel, or if I accept the other argument, I think it's clear that there was a very, very strong political will that pushed this along from the American side, this administration wanted to make this happen. Okay, this was a priority for them. Now, we can argue "why", you know, maybe they will argue that whatever they did get out of Israel, for American Palestinians is, by itself significant and will impact the lives of thousands of people in a positive way. I think it's hard to completely discount that, right? I mean, for the thousands of people who have already entered Israel through this changed policy that has made a big difference. Maybe they will argue this as part of a bigger attempt that they're making to get more out of this far right Israeli government, and give more to Palestinians. But maybe they're also more cynical. Arguments involve that, you know, somebody thinks this will, for some reason, help the President politically. I wrote today, in Haaretz, something a bit cynical that maybe this is Biden's way to get 72% of the Jewish vote next year instead of the 71% that was already promised to him, because honestly, I don't believe this will make any big difference. But I agree with you. There are a lot of open questions about this last week of the US-Israel relationship, and how really Biden has, all of a sudden after freezing Netanyahu for 10 months, really came out strongly for him.
Ori Nir 17:01
So keeping that in mind, maybe we can zoom out a little bit. We'll zoom in on other topics later. But maybe you can zoom out a little bit and talk to us a little bit about your takeaways, your takeaways from Netanyahu's visit to the US. As you were sitting on the plane going back to Israel, what were your thoughts? What's your takeaway here?
Amir Tibon 17:26
This was a very interesting visit, for three reasons. First of all, there was something unprecedented about it, really historic, which was the amount of protests that took place against Netanyahu while he was on US soil. And these protests were led by Israeli expats in the United States, both in San Francisco, where Netanyahu began his visit for his meeting with Elon Musk. And later on in New York, I've been covering these visits of Israeli Prime Ministers for quite some time. I don't have Ori's, you know, longer history in journalism. But still, I've seen enough of these visits. And I think already you've covered many before. And I think we will agree on this. There has never been anything like this. Thousands of people came out to demonstrate against it. And now and while again, the leadership and most of the people there were Israeli expats, there was also a very significant presence by American Jews. I get to interview people from Boston and from San Francisco and from Philadelphia, and from Chicago and other places that came in especially to New York, to demonstrate against Netanyahu mostly on Friday morning when he gave his speech to the UN. And the contrast between the empty UN Hall in which he spoke, it was almost completely empty because most of the leaders and foreign ministers had gone home by Friday morning. So the empty hall, in which he was speaking, contrasted with the thousands of people demonstrating outside was a very strong scene. And this was truly unprecedented. And I think the main question is, will this now take a life of its own? Are we seeing the birth of a new movement here that brings together Israeli liberals and Jewish American liberals? And most of the people protesting there were holding Israeli flags. Okay, this was not a an anti-Israeli or pro-Palestinian, whatever you want to call it demonstration. Again, not that for me, personally, it's problematic if people also protest for Palestinian rights. But just on the factual side, this was not the issue here. These were people who define themselves as Zionist lovers of Israel, and they came out to demonstrate against the Israeli prime minister and they were prominent rabbis over there. There were American Jewish community leaders, it was a fascinating and unprecedented situation. The second thing that I want to note is that up until Wednesday morning, at 11am Eastern Time, this visit was a complete failure. And it was basically a stumbling, embarrassing series of weird events, starting with Netanyahu, as he's about to step on his plane in Israel, deciding to say that the demonstrators against him are equal to Iran and the PLO, which is just like, you know, feed fuel to the fire of division and the tension in Israel. Then the meeting with Elon Musk, which was cringe-worthy to say the least. And Musk, you know, after an attorney, flew all the way to San Francisco to meet him, sits in front of Netanyahu and tells them, you know, this is the most controversial thing I've ever had here at Tesla. I've had more people contact me against this and demonstrate outside than anything before. And his other meetings with world leaders didn't create a lot of interest. There were other events in Israel that took the spotlight. So it really looked pretty bleak for him until Wednesday, 11AM when President Biden, late 40 minutes for the meeting, which by itself was beginning to look weird. Like why is the President late to meet the Prime Minister, once we sat in front of Netanyahu and said, I hope to see you later this year in Washington. And within a second, everything changed for Netanyahu, it was a complete switch. The headlines in Israel were conquered by the fact that after 10 long months that Biden was freezing him and keeping him away, he had suddenly, you know, finally received his invitation to the White House, which for him means a lot because it shows to the Israeli public that despite all the controversy in the country, the extremism of his government, the tensions that we've seen with the United States recently, he's still accepted, he's still respected. So that was a big moment for him. And after that, again, everything changed, the entire dynamic became more positive, and he could conclude the trip as successful, despite again, all of the other things that happened before. The third thing I want to say is that we also finished this trip with a big question mark. And that question mark is, what did Biden ask for in return? It's clear that Biden did something huge for Netanyahu. And a week later on top of that he gave the visa waiver. I mean, you can argue he invited Netanyahu to the White House and told him he doesn't have to get a visa for eight days. But what if anything, is he getting in return? Tom Friedman wrote in the New York Times, a column a few days ago arguing that while Biden was hugging Bibi, he slipped a you know, a list of homework into his pocket with the other hand, basically told him okay, now if you want to go along with this Saudi fantasy deal that we're concocting, here are the actual things you have to do on the ground to make things better for Palestinians. And these are things that will challenge your government. I also need you to slow down with your judicial overhaul, I don't need any noise in Israel right now. Maybe that's something that happened, maybe Netanyahu gave all sorts of commitments, which in my mind would be completely worthless, because with Netanyahu, what you don't get in cash you're never going to get and I think on the visa waiver, by the way, the administration understood that, at least on the visa waiver, they first of all, demanded that Israel will implement the changes toward the Palestinians, and only later added the country into the program. Again, they did not complete all of these various commitments, we still have this issue with the car travel. But you cannot argue that they got nothing in return. Okay. I mean, Israel had to first of all give cash in hand on the Palestinian American issue, and only later it got into the program. With the White House invitation, it seems like Biden gave away the prize, and maybe got the third check. And we don't know how much that check is worth. But that's pretty much the big question mark that remains.
Madeleine Cereghino 23:58
Thank you so much, Amir, You briefly mentioned the Saudi deal, but we want to jump a little further into that. Do you think that it seems likely to happen? And by "it", obviously, we mean full normalization of Saudi-Israeli relations.
Amir Tibon 24:16
I would say the chances today are higher than they were a year or two ago, obviously, because we know two things after this Netanyahu visit. First of all, we know that Biden actually wants it until now, we didn't really know if Biden wants it. We knew that Netanyahu wanted it. And we knew that Mohammed bin Salman wanted it. Both of them have a very clear interest in seeing this deal come together. For Netanyahu, it would be a complete makeover. You know, after a disastrous start to his sixth term in office, completely overshadowed by the judicial overhaul and the tensions in Israel. He would finally get some really big deal put forward by this government a huge achievement and It will change the entire political dynamic inside Israel. So that's obviously for Netanyahu. For Mohammed bin Salman, this is the best opportunity he will have to erase the stain of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. And try to restart his image in Washington and in the United States in general. And that, you know, when people hear his name, their first instinct, the first, the first thing that comes to their mind will be the peace agreement with Israel and not the murder of a Washington Post columnist at his consulate in Istanbul, this is his best way to achieve it. And of course, along the way, he will get American weapons, he will get American support for a nuclear program, opening Israel and Saudi Arabia to mutual business. I mean, honestly, that's already happening today. Already today, there is a lot of business going on between Israel and Saudi Arabia, but an official agreement will make it easier. So it's clear that these two leaders have wanted this all the time. But last week, we learned for the first time that President Biden wants it as well. Until now we were reading briefings that were given by some of his advisors about this. And you know, we saw all kinds of statements from senior people in the White House, but the President has spoken. He wants to deal, which makes it I think likelier than it was before, the second thing that we learned, and I think that is also very, very significant. We learned that for Netanyahu and Biden, they now feel, and bin Salman do they now feel comfortable to talk about it publicly? Okay, they feel comfortable to talk about it out in the open if anyone mentioned it in the UN. Biden mentioned it before the meeting with Netanyahu, although in a more cautious way. And Ben Salman mentioned it openly in his interview with Fox News. So if they feel comfortable enough to talk about it in public, it definitely means that there is some momentum behind it. Having said that, the challenges remain huge. I think all the different pieces still have to be resolved. There is the question of Saudi Arabia's nuclear demands, which I know is creating a lot of concern in Washington, DC, I interviewed several leading American and Israeli nuclear experts who said that they strongly oppose any framework in which the Saudis get uranium enrichment on their own soil, because it would then open up the door to an arms race and the entire Middle East, all the other countries would want the same. And the Emirates signed an agreement with the United States just a few years ago that gave them civilian nuclear support, but they completely had to stay away from any kind of enrichment. Now, if the Saudis get it, they're going to ask for the same. And this could go beyond the Middle East, South Korea will probably say, hey, what about us? Are we not as good of an ally as Saudi Arabia? Are you kidding? There's the Palestinian issue. The Biden administration continues to say all the time that disagreement will require a significant Palestinian component. They don't really go into details, but they say money will not be enough. It's not just going to be the Saudis pumping $5 billion into the Palestinian Authority. And that's it, there's going to be something more significant, and it will mean that it will be more difficult for Netanyahu's coalition to pass. This is a coalition that is filled with far-right extremists, very ideological people who oppose any kind of steps to strengthen the Palestinian Authority and enhance the possibility of the two state solution. This is not going to be easy. Again, I don't know what the Saudis are asking for on the Palestinian issue. This is another big question mark. There is a huge difference between how the Israeli side and the American side discuss the Saudi side when it comes to the Palestinians. American officials that I speak with, they say all the time, Mohammed bin Salman wants to emerge from this deal as the leader not just of Saudi Arabia, not just of the Arab world, but of the Muslim Sunni world at large. And he cannot do that if the agreement that he reaches with Israel is criticized by Palestinians, criticized by the Jordanians, criticized by the Algerians, criticized by Tunisia and is described by Saudi Arabia's enemies such as Iran, Hezbollah as selling out the Palestinians.
Ori Nir 29:34
So Amir, what do you think will be the content of the ask regarding the Palestinians and and would Netanyahu whose coalition partners be able to swallow it, to live with it?
Amir Tibon 29:52
So again, I don't have the answer, or I want to complete the argument. I mean, about the Americans in Israel. So the Americans are saying because bin Salman envisions this greater Muslim world figure he has to have the Palestinians happy about this deal. And he needs this deal to be popular in the Arab world and in the Muslim world, it cannot look like a sell out of the Palestinians. This is the American argument. The Israeli argument is no bin Salman wants the American weapons, he wants the nuclear program. And he wants better PR on Capitol Hill, that's it doesn't care about the Palestinians. And the bare minimum of giving them some money and some travel easements or something will be enough. I am not enough of an expert on Saudi Arabia, to tell you who is right, the Americans are the Israelis, who is a better interpreter of the Saudi demand on the Palestinians. People that I talked to who are experts on Saudi Arabia tend to accept the American view more than the Israeli view. But of course, this is a huge debate, and you know, it will completely change the face of this emerging deal. If the Americans are right, then Israel will have to make significant steps toward the Palestinians, they are going to have to give them territories that today are considered Area C and turn them into area B or A, basically much stronger affiliation with the Palestinian Authority. Maybe they will have to take down some illegal outposts in the West Bank, you know, settlements that are illegal, even according to Israeli Law, maybe there will have to be some kind of a settlement freeze. Maybe, you know, some kind of a statement recognizing parts of East Jerusalem is the capital of a future Palestinian state. All of these things are on the table, if you believe the American side, if you believe Netanyahu and Ron Dermer, and you know, other officials in this Israeli government, it's just going to come up to the Saudis giving the Palestinian Authority a ton of money, Israel, giving them some small symbolic issues. And that's it. We'll have to wait and see.
Ori Nir 31:58
So let's go back and talk about what could be or what, what would be the reaction of people like Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, if in fact that Netanyahu is willing to make concessions like that? It would be a huge dilemma for them. On the one hand, you know, they are hardline and their ideology, and they feel like, oh, they owe things to their base. On the other hand, when we look at current polls, they show that their support has been about half or something like that, right. So they don't want to go to new elections, at least not in the current political climate in Israel. What's your sense?
Amir Tibon 32:43
Yeah Ori this is a huge dilemma for them. Because here's the deal. This is the only thing that can save this failed government. The only thing that can save this government is theIsraeli-Saudi deal, this government in 10 months has burned all the bridges. It has been a complete failure and disaster on the economy, on security. We've had more Israelis killed by Palestinian attacks this year than the previous year, and the year is not even over. Okay. And this is under a full right wing government that's supposed to be so tough and great on security. Well, guess what, they've ignited a mini Intifada. And that has caused the lives of close to 40 Israelis, which is an all time high since you know, the end of the Second Intifada. So complete failure and security complete failure on the economy. I mean, the shekel is losing value versus the dollar every day, investments in the Israeli high tech sector are going down, the stock market in Tel Aviv is lagging far behind all the other big stock markets in the world. Israeli society is being torn apart, tensions between sectors every day, crime is rising in a scary way, especially within the Arab society in Israel, but honestly, all over the country. I mean, there is a huge number, a huge rise in the number of murder cases this year. So the only thing that this government can do to regain some public trust, some support, some legitimacy is the Saudi deal. They don't have anything else on the table. And so maybe Netanyahu, will you know, bring in his extremists partners and tell them listen, right now we're heading toward a disaster at some point, this government will fall apart, maybe it will be in a month, maybe it will be in two years, but either way, we'll have nothing to show the public and we will be punished in the next election. Or you can now agree to some concessions that maybe your public will not like and maybe you will be criticized and ridiculed for it. And people, you know, the opposition will say that what's the point in having a right wing government if they are implementing our policy and weird things like that, but you have to swallow it and You have to be tough because this is our one last chance of redemption. I don't know if it will work for him. These are very ideological people. They are Messianic. Okay, they you know, for them, there are the voters. But there's also God involved in the picture. And once God gets into politics, you guys know it as well in the United States. Sometimes people can do things that are against their own political interest. So we'll see how that plays out, assuming there even is a deal. I mean, I'm not saying 100% That we're even going to get there. I think, again, the chances are higher than they were a year or two ago. But the obstacles remain very, very significant.
Ori Nir 35:41
Amir, with your permission, I want to turn the microphone to Madeline for a moment. Madeline is our expert on Congressional Affairs. She's familiar with the hill. And I want to ask her to comment briefly, if you can, Madeleine, on how the US-Israel-Saudi deal with the prospects of a deal is playing on Capitol Hill.
Amir Tibon 36:02
I would love to hear that as well. Very important question for me, too.
Ori Nir 36:05
Are you with us? I know that Madeleine had some WiFi problems earlier. So she may, at this critical moment, unfortunately, be frozen. Maybe we'll get back to her later. And in the meanwhile, I'll ask you another question, Amir. And that has to do with something that may seem small, and like an anecdote, but I think it's more than that. And that is Sara Netanyahu and her role. She was featured, she was very visible on this trip, including in the meeting with Elon Musk. Why, it's very unusual. I mean, we haven't seen this again, this is also something that we haven't seen in past visits of Israeli Prime Ministers. What's her role? What, what is going on there?
Amir Tibon 36:56
Quite a question Ori. And first of all, I have to say, I am one of the only reporters who, you know, cover Netanyahu regularly, who almost never writes about her. Because first of all, I think, well, the Israeli media is fascinated with her and her long history of alleged abuse of workers, and screaming and shouting matches, and then all kinds of wild rumors about psychiatric situations and things I don't want to get into, because I don't know if they're true or not. At the end of the day, I put the responsibility on one man, Benjamin Netanyahu, if she is a problem, then you know, he's responsible for it just as well. I think in a way, there is a bit of a deflection strategy there on behalf of Netanyahu to kind of feed into this public perception that Oh, my God, you know, she's crazy, and this and that. But I put the responsibility for... and by the way, the same goes with his older son Yair Netanyahu, who has this toxic public personality on social media, shares conspiracy theories, shares a lot of just horrifying, terrible things. I put the responsibility on the Prime Minister, not on anyone around him. And I think, you know, there has been a lot of writing over the years about the influence of Sara and Yair on the prime minister. And then again, it's interesting to read sometimes, but at the end of the day, you know, he is responsible for this atmosphere of madness in his office in his environment, and the way that it's impacting the country.
Ori Nir 38:42
So just if he's, if he's in fact responsible, I'm just interested in the optics here...
Amir Tibon 38:47
Why did she have to join his meeting with Elon Musk first, and why is this what you're asking? There is no good answer for this. I mean, honestly, in most countries, you don't see this kind of thing happen. I agree. It's a weird dynamic that Israelis have become somewhat immune to, but to people looking from the outside, sometimes it still looks very weird. And then it's a subject. It's a subject of many jokes among Israelis, and a lot of humor. And then, because it's just sometimes extremely awkward, you know, and other prime ministers didn't necessarily have this kind of dynamic. I mean, it's really unique to this couple. But at the same time, it's on the list of problems that I see with the current government in Israel. It's not even in the top 10. I mean, it is a problem, but it's not even in the top 10.
Ori Nir 39:46
I see that Madelein you restarted your router and you're with us. So if you can talk a little bit about how the US-Israel-Saudi deal is playing on Capitol Hill.
Madeleine Cereghino 40:00
Gladly and I apologize for my WiFi challenges. And, look, it's it's a tricky situation that the Biden administration is in and they know that and they've been, you know, lobbying the hill and prepping senators for quite a while now, they're going to need, you know, 67 senators to support this, if the, you know, parameters of this deal are such that it turns into a treaty, which would... which is quite the obstacle to overcome. And, you know, we have an interesting mixture of senators who are poised to potentially oppose the deal that gives Saudi any degree of nuclear capabilities. You know, you mentioned the nonproliferation people. But we also have, you know, other hawks in Saudi in general, and this spans both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. And we haven't even begun to talk about those who are, you know, critical of a potential deal from the perspective of Palestinian rights, and there are plenty of progressives who have, you know, already stated that any sort of deal does need to prioritize Palestinians. So they definitely have their work cut out for them. I will say people are not going to be opposing something they don't know the parameters of. I think that's the tricky position that we're all in. Right. Nobody knows what is actually contained by this deal. Nobody knows what concessions will be made to the Palestinians. So no one, no one's really taking any firm positions. But the administration definitely has quite the hill to climb, literally and figuratively. Yeah.
Ori Nir 41:49
Yeah. A topic that I like, actually, both of you to comment on, if you if you're willing, is the Israeli protest movement and its impact on us Israeli relations and the attitude of the US government, both on both sides of, in other words, both the White House and Congress. To what extent Amir made the noise outside the meeting room when when Netanyahu and Biden were meeting, to what extent did that get into the room figuratively, of course, and... to actually play a role in the conversation and in the relationship between Netanyahu and Biden...
Amir Tibon 42:39
Biden, in the last 10 months, has again, and again, chosen to make statements regarding this moment in Israel. And he spoke very clearly about the protests about the need to find consensus for any constitutional changes, about the importance of preserving checks and balances. And he did it again, when they met last week. And until the White House invitation was unveiled, it was actually the main headline from the meeting, which for me, was not as good and was, you know, actually much better for the protesters. I will argue that the problem for Biden actually has to do with the situation in Washington, you know, in Capitol Hill, Biden has clearly placed himself as a defender of Israeli democracy. And he said, you know, this is bad, and it needs to change. The problem is that it's not clear if the Democratic Party is with him on this. And if there is one way to impact the direction of American policy toward the Israeli judicial overhaul and the Netanyahu government's attempts to weaken the judiciary and give absolute power to the government, if there's one way to influence it, is to create broader support for President Biden on this issue, in the Democratic Party and in the American Jewish community, because Biden cannot put the weight of, you know, standing up to Netanyahu's authoritarian power grab, exclusively on his own shoulders. He cannot do that because he's an American president entering an election year, he's very busy with other issues. You know, there are question marks about his own future plans. He's just not going to have the time and the political capital to be the one person who keeps nagging on you know, don't do this, don't do this. But if there is a sense that number one, the American Jewish community at large, including, you know, mainstream parts of it, are opposed to this power gram that will give him significantly more maneuvering space to do this. And of course, it will be clear that the Democratic Party's behind him that will also make a big difference. That's why AIPAC, which is today the pro-Netanyahu, anti-Israeli democracy lobby, let's not fool ourselves. That's why AIPAC made an effort to bring 24 Democratic members of Congress over the summer to Israel, in order to have them meet with Netanyahu for almost three hours and hear from him that these are just minor changes, of course, Israel will remain a strong democracy. This is what it was about. Okay. AIPAC wants to create more difficult conditions for Biden to intervene, they want him to be isolated on this issue. And that it will look like a personal feud between Biden and Antonia, that is not really the business of the average Democratic member of Congress. And they even want some parts of the American Jewish community and not Americans for peace now, but other organizations to come forward and say this is an internal Israeli matter, the president should not get involved, this will be resolved internally in Israel and blah, blah, blah. AIPAC talking points. That's what the battle is about. Biden has made his stand. The question is, will the American Jewish community and the Democratic Party stand with him? And I believe that demonstrations last week were very important in that regard that we did see people in the American Jewish community come out and speak out and support this. I think there needs to be more coming from Congress from the Democratic Party. We know there is a resolution in support of the Israeli protest movement that's been circulating on Capitol Hill, I think Madeleine maybe can give a more updated number I've heard the last time it was close to 50.
Madeleine Cereghino 46:27
Including Congressman Schakowsky, it's 85.
Amir Tibon 46:30
- Wow, that's okay. That's changed. I need to take note of that as well. And so I think, you know, these are very important issues, to create an atmosphere in which Biden will have more support, to speak out about this and to express his reservations, and he will not be alone. And the American Jewish community is critical here, because a lot of times when it comes to Israel, it's the American Jewish community that sets the terms of the conversation that gets to the side, what is pro Israel and what is not, what is support for Israel, and what is harmful to a lot of times in the American public discourse, whether that's good or bad. The reality is, the American Jewish community has an important role in setting the terms of the conversation. So on this issue, specifically, it's going to be critical.
Ori Nir 47:18
Madeleine, what's your impression? Is your impression that the Democratic Party is behind Biden on this?
Amir Tibon 47:23
I think they're ahead of Biden on this in many cases. You know, I think there's been a real outcry from members, while the numbers of this resolution don't reflect, you know, the entirety of the Democratic caucus. There has been a lot of pushback over the months of this protest. And, and I think that they've really, you know, been able to differentiate right, Netanyahu from the state, and I think that really plays in also to these concerns around a potential Saudi deal, right, like they're looking at potentially giving a win to Netanyahu and and a lot of Democrats on the Hill, view it this way. And so I actually, I actually disagree with you, I think the Democrats, or at least a good portion of them, would like to see the President do more. This is, for me, personally, encouraging to hear, even though you who work on Capitol Hill every day, see this as moving much faster than I see it from here.
Madeleine Cereghino 48:43
Look, let's be clear, there are a lot of other priorities on the hill, particularly this week. Trending towards the shutdown...
Amir Tibon 48:52
Just stay in business right now.
Madeleine Cereghino 48:54
Yeah. So while this may be something that ideologically people are, you know, really in a great place on it, there's just only so much bandwidth...
Amir Tibon 49:04
And by the way, that's why I think the demonstrations matter even more. Well, you know, what Madeline just said, the demonstrations, keep this in people's mind, and keep it an issue if the demonstration stopped in. I mean, nobody's going to be more Catholic than the Pope, right? If Israelis are not out there fighting for this, we can't expect Debbie Wasserman Schultz to decide that she cares about this issue. But just giving an example of one member that I know is, in private conversations, basically asked, like, why should I speak out about this, but it's the demonstrations grow in Israel and in the American Jewish community, I think it touches on what Madeline just said that you need people to notice this and to care about this and to remember that it's happening.
Madeleine Cereghino 49:48
Yeah, I mean, look, and it may seem, it is absolutely cynical to say but like, for so many members of Congress, Democratic members of Congress who you know, they... they've seen our values here aligned so much with what the protest movement is doing over there. And these parallel situations that we found ourselves in over recent years in terms of our attacks on our democracy. And obviously, we don't need to explain to anyone who is there in January of 2021 what's at stake really.
Amir Tibon 50:25
Ori Nir 50:28
I'm gonna want to ask you a little bit about Netanyahu in the press. Before I asked the question, though, I wanted to address something that we've had in the Q&A. And it's common to hear a lot from Americans saying that there's great content in Haaretz, but they have a paywall. Why did they put a paywall? I don't have a subscription. And my comment to this is subscribe. And subscribe, not only because there's great content from Amir and his colleagues there, but because Haaretz is an institution, it's one of Israel's leading liberal institutions. And if you want to strengthen liberal institutions in Israel, making a subscription, you know, making your own, you know, contribution by subscribing is the thing to do. So that's my little two-cents here.
Amir Tibon 51:24
Oh, yeah. I have nothing to add to that. Good point.
Ori Nir 51:28
But the question that I want to ask you is whether Netanyahu promised interviews to the members of the press entourage that was with him, and canceled at the last moment and then gave interviews to the US media. Why is that? What's going on there?
Amir Tibon 51:45
Since the beginning of this government, Netanyahu has not given any interviews to the Israeli media, except for one interview with channel 14, which is like his personal... It's like, you know, Fox News to Trump. Okay. It's as if I will tell you that President Trump's only interview was like one interview with Sean Hannity over 10 months. That's basically what Netanyahu has done here in Israel. And then, with regard to, you know, the situation with the Israeli media, Netanyahu promised... sorry, I mean, with regards to the American media, I think what he's trying to do there is, first of all, to impact public opinion in the United States and reflect you know, that that reflects what we talked about in the previous question, right, the fight for the public opinion in the American Jewish community, and the public opinion in the Democratic Party and what's happening on Capitol Hill. So that's one issue. But he also knows that the Israeli media will quote his interviews back home. So he says, Okay, I get two for the price of one, I go to the American media, I influence American public opinion, which is important for me right now. And then everything I say gets reflected and quoted back home. There's a third element to it, which is even more cynical, and that is, American interviewers usually don't really understand what they're asking him about. They don't know the details of judicial overhaul. They don't understand how checks and balances work in Israel. They don't understand the legislation process here. And so he just, you know, they read a little bit in Haaretz, before the interview or Times of Israel, they prepare as well as they can. But then he spins them and lies to them and dances around them, and he gets away with it. One thing that has changed in the last few months is this element that I just mentioned, we saw two interviews that he gave, one of them was Wolf Blitzer. And the other was with Kaitlan Collins, just last week, where I thought the American interviewers did a superb job of preparing themselves for the interview, reading, I don't know maybe speaking to some people in Israel who are knowledgeable, doing their homework and just being able to, you know, shoot down his lies, and spins, put him on the spot, ask the tough follow up questions. And he emerged embarrassed from those interviews, especially the interviewers, Kaitlan Collins last week, I think that was not what he expected.
Ori Nir 54:11
Got it. Maybe the last thing that we will touch upon, which I think is really important. And I know that you have what to say about it is Netanyahu, the Supreme Court, and we've had quite a few questions from attendees about this. What is his agenda, why would... Why is he trying… Why is he going after the Supreme Court?
Amir Tibon 54:32
Ori, you've saved the most important question for the end. The attempt to weaken the Supreme Court and give unlimited power to the government because here in Israel, we don't have the same checks and balances that you have in the United States. It's just the Supreme Court is the one institution together with the media that can hold the government to account and if you weaken the Supreme Court, you also make it much easier to weaken the media because The court over the years has protected the media from attempts to stimulate and make it more loyal. You remove the court obstacle, it's like, you know, two in one strike. And then you also have the door open to weakening the media. But why do these parties in the Nataniel coalition want to weaken the Supreme Court in the first place? There are three components of this coalition. Each one of them wants to weaken the court for different reasons. Netanyahu only could obviously because of his own corruption trial, Netanyahu is himself standing criminal trial in the Jerusalem District Court, whatever happens, there will be an appeal to the Supreme Court. And so one of the reasons that liquid wants to control completely the process of appointing judges in Israel, which today is being done through some, you know, committee that has equal representation for politicians, and judges and the lawyers and there have to be consensus candidates, liquid wants to change that and have complete control over the appointment process. Because then Netanyahu ostensibly will get to choose the judges that will hear his appeal to the Supreme Court in two years from now, extremely cynical, but also at the same time, very simple. And if you appoint the right judges, then you can do whatever you want. And you know, there are corrupt politicians who want to appoint all kinds of, you know, people to jobs that they shouldn't be holding, and they want to pass illegal policies and executive decisions, and so weakening the court makes that much easier. The second component of the coalition is the ultra orthodox, the ultra orthodox have been hating the Supreme Court for decades, they view the court as a liberalizing force in Israeli society, and rightly so. And out to American audiences. That sometimes sounds weird, because your Supreme Court has taken a strong shift toward the more religious right wing side. But in Israel historically, the Supreme Court has been a more liberalizing force, especially on issues inside the country, LGBT rights, women's rights, more of a right for the Arab minority. A lot of the progress that we've made on those issues and that we take pride in came through landmark Supreme Court decisions. So the ultra orthodox want to weaken the court because they see it as a liberalizing force and their vision is a much more religious country. The third component is the far right, people like Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, extremists, they you know, they have their own violent Messianic vision of Israel, they want to do unimaginable things in the occupied territories. Historically, I have to say the Supreme Court, while it's been very liberal, on internal issues inside Israel, it has actually been much more conservative when it comes to Palestinian rights in the occupied territories. On that front, the court has usually accepted the arguments of the security organizations and has not really challenged the occupation. But still, I believe the Supreme Court would never agree to the kind of violent, racist ideas that Smotrich and Ben-Gvir want to promote. They have a full apartheid vision. And so they also want to weaken the court because they believe they will be able to then implement policies that today, you know, the court is not allowing them to do. This last point is also critical, and is the best answer to anybody in the American Jewish community who says this is only an Israeli internal issue, and the United States should not get involved. Because if you remove the Supreme Court's role as the babysitter of the far right in Israel, as the one institution that can block all kinds of crazy policies and ideas coming from the far right and hurting Palestinians, and potentially putting the Middle East on fire, somebody else is going to have to be the babysitter. And I'll tell you who is going to be, it is going to be the United States of America, every crazy policy or decision or idea of the far right in Israel that Netanyahu will not have the political power to block because he relies on the far right to be in power. Instead of being blocked by the court as would happen today. It will be implemented and it will land on the desk of the American ambassador in Jerusalem. And every time the ambassador will have to start making phone calls to Washington and asking should we intervene? How should we intervene? What should we do? Should the President speak out? Should we denounce this? And that's going to be terrible for the US Israel relationship. And so anybody who tells you this is just an internal Israeli issue that the United States shouldn't get involved in is missing a very important part that this is going to have a direct impact on American interests and American policy in the region.
Ori Nir 59:49
Thanks. Before we close, I wanted to underscore something that Amir said in passing earlier, which I see as something very hopeful, particularly for me as a dual national about Israeli American. And that is the alliance between Israeli expats here in the United States and liberal American Jews. What we've seen both during the Netanyahu visit mostly during the visit, but also beyond before that, and I'm sure that it's going to gain more momentum after that is an alliance that I think is very promising. And if it continues, and even strengthens, it's something that we can draw a lot of, I think, a lot of encouragement from. So maybe if we are ending on a positive hopeful note that I would, I would offer that. I want to thank you, Madeleine, for joining me on this conversation. And, Amir, thank you very much for joining us as well. This was fascinating.
Amir Tibon 1:00:53
Yeah, it's really important what we saw in New York last weekend in San Francisco, and we're seeing it in other parts of the country and what Madeline said about, you know, the way the wind is going and Capitol Hill, those are very important events. And they're creating an unprecedented, you know, historic dynamic of potential cooperation between liberals in Israel, and liberals in the United States, people who believe in human and civil rights and may not agree on everything, okay, the movement here in Israel is a poor is a broad front, that stretches all the way from the left. And people like myself who believe that we're not going to be able to maintain any kind of democracy, we don't address the elephant in the room, which is the occupation. But there are also people who are more on the moderate, right, and have a different view than mine, but have combined forces here in this very critical moment where we have to first of all protect liberal democracy inside Israel. And so the idea of creating that kind of abroad front also in the American Jewish community is very important. And I think any kind of cooperation that we see between the movement here in Israel and supporters in the American Jewish community can have an important impact.
Ori Nir 1:02:08
Great, so thanks again very much. Thanks for the thanks, thanks to everyone who joined us. If you are observing Sukkot then Happy Holidays, chag sameach. And Amir hopefully we'll see you soon on another webinar.
Amir Tibon 1:02:22
Absolutely. Have some math and thank you very much.
Ori Nir 1:02:24
Thanks, everyone. Bye bye.
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Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.
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