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May 18, 2018 1:53 pm

Top American Jewish Leader: US Must Stand by Its Allies as Middle East Map Is Being Redrawn

avatar by Barney Breen-Portnoy

Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman and CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Photo: YouTube screenshot.

As instability continues to reign in the Middle East, the US must back its allies and challenge its enemies, a top American Jewish leader told The Algemeiner in an interview on Friday.

“What I see happening today is similar to what happened in the 1920s with Sykes-Picot, except it’s with Iran and Turkey, with Russia,” Malcolm Hoenlein — the executive vice chairman and CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations – said. “We’re seeing a redrawing of the map of the Middle East and people do not pay enough attention to the overall, hegemonic, designs that these countries have. And a lot of it is just exploitation of the weak responses they got in the past. When they encounter strength and determination, they back off. So I’m hopeful the Trump administration’s recognition of these issues will make a difference, and that we will try to reshape the Middle East in a way that brings stability, democracy and freedom.”

“But we have to stand by our allies and show those who do not stand with us that there will be a price to pay,” he continued. “In recent years, that was not the case. And a lot of pro-Western regimes felt alienated.”

In March, Hoenlein was among the Jewish officials who met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman during his multi-week US trip.

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“I think there are real possibilities throughout the region, both because they have a common enemy in Iran and because they have common interests,” Hoenlein said. “We’ve visited many countries in the region and have had many meetings with different Arab leaders, and there is certainly a different tone than in the past. It’s not something we can take for granted, because things in the Middle East can change rapidly. But right now there is a unique set of circumstances that has created a different atmosphere and a different matrix of relationships. And they can see the potential of what they can benefit from Israel, and not just what Israel can benefit from them, including from the energy discoveries Israel has made.”

“The Palestinian-Israeli issue remains an obstacle to public relationships with Israel, but it’s not a priority for most countries anymore,” Hoenlein added. “They hardly raise it today when you talk to them, but it’s an issue for their streets that is always troublesome for them. They are frustrated or angry at PA President Mahmoud Abbas and feel the goodwill has been lost.”

Regarding US President Donald Trump’s much rumored-about Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, Hoenlein said, “I’ve heard some things about it, but I don’t believe that it has been finished yet. But I do believe, based on my discussions at the White House and other places, that it’s going to come sooner rather than later, and that there will be a proposal put on the table — whether it’s a full-fledged peace plan or some sort of framework is not clear. No deal will work if it’s not agreed to by the parties. It’s something that’s got to emanate from their discussions based on the proposal.”

“Another thing we will have to see is if it incorporates a bottom-up approach,” Hoenlein went on to say. “The Palestinian people are paying a heavy price for their government, which is not interested in negotiating. Every positive offer has been rejected. It’s a government that was elected to a four-year term 13 years ago. The people resent the hypocrisy of their government. It has used up its goodwill in the Arab world and elsewhere. All the money it has received has not been used to improve the quality of life for its people.”

Hoenlein called Monday’s opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem “a wonderful and historic occasion.”

“I did not believe it would really happen now,” he admitted. “But the world sees now that it hasn’t changed anything in the landscape of Jerusalem. The concerns about it were not rooted in the reality of the situation. Nothing has been pre-empted by this.”

“And, if you notice, the reaction in the Arab world was muted,” Hoenlein pointed out. “There weren’t any demonstrations, except those incited by the PA and Hamas. But the rest of the Arab world was generally silent about it. The fact is that the terrible reactions people predicted did not materialize.”

Asked for his thoughts on this week’s violence on the Israel-Gaza Strip border, Hoenlein replied, “It’s very easy for people to be armchair generals, but nobody has an alternative. No country in the world would tolerate a similar situation on its border.”

“The higher the number of casualties, the more Hamas revels in it, because it thinks it’s getting sympathy for this,” he emphasized. “So much of the media has fallen into the trap, or is looking for an occasion to be able to criticize Israel irrationally. This is inspiring terrorists to escalate the violence and rewarding them for doing so.”

The Gaza situation sparked a diplomatic spat between Israel and Turkey, including a war of words between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Erdogan, Hoenlein said, “is always looking for an excuse to criticize Israel.”

“But,” he continued, “during all the time of the tensions between the two countries, trade has increased. That’s an expression of the people. However, Erdogan is in total control and he has aspirations for a caliphate and he wants to be a leader in the Muslim world, and this is another opportunity for him. He’s reported to be building 17,000 mosques and is seeking to expand his influence throughout the region. He’s set up military bases in various locations and is intervening in other countries, almost as much as Iran is, and even more in some places. Whether his latest comments have long-term consequences remains to be seen, but the fact is they fit a pattern.”

Hoenlein expressed hope that Trump’s recent withdrawal from the July 2015 Iran nuclear deal would lead to further pressure on the Tehran regime.

“A majority of the organizations in the Conference did not support the deal,” Hoenlein said. “Once adopted, everyone wanted to see its full implementation. Now a majority would like to see either a new deal negotiated or a sanctions regime that will really impact the Iranian government. The Iranian economy is very vulnerable. The unemployment rate among young Iranians is 40%. The economy is not at all robust, and is very susceptible to the kind of pressures that can be brought to bear. And I believe that most companies will opt to do business with the US, as opposed to Iran under sanctions.”

“Iran can boast all it wants, but it is vulnerable,” he added. “It has external and internal weaknesses and rivalries, and it can’t really trust its supposed allies.”

Of the ongoing tensions between Israel and Iran in Syria, Hoenlein said, “I don’t think any of the parties really wants an all-out war right now. I don’t think Syria wants it, I don’t think the Russians want to see it happen. I think Iran is very concerned, especially after it saw the effectiveness with which Israel responded to its missile attack on the Golan last week, taking out most of its military infrastructure in Syria.”

Hoenlein did raise a concern that Iran could strike Israeli or Jewish targets abroad, as it has in the past. “That’s something we are alert to and in touch with various security agencies about,” he said.

When it comes to the Trump administration’s relationship with the US Jewish community, in Hoenlein’s view, “overall, it’s been good.”

“Naturally, there are differences, especially in regard to the domestic agenda, but those are largely not issues the Conference deals with,” he noted. “Many people seem to have not come to terms with the outcome of the election. On the foreign policy side, however, there is a terrific team of people, many of whom we have had longstanding relationships with.”

Hoenlein is worried by rising antisemitism around the world, including in America.

“In Britain, France and Germany, there are at least four anti-Jewish attacks reported every day,” he said. “But it’s happening also in the United States, and we have to confront this issue in a responsible and decisive way.”

Looking toward Israel’s future, Hoenlein is optimistic.

“All the predictions of Israel’s isolation have been reversed,” he said. “Israel is more in demand and is being reached out to more than ever by many countries in Africa, Asia and South America.”

“This is a very positive time, we have great opportunities,” Hoenlein declared. “Israel is water independent, it’s energy independent, it’s not isolated, the Jewish birthrate in Israel is higher than the Arab birthrate, which is I think an expression of confidence of young Israelis. You see so many wonderful developments beyond the hi-tech miracle of Israel. There are many positive things happening which provide opportunities to strengthen ties between us and make us all the more determined to act with confidence to address the very real challenges at home and abroad.”

However, he added, “we cannot ignore the alienation and ignorance of many young Jews and the drop in support among the Democratic left and the hostile media coverage.”

“We have to do more to reach in before we reach out, to strengthen the ties and the affiliation of young Jews,” Hoenlein said. “You cannot wait until they’re eligible for Birthright, but rather from kindergarten on — to help educate them and inoculate them before they go to college, so when they face the challenges of BDS and hostile groups or professors and other challenges, they are prepared to respond and feel confident about doing so.”

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