US Jewish group sees 'regional reconciliation' possible despite challenges

AJC's Jason Isaacson talks to The Arab Weekly about organisation's Global Forum.
Friday 19/06/2020
A combination of the pictures of UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash and AJC's chief political officer Jason Isaacson. (Reuters/AJC)
A combination of the pictures of UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash and AJC's chief political officer Jason Isaacson. (Reuters/AJC)

LONDON - The American Jewish Committee (AJC), one of the major US Jewish organisations and a highly respected voice in Washington on Middle East affairs, wrapped up its annual Global Forum Thursday evening.

The conference, which for the first time was held virtually due to the constraints of the coronavirus pandemic, hosted many leaders from the US, the Middle East and the rest of the world, including US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Israel’s alternate Prime Minister and Defence Minister Benny Gantz.

The organisation also hosted UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash, in what it described as "a historic public appearance."

In a public statement at the start of the conference, AJC recognised the role played by "Gargash and other senior UAE officials" who, it said, "have welcomed AJC delegations on regular visits to the Gulf state for more than 20 years."

Jason Isaacson, AJC’s chief policy and political affairs officer, told The Arab Weekly at the end of the conference that "the 45-minute conversation with Dr Gargash in AJC’s Virtual Global Forum was, I believe, the highest-level public address to a Jewish advocacy organization in the country’s history – as well as the highest-level public address to such an audience by an official of any Arab country that lacks diplomatic relations with Israel."

In a historical footnote, he noted however that in 1996, at the height of Arab-Israeli outreach following the 1993 and 1995 Oslo Accords, AJC hosted the foreign ministers of Arab countries that had low-level relations with Israel at the time.

Isaacson added, "the comments by Dr Gargash on Israel’s place in the region, and the mistakes made in the past by assuming that ignoring or isolating Israel would help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, went a significant step farther than his remarks at an NYU Abu Dhabi conference last year."

A video grab of the virtual dialogue during the AJC Global Forum between UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash and the American Jewish Committee's Jason Isaacson. (AJC)
A video grab of the virtual dialogue during the AJC Global Forum between UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash and the American Jewish Committee's Jason Isaacson. (AJC)

AJC’s chief policy and political affairs officer pointed out that "what Dr Gargash said about having fundamental disagreements with a country’s policies but still communicating with it and seeking areas of mutually beneficial cooperation would be completely unremarkable in any other context; indeed, it’s a regional and global fact of life. But in the context of a Middle East burdened by longstanding hostilities and mistrust, it was bracing."

During the conference, Gargash spoke about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the UAE's pragmatic approach to the conflict. “I think we can have a political disagreement with Israel and try to bridge other differences,” the UAE minister of state told participants.

Working with Israel through the UN to get help to the Palestinians “doesn’t change our position regarding the issue of the day – annexation,” he pointed out.

“We have no relationship with Israel, but the pandemic is an area where we have to cooperate together because it affects human beings,” he said.

In his talk to the AJC, Gargash offered a new vision for the region.

“The Middle East region, the Arab world, should be more tolerant of diversity. Demonising the other has not helped,” he said.

A file picture of Emirati Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash speaking during a news conference in Dubai. (AFP)
A file picture of Emirati Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash speaking during a news conference in Dubai. (AFP)

Isaacson acknowledged the possible inhibitive impact Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's annexation plans in the West Bank could have on efforts towards rapprochement between Arabs and Israel.

He said he fully understands "regional sentiments about the possibility of annexation." But  he thinks "it’s necessary to understand, first, that annexation as proposed is not a certainty; it may be a far more limited application of Israeli law to disputed areas where tens of thousands of Israelis have been living for decades, or it may be pushed back entirely while political discussions within Israel and between Jerusalem and Washington, as well as with other allies, continue.”

The AJC's chief political officer added: "If annexation to any degree does move forward, however, I do expect regional repercussions – with a likely slowing of steps toward more open, constructive interactions, and an even more fraught relationship between Israelis and Palestinians."

But Isaacson, who travels often to the Arab world and Israel, remains optimistic. "Ultimately, however," he says, "I do believe that urgent strategic challenges – as well as opportunities for mutual benefit – will override the fallout. I believe that Israelis and Palestinians, destined or doomed to live side by side, will rediscover a path to negotiations. And I do expect that the inherent strengths of both Israel and Arab states – in natural and human resources – will lead to enhanced regional reconciliation and cooperation."

Part of Isaacson's optimism is based on his confidence about the role that his organisation can play in narrowing differences in the turbulent Middle East region and its past contributions on more than one front.

A file picture shows the CEO of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris meeting with the Secretary General of the Muslim World League, in Warsaw. (AFP)
A file picture shows the CEO of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris meeting with the Secretary General of the Muslim World League, in Warsaw. (AFP)

He noted that his 114-year old organisation has been always "strongly supportive of any efforts to break down barriers to understanding and cooperation between Arabs and Americans, Arabs and Jews, Arabs and Israel, and committed to interfaith dialogue and the advancement of common interests generally."

"Through our track record and ongoing contact, we have earned the trust and credibility to serve as a bridge," he added.