The Middle East Might be Changing; or are We?

Middle East

Many were surprised when the Trump Mideast Peace team announced its so-called economic workshop would be held in Bahrain. Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the U.S.-based Wiesenthal Center, wasn’t among them. His organization has been in the forefront of opening relations between Gulf States and Israel, as well as other pairings some might find to be unexpected.

Following the Bahrain event, Rabbi Cooper visited The Media Line where he spoke at length with TML’s Felice Friedson.

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Many were surprised when the Trump Mideast Peace team announced its so-called economic workshop would be held in Bahrain. Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the U.S.-based Wiesenthal Center, wasn’t among them. His organization has been in the forefront of opening relations between Gulf States and Israel, as well as other pairings some might find to be unexpected.

Following the Bahrain event, Rabbi Cooper visited The Media Line where he spoke at length with TML’s Felice Friedson.

TML: Rabbi Cooper, now that the Economic Workshop is over, plan unveiled, do you think it has a chance?

Cooper: Well, the real issue would be whether or not the frustrated Palestinians, the real Palestinian street, meaning the little businessmen; the people who want to invest are currently under the thumb of the Palestinian Authority, a corrupt institution. Whether or not this event will allow them to break out as we saw one brave Palestinian businessman who showed up. I guess to the rest of the world some of this is hard to understand, the World Bank, IMF, the U.S. Government, the member of the cabinet, Treasury, the whole weight of the United States basically sending a message, not to the PA or Hamas, but sending a message to the Palestinian people. “If you’re really interested in the future, we can help you and we will bring in the ‘A Team’ to help.” So, I think that he did an effective job. I felt that Kushner’s presentation, the overview, was brilliant.

And I think the input of the experts from the head of AT&T, to FIFA and everybody else in between…it couldn’t be a more explicit message to the Palestinian people…if you want peace, this is what it will look like the day after you decide you actually want peace with your neighbors. And I think the main issues are really psychological, less territorial than psychological, whether or not the Palestinian leadership will finally emerge that’s be ready to tell its people the truth. We’re not going to get anything we want, but neither are they, but they’re here to stay and so are we. Let’s make our best possible deal. So, in that sense, it gives Secretary of Treasury, Mnuchin and President Trump a lot of credit.

TML: Rabbi Cooper, when Kushner spoke, he spoke also about the fact that there needed to be a simultaneous political and economic process. But if you’re not speaking directly with the parties…how does that emerge?

Cooper: Well, I think it’s worth a shot because everything else has been tried. We have seen over the last two decades, the roadmap, the boundaries, the land swap, everything and here we are. When Arafat and Rabin and Perez shook hands, we were at the White House. This goes back a very, very long way. What diplomats tend to forget is that diplomats draw a treaty, but it’s people who make peace. I sense that Jared’s approach was we are not going to solve [the conflict] today or maybe even this week. It’s not the political end of things, but if you want to understand what it is that you’re missing and what is relatively easily achievable, here is the economic road-map. And I would add in addition to the diplomatic, the Wiesenthal Center is very involved in trying to get UNRWA to reform itself, to try to get donor nations like Germany and Japan to stop writing checks without looking. To start treating the Palestinians like adults, which means transparency and accountability. I think those are the two reasons why the PA did not show.

They’re not interested right now in either transparency or accountability on funds that are coming in, and in my opinion, only if and when the donor nations take the same approach that they heard today from someone like Kushner you’ll see the behavior modifications kicking in. Until then, if it doesn’t, I would be rather pessimistic, at least for the next five to ten years.

TML: You’ve been to Bahrain before, this is not your first trip. Do you feel that Bahrain, on a people level, is involved in what’s happening or is it just a governmental level, in terms of being part of embracing this workshop, embracing the state of Israel, as well, because there’s been so much buzz about this issue?

Cooper: I see a lot of courage on the part of King Hamad. We were here two years ago. Rabbi Hier and I had long meetings with His Majesty that led to some amazing things. Twenty-four faith leaders coming to Jerusalem and the main thing, Bahrain’s declaration signed by Arab heads of state that protects not only the right for people to pray the way they want to, which we did today at the synagogue, the Hindu temples and churches and all of that, but these are the people who don’t yet want to pray. They have also the right not to be religious. So, a lot of people now are thankfully talking about tolerance and what we see with Bahrain, is that they live it, in terms of interfaith relationships…in terms of young beautiful women walking around and showing a lot of their wares next to people who are Sunni and Muslims next to Hindus. This is their tradition, it’s two hundred years old. So, I think that the Trump administration chose well, this is a great place to do it. And if you’re here for more than a day, you will understand why the Iranians hate this place. It stands against everything that the regime stands for.

TML: Now, let’s look at the plan in case it doesn’t move forward. Then what?

Cooper: So, what else is achieved in case the Palestinian peace doesn’t come to fruition? If you were here for the two days, then you saw the mix and match of people from the Arab world, serious representation, a lot of Israeli business people. A lot of Israeli media who came in on their Israeli passport for the first time. A couple of Rabbis walking around from the Wiesenthal Center and what was great at the conference, that it all looked and felt so normal, and that’s really the point. If you want to build towards peace, these are the kinds of contracts that we draw up. I’m not in that field, but there was a lot of good business going on in real time, and I think having seen now, I posted people in the UAE, people from Kuwait, in Israel and of course in Bahrain that my view is that they’ve been counter intuitive to the things we usually hear. The more Palestinians see that the Gulf Arabs are getting closer to Israel and they’re normalizing their interaction with them, the better chance that the normal within the Palestinian community will be able to eventually to run out because the message today is quite clear…they put out this magnificient party, really for the Palestinians and the PA says we are not going to show up, because we’re happy with the status quo and ninety-eight per cent of the Palestinian people are not satisfied with their status quo. So, that’s the struggle that it’s meant to be resolved from within. The one who came here from Hebron with his entourage with people around him, who have been threatened, and their families have been threatened for outsiders like us. This is insane. I mean when you think about all of them, from Tony Blair on down, the world came out to send a signal to the Palestinians. If you’re ready for peace, we’re ready to upgrade you really quickly.

TML: Rabbi Cooper, I thank you very much.

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